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Review of Not One of Us #45

An editor asked me to review some speculative magazines, sent me two, and pointed me to some others on line. The focus of the review was to be aimed at diversity and representations of otherness. My review  didn't meet the editorial expectations of the magazine, so it won't be published, and I figured I might as well post it here so folks could discuss it if they wanted to.

 

Not One of Us?

A Review of the Poetry in Not One of Us #45.

     One would assume that in a publication titled Not One of Us, readers would be able to find poetry from multiple perspectives. Even though Not One of Us seems to focus on character driven pieces, it is assumed that these characters will represent elements outside of the mainstream in some way. Indeed, their website pledges "Not One of Us is a hardcopy zine about people (or things) out of place in their surroundings, outsiders, social misfits, aliens in the sf sense—anyone excluded from society for whatever the reason. We want to explore 'otherness' from every possible angle." However, a close reading of issue #45, focusing specifically on the poetry, reveals not a sense of "otherness," but in general, simply more of the same speculative cliches that limit speculative poetry.
     The first poem in issue #45 is K. S. Hardy's "The Hidden Places," which explores The Rapture of Christian eschatology from the point of view of a murderer, who fears the bodies buried under the floorboards coming to life. While some may read this as satirically critical of Evangelical Christianity, possibly Christianity as a whole, the reader is forced to accept a Christian viewpoint for the premise of the poem to work. In other words, if the reader does not actually believe in The Rapture, the poem ceases to be as effective, and the twist at the ending doesn't work at all. While a non-Christian reading this poem may see Christianity as outsider or different, to argue that they are non-mainstream in terms of both presence and influence in Western society is fallacious.
     Sharing the same page with "The Hidden Places" is Lee Clarke Zumpe's "Understudy," a poem exploring the position of a prima donna's understudy in an opera company. While Zumpe artfully juxtaposes the relationships of the two women against each other, and even alludes to physical abuse and its psychologically alienating affects in the final stanza, one must question whether or not this is enough to be considered "not one of us." If the "us" is the company and the people on stage, then at some point an understudy is certainly beyond those realms, an outsider peeking in, begging for her chance to shine. This is voice Zumpe establishes, using it as the vehicle for a tenor of abuse and thus social critique in the final lines, he speaks in second person throughout the poem, as though the reader is the understudy. This is a common and often effective technique to ground the reader fully in a poem, but Zumpe's attempt reads as forced, especially when he injects mathematical language into the piece, breaking the web of imagery he's attempting to establish. While much can be said for the connection between math and music, the diction in this case seems unnatural, and thus the whole piece, while establishing an outsider position, seems disjointed and disconnected as a whole.
     Five pages later, the reader runs into "A Storm at Night, And" by Erin Hoffman.  In this poem, the speaker's brain leaves their body and goes for a midnight jaunt, only to return home to its owner. While the idea of an organ separating itself from the body might instill a sense of otherness or literal "out of body" experience, the poem quickly becomes quirky, if not downright silly. Furthermore, there are points at which the poem contradicts itself, and Hoffman's opening lines insist on conflating the terms "mind" and "brain" into one, which could be seen by some as an attempt to make a scientific and philosophical position against uniqueness and individual identity, but is an idea that never pans out for the reader in the actual poem. Also, while there are some that would argue the speaker's unique status as someone who has been able to let their brain roam around and not die as automatic outsider status, that idea is not developed or established for the reader, either. What the reader does get is a brain rolling through leaves and gravel, getting soaked in the rain, then returning after its quaint adventures.
     One of the more successful poems in the magazine is "Birch" by Kelly Rose Pflug-Back. The poem is told from the point of view of one in pursuit of an "other" or "outsider," who does their best to cast a spell to not only locate this other person, but enchant them as well. Pflug-Back carefully navigates the mythic and the modern, dancing between the two so that the reader is left unsure whether or not the "you" to whom the speaker is speaking is another person, a fairy of some sort, or an amalgam of both. Furthermore, the fact that the speaker is forced to painfully cross boundaries, modern to natural, in their pursuit alludes to the abandonment and discomfort one must face as an outsider. Pflug-Back's poem is filled with longing, exploring passion and the depths of alienation one often takes on in pursuit of this passion.
      "Incubation" by Sonya Taaffe is a surreal and lingering piece. Opening with the line "You have a dead man sleeping at your shoulder," it details the literal and metaphorical haunting of the "you" in this poem, successfully drawing the reader in with its tight meter and dense imagery. By the end of the poem, the reader is left wondering what, exactly, was incubated and what role they have to play in the birthing of this thing. Taaffe seems to aim at personifying the outsider in this piece, as well as the burdens with which they struggle. In personifying the trappings of otherness, Taaffe creates a psychological discussion between the alienated and the source of their alienation, between the other and the source of their otherness, resolving towards a successful and somewhat celebratory, though haunting, conclusion.
     Malcom Morris's "Another Day" is a one-dimenstional, adjective heavy piece in which the speaker is sucked down the drain by the arms of an unseen assailant. While one could argue that a man-eating sludge monster is about as outsider as it gets, the image is so cliche and so underdeveloped in Morris's poem that it doesn't move beyond itself to discuss or explore the implications of the monster's status for the reader.
     The final poem of the magazine is "Birds Fly" by Holly Day. Told from the point of view of an angel who is unable to fly due to a birth defect, Day uses rich avian imagery as the vehicles for the "Us" in Not One of Us, establishing the speaker as firmly "Not One".  The longing to be part of the community is readily apparent, as is the loneliness and ache of being outside of the mainstream. While this is only one of many psychological responses to being outside of an identified community, Day successfully captures it in her piece. However, once again, the reader is forced to deal with a mainstream outsider. The idea of a fallen angel longing to fly again is fairly cliche, and while Day certainly captures the emotions of such a character, the reader is forced to wonder if it's enough to break the mainstream cycle.
      Not One of Us 45 seems to be fairly representative of the speculative poetry community as a whole. While it advertises and delivers an outsider literature of sorts, a literature of alienation and exile, it does so with fairly mainstream characters. While some would argue that this is simply catering to a specific and established audience, it still represents the dearth of non-western perspectives in speculative poetry, and can be seen as pandering to the lowest common denominator. It is hoped that future issues will not only feature more poetry of quality craft, but voices from outside the mainstream, not just emotionally or figuratively, but literally as well.

 

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