March 30, 2013

Review by John Philip JohnsonOut of the Black Forest by F.J. Bergmann

OUT OF THE BLACK FOREST
by F.J. Bergmann

Centennial Press
P.O. Box 170322
Milwaukee,WI 53217-8026
2012, 44 pp., $8.00
www.centennialpress.com

Beautiful and at times haunting, F. J. Bergmann’s new chapbook, Out of the Black Forest, conflates the crowded world of fairy tales into contemporary relevance. Concerned with true love and changelings and eerie silences, among other things, these poems echo with post-modern sensibilities. Accompanying illustration from Kelli Hoppmann help further evoke the mood, and the mood is rich and gothic with a tendency towards uncertainty.

Bergmann, a past Rhysling winner for best spec poetry, and editor of the Science Fiction Poetry Association’s publication Star*Line, is a practiced hand at this genre. Her poems are well-polished, expansive, with terse one word titles tacked onto them. In “Feather,” a foundling girl, raised by birds, asks them “when her feathers/ would come in, when she would be old enough/ to fly.” Fantastical poetry is often concerned with the creation of mood (to transport you elsewhere), and lush diction goes a long way towards that end. The girl raised by birds had been found in the nest of a “lammergeier”:

The birds swaddled her in shed plumage:
She slept nestled in eiderdown, was fanned by
swan primaries, wore pheasant or ibis retrices
in her hair. Looking beyond the endless forest,
she could not tell mountains from clouds.

This poem is about Leda and the Swan, although she never says that, and it’s a lot different than the story you know. Like most spec genre work, it has a rich narrative environment, but the tales here are subtle and obscure, often made of gestures.

For example, in “Teeth,” a girl with a red hood goes out into the woods with a basket of food for her grandmother. But no wolf appears. Instead, the poem ends simply with the forest growing dark, and her lifting the napkin (which she had “spent all winter/ embroidering with snowflakes”) off the basket to find “There was no bread./  In the moonlight, white pebbles/ glistened like teeth.” That which menaces is sublimated.

There is no visible threat anywhere in “Hair,” but the air of menace abounds, sumptuously. The poem is about a girl in a tower with long yellow hair “as heavy as gold threads.” She pulls out the “glittering strands” one by one, letting them “float away on the wind, until/ her head is bald as a spotted egg/ and every tree in the forest/ was crowned with a golden nest.” The tower resonates in my mind like a girl in her bathroom; pulling out her hair feels like she’s cutting herself. The romantic mien, at least to me, hints of the comfort of that pathology for its practitioners.

These poems are full of touchstones like that to give us a bearing in their fantastical worlds. The poems connect, and transport. That’s the reason I love this genre. These poems quicken my breath, and let me touch something carefully delirious. There is a glut of fairy tales out there but these are more personal. For my taste, I can only take so much tapestry, but at sixteen poems, this is just the right-sized serving. You might try it with a cup of mulled cider. Good spec poems like these help me, just momentarily, break away from this software we call western civilization. And enrich my perspective when I return.

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John Philip Johnson has work recently published or accepted Southern Poetry Review, Euphony, Ruminate, Dreams & Nightmares, and in the Rattle’s Speculative Poetry issue. He lives in Lincoln, Nebraska, with his wife and five children.  www.johnphilipjohnson.com