Review: 2020 Rhysling Anthology edited by David C. Kopaska-Merkel


The 2020 Rhysling Anthology edited by David C. Kopaska-Merkel
(SFPA, 2020)

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Book cover of the SFPA 2020 Rhysling Anthology with a waterfall falling from a large mushroom mountain
Image Credit: SFPA
Book cover of the 2020 Rhysling Anthology

What bliss to read the latest Rhysling Anthology from the Science Fiction & Fantasy Poetry Association (SFPA) and edited by David C. Kopaska-Merkel, but what torture to select the best three short and long poems nominated for the 2020 Rhysling Award. Though I won’t reveal who I voted for here, I’d like to list several of my favorite poems below.

First, though, I want to write about one glaring negative about the otherwise wonderful reading experience. I was enjoying the speculative poetry greatly after reading the first third of the anthology when I came to a poem that immediately derailed my joy. The poem felt out of place, vile, entitled, and dismissive to every other poem in the anthology. I’d never heard of the poet before, but my reaction to that poem was so visceral and upsetting that I had to search online for more information. It didn’t take long to find complaints about this poet; Twitter was particularly illuminating.

In a publication sparkling with such fantastic craft, vivid imagery, clever philosophies, ASMR-worthy sounds, and soaring speculation, this one poem stands out truly grotesque and ugly in its hatefulness. My experience with the SFPA and its editors and officers has been nothing but positive, so I make no assumptions about and direct no aspersions toward the organization. I think this poem must have accidentally slipped through the procedural or vetting processes. To the other poets with nominated work in this anthology who might have felt slighted by the inclusion of this one nasty poem, know that this reader appreciates you and your poetry, the borders you are pushing, and the diversity you bring to the SFPA and speculative poetry.

You are the poets who inspire me and keep me in awe and wonder.

Beth Cato is one of several favorite poets in this year’s anthology, and her poetry has been nominated in both the short and long poem categories. I love her attention to vivid details and the surprising situations she sets up in her poems. “My Ghost Will Know The Way” and “Childhood Memory from the Old Victorian House on Warner” offer poignant and unique childhood terrors and adult protagonists looking back on them with sadness but hope.

“Reparation”, “Styx”, and “In The End, Only The Gods” by Christina Sng are mythic, dark, and heroic all at the same time, per usual. I love how Sng’s poetry reaches back into myth and fairy tale and drags them into the brilliant light of the present, even when there are no specific mentions of the modern.

I’m always delighted by Mary Soon Lee’s poems, too, and she’s well represented with “How to Colonize Ganymede”, “How to Dance with Dark Matter”, “To Skeptics”, and “Witch”.

“The Book of Fly” and “Moth Song” by John Philip Johnson are clever, poignant, and surprising immersions into the insect world. These are poems of the other that resonate with the human as well.

“The Day the Animals Turned to Sand” by Tyler Hagemann remains in the human world, but, oh, what a world it becomes on that day and the days that follow. The ending line is a punch in the gut. Ouch.

The binomen bites of “Heliobacterium daphnephilum” and “Sycophantam astrum” by Rebecca Buchanan offer up an apocalypse for hope and unexpected companionship as humans press into space, respectively.

If it’s not yet obvious, I particularly love poems that find hope in the darkest, most painful and traumatic of places. “Fallen But Not Down” by Sarah Cannavo is a fantastic example of this poetic impulse. I want something better for the Scarecrow and “The Scarecrow’s Lover” by Alexandria Baisden, but I choose to cling to their spring hopes. “Eldritch Horror” by Katie Manning comes down to a roll of the dice, and I’m right there with the protagonist willing the dice to fall the right way.

I have a particular fondness for poets who craft new myths out of old myths or future scenarios. As noted earlier, Christina Sng does this especially well, but I think “Green Sky” and “Making of Dragons” by Herb Kauderer are two more great examples of this alchemy. Perhaps it’s more subtle, but the reworking of fairy tales, myth, and tropes often seems to result in a similar effect of making the old new again, and I think “Obsidian” by Fungisayi Sasa, “tetrahedral edifices of a sticky rice realm” by D. A. Xiaolin Spires, and “The Cinder Girl Burns Brightly” by Theodora Goss, among others in the anthology, are all great examples.

“Consumption” by Emma J. Gibbon is gross and I love it! I’d love to see more poets take this kind of chance in poetry. This is followed by Gibbon’s fantastic “Fune-RL” with its blunt young protagonist, their bitter relationship with their mom, and dogs. Not surprisingly, poems with dogs, RL or not, are generally some of my favorite poems (sorry cat poems!)

Speaking of cats, a new word I learned because it appearing a couple of times in different poems in this anthology: “leonine”.

There are many other poems I would love to point to, including “The Ruined Library” Bruce Boston, “Hasted IV” by Jeff Crandall, “Seven Reasons to Have Hope for a Better Future. Number Five Will Really Get You!” By Catherine Kyle, “when my father reprograms my mother {“ by Caroline Mao, “Prayer on a Friday Morning” by L. R. Harvey, “Envoy” and “Maculation” by F. J. Bergmann, “The Woman Who Talks to Her Dog at the Beach” by Geoff Inverarity, “Keep My Course True” by Gerri Leen, “Stormbound” by Marsheila Rockwell, “Treason” by Shana Ross, and “If Love is Real, So Are Fairies” by Cynthia So. All of these are award-worthy poems in my opinion, which made it really difficult to vote for just three poems in each Rhysling Award category.

These poets (minus the one) deserve nothing but praise for the myriad directions they are pushing the speculativeness of speculative poetry today.

View all my reviews on Goodreads