Bryan Thao Worra. Demonstra. Innsmouth Free Press
Note: I’ve followed Bryan Thao Worra on Twitter (and vice versa) for a while now. This July, I met him in person at CONvergence 2015. When I told him I’d be happy to review his collection, he shared a PDF review copy with me.
Only a few years ago, I didn’t know that SF/F poetry was a thing. As I got more active on Twitter, I started joining conversations with interesting folks who turned out to be SF/F poets (among their many other accomplishments): Lev Mirov, Rose Lemberg, Likhain (artist/writer!), Bryan Thao Worra, as well as prose writers whose precise and evocative prose shares ground with poetry, such as Yoon Ha Lee, Polenth Blake, Aliette de Bodard, and Zen Cho.
Here are the three lines that hooked me in the reading at CONvergence:
An American werewolf in Luang Prabang
Would stand no chance against a real Lao weretiger.
Both should still try to observe the five precepts as best they can.
(From “Idle Fears”)
In person and in print, I felt an immediate ‘click’ with Bryan Thao Worra: the wry, dark sense of humor, the opening of a door to another world (real, fantastical, and intersections thereof). Horror and humor have certain rhythmic similarities; I love work that walks the line, and these poems do, in limpid understated language, that sparkles with occasional flourishes of pure beauty.
Esthetic judgments are matters of resonance; you can explain them intellectually after the fact, and that’s what this review is going to attempt. Here is the short version of the review, because poems are best answered with another poem:
(for Lev Mirov and Bryan Thao Worra)
In the dark forest
will sneak up on you if you let them
very like partisans
The crypto-poetic guerrilla hides out
under cover of prose,
the better to carry subversion
into the heart of the citadel
History is complicated, everywhere.
The curve of the earth only hides it
by a trick of perspective.
Prose translation: Years ago, I heard a talk by Minnesotan essayist and poet Bill Holm, where he described reforging poems into prose, because for some reason American readers found big blocks of text more accessible than lines of verse. Which is pretty funny if you think about it. Poetry, like film, is full of cues to the reader about where to look, how to breathe. Line breaks play breath against meaning, and poetry shares deep roots with music.
I’ve read poetry for years now, in English and Russian, and to a lesser extent, French. “Lightning strikes you but you have to keep living,” Marina Tsvetaeva wrote. If you want that electric transformation, read Verses to Bohemia in the original. Or listen to a recording of Anna Akhmatova reading Poem without a Hero in deep old age: at first you hear the voice of an old woman, and then the years drop away, the music takes over, and you’re in the presence of an ageless firebrand who will live forever as long as anyone breathes that poem’s ghost-voices in an empty room, to summon an echoing palace in the middle of a siege, a New Year’s masquerade, where the mummers reveal themselves as revenants from 1913.
High above, a stray cosmic hound’s maw widens,
Foaming with nameless stars
From close of “What the Guide Said”
Poets are the brain surgeons, cliff divers, astronauts, deep-sea divers of literature. They go into the dark places where electric beasties swim in the crushing depths.
In an interview at CONvergence, Bryan Thao Worra talked a lot about the current fashion of dystopia, how we don’t hear a lot from writers hailing from places where the apocalypse has already happened. (Not by coincidence are my teachers Russian; in my Cold War upbringing, I learned they were the bad kids on the other side of the earth, so had to get to know their moves.)
And I swear,
Each time I break this promise, that the next time
Will be the last word I write about this damn war.
(from “The Last War Poem”)
The 20th century diasporas from Cold War proxy conflicts are full of poets. How else to make sense of the apocalypse? History is like a haunting, and it stands to reason that ghosts and monsters of folklore would find themselves displaced as well.
Like some of the short fiction works I’ve reviewed here, this collection is slim on the outside, huge on the inside. Lovecraft meets the Laotian diaspora, in the mythical midwest; presences travel from one lifetime to another. Karma rules all, and that doesn’t mean what you think. In fact, the metaphysical references were simultaneously the funniest and most disturbing part of the whole thing – yes, you are bound by the rules regardless of what kind of sentient creature you are, which opens whole new vistas of dilemma.
Most of these poems are short — a page or two — with whole worlds packed inside. When they stretch out, they go epic fast. “The Dream Highway of Ms. Mannivongsa” is a Trip in all senses of the word, a nonlinear traversal of space, time, and mythology, dense with allusion and still a wild metaphysical romp even if you don’t get all the jokes and references. The supernatural night-side of America looks just as diverse as the daytime, with immigrants from every corner touched by US foreign policy in the last centuries.
And then there are just moments where he hits the right strain of descriptive truth, and reminds me all over again of why I read poetry: so much packed into so few words, with no dead air space at all.
Useless barbed wire sighed in the sun, wondering
Who would come by worth keeping out or keeping in.
(from “The Doom that Came to New Sarnath”)
The last 70-some pages of Demonstra map the political, cultural, and supernatural ecosystem of Laos, with both maps and illustrations of creatures that lurk in all kinds of niches. These poems follow the Laotian fantastical and mundane into the diaspora ffollowing the Vietnam war and what geopoliticians politely call its sideshows.
The horrific is always interwoven with metaphysics, ethics, and religion; inquire of the Wendigo, or Skeleton Man (see Joseph Bruchac’s middle-grade thriller of the same name), or the hungry ghosts of the Buddhist world, what feeds their elemental horror. Ask the zombie (who flowered into full horror this side of the Atlantic, in the notion of enslavement beyond death).
Inquire, as Demonstra does, of the monsters of legend and folklore, how the noble truths of Buddhism might apply to their karma. Inquire how that might look in the allegedly mundane Midwest.
This reader, formally unschooled in the ways of Elsewhere, felt the free-falling elation of a door opening to a world just as complex as the one I know. The US curriculum teaches a truncated geography indeed; we know almost nothing of the rest of the world.
Don’t mistake this book for an edifying tour, though. It’s not only the darkness in these poems that drew me, but the laughter: the sense-of-balance in the face of the literally unspeakable, the things unspoken that nonetheless exist whether we believe in them or not.
Some are benign:
If you sleep among the black gibbons of Bokeo,
A similan Phi Poang Khang passing by might catch you
To slooowly lick salt from your big toe. Nothing more.
Hardly fearsome, but ponder: “Why just the salt?”
Or what would really happen if you interrupt.
(from “5 Flavors”)
My own sense of humor is steeped in mortality and disaster, so I felt as if I’d met a cousin here. Some folks don’t have the luxury of ignoring historical horror. It’s right in their faces, right in the room, stalking through dreams every night. Those who acknowledge it have been my literary teachers.
It’s under-the-skin that makes kin, as the proverb has it, “Skinfolk ain’t kinfolk,” and the reverse is true: I’ve found so many kindred-spirits in translation. No, I am not ethnically Russian, but it’s part of my literary descent. African-American prose and poetry, Jewish narrative of the Holocaust, Native American novelists and poets, all have helped me make sense of the truth behind the Pollyanna-Potemkin suburban positive thinking with which US culture covers over its own hidden horrors.
So with Demonstra, I’ve just added a new member to my world-wide family of literary kinfolk.