Sofia Samatar is recently the author of A Stranger in Olondria, a warm and vivid debut fantasy novel just out from the fine folk at Small Beer Press. Locus has called Olondria “the most impressive and intelligent first novel I expect to see this year, or perhaps for a while longer”. We’re thrilled to have her with us. This interview was conducted by Erin Hoffman via email.
Ideomancer: Congratulations on the release of your debut, which so far is gathering wide acclaim! How do you feel having it complete and out in the world?
Sofia Samatar: So far, so good! I love getting feedback from readers. It’s heartening to feel I’ve written something that speaks to people, and to see reviews that really engage with my material coming from people like Gary K. Wolfe, Amal El-Mohtar, Nisi Shawl, and Craig Laurance Gidney.
I: How did your book come to be published by Small Beer, and how have you liked working with them?
SS: I have to answer the second part first because I love working with them! I love it so much. Gavin J. Grant and Kelly Link do so much for the sf/f community, their books are beautiful, and they’ve been a dream to work with every step of the way, from edits to cover art to promotion. I’m honored to have a Small Beer book. I also need to take a moment for a shout-out to my cover artist, Kathleen Jennings, who is awesome.
How did it happen? Well, I hope Gavin doesn’t wind up hating me for saying this, but what happened is that I went to WisCon, walked up to the Small Beer table in the dealer’s room, bought some books, introduced myself, and said: “So I’ve written this novel…” He said, “Hmm, okay, send me three chapters.” And then it was “Send us the whole manuscript,” and then it was “We want to publish it.” Please, anyone who plans to corner Gavin at a con — at least buy some books!
I: They should buy books indeed. What inspired you to write the novel, and what was the writing of it like? Did anything surprise you?
SS: That’s an interesting question, because I spent so long working on the book. It took me two years to write the first draft, and another decade, on and off, to revise. So different things inspired me at different points along the way. First I was inspired by worldbuilding, especially inventing languages, and creating a place where everyone looked something like me. Then I was inspired by the idea of angels and ghosts being the same thing: beauty and terror in one. Then it was travel and exile. Then it was the struggle between oral and written forms of knowledge. Then it was imperialism. Not necessarily in that order, but you know, those are some of the things that came out as I was working.
It surprised me at one point to discover I’d written a book that is quite political. I didn’t intend to do that when I started — I just wanted to have a good time with maps and ghosts and things. It was meant to be a totally self-indulgent project. I suppose when I started I didn’t believe politics and self-indulgence could go together, and then later I realized that in some ways they have to, because your politics involves what you believe about yourself and what you think is best for the world. So to find I’d written a book addressing the suppression of oral cultures by literate ones was surprising, and then not, if that makes sense!
I: These things tend to emerge in fascinating ways. Books and the effect of literacy are also obviously very important. What do you think about the appearance of that suppression, how it fits into the rest of the emergent politics, and what does it mean that the oppression comes from Olondria?
SS: The oppression comes from Olondria because Olondria is an empire. Like any empire, it’s built on conquered peoples. Olondria is a beautiful place in many ways — Jevick, the main character, loves it, and I would love to visit it myself, but there’s no escaping the fact that its history is bloody. What’s happening in the book is that those in power are trying to strengthen their hold on Olondria, and that means stamping out old gods and old forms of expression. Literacy is being pushed in order to stifle oral culture. And there’s money involved, of course. It’s a struggle for both resources and cultural dominance.
I: I was going to ask about your worldbuilding, because it is subtle and lovely, very un-pretentious and yet completely vivid. What worlds inspired you, and how did you decide to emphasize books and trading?
SS: The biggest worldbuilding influence is probably Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast Trilogy — his world is so richly developed, almost too much, a little out of control, and he just doesn’t care, he keeps on adding stuff, more descriptions, more weird nooks and crannies. It’s never too much for him. I love that.
Books and trading — books because they’re central to the story, and trading because, well, I’m really not sure. I had visited a tea farm in Kenya around the time I started writing. And I had read Running in the Family, Michael Ondaatje’s gorgeous memoir, in which there are tropical farms. I feel like these things were floating around in my head, and by the time I put pen to paper, my main character lived on a pepper farm.
I: Was there anything that emerged through the writing that you explicitly didn’t like, or revealed thought processes you didn’t realize you’d internalized and were coming through in the fiction?
SS: That’s a good question. I don’t know if there was necessarily anything I didn’t like, but there were difficult things — things I can’t really discuss without spoilers! There are omissions, I feel — unanswered questions about what life is like for Olondrian women, for example. That one gets tackled in the sequel!
I: Do you have a favorite moment or character from the book (that isn’t a spoiler )?
SS: I love the moment when Jevick learns to read. He just throws himself into books and lives there — which is very much the way I read myself. And I love his tutor, Lunre, who has left his own country forever. Lunre is a very melancholy character, and also a person of great integrity who is starting his life over from scratch.
I: Your passion for that moment comes through. If we may quote:
I, too, soon after I read my first book, Nardien’s Tales for the Tender, succumbed to the magic voices that called to me from their houses of vellum. It was a great wonder to me to come so close to these foreign spirits, to see with the eyes and hear with the ears of those I had never known, to communicate with the dead, to feel that I knew them intimately, and that they knew me more completely than any person I knew in the flesh.
– A Stranger in Olondria, ch. 3
I: There’s a lot of love evident in Lunre, too. The dynamic between him and Jevick’s father is fascinating. There’s something going on there about the way one generation wants to overcome the other, but there being tension between the two — I get the impression that on the one hand Jevick’s father wants him to become great, but not too great, if that makes sense. Would you agree, or how would you describe the dynamic between them, and the way Jevick’s father strains between the past and the future, his own world and the world outside?
SS: I think you’ve just described the dynamic really well. Jevick’s father wants Jevick to have what he never did — access to a foreign language and culture. But then he realizes — too late — that learning these things is going to make his son a different person, someone the father can’t understand anymore. I wouldn’t say Jevick’s father is a particularly sympathetic character, but I do sympathize with his problem. He thinks a foreign language can act as a simple tool, specifically as a tool for making money. He doesn’t realize what learning a language does. It changes you.
I: Who, or what, inspires you?
SS: Books and more books. J.R.R. Tolkien, Ursula K. Le Guin, Mervyn Peake, Michael Ondaatje, Carole Maso, Miral al-Tahawy, Claudia Rankine, and the list goes on.
I: Favorite titles from any or each of those that come to mind?
SS: Oh, wow. In order: The Lord of the Rings; The Tombs of Atuan; Gormenghast (the middle one); The English Patient; AVA; The Tent; Don’t Let Me Be Lonely.
I: What brought you to fantasy, and how long have you been writing it?
SS: I’ve loved fantasy as long as I can remember — even when I could only read picture books, I wanted some kind of departure from realism, like “Bread and Jam for Frances” was cool because Frances was a badger. I’ve also almost always written fantasy. I had a brief period in high school where I got disgusted with the genre and thought it was horrible because I’d exhausted the local Waldenbooks and library, and I thought that was all there was. So then I had a realist phase. I wrote a Hemingwayesque novel about a pair of card sharps. AWFUL.
I: The awful always seems a necessary step toward the not-awful. How, if at all, has your family background influenced your work?
SS: Oh, quite a lot, I think. My dad is from Somalia, and my mom is a Swiss-German Mennonite from North Dakota. This makes me interested in African and African diasporic experiences, mixed identities, marginalized communities, religion, deserts, oral poetry, and hymns — to name just a few things!
I: Your debut is about an outsider – what draws you to outsiders, and was the choice deliberate?
SS: See the above answer! I’ve spent my life having people ask me about my ethnic background, usually very shortly after meeting me. This doesn’t exactly bother me — I get that people want to know, and it can be a way of making connections — but it’s a reminder that I’m different, that I can’t automatically be received as a “in-group” person. And then when I explain my background, I often get a reaction like “WHO? WHAT? HOW?!?” And that does bother me, because what it means is: “No way! You did not just exist! You are impossible!” It used to really frustrate me when I was younger. Now it’s easier to take it in stride, partly because I’ve learned there are actually tons of people like me. I don’t mean tons of people with my exact background, but when you consider all the mixed people in the world, all the children of immigrants, and then people with different types of nonconforming identities, queer identities, etc. — there’s a lot of support. It feels good.
I: Wow. Yes, you could say hybrids are on the rise. Do you think that there’s still pressure for you to identify with one background or the other, and how do you think this comes across in your fiction?
SS: Well, yes: people find it much easier to see me as Somali or African-American than Mennonite. They also want to see me as Arab and Muslim, because I study Arabic literature! I’ve treated this stuff in my fiction in some ways, especially in my story “A Brief History of Nonduality Studies,” and in the sequel to Olondria I’m working on now. “Brief History” is in part a call to dissolve false borders, especially the ones between north and sub-Saharan Africa, but really borders of all kinds. And in the Olondria sequel I deal pretty directly with mixed race issues.
I: Exciting. Since words, names, and books have such importance in Olondria, I have to wonder: do you think the dynamic you describe above would differ if you’d inherited a surname from your mother rather than your father? Names have such odd power.
SS: I think it would be different — at least for people reading my name, without meeting me. But things tend to change when you get to know a person. Whatever associations you’ve attached to their name have to shift to make room for that person’s actual history. Names have power, but they can also develop new meanings.
I: You have a lovely poem in this issue of Ideomancer. How do you choose whether an idea becomes a poem or part of a larger piece?
SS: Thank you! About form: I usually don’t have to decide. The piece decides for me. It comes like that. It’s funny, but the one piece I remember not being that way is my Ideomancer story, “The Nazir,” which started out as a novel.
I: I well remember that story! It had a world-vividness that is novel-like. The natural question follows: what’s next for you?
SS: Revising the sequel to Olondria! A task by turns delightful and horrid!
I: That it is. Best of luck with it! Any closing thoughts?
SS: Thank you for the conversation, and thanks to the Ideomancer staff for their interest in my work and for keeping this space alive with stories!
We’d like to thank Sofia for joining us for this interview, and for contributing her fine poem to this issue. You can read more about A Stranger in Olondria at the Small Beer website, read an excerpt at Tor.com, and order the book from your local indie bookstore.
For our summer issue this year? A lighter note. (Shocked? So are we!)
We’re kicking off with return contributor A.C. Wise’s “Operation: Annihilate Mars! Or, Doctor Blood and the Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron” – because there is no saying no to spacefaring, crime-fighting drag queens. Try it. We’ll wait.
Our second piece for this month, Vicki Saunders’s “Deus Ex Chelonia,” takes us on the most whimsical post-apocalyptic quest we’ve read in years and years.
We’re only running two fiction pieces this issue to make room for an interview with this quarter’s featured author: Ideomancer alumnus Sofia Samatar speaks with us about language, craft, and her first novel, A Stranger in Olondria. Her “Undoomed” is also featured in our poetry section this month, alongside work from Alicia Cole and Rob Bliss, and reviews of this quarter’s new releases.
We hope you enjoy this quarter’s issue, and if so, please consider dropping something into our tip jar. Ideomancer relies on reader donations to pay its contributors for their excellent fiction and poetry, and even five dollars makes a big difference.
Enjoy the issue, and have a bright and happy summer!
Vol. 12 Issue 2
“Doctor Blood and the Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron” – A. C. Wise
“Deux ex Chelonia” – Vicki Saunders
“Undoomed” – Sofia Samatar
“Artemis Speaks to Aphrodite” – Alicia Cole
“Solaris” – Rob Bliss
“Sofia Samatar, author of A Stranger in Olondria”
Karen Lord’s The Best of All Possible Worlds – Liz Bourke
Where Thy Dark Eye Glances: Queering Edgar Allan Poe – Claire Humphrey
Mars Needs Men!
But the Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron will have to do. At least one of them self-identifies as male. He tucks proudly, and fuck you very much if you don’t like it.
By night, they work at clubs with names like Diamond Lil’s, the Lil’ Diamond, and Exclusively Lime Green. Every Thursday afternoon, they bowl. In-between, when they’re not bowling, or dancing, or singing on stage, they kick ass harder than you’ve seen ass kicked before. And they do it all in silver lamé and high heels.
This is Bunny, their leader, born Phillip Howard Craft the Third. At the moment, she is up in the recruiter’s face, waving a poster of Uncle Sam under the aforementioned tagline, a floating head against a backdrop of Martian red. Her nails are manicured perfection, each painted a different metallic shade, all the colors of the rainbow, and then some. Her hair is piled in a frosted bouffant so high it barely fit through the recruiter’s door. Despite the anger written in every line of her body, she doesn’t raise her voice.
“Your sign says you need volunteers. We’re volunteering, and since I don’t see your waiting room clogged with other candidates, dare I suggest: We’re all you’ve got.”
“I can’t…I won’t…” The recruiter turns bright red. He takes a deep breath, faces Bunny, and almost, but not quite, manages to look her in the eye.
“I can’t just let a bunch of…”
Bunny’s eyes, tinted violet today, shine cold steel. They stop the words in the recruiter’s throat, hard enough that he looks like he might actually choke. Her tone matches her eyes.
“Think carefully, General. If the next word out of your mouth is anything but ‘civilians’ I will dismember you myself. You won’t live long enough to worry about an invasion from Mars.”
The General’s jaw tightens. A vein in his forehead bulges.
“The Glitter Squadron’s record speaks for itself, General.”
Bunny’s voice is level. She places the poster on his desk.
“Cleaner than yours, I’ll dare say. And,” Bunny smirks, and points to the General’s medals, “our bling is better.”
Rage twists the General’s features, but his shoulders slump all the same.
“Fine,” he says. “The damned mission is yours. Add a little more red to the planet, if you want it so badly.”
Bunny smiles, teeth gleaming diamond bright. “I promise you, General, the Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron is more than up to the task.”
They are loaded into the rocket by clean-cut scientists with white coats and strong values, men and women who believe glitter is for little girls’ birthday cards as long as they’re under six years old, and leather is for wallets and briefcases.
“Some people have no imagination,” Starlight stage-whispers as they climb the gangplank. Starlight was born Walter Adams Kennett. Her mirror-ball inspired outfit forces the good, moral scientists to look away as light breaks against her and scatters throughout the room.
Starlight pauses at the airlock door, looking up at the floodlit rocket, all sleek length, studded with rounded windows, and tipped at the base in fins. “Well, maybe not no imagination.” And she climbs aboard.
Bunny reads over a brief as they hurtle between the stars.
“Imagine the outfit I could make from one of those,” Starlight whispers, pointing to the stars pricking the vast dark.
“Hush.” Esmerelda, born Christine Joanne Layton elbows her.
“Our target is Doctor Blood,” Bunny says, rolling her eyes.
She flips a page in the neatly-stapled file, scans, while the twelve other bodies crammed into the rocket lean forward in anticipation.
“They least they could have done was give us champagne. We are off to save the world, after all. And this seating…”
No one answers Starlight this time.
For this mission, they’ve chosen strictly retro-future, which means skin-tight silver, boots that come nearer to the knee than their skirts, bubble-barreled ray-guns, frosted white lipstick and, of course, big hair. CeCe the Velvet Underground Drag King called in sick with the flu, so it’s lamé all the way.
Each member of the Squadron has added their own touch, as usual. Starlight’s peek-a-boo cutout dress, which is really more skin than fabric, is studded with mirrors. Esmerelda wears a wide belt, studded with faux gems, green to match her name. Bunny is wearing her namesake animal’s ears, peeking out from her enormous coif.
M is the only exception to all the brightness and dazzle. M wears leather, head-to-toe. Think Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman – erratic, angry stitches joining found leather so close to the body there’s no chance for the flesh underneath to breathe. Only it isn’t like that at all. There is a whip hanging from M’s hip though, and plenty of other toys beside. Only eyes and lips show through M’s mask, and their gender is indeterminate. No one knows M’s birth name, and it will stay that way.
Bunny clears her throat. “Doctor Blood, born Richard Carnacki Utley, is a brilliant scientist. He was working on splicing human and animal DNA as a way to cure cancer, or building better rocket fuel using radioactive spiders and black holes. Blah, blah, blah, the usual. We’ve all seen the movies, right?”
Esmerelda giggles approval. Bunny goes on.
“He caught his wife cheating with his lab partner, or his brother, or his best friend. He tried to burn them to death, or blow them up, or turn them into evil monkey robots, and horribly disfigured himself in the process. So he did the only sensible thing, and shot himself into space where he built a gigantic impenetrable fortress on Mars. Now, he’s threatening to invade earth, or shoot it to pieces with a space laser if the United Nations doesn’t surrender all of earth’s gold.”
“Can they do that?” Esmerelda asks.
Starlight mutters, “No imagination at all,” and shakes her head, sending bits of light whirling around the rocket.
“That’s where we come in,” Bunny says. “We take down Doctor Blood, easy peasy lemon squeezy, and we’re home in time for tea.”
“Ooh, make mine with brandy!” Starlight says.
Bunny rolls her eyes again. “Look sharp, we’re almost there.”
Penny is the weapons expert. Born Penelope Jean Hartraub, she is the only member of the Glitter Squadron who has actually seen war. Her mini dress has a faint coppery sheen, befitting her name. She stands at the bottom of the gangplank, distributing extra ammo and back-up weapons as twelve pairs of chunky heels kick up the red dirt of Mars.
She keeps the best gun for herself, not just a laser pistol, but an honest to goodness Big Fucking Gun. It has rings that light up and it makes a woo-woo sound when it’s fired and everything. Fashion-wise, it may be so last year, but it’ll get the job done. As they leave the rocket behind, heading towards the ridiculously over-sized fortress, all done up in phallic towers and bubble domes, Penny takes the lead.
They encounter guards, dressed oh-so-predictably in uniforms purchased from the discount bin at Nazis-R-Us.
“Boring.” Starlight buffs her nails to a high shine against a rare patch of fabric on her dress.
She delivers a high kick, catching the first guard in the throat with the bruising force of her extra-chunky, mirror-studded heel, not even bothering to draw her gun. Esmerelda uses her belt instead of the gun hanging from it, because it’s more fun. She wraps it around the second guard’s throat and neatly throttles him, before returning it to her waist.
The second wave of guards approaches with more caution. Penny singles out a man with a nasty grin, the one most likely to cause trouble. He reaches for her. She surprises him with her speed, and uses his momentum to bring him crashing down. He springs up.
“I won’t make this easy on you, girly,” he says, or something equally cliché.
Penny ignores him and goes in for a blow to the ribs. But it doesn’t land. This time he’s the one to surprise her with his speed. He catches her and spins her around, pinning her. She swears he tries to cop a feel, and his breath stinks of alcohol when he speaks close to her ear.
“You like that? You want a real man to show you how it’s done?”
No imagination, she imagines Starlight saying, and smashes her head back against his, hoping it will break his nose. At very least it breaks his concentration. She slips free. The BFG is too good for this one.
He comes at her fast and hard, excitement clear in his eyes. She can see from their shine just what he thinks he’ll do to her when he bests her, how he thinks he’ll make her beg, and how he thinks she’ll like it. She sweeps his legs out from under him; there’s a satisfying crack as his head hits the floor. Even dazed, he grins up at her, blood between his teeth as she stands over him. She knows exactly what he’s thinking: So, you like it rough, girly? Me, too. I like a girl who knows how to play.
Fashion be damned. She pulls out a battered old 9mm pistol.
“Fetishize this, asshole.” And she puts a single bullet in his brain.
There are gorilla men – of course there are – all spliced DNA, dragging knuckles and swinging hairy arms. Bunny makes short work of them. There are radioactive zombies, slavering, pawing, glowing green and dropping chunks of unnamable rot in their wake.
Esmerelda handles them with grace and aplomb. There are even spiders, which sends Starlight into a fit of giggling, before she takes them out, singing Bowie at the top of her lungs.
There are two female guards in the whole sprawling expanse of the base, both wearing bikinis, chests heaving before they’ve even thought to pick a fight.
“Oh, how progressive!” Starlight claps her hands in mock rapture.
“I suppose there’s a mud pit just behind that door?”
The girls in bikinis exchange glances; this is outside of their training.
“Look, honey. Honeys. Let me explain something to you. Super-villains pay crap. And there’s no such thing as an Evil League of Evil healthcare plan.”
One of the women takes a questioning step forward. Starlight holds up a hand.
“I won’t make some grandiose speech about the fate of the world, or doing it for the children you’ll probably never have, but I will say this – killing bad guys is a heck of a lot of fun. And we pay overtime.”
And the forces of might and justice and looking damned fine in knee-high high heels swells to fifteen.
M is the one to find Doctor Blood, deep in his underground lair.
He stands at a curved control panel, raised on a catwalk above an artificial canal, which more likely than not is filled with genetically enhanced Martian piranhas.
He screams profanities, his voice just as high-pitched with mania as you might imagine. He’s wearing a lab coat, shredded and scorched, as though he has just this moment stepped out of the fire that destroyed his sanity and nearly ended his life. To his credit, the scars covering half his face are pink and shiny, stretched tight, weeping clear fluid tinged pale red when he screams. His finger hovers over a big red button, the kind that ends the world.
M approaches with measured steps. The profanities roll off the leather; the imprecation and threats don’t penetrate between the thick, jagged stitches. Doctor Blood runs out of words and breath. He looks at M, wild-eyed, and meets only curiosity in the leather-framed stare. Oddly, he can’t tell what color the eyes looking back at him are. They might be every color at once, or just one color that no one has though up a name for yet.
His voice turns harsh, broken, raw. The weeping sores are joined by real tears – salt in the wound.
“I’ll make you pay. All of you. Nobody ever believed in me. I’ll show them all. They’ll love me now. Everyone will.”
It comes out as one long barely distinguished string of words.
M puts a hand on the sobbing scientist’s shoulder. M understands pain, every kind there is. M understands when someone needs to be hurt, to be pushed to the very edge before they can come out on the other side of whatever darkness they’ve blundered into. And M knows when someone has had enough, too. When there’s no pain in the world greater than simply living inside their own skin, and all the hurting in the world won’t bring them anything.
Doctor Blood’s words trail off, incoherent for the sobs. “Daddy never…I’m sorry mommy…”
“I know,” M says softly. “Shh, I know.”
And M does an unexpected thing, a thing M has never done before. M steps close and folds the doctor in leather clad arms, patting his back and letting him cry.
Sixteen bodies crowd the rocket ship hurtling back toward earth – just like Bunny promised, home in time for tea.
Starlight fogs the window with her breath, looking out at all that glittering black. Esmerelda discusses wardrobe options with the women in bikinis.
The others talk among themselves, comparing notes, telling stories of battles won, the tales growing with each new telling. Ruby and Sapphire, the twins who aren’t twins and couldn’t look more opposite if they tried, single-handedly took down an entire legion of Martian Lizardmen, to hear them tell the tale. Mistress Minerva knocked out a guard with her clever killer perfume spray and rescued a bevy of Martian Princes who couldn’t wait to express their gratitude. Empress Zatar, who was born for this mission and didn’t even get a single moment of screen time, fought off three Grons and a Torlac with nothing more than a hairpin.
And so the stories go.
Penny cleans her guns and her blades, humming softly to herself as she does, an old military tune.
Bunny uses an honest to goodness pen, and makes notes in a real paper journal.
Doctor Blood’s head is bowed. His shoulders hitch every now and then.
M sits straight and silent, staring ahead with leather framed eyes, and holds Doctor Blood’s hand.
All together, they tumble through the fabulous, glittering dark.
They are heading back home to claim their hero’s welcome, even though every one of them knows this moment, right here, surrounded by so many glorious stars it hurts, is all the thanks they will ever get for saving the world. Again.
A.C. Wise was born and raised in Montreal and currently lives in the Philadelphia area. Her fiction has appeared in publications such as Clarkesworld, Apex, Ideomancer, and The Best Horror of the Year Vol. 4, among others. In addition to her writing, she co-edits The Journal of Unlikely Entomology, an online magazine of fiction and art about bugs. You can find her online at www.acwise.net and on twitter as @ac_wise. She says:
Operation: Annihilate Mars was originally inspired by a call for submissions that I only noticed the day before the deadline. It was feverishly written and edited in a few hours, and sent off just under the wire. While it wasn’t accepted for the anthology, I was still very happy with the way the story turned out. It’s my attempt to pay homage to cheesy B movies and pulp story lines, but turned slightly sideways. After all, who wants the world saved by a boring old square-jawed hero when an ultra fabulous glitter squadron of drag queens is available?
Illustration by Walter Crane is Neptuns Pferde (1893) and is in the public domain.
grass encased under clear water spectrum of greens vegetal tendrils frozen in artificial flow, a new element of life, roots clouded airless alien multitude ripples float a raft of leaf
he stands in a field of fog and flowers
all trees are medieval nothing grows straight, gravity pulls to the earth, home shield dome against the sky water smoked, haze exhaled elemental mirror, inverted home
the solitude of the image
horse loosed hoofs itself a corral free of rein and saddle
trees rooted in marsh angled surface speckled with droplet leaves, broken arms lying offshore, twisted limbs reaching out, an eternal hollow grasp
he washes his hands in mercury
remnants of family staged on the bridge watching his theatre prevented from escaping his own humanity, she, an only child, oval eyes of the steppes, cloaked by thin lids, face a jowled triangle, the upswept curve of her mouth as she curtsies glance tilted suspicious Russia the history of ballooning floats across lithographs, birdcage hangs
in the open window, bust of a bearded man shelved inward to the room, accompanied
by a pastoral vase of Dutch blue
replica of a lost home the house died with a grandfather son lives in replica twin of an old life, a sudden summer rain falls motion curtains the scene of children, new generation
chasing itself he lets himself soak the teacup fills brown droplets overflow peach and grape uneaten, watered on the table, a spoonful of rain he sits like a prayer tree limb over water drips
a soft storm as the sun returns
black and white, they watch a film of the past hall of hero portraits, old man watches his younger self, nothing but cloud and ocean beneath his flight the young live in air the aged stay closer to earth to lighten the fall of their ideals low roof frames doorway pillared by shelves statue with a cowboy hat antique tennis racquet portrait of his mother, eyes regretting the camera, youth in her neck
closed sorrow in her beautiful mouth
window like an aquarium looks out to playing children the adults watch from inside
whispering about the concept of goodbye, how to sleep before departure black horse shaded in the shadow shed terrifies the child, his mother changes horror to beauty with a few words and a warm grip, battered blue wooden wall aged and weathered, patched with gaps of fallen flakes becomes an abstract painting for him to lean against, talking about
hallucinations Earth has adapted to the pain
of humanity, space lives
still unwounded, we are
a weak virus in a massive
body perpetually immune
flow of thin traffic the road leads, white line a leash pulling him into the city tunnels, bridges, ramps lit by specks of sun strata of roads buttressed, the path rises and falls, splits away is joined, he sits hand to mouth seeing nothing ahead, feeling
the head of his wife rest against his shoulders, night shadows in the arteries of the city are bloodied by the flow of red taillights
mist on morning water
colour faded to shades fire contained burns on the grass he drops photos and writing
his past recalled in a glance disposable memory feeds flame, smoke rebirth, dog watches mist haze the countryside from a perch of hilltop, flame flows like water across the photo
of his wife still alive on paper he swallows a sky of stars
they swallow him
instability of motion
station in an ocean of cosmic mist self-lit, its own star an island of light floats in nothing the void has many names and rejects them all
a ball rolls down the littered steel corridor thrown by an unseen hand, introduction to a new home butterflies pinned and framed bronze horse marching over
the opened pages of photography metronome hammock sways laundry hung from computer consoles flame lit in the palm witness to the explanation of suicide
room of curved walls portholes, circular tables the man stands erect
child’s drawing of a red man noosed by a blue rope, door of the suicide’s last home, the dead films himself for a future visitor, explains his ending, a reasoned
madness as calm as sanity dwarf golem, twin of its creator, escapes its laboratory womb
dark sea of white motes flows counter-clockwise against spiraling clouds veined red
ghost motion attracts the living into the frost room of the dead, blanketed in plastic
and ice mist, the living can only ask the living about the dead, the dead have no memory of themselves
or of the concept of living
door closes out colour last drink of suicide a glass of milk delivered by the memory of his ten-year-old daughter as rescue clamors at the locked door mirror behind the headless man in the open closet, bodiless suit assembled is more human than the man reflected
he sleeps to give birth to a ghost she lives in orange light cast by a sun captured in endless dawn she shines against his eyes awake on a sea of pillow shoulders shawled in the end moment ageless, they kiss gun tickles the sole of her foot she kicks away another death finds a photograph of herself and asks who she is, compares her mirrored self to the sepia forgets that he has remembered to forget pinprick of suicide, still dots her arm, skin unlaced cut away by a new surgery in the sheath of smoke rocket rises from the eye, she the life inside he burned beneath the launch branded with the wing of another’s freedom
books base the television intellect inactive, he sits shawl on the shoulder of the chair, wounds balmed by fingertips, door of his other self locked, thinking away, finger strips of paper on a vent rustle of leaves, ears hear home as the body sleeps through the false
night, she resurrects
a five foot circumference sun silhouettes her undressing skin easily peeled away in her second life shawl on shawl abacus of reincarnation she tears herself through metal would rather die than separate from the living, when there is no time cuts heal quickly, scars
wiped away with a towel a ghost introduced to the living she smiles at baby photos
two forms of birth communicate
through silence and gesture, immortality
brands her blood, endless life caged
feeding on love
ocean crusted with a milk skin swirls on itself like a galaxy of perpetual motion
winter boy climbs to weave a twig into the yard fire parents again full of youth mother a sentry of the garden wife a guard of home memory resumes a happy life a film that only plays once ghost sees herself in the mirror patches of memory land like Tarot a drink of tea, recollection of hatred fear of following another’s path
away from home
icon on the mantle watches the ghost sleep, pretend to sleep, attempt to be human, head swarmed by emotion, desperate to hear and see nothing to dream
water follows the tide of cloud to a boiling white horizon
she knows she is a semblance of herself, a past persona locked in the present, she can be nothing but a copy, attempting to reenact the other, become the dead self, assure her heart
that it is capable of love that her dreams are not manufactured from stories he tells her
they wait behind a cage of candles, in a room of books paintings lit around the walls
the words of Quixote equate the living to the ghost, a just judgement of sleep
mankind does not want other worlds, only mirrors
first contact only with the self to conquer home like a knight riding
a starving horse from windmill to windmill
ghost argues logic, he is crowned by her hands, not human enough to own a gender, growing her humanity, emotion constructed becomes real, monolith machines draped in plastic, stand tilted where they were left, civilization lost, leaving the residue of its mind
memory of winter
a painting by the elder Bruegel how many crows to perch on painted trees, how many skaters stilled on the pond, pencilled layout of the town, each rooftop dabbed by a brush of snow
life floats animate and inanimate a book flutters by the painted world model molds reality
water foams against the shore eddies spread points across the surface like a plague eruption
suicide by freezing her face aged by frost stretched in the curved mirror scattering of eyes across rubber skin, a desperate attempt to become human, she drank liquid oxygen
body jolts in regeneration mouth bloody, she finds her voice again, blindness gains sight, limbs find motion, reason returns she remembers she is nothing but a twin of a lost self damned to eternal resurrection.
orange patina across the sun
shawl fringe lines her body with tiny feathers wings too small to warm or fly a skin to be shed in sleep
islands of sweat on the pillow he rises, fades into himself inverts judgement, pity empties
him, casts him in suffering fueled by love
ocean eats its centre
living and dead, twin crutches for the sick, the empty, ceiling mirrors back his blindness he mumbles through memory the room fills with multitude replicas of the woman
he loved forgoing the present he slips into the past a grown man returning to youth older than his mother remembered life encased in plastic the artifice of home wounds of a life abandoned washed off by the ghost that gave him birth
spectre of his wife leaves a note of retreat sacrifice of departure “self-annihilation: a burst of light and wind” the ball bounces home the ocean forms islands to harbor the living, remnant shawl, mystery is a necessity of life, immortality in unknowing
the ocean passes into cloud time returns like breath grass sways in water pond freezes to contain its life, end rebirth for a season
rain pours inside the house
jacket steams off his father’s back like roiling wings
clutching son to his knees in the island of home
Rob Bliss has a degree in English and Writing from York University, Canada. He has had poetry published in The Malahat Review, Descant, PRISM International, and Quarry. His stories have appeared in Aphelion Magazine, Pulp Metal Magazine, SNM Magazine, 69 Flavours of Paranoia, and Death Head Grin.
Inspiration for “Solaris”: I was writing a series of poems based on films, using Sergei Eisenstein as a jumping off point, to translate visual optical images into visual literary images. I moved through surrealistic and Soviet filmmakers, which brought me to Andrei Tarkovsky, and his film Solaris. The poem is a transcription/interpretation of that film.
Illustration is by Steve Evans from Citizen of the World (Great Barrier Reef 105, Uploaded by russavia) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
for Sonya Taaffe
Leaf-light on the walls: here we wait, sister.
I waited at the sea, unceasingly earnest;
I stretch bark and leaf-bright, shake the
with morning green, lush and verdant.
past poison. Through the winter, hold the
when the ice first breaks
Alicia Cole, a writer and educator, lives in Lawrenceville, GA, with a photographer, their cat, and two schools of fish. Her poetry appears or is forthcoming in Asimov’s, Strange Horizons, Goblin Fruit, Dark Mountain, and Futurdaze: An Anthology of YA Science Fiction. Her musings on writing and life can be found at three-magpies.livejournal.com. She says:
Sonya posted something about the sea on her journal. I was inspired and started to wonder about Goddesses speaking to each other at the shores of the sea. Not any particular sea, more of an archetypal sea – the place where frozen faith breaks open, becoming belief. This poem is the result.