Very recently, I had the delight of reading some exceptional dark poems with such skillful rhyme and rhythm that I was scarcely aware that they were, indeed, rhyming! I’m very pleased to welcome the poet himself as my columnist for this month, Steven Withrow. His poems appear in Dreams & Nightmares, Spectral Realms, and Epitaphs: The Journal of the New England Horror Writers, among other publications. His short poem, “The Sun Ships,” (Eye to the Telescope) was nominated for the 2016 Rhysling Award from the Science Fiction and Fantasy Poetry Assn. He is working on his first chapbook. He lives with his family on Cape Cod in Massachusetts, where he is a newspaper reporter.
Still Life with Ambition and Envy
I wrote my first dark poem the same summer I first read Clive Barker’s strange story “In the Hills, the Cities.” I was 14 in 1988, and the staggering narrative from Barker’s Books of Blood was a long leap beyond anything I’d read to that point. It is, as Fangoria editor Anthony Timpone wrote, about “the citizens of warring towns who tie themselves together to tussle as towering giants.” Simply put, I wasn’t ready for that story, but over the course of an August week I read it silently, then aloud to myself, then again silently.
The poem I wrote as a kind of pressure relief valve in the days following was, frankly, terrible, even for a 14-year-old. I didn’t keep it, though I remember a couple of images—bugs and bones—and the curious title: “Last Dance with Cannibals.”
Had it been 2019, I might have posted the poem online or texted it to my Stephen King-reading friends. That might have been the end of it. Instead, I compared Barker’s words with my own, and I dared myself to write something as powerful as “In the Hills, the Cities” someday. In verse or in prose, it didn’t matter. I had a high bar to clear.
My literary ambition, mixed with genuine envy, has continued to this day, and while I still fall short of the masters, I am proud to say my work is steadily improving and lightning occasionally strikes me.
Here, for instance, a nominee for the 2016 Rhysling Award:
The Sun Ships
Of the third of the three sun ships—
Rappahannock—only data remained,
Hieroglyphs siphoned off a fuse tube
For flight analysts’ consumption.
After the Porcupine imploded
And the mighty Susquehanna met
Her incendiary demise, the eyes
Of seven solar systems opened
To the possibility of defeat.
The stars are not ours to cross,
The Nikkto diplomats intoned.
And we, dregs of the coal worlds,
Would not finance another puncture run
Even for voting rights. What blights
And bombardments had emboldened us,
And what glorious horrors had deranged
The Rappahannock’s captain, who
Preserved in her voice log this riddle:
Teeth of fire, bands of black black black
Along the middle … devourer devourer …
The shadow tongues its fangs … why—
Before total silence consumed her.
We had a song about such creatures,
A lullaby for our babies, melodious
But meant to ward off nightmares,
So also mine-dark. The mines:
They were the sources of our fears,
They were the swallowers of light,
They were the toothed and hollow
Devourers of our hours. No shame
To sing of monsters when our home
Shot through with black black black
To the carved-out core. What’s more,
We had no song for dying, we had
No mourning-song for death. We,
Like the sun ship Rappahannock,
Dove straight into a coal-black hole,
As Nikkto lancers split the ground,
And down down down we drowned.
The stars were not ours to cross.
The stars were not ours to cross.
(Published in Eye to the Telescope, Issue 15, edited by Diane Severson Mori, April 2015)
While this poem is in lineated prose, I am primarily a formalist, with an abiding interest in how poets use the tools of prosody—metrical and stanzaic patterns as well as rhyme schemes—to design and structure verse. I also write in more open forms such as “free” or blank verse, and I find that each side of the formal coin has its challenges and opportunities. The abstract scheme that underlies a poem is essential to the visible and audible words that overlay it.
I will leave you with these next two pieces, which are shaped by rhyme and meter. They will appear, along with my first two examples, in my chapbook, The Sun Ships and Other Poems, scheduled for 2020. These are not exactly Barkesque poems—they owe more to Robert Browning and Edward Arlington Robinson—but they sing to me.
The Mad Monologue of Doctor Chronology
Any heart this world possesses must be dead.
And no, no other worlds exist. You’re free
to scoff, but I insist—Infinity
hangs bleak and wholly heartless. I have said
as much to colleagues who would comprehend
the horrifying costs of cheating Time,
that knowing every outcome, every end
before its cause, is tantamount to … I’m
afraid you’ll have to nurse the glass I poured …
is tantamount to rigging every game
of take-your-chance and reaping no reward.
Yes, yes—I could reveal to you his name
and home address. However, you should think—
here, I’ll buy us both another drink—
no matter what the bastard’s done to you,
what good would any retribution do?
Let’s say, by day, he manages a store,
an unassuming alter ego for
a savior from a distant crimson sun.
You storm into his workplace with a gun,
rejoicing in each bloody trigger-pull.
(I see your eyes; you’d down a barrelful.)
Then let’s suppose he’s quick enough to palm
or misdirect your bullets. Do you bomb
a bus (no muss, no fuss) on second try,
while hiding in some rat-infested lair,
and feel him fall, a comet from the sky,
to cage you with his subatomic stare?
My boy, I have stood by and watched you fail,
your machinations come to no avail,
for it’s the nature of my power to cast
my aura to the future or the past.
Go home—don’t be like me—I’ve lost the art.
Tomorrow, find yourself a steady job—
I hear they’re hiring muscle for the mob—
or disbelieve, and dog your own dead heart.
(Published in Dreams & Nightmares, Issue 93, edited by David C. Kopaska-Merkel, 2012)
Lines at a Wake
The first one knew the body as a baby.
She’d cradled him a quarter of his size.
A circumspect and disconcerted lady,
She couldn’t trust the wisdom of her eyes.
The second mourner held a beaded rosary
Dead-gripped in her fist, a whispered prayer
Fumbled on her lips, her stance a pose she
Used to test the grief-encumbered air.
Paraded, close like cattle, past the casket,
The third an uncle, fourth a high school friend.
The fifth dropped her donation in a basket
Before she met his parents at the end.
The sixth pretended permanent confusion.
His, the most unnerving pose of all.
No one saw him enter, pale illusion
Who gaped down at his powdered face
Like a white wax doll.
(Published in Epitaphs: The Journal of the New England Horror Writers, edited by Tracy L. Carbone, Shroud Publishing, October 2011)