Chimeras in the poetry zoo, or speculative verse novels

Knock me over with a griffin feather: even though I published one, I did not understand that the contemporary speculative verse novel for adults was a thing. Much less a thing that gets published by Norton and Knopf.* So I’ve been roaming the field, discovering weird beasts lurking around the poetryscape. Preliminary conclusion: the stories I most want to read are not out there, or I haven’t spotted them yet. But here are some interesting ones anyway.  I’m deploying the terms “adult,” “speculative,” “verse,” and “novel” pretty loosely, by the way, but more on definitions another day.

The best verse: Marly Youmans’s Thaliad (2012) tells a future matriarchal civilization’s origin story: eleven-year old Thalia, because she’s on a field trip to a cave, survives the apocalypse (solar flares, I think) and ends up leading a small band of other children to safety. Thalia’s story has a frame narrator, a young woman poet deciding to dedicate her life to books instead of love, whose attempt to create myth about her recent ancestors makes sense of the Thaliad’s form and allusions to classical models. This is a beautiful poem in pulsing iambic pentameter. Some of my favorite passages are the beginning of XVII: The Bridal May, which is hypnotically romantic, and snarkily funny bits like the opening sentence describing our pre-apocalyptic decadence:

It was the age beyond the ragged time
When all that matters grew disorderly—
When artworks changed, expressive, narcissist,
And then at last became just tedious,
A beetle rattling in a paper cup,
Incessant static loop of nothingness,
When poems sprang and shattered into shards,
And then became as dull as newsprint torn
And rearranged in boredom by a child
Leaning on a window seat in the rain.

Fashionable poems of 2013: blank verse is coming from the future to whoop you. However, I’m not satisfied by the ending, even though it’s supposed to reflect the goals and desires of the nation-building poet more than any truth about the original survivors. I was captivated by Thalia as unlikely leader, but the book closes on a romantic note and that ends up casting a different light on the whole tale. I was a hungry marriage-plot reader as a teen and learning that my life did not end at marriage was kind of important. Marly Youmans, maybe we need a sequel?

The most linguistically astonishing: I can’t believe Cathy Park Hong’s Dance Dance Revolution (2006) even exists. Scene: a fictional luxury zone called The Desert in 2016. Dramatis Personae: the Historian from Sierra Leone, whose voice appears in standard English prose, and the Guide, whose invented Creole includes bits of her native Korean, English, Middle English, Latin, German, Spanish, French, and a billion other languages. Most of the book is from her perspective in a series of individually titled lyrics such as “The Lineage of Yes-Men”: “Me grandfadder sole Makkoli wine to Hapanese colonists/ din he guidim to insurrectas…sticka hop? Some pelehu?” There are plenty of brilliant poems out there composed in various Earth One Creoles and reading Hong’s book was actually an experience of comparable difficulty, for me anyway. You just work slowly, sounding it out. My problem was I couldn’t see a reason to commit the effort required for full understanding of the full book—I read it through with spots of intense attention, but otherwise just absorbing the texture. I know from reviews that there is a plot, but the intellectual obstacles to its detection are just crazy. I wish Hong cared about hooking and moving her readers, because if she did, I would follow.

The most improbably moving: In both Red Doc> (2013) and its 1998 precursor The Autobiography of Red, Anne Carson creates not a future dystopia but a classically-inflected world that’s just off to the side of the dimension I personally inhabit. The hero Geryon (in the second book, “G”) is a winged red cowherd-photographer who he can drop a television from an overpass in one scene and meet Hermes in another without busting the space-time continuum. I really don’t understand how poetry so experimental and disorienting can at the same time be gorgeous and full of heart, but I guess it’s a lesson: writers should follow their weirdest impulses, marketing be damned, because those projects are the ones that turn out to be truly amazing. Amazed as I am, though, I kept putting Red Doc> down to pursue assignations with less austere books. I wouldn’t sacrifice a jot of complexity, but I wouldn’t have felt condescended to by, say, an occasional pre-canto argument. Only my love for Geryon, instilled by the more accessible Autobiography of Red, made me keep at it.

The best candidate for film or TV adaption is also the most novelistic and least poetic. Toby Barlow’s Sharp Teeth (2007) conjures up turf battles among werewolf gangs in L.A. Baroquely plotted, full of interesting characters, it’s well-paced and often smart and funny. The choice of free verse teases out an aesthetic of mixture exemplified by cross-species romance and all kinds of border-crossings. Barlow sometimes handles race clumsily—some of the “native American legends” references seem ignorant as well as corny—but deep in its DNA, this is a book about affiliation, about how love and kind attention can ameliorate the world’s horrible brutalities. Being human means being mixed. For me, a more fundamental problem is that the verse just isn’t good. Standard phrasal lineation here, so it’s easy to read, but line breaks provide neither a score for performance nor artful layers of meaning. Plus, I know I sound like an English prof, but the punctuation’s a mess. Missed opportunities here.

It’s as if the verse novel might be a difficult form to pull off…still, I’m hopeful, and would be glad to hear more recommendations. I suspect the menagerie is much more various than I can currently see. All verse novels may be little uncanny, prone to sprout fur and claws at the slightest provocation.

*I did know and can recommend Anne Kennedy’s The Time of Giants, 2005, although I don’t have a copy anymore. A twentieth-century speculative verse novel that was a “where have you been all my life?” literary love affair: James Merrill’s “The Book of Ephraim” (in Divine Comedies, 1976, and eventually part of a much longer trilogy). “The stories I most want to read” are that insanely inventive, spooky, engaging, high-stakes, and smart, but with a middle-aged mother in the leading role and all good-looking teenaged lycanthropes required to sulk in the wings.

6 thoughts on “Chimeras in the poetry zoo, or speculative verse novels

  1. “The stories you most want to read” are the ones you are supposed to write yourself!

    Thanks, Lesley. Much appreciated. And I’ll write a response and add a link here in a bit…

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  2. Thank you for the engaging read! Looking forward to your response–clearly I was missing something about what you were trying to do with the book’s closure and I want to know what it is!

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  3. I love reading stories in verse. I decided to write “stories I want to read” and have been writing an epic poem about philosophers and scientists I call Hermead. So far the past two years I have written 70,000 lines of blank verse about the lives of 23 Greek philosophers. I will be publishing the first 5 stories in 15,000 lines on 16 July. Page with details: https://www.facebook.com/Hermead

    The first volume contains the tales of Hermes, Prometheus, Kadmos, Asklepios, and Hesiodos. The stories are basically novel in form in that they follow the life of the philosopher from childhood to death, while exploring their ideas along the way.

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