(Frankfurt, KY: Broadstone Books, 2019)
There certainly is a need for fantasy in our culture. Fantasy novels, sci-fi novels, manga, anime, adult fantasy fiction and films, fan fiction — the list runs like a stream into an ever-growing groundswell of underground need. In a time when nearly every aspect of human experience is forced through algorithms like flesh through a meat grinder, who wouldn’t want to explore with the freedoms of the imagination? In her new collection of prose poems Creatures Among Us, writer and photographer Rebecca Lilly envelopes her readers in otherworldly layers of fantastical imagery that only loosely tie back to the dulling realities of early 21st-century life. It’s as if elements of Ovid, medieval allegory, Harry Potter, Edgar Allen Poe, fantasy novels, the Nietzsche of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the Bible, shaman and witches, the Philosopher’s stone, among other, but not all, metaphysical touchstones collide into a big bang for a new world vision. Like the other Big Bang, it’s a theory, and how it plays out on the page can thrill but also leave one feeling speculative, even ponderous.
While classic and contemporary prose poem collections by Charles Baudelaire or Lydia Davis speak to a place like the Paris of the 1860s or the distinct world the speaker inhabits, Lilly sketches a world that divides its time and space between a haunted, seemingly contemporary (American?) life and a fantastical world of goddesses and witches and other imaginative aberrations. She’s presented a range of characters, including a Nightwatchman, a narrator, a funeral director, ghosts, among other “creatures among us,” and much of the book speaks around death as a theme and some sort of estate which backgrounds the individual poems and the larger narrative dutifully.
Yet, the collection, as a read, demands attention to detail in ways that traditional poetry and prose fiction allow you to sail over the surface of their worlds; this book demands you go into the weeds in order to engage it meaningfully. It’s not unlike an exhibit I saw a few years ago at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian called The Art of Murder: Frances Glessner. This equally grim creation depicts murder scenes reconstructed in miniature for forensic purposes. The common theme of death aside, these poems and the Glessner exhibit both present their truths to us through similar viewfinders: they require us to screw down our stares, and through squinting eyes, look at their little worlds and as we do so, they expand back out into our worlds implicating the real even as we engage in fantasy.
Some of these poems drift much deeper into fantasy. In “The Water Goddess” Lilly presents a narrator, lead by a seer, at a pond where a goddess “lives on the cliffs. She’s a cloud skirting the mountains until it rains; then you’ll find her in the water bodies.” Before the narrator can address the seer, he disappears “in his image in the pond,” leaving the narrator to explore the surrounding areas while ruminating on how ancestors “knew of a voice there, a good luck goddess.” When the goddess, who speaks as if a voice from nature, finally appears, she drops this in the ear of the narrator: “‘If you fail to climb the well, you’ll never emerge to scent the spring.” The narrator then shifts into some heavy brooding as their gaze is left “speeding on through the distance.” The end is a bit of a clinker. We are left in a fantasy, stalled somewhere over the rainbow without a re-entry into the real world, let alone a nod to where we readers should be landing or expect next. Sure the next poem in the sequence suggests that perhaps the narrator climbed to the top of the well but that requires a tenuous leap on the reader’s part. The book is a full ice bath of fantasy and perhaps too much to expect of a contemporary audience. It’s as if Lilly is writing for a Nietzschean Ubermensche, a creator who keeps creating the fictional worlds they engage. Even as an admirer of Nietzsche’s masterwork, I had a difficult running with this kind of fantasy too far. A large amount of this collection works at this register. It may be just your thing.
Working in fantasy is like pouring vinegar: don’t use too much or your tastes regret it. Perhaps that is why the poems in this collection that only dabble in fantasy also sparkle the most. In “On Clear Days” Lilly allows sound and image and detail to sing in subtle but powerful harmony that crystalizes the imagination with just enough fantasy to allow the reader to rest in reality while indulging in some metaphysical thought grounded in the realities of death and speculations of an afterlife. The narrator is dead but lingering about their gravesite: “Wind swinging the gate kept me company. On clear days, wind is my greater mind, indeterminate in length, inseparable from time; whether distant or not, it eventually finds me.” Here the metaphor breaths. Lilly allows the metaphor to drift out into this world, even if she doesn’t fully expand on it, before she allows her narrator to wander off and ponder her own mutability: “Once I felt envious of leaves—if I could change color to scarlet-yellow and dissolve!” Grounded here in a reading of death that speaks to reality that grounds the fantasy succeeds in blending the two worlds.
I have to admit that, as a reader, this is not my favorite cup of tea, and yet, I was slowly seduced by the underworld the voices speak from. At least here and there, if not the full labyrinth. So dense with imagery and symbols, so rich in illusion and reference, I am not sure I would ever get out of this one if I fully lost myself in it. That’s a powerful force.
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PK Eriksson is a poet, critic, and English teacher from Chicago. PK loves this life, Earth, and the intimacies words sing. PK’s poems and reviews have appeared in The Adroit Journal, Anomaly, The Literary Review, Quail Belle, The Santa Fe New Mexican, among other publications. @pkeriksson10 for twitter.