Strange Wisdoms of the Dead by Mike Allen

Frank Wilson [The Philadelphia Inquirer]

When we think of science fiction, we tend not to think of poetry.

Strange Wisdoms of the Dead

Publisher: Wildside Press
Length: 156
Formats: Trade Paperback
Price: $15.00
Author: Mike Allen
US publication date: 2006-02

When we think of science fiction, we tend not to think of poetry. At least I don't -- or haven't until now. For it seems that quite a lot of "speculative poetry," as it also is called, is being written these days. The Web site Strange Horizons is a good place to visit to become acquainted with it.

Among the better-known practitioners of speculative poetry is Mike Allen, and Strange Wisdoms of the Dead is his first book-length collection. Allen has carved out for himself -- the phrase seems peculiarly apt -- an odd poetic territory. At first I found it somewhat off-putting, with its "protruding pulpy tongues," "snaky black intestubes," shrieks and teeth and severed heads.

But I soon found myself remembering some of Edgar Allan Poe's poetry -- notably "The Conqueror Worm" -- and how much, for whatever reason, I enjoyed it once. I still enjoy a good horror movie, or ghost story. So why not a creepy poem? It's easy to see a kid wearing "a black three-piece suit, the coat decorated along every seam with linked chains of safety pins" -- like the one in "Between Stanzas," one of the prose pieces included here -- taking to this sort of thing. In a sense, Allen's is poetry for goths of all ages. Which is not to say it's just a bunch of cheap thrills and Halloween fustian. There's a good deal more to it than that.

The book is divided into four parts, each given a title in Greek: "krypta" (secrets); "chresthenta" (epiphanies); "deina" (horrors); and "diauliai" (duets). The poems in the second section in particular are strangely affecting. Such lines as "the spirits of the stars / are with us tonight // watching from the heart / of the fire" (from "A Curtain of Stars") are like the sun breaking through, after you've spent time with "gunmetal gray forms" that "stretch the membrane of sky, / force themselves out of ether, etch themselves on air ... hungry, crawling god-machines." ("The Clairvoyant, Between Dark & Dream"). But the former works as relief precisely because the latter has worked so well to tense you up.

Allen's poems work best when his bizarre lyricism is put in the service of a scary and taut narrative, as in "The Dream Eaters."

According to this little ditty, "when a dream attains substance and shape ... it also becomes edible." Our speaker "learned of these things and more / the day I tasted my own dreams for the first time." This happened "as I walked in the landscape of sleep" and "tripped over my own dream as it took shape."

Of course, "I did not know what it was / until my teeth sank in; a tiny, infant thing ... it squealed and screamed, but ... no matter how it struggled, I couldn't stop." And that's when "I saw them, these achingly beautiful / destroyers of dreams, baring their / fangs to shrill a frustrated siren song / as I stole their meal." To learn how this turns out, you'll have to buy the book.

As in a really good etching, Allen's landscape may be gray, but the gray scale has a remarkably wide gradation of shades. Touches of humor are like flecks of light in the gloom. There's the conclusion of "Strip Search," for instance, wherein the speaker manages to hide away his last vestige of hope despite as thorough a search as can be imagined. And there's the moment when Starkey, the protagonist of the title piece -- a prose fiction that concludes the book -- comes upon a ghostly navigator on the corpse-laden ship Starkey is supposed to be taking out to sea to set afire:

""You're using our known course and speed to chart our position?" Starkey asked.

"Yes," the man answered.

"I believe we call that 'dead' reckoning," Starkey said, grinning.

There is a long tradition of poetry dealing with the uncanny -- think Keats' "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" or Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" -- and it's nice to see someone putting it to such use again. Allen's poems may not have reached that exalted level yet, but he does do a fine job of making the human scary and the scary human. In fact, by the time you finish Strange Wisdoms of the Dead, the ghosts and monsters and demons have taken on a certain charm and seem no worse -- if not any better -- than the real-life people you encounter daily.

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