Reviews of the Ephemeral

Stone Telling # 1

In online magazine on November 13, 2010 at 1:53 pm

-Reviewed by Tori Truslow

‘Those who cross boundaries live in a place between silence and speech’ begins Rose Lemberg’s introduction to this new online magazine for literary speculative poetry. It’s worth reading that again. It’s not saying boundary-crossers live in silence, nor is it saying that speech is the only alternative to silence. Like a line of poetry it flares its meaning in the spaces of the brain and lingers on. It illuminates another place, from where a voice can call but risks going un-listened-to, because it’s not what the hearers expect, not what they recognise as speech.

Lemberg asks: ‘once we cross over, how do with give our experiences voice to share it with others?’ But she doesn’t use her capacity as editor to give a neat full-stop answer to that question. The ‘silence to speech’ theme unfolds in as many directions as there are poems in this issue. The poems don’t sit politely next to each other, or flow quietly along. They are loud in their difference. Take the first four. A brand new poem by Ursula K. Le Guin, ‘The Elders at the Falls’ opens the issue, telling the wrenching story of the falls at Celilo, a community’s meeting-place and fishing-spot turned to a ‘flat lake of silence’ by a new dam. This is a perfect poem to start with – not just because of Le Guin’s legendary status, but because it is so full of voice and sound, repeating ‘voice’ and ‘tell’ and ‘story’ – and shows all of that being reduced to nothing:

The voice they listened to

that had spoken all their lives

and all the lives before them

telling its story, their story, that great voice

Celilo

grew smaller, became less,

became quieter,

all day, until

at twilight

it was silent.

In doing so, the poem gives an almost-soft, unassuming sort of horror to the word ‘silence’, which goes with the reader even as the following poems take off in different directions. Next is Karen Neuberg’s surreal ‘Fatigue of the Marionettes’ which takes its name from a Man Ray painting, followed by Mary Alexandra Agner with the fleet, hungry ‘Owl Woman’, and then ‘Star Reservation’ by Tara Barnett, which abruptly shifts the tone to a science-fictional one, opening ‘Grandfather gave me a star for my fifth birthday’.

Stone Telling continues in this unpredictable vein, startling from one poem to the next. There’s a bewitching prose-poetry mix in Samantha Henderson’s ‘The Gabriel Hound’, and a video poem, Peer G. Dudda’s ‘Train Go Sorry’. This is performed bilingually: in English and ASL, letting the poet communicate in two languages at once – and so the moments when he only uses spoken English, but doesn’t sign, are a kind of silence, and bring home the layers and the pain of the lines ‘Your silence / Silenced me.’

Many of the poems are accompanied by audio versions, like Shweta Narayan’s ‘Nagapadam’, which allows the sibilants in the poem to be drawn out and compliment the snaking shape it takes on the page. But the reading also – in dripping with sound and imagery and seeming to flow smoothly between words from different languages, while talking of split tongues – destabilises the idea of speech. The bitterness in its ending –

I echo
your bleached facets
knot my tongue, and you

think

I speak.

– again brings the reader to a place that isn’t silence or speech but in between, and is a breath-knocking note to end the issue’s poetry on.

These poems are followed by several non-fiction columns, which are all fascinating and worth reading, though I’m focusing on the poetry in this review. The final piece, entitled ‘Stone Telling Roundtable: Diversity’, provides further context to some of the poems and articles (but is well-placed at the end, so the pieces discussed still stand for themselves), and shows a questioning, searching spirit which promises good things to come from future issues. The multiplicity of voices throughout make the reading/watching/listening a noisy experience, which feels like the only thing it could be. None of the poems feel like they’re being held up as examples of what diverse speculative poetry ‘is’, but together they present a flurry of suggestions as to what it might be – strong in their own right, they’re also a many-tongued crowd engaging in a robust exploration of voice, difference, and going beyond the known. Which is the heart of the speculative, after all.

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