An alternate universe that we should probably all be living in is one in which the short attention span of readers brought on by the Internet totally increased the popularity of poetry. It should have happened, but so far hasn’t. Sure, here in our world, short form everything is experiencing a sort of renaissance, but poetry still has it a little rough in terms of widespread recognition.
Straight-up science fiction poetry of course exists (and a lot of it is good!) but there is some mainstream poetry that frequently approaches the fantastic. One of the younger poets doing this kind of thing is Melissa Broder, who has just released her second poetry collection, Meat Heart. And with references to the year 2067, spacegirls and the notion of the Earth as a memory, it is definitely for those with a taste for the fantastic.
If you’re a reader who considers poetry to be “boring” then you’ll like Meat Heart for its sense of whimsy alone, though it doesn’t hurt that it’s also creative as hell. The leaps of logic within the stanzas might not make logical sense, but poetry isn’t supposed to be logical, it’s supposed to be emotional. And that’s what these poems do, make you feel something. What exactly do they make you feel? Well, I guess they make you feel weird. And I don’t mean uncomfortable, or necessarily overly-unsettled, just simply that you’re in the presence of ideas, of word associations that feel a little fucked up. Here’s what I mean. In a poem called “SUPERDOOM” Broder does this:
Cowboys call it riding with your feelings.
I call it SUPERDOOM.
On April 5th I was 98% alive.
I saw my blood sugar the mall
And spilled into a hall on numb light.
The Earth kept coming and coming.
By the end of this particular poem the reader is invited to consider aspects of their own physiology outside of their own bodies, as well as the nature of existence compacted and literally compressed into a matter of minutes. One could say Broder is only employing crazy metaphors for the purposes of hammering home certain emotional themes, but isn’t that what every writer of the fantastic does? Poetry certainly doesn’t attempt to answer specific narrative questions and is decidedly absent of plot things like MacGuffin or character arcs, but that doesn’t mean science fiction and fantasy doesn’t happen here too.
In perhaps my favorite poem from the collection; “Binge Eating in 2076” Broder depicts an almost Vonnegut-like world where actual solid food is something lost in the past, and the things people consume are somehow digitally transferred into their bodies. Sustenance in this world seems to be received in a similar way in which we currently consume electronic media. An early line from the poem reads “We are a whole colony, raised on motherboards,” before launching into a nutty tableau evoking images of people spewing static, elemental octopi, and the notion of real food as a hoax. This poem is also about binge eating too, and the frightening aspects of various eating disorders illustrated in larger-than-life and nearly absurdist ways. But the universe in which all of this takes place is a horrific and fully-realized (again, mostly emotionally) future world.
But even if the logistics of this future world aren’t spelled out completely, there are certain concepts gestured at, often in the abstract, but sometimes in the actual. In “Money Honey” the reader gets a poem which feels like it was born out of the famous Arthur C. Clarke maximum “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” This one alludes to an existence where “mortals” chat with “fake gods” about what is and is not going to happen with the daily machinations of life. Here’s a snippet:
The fake gods call to say hello.
They ask that I stop chanting Levitate me.
It’s not going to happen
They’ve got a psychic on loan selling airline peanuts from
5000 years ago of our good Lord.
The psychic is faux too
But when she feels my wrist pulse,
All systems flicker.
Can we trust any kind of technology when it becomes so tangled up with our emotions? Is it indistinguishable from magic? For me, this poetry didn’t really ask or answer these questions directly, but rather assumed everyone sort of understands that this kind of future universe could exist.
And the reason that works is because a version of that universe with faux-psychics, SUPERDOOM, and food consumed through media already kind of exists now. If you’re looking for little pieces of media that you can consume (like the food in 2067) than the poems of Melissa Broder will do a lot more than sustain you. They’ll get you alert, laughing, and a little afraid of the future.
Ryan Britt is the staff writer for Tor.com.