AQUA VITAE: A PRACTICAL RECIPE
by Kurt MacPhearson
Ponce de Leon sought the Fountain of Youth
upon the Isle of Bimini, but instead
he ran aground in Florida
and founded St. Augustine. Ever since then,
people have flocked south,
as if those waters bubble up from the Everglades,
or, perhaps, the dank recesses
of a central Floridian swamp—where cypress stand
a stoic watch, arms outstretched
and roots exposed like legs poised to dance
with demons driving men to drink
without fathoming their thirst for an impossible elixir,
or chemicals churning in an I.V. drip.
Such youth is stale. Like a cracker left out of the box.
Yet south they still go, as if word of this fountain
were only now trickling out
and gated retirement blocks:
promises clutched in gnarled fists,
orthopedic shoes shuffling to a doctor’s didactic chant.
But the aqua vitae they seek
could never be extracted from a marshy bed,
or by metaphorically delving
the depths of an ailing heart.
Instead, distill legend from bitter truth:
And to this essence apply alchemical flame;
close eyes, conjure Caribbean thoughts,
then sprinkle these ashes
upon a moistened tongue.
I’d like to introduce a fellow poet of mine, James D. Fuson. He writes mainly in the speculative genre; however, he hasn’t allowed labels to define his work. Nor has he allowed them to define him as a person. Labels are easy to come by these days, especially in James’s case.
In 1995, James was sentenced at 17 to life in prison without the possibility of parole. He’s still there. And unless sentencing laws are changed and made retroactive, he will stay there for the rest of his life. He makes no excuses for his actions, which led to the deaths of two innocent people. He also understands that he can never make up for any of the pain and suffering he’d caused.
Because of his actions, several labels [insert your favorites] are tattooed across his back. These tattoos glow with a virulent florescence. No matter what good he does, he will most likely never outshine them. But that doesn’t stop him from trying. Even in a place as dark and morally devoid as prison.
In the introduction to his haiku collection, Twenty Years: Reflections of an Empty Sky (Soft Sculpture Press, 2014), James writes:
“’Prison is not for the naive, and a kid, regardless of how much he thinks he knows or how wise he thinks he is, is not ready for it. One of two things will happen to that kid: he will either break and become part of the machine or get tough and grow into a stronger individual. Either way, prison will leave a black stain on his soul. Regardless of what he grows to be, no matter what he learns or becomes, the abuse, alienation, loneliness, and frustration will leave a scar that remains until he dies. It then comes down to this: How does he heal this scar?”
While not all of James’s work focuses on prison or other dark topics, he loves to write about apocalyptic landscapes—zombies, plagues, aliens, you name it. When we discuss collaborating, he always manages to slip in a shambling corpse or other such device that indicates humanity’s impending doom. His favorite apocalypse, however, is the robot apocalypse.
There isn’t enough robot apocalypse stuff out there. Even reading social lit that uses comparative references to genre themes, robots never come up, although the menace of heartless, emotionless, sometimes faceless, machines are a no-brainer for comparisons for some social ills. They give you that relentless, unrelateable threat to which there is no negotiation or plea. It’s scary enough when they’re our own creation, but when they come from beyond, from some unknown source, they’re even scarier. And not those robots that are a “metal endoskeleton surrounded by living tissue.” Gears and hydraulics, wires and blinking lights. Totally inhuman.
Okay, maybe a little bio-organic mass is cool; metallic grayish with some kind of moisture covering it. Whatever brings out the nightmares.
I’ve invited James to contribute to A Speculative Poetry Blog. In fact, he may occasionally appear as a guest blogger. Until then, here is a sample of James’s robot apocalypse haiku (none of which appeared in the collection Twenty Years).
(Originally appeared in Star*Line 38.2)
unleashed on the populace
fall from the sky
by Kurt MacPhearson
At this point, everything slows
meaning from words
as they plunge
one by one
Not even the light of your heart
in a hydrocarbon stew
Titan’s methane seas
I suffer from social anxiety. It has rendered me mute or tongue-tied too many times to count. Because of this, I avoid new people whenever possible. I use the self-checkout at the grocery store so I don’t have to talk to the cashier. When it’s time to order pizza, an epic battle between my nerves and my stomach ensues. I once suffered with a broken molar for three weeks because I was too apprehensive over yet another unwanted social interaction to make a dentist appointment. I’ve sought help, so the anxiety isn’t as crippling as it used to be, but there are still times when I believe that my biggest mistake in life was not striking out to the nearest National Park on my eighteenth birthday to become a hermit.
My anxiety affects my personal relationships too. I’ve never been comfortable conversing with people I do know for fear of saying something offensive or that I’ll be misunderstood. And, because negative thoughts are self-defeating thoughts, I’ve often walked away from conversations with friends and family members to look for a crowbar to pry the foot from my mouth. Over the years, I’ve compensated for this by guarding my opinions and responding to questions with short answers.
Short answers have served me well.
A good example of an effective short answer is my response to questions concerning what I do for a living. The short answer is that I inspect engine parts. And it’s the perfect answer, because people rarely ask me to elaborate. Elaborating leads to questions about the manufacturing process. I can’t answer those questions because I’ve never been a part of that process; my entire job consists of examining raw parts for defects. If it sounds boring, that’s because it is. I find it so boring that five minutes into my shift a fog settles over my mind, and I usually get lost in the fog for the duration. Regardless of how I feel about my job; however, it pays the bills.
Another aspect of my life that I’ve never been comfortable discussing is the fact that I am a poet. I am a poet because I love words. I love words because they have the ability to fit together to form images that are only visible through my mind’s eye. I love to break down words, examine their etymologies as a forensic anthropologist would a body preserved in a tar pit. Then, like an aerospace engineer, I try to rebuild them in new and interesting ways. I’m always thinking about words. I think about words while I’m inspecting parts, mowing the lawn, and even while pretending to listen to my wife. I cannot not think about words.
One of the reasons I rarely tell people I’m a poet is because of the questions I have been asked. One of the most popular concerns the stacks of cash I make writing poetry. This, of course, is a vicious myth. There is no money in poetry. I’ve been writing poetry under a pen name for fifteen years and have sold over 200 individual poems, and I never wrote a poem that paid a bill.
If the questions aren’t about cash, then they’re about subject matter. The short answer is that I write speculative poetry (often referred to as science fiction poetry). The drawback to the short answer is that it usually elicits strange looks and more questions. Questions requiring answers of increasing length and difficulty. And with these questions, my anxiety kicks into overdrive and fires afterburners. My ears buzz and my tongue cleaves to the roof of my mouth with a mental peanut butter so thick that no amount of milk could wash it away. The last thing I want to do is make a fool of myself while attempting to explain my passion.
So, instead of making a fool of myself by speaking, I figured that I could work through my social anxiety issues like any sensible member of the 21st Century: by writing a blog.
What is Speculative Poetry?
The short answer: Speculative poetry is poetry that incorporates science fiction, fantasy, and horror images and themes. Here is an example:
by Kurt MacPhearson
A nebulous toddler
woven over epochs
into blubbery orange and yellow swirls
with blazing green quasars for eyes
and a single curly tuft of blue
upon its bald, lopsided head
sits as a greedy Buddha
at the edge of space
like peanut clusters
and ignoring the dark matter
stuck between its two gaseous teeth
as it reaches for red giant crumbs
with tentacle fingers
squeezing with avarice
till knuckles form
all the while broadcasting
a collective mine-mine-mine!
in gamma ray belches
from deep within its black gullet
as a warning to the cosmos
should it learn to crawl
Originally appeared in Star*Line, 33.4
I don’t have a longer answer for the definition of speculative poetry. The one I gave suits me fine. These work well, too:
- “[I]n the speculative poem, the poet presents an unreal world as though presenting a real one.” Mark Rich, “The Idea of the Real,” Strange Horizons
- “Speculative poetry [as opposed to mainstream poetry] has more to do with the imagination, the world of dreams and the world as it could be.” Bruce Boston, Grand Master speculative poet, interviewed by John Amen, The Pedestal Magazine
Finally, I love reading speculative poetry as much as I like writing it. After all, poetry is all about the words and how they fit together to form provocative imagery. And a great way to get the most of that experience is to listen to poets read aloud their poems. Perhaps one day I’ll muster up the courage to record myself reading one of my poems, but until then, here’s a clip of Neil Gaiman reading his poem, “Instructions.” I hope you enjoy the imagery and wordplay as much as I do.
FOR THE RECORD
Please, Honey, don’t run away.
I swear I can explain.
Tentacles are more useful than thumbs.
Really, they’re not so strange.
Think of pachyderms;
their trunks are misnamed.
And with these extra limbs
with which to cuddle you…
Such disgust is what’s kept me
hidden in this flesh-toned suit.
Do I complain about the
shortness of your tongue?
No, wait! Don’t go!
My anger’s sheathed,
just like the cilia that pass for my teeth.
Perhaps one day you’ll realize
we’re all the same inside.
Meanwhile, you need not fret.
The suction-cup hickies will fade.
Yesterday I posted a scifaiku that reflects upon the relationship between planet Jupiter and Galilean moon, Europa. The following poem explores that relationship much further. It’s a combination of astronomy and mythology, an interplay about which I wrote in an earlier post. For this poem, I drew from “The Rape of Europa.”
Two paintings follow the poem, by Rembrandt and Titian respectively. I think that these paintings show that no matter how far from Earth the human race travels, our myths and legends will always be with us.
EUROPA’S STOIC STANCE
by Kurt MacPhearson
Vulcan forged your golden basket,
chased with figures depicting Io’s fate,
yet you still chose to befriend that bull
merely because its low contained more melody
than a lyre ever produced.
Oh, Europa, such creatures are never docile.
It’s contrary to their nature.
Then again, we weren’t there to stop you
when that bull bent its back.
You aren’t the first to be deceived
by Jupiter’s bright and swirling charms.
The honeymoon was awesome; the starry tour quite fun;
though isn’t it strange how quickly
the euphoria of new love can fade?
He promised children. He promised Crete.
But all he gave were icy rings to seal your fate.
Hadn’t made a single revolution before learning
you shared a resonant relationship
with Ganymede, and poor Io, who Jupiter
hides like a mistress opposite you.
And now, it seems there’s no escape,
especially since Jupiter rarely turns aside
his bloody eye.
It’s not fair, what he puts you through.
But you hide it so well.
Those tears, beneath an icy veneer,
when he rages with his belts.
Which is why we forgive your cryovolcanic tantrums
when the stress of his pull becomes too much.
Such a stance defines a true hero’s composition,
for even though he won’t relinquish
his jealous grip upon your heavenly body
we know he can never break
your iron core.
Originally appeared in Star*Line 34.4