|SONGS OF THE STARS, SONGS OF THE DARK:
THE POETRY OF BRUCE BOSTON
by Gary William Crawford
Since the 1970's, Bruce Boston has established himself as the premier poet
of the science-fiction movement. With a large number of books and
chapbooks of poetry he has done more than any other contributor to solidify
the movement, showing that modern techniques can be used successfully in
speculative verse. As poet and critic Michael R. Collings has written, "His
work is consistently well-drafted, imaginative, innovative in language and
line, tough and consistent” (SFRA Review 44).
Boston and the other prominent speculative poets of his generation such as
Steve Eng, Steve Sneyd, Mark Rich, and Denise Dumars, whose leading organ
is Star*Line, published since 1978 by the Science Fiction Poetry Association,
grow out of a long tradition of science in poetry. In the twentieth century,
George Sterling, Clark Ashton Smith and finally Stanton A. Coblentz
(publisher of the little magazine Wings (c.1933-1961) solidified the "stellar"
poetry movement, which was further enhanced by Lilith Lorraine (Mary M.
Wright) (see Sneyd). However, Boston, more than any other single poet, has
revolutionized the form.
Born in Chicago on July 16, 1943 of Catholic and Jewish heritage, Boston
grew up in Southern California and was graduated from Monrovia High School
in 1961. In 1965 he received a B. A. degree and in 1967 an M.A. in
economics from the University of California at Berkeley. He describes himself
as "a true participant and survivor of the psychedelic sixties" and took part
in the Vietnam anti-war protest and other demonstrations of the era. Boston
has hitchhiked across the United States and has lived for short periods in
New York, Oregon and Mexico. He was a long-time resident of the San
Francisco Bay area, but after the death of his wife Maureen, he married the
poet-artist Marge Simon and now lives in Ocala, Florida. Since 1968 he has
freelanced, working as a book designer and a technical writer. Among his
works are manuals on computerized electronic security systems. He has
been Associate Professor of Creative Writing at John F. Kennedy University,
and an editor for the Berkeley Poets Workshop and Press and for City Miner
Magazine in Berkeley. Between times he has been a movie projectionist, a
retail clerk, a furniture mover, a gardener and a book buyer.
In his biographical essay “Fifteen Explanations in Search of a Life” Boston
speaks about himself as an “outsider.” This self-identification is similar to
the position of the writer in society in Colin Wilson’s famous book The
Outsider, which Boston read and absorbed early on. As Boston writes:
“Nearly all of my life I have felt like an outsider, sometimes an outsider in
the company of others, yet an outsider nonetheless. At one time I thought
that as I grew older I would mellow and become assimilated, that I would
feel at home in the everyday world that surrounds me, the people that
inhabit it, and the attitudes that prevail. Instead, quite the reverse has
happened. Approaching the age of fifty-five, I have never felt more
alienated from American society and culture than I do today, never more at
odds with its values and practices (“Fifteen” 65).”
His literary background is also reflective of the artist as alien in society and
the world. His earliest memories are of the Golden Books and poems of
Robert Louis Stevenson read to him by his parents. At seven he began
reading science books for children and the comics, especially the "Classics
Illustrated" series. At nine he discovered science-fiction when he
encountered The Red Planet by Robert Heinlein. He devoured science-fiction,
and regards Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination and The Demolished
Man as the works that influenced him most. In school he attended advanced
courses which led him to literature-"the kind with a capital 'L'," as he once
put it. He believes the major influences there to be Dostoevsky, Hesse,
Melville, Henry Miller, Lawrence Durrell, Jack Kerouac and Vladimir Nabokov.
Mainstream poets he feels have influenced him include Poe, Pound, Eliot,
Dylan Thomas and Allan Ginsberg. Boston has received numerous honors,
such as the Rhysling Award for science-fiction poetry and the Pushcart Prize
for fiction. He was also the first Grand Master of the Science Fiction Poetry
As he himself has remarked, he did not originally intend to establish a
reputation as a poet. But his fiction deals in many ways with themes found
in his poetry. His first book publications were collections of short stories,
Jackbird (1976) and She Comes When You're Leaving (1982). To date his
most ambitious work of fiction is the novel Stained Glass Rain (1993). More
recently, a science-fiction novel The Guardener’s Tale (2007) has appeared.
Stained Glass Rain falls into the category of "sixties counterculture." It is
more than merely that, however, because in its lyricism it is both
speculative and realistic, stylistically many-faceted, and in some ways a
fantasy. The central character, a young college student named David Jacobi,
leaves Berkeley and hitchhikes to New York, in essence to "drop out" and
make a living selling drugs. He meets a divorced older woman, Christine
Leslie, has an affair with her, and in a few weeks of psychedelic exploration
comes to find something of himself. So do the other characters; Jacobi's
friend Mulligan and a closeted young homosexual Michael Shawtry explore
similarly and create bonds that mark coming to terms with themselves.
Jacobi is a failure as a drug dealer and returns to school, Shawtry disappears
into the netherworld of schizophrenia, Christine returns to her children, and
Mulligan settles into domesticity.
All of these people share a common creative impulse for poetry. Stained
Glass Rain is thus a text about the nature of poetry and its relationship to
man. As Boston says at one point in the novel, "Poetry is the ultimate
realization of internal language in its communicative form, the recognition of
the word as symbol” (Stained Glass Rain 236). In exploring themselves the
four young people learn something about creativity and its implications for
human life. In essence, they extrapolate their lives creatively.
In this respect, the novel offers the author's view of poetry itself; and his
poetry, which has often been described as narrative in movement, explores
the future and the present by means of extrapolation. This basic premise of
science fiction is commonly known. As Thomas Clareson writes, "...SF has
never been concerned with scientific discovery .. but has tried to examine
the effects of these developments on the individual person and on society
as a whole."
Boston's first collection of science-fiction poetry, All the Clocks Are Melting
(1984), immediately established his reputation. As Suzette Haden Elgin
wrote shortly after it appeared, "His particular strengths are the short poem
and the striking image, with a clear influence from the French Symbolists
and Surrealists" (Star*Line 1985). While the influence of Surrealism is
actually minimal, the volume does serve to crystallize the kind of poetry
Boston was working towards in the 1970's. As Andrew Joron wrote in
reviewing the issue of The Magazine of Speculative Poetry in which an essay
on Boston's poetry by Mark Rich appeared:
Speculative poetry is notable in Boston's case in the poems' pure syntactic
density, which often cracks the facade of conventional sense-making: each
main clause branches into a multitude of subordinate clauses; each noun is
encrusted with adjectives, each verb inlaid with adverbs--nor is this a static
structure, for here is a syntax falling in upon itself: nouns are made to do
the work of verbs, verbs are gerundized nouns; space becomes a plenum of
The first poem in All the Clocks Are Melting serves as a prologue for the
volume, and for the author's entire body of speculative poetry. "For Spacers
Snarled in the Hair of Comets" is at once light and serious, as if Boston had
just walked onto the stage to introduce us, with a sly sense of humor, to
the stars: “If you've heard the stellar vox humana /the untuned ear takes for
static" or "kissed the burning eyelids /of god," finally "you know how sleek
and fleshy, / how treacherous, the stars can become." And with the
psychedelic metaphor "the spiced ale is cool and hallucinogenic," he invites
us on the journey.
"In Days of Cataclysm" is written after some of the works of science-fiction
author J. G. Ballard, who in such novels as The Wind from Nowhere (1966),
The Drowned World (1962) and The Crystal World (1966) presents an earth
mutated by cataclysmic change into a vastly new world. It is a world often
depicted in Boston's poetry (especially in such later collaborations with
Robert Frazier in Chronicles of the Mutant Rain Forest). Here "Trees sprouted
feathers / and birds were swathed in leaves." In these new days the speaker
of the poem mentions his people's "failed vocabularies" and "how the two
split, /how we laughed ourselves to sleep . . . . "
Boston has remarked that in such poems as this an often horrifying new
world order begins, and some of them thus have political implications.
Nevertheless, he has told me that while his political views "are and always
have been pretty radical," he feels a new world order wouldn't be "very
appealing." His imaginative depiction of future nightmares that could ensue
after the cataclysm confirms this. In "The Faithless" "A great grey beast /of
incertitude" arises from the ancient past, and even though "We have seen
/the Word go down to the butcher's block," it returns "tracking up the pages,
/corpses and mud, /blood and incertitude, /a11 those fine sentences
/stubbing into the future."
"Human Remains" is a three-part poem about mechanistic and political
Fascism. In the first part, "The Androids," man is at one with the machine,
and as the old gods have given way to technology, "man remains our
metaphor." In "The Mutant Lovers," a woman becomes a machine to a man
who says to her, "Come my beauty, my horror /for us the night will hold."
Finally, in the Fascist world of "The Cyborg Speaks," the speaker reaches
beyond the machine into his heart "to feel the reflection /of something
Alchemical Texts (1985) is a thematically unified series of poems that uses
an alchemist as its central figure. They move through the ages from present
to past, showing this figure as a visionary and wanderer, both shunned and
exalted. In “The Alchemist Among Us” the figure has left “the northern hills”
and moves about in present-day civilization. He is regarded as “an
incendiary” with “a quicksilver tongue.” Ultimately he leaves “us oblivious to
his passage . . . And now the world as we know it / grows thin all around
us,” Moving backward in time, the alchemist’s birth is shown as he awakens
and sees “the pulsing throat / of a bird he could not name.”
These are among the most mystical of Boston’s poems. The central figure
takes on many incarnations and finally, in “Tongues,” we see the alchemist
Like wax or fire
such words unleash
only in flowing,
the hand ignites each letter.
In the last two stanzas the scribes (the poets) are likened to "quail in a blind
thicket, /like birds who have yet /to know the sky." And finally:
Give us the cup of speech,
their inkpots open,
feathers poised for flight.
Nuclear Futures (1987) explores a holocaust aftermath. Its poems are
written in Boston's usual clean style, with subtleties woven in by means of
vocabulary. In the first poem, "The Berserker Enters a Plea on the Death of
Greater Los Angeles: Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity," the speaker is "like
any other plebe, /living from drug to drug," a potential visionary of
forthcoming disaster: "imaging random slaughter: /flash frames of red
devastation /on the flesh-crowded streets."
After this foretelling, Boston moves into other poems which show the results
of nuclear war. In "No Longer the Stars" human history is examined. In the
past, man's "accident of birth" was regarded as a religious phenomenon: "as
if history's abattoir /defined a godscape descended." But later, as science
developed, "we projected our maps at a cosmological pace" and "wired the
falling sky /with instruments of terror." In the last two stanzas there is a
movement toward unity, but then a sense of loss after the holocaust:
Beyond the furious clouds
there is no longer
a curious ear pressed
upon the stars’ sure static
In “The Evolution of Death Murals,” the images of victims imprinted on walls
by a nuclear blast have been "fleshed /and suited . . with paint, / with
scraps of cloth and papier-mâché" by children. To them, "the dismembered
city/ is a labyrinth they roam at will: /the artifacts are incomprehensible."
A religious image conveys the new order in "Faith of the Progeny." As three
are chosen "to make the climb beyond our hemisphere," "one steps forth
/into that hellish draft our fathers brewed" to "appease the gods unseen."
But finally, in "Forecast for a Burning Planet at the End of History,"
vegetation will "recover this world":
arrayed across the continents
in dark and serried rows,
needles trembling in the wind,
mammoth tap rots feeding
on the charred and petrified
bones of civilization.
In Time (1998) Boston offers a series of meditations on a single theme. The
speaker in the introductory poem, "Of Time and the Sidereal Shore," stands
on a beach of "onrushing change" where the moment itself is trembling
in the swerve and bend
of gravity’s calling
how the star-streaked waves
contain the night
and all of space beyond.
In "Those Who Eat the Past, Those Who Eat the Future" time is first
compared to those who sit at a table and dine on eternity: "Of diners like
ourselves, /with courses on collision," and then to a "world winding snake,
/where the dishes are arrayed, /a feast of living tales." In "The Runner" the
image of historic time is compared to a runner; even though the earth is
very old, "Still the blood springs anew. /With all its feint and passion /the
shadow play continues."
"From Cantos for a Common Tongue" is a mock translation of a work
supposedly written by an alien poet, Alanthe Vasti. In this world of flux, "we
discover nothing has changed' /still we play and learn our way," and the
poem concludes with the ecstatic image "we have seen our doubles
dancing/in the nascent star stuff of our graves."
Musings (1988) is a broadside of four poems, two of which are science
fiction. The first two are about artistic creation. In "The Naming of Sharp
Instruments" the writer's pen is one of these instruments, and "Somewhere
between/the point and the paper" it "takes your name /for its own." In "The
Muse as Lover Gone on Vacation" creativity is likened to the love of a
woman. In the science-fiction poem "Poet after the Holocaust" the subject is
in a world of pure imagination where "he will race converging /parallel lines
to the angles of infinity." And lastly, "Five Principles of the Star Poem"
compares the creation of a poem to a starship leaving its pad.
Bruce Boston's first collection of horror poetry, The Nightmare Collector
(1988), is a superb volume which ranges from the Gothic to science-fiction
horror; it has been one of his bestselling works. The title poem introduces
the book, moving from the past horrors of "the Pleistocene to the red
primeval" and thence to a Victorian image of the nightmare collector in his
From the hollow blackness
of his flapping sleeves
You can hear the pulse
and thump of unborn shadows,
a dense hysteric fugue
winding up and down
the bones of your sleep
Some entries are futuristic, as "A Word Before the Ice Wars." This describes
ice storms which engulf the earth and in "their implacable growth" ultimately
destroy it; "Some say we should not have /left the gods of our fathers." One
of the best poems is "The Walnut Dark Sea Is Blooming Swiftly," where the
image of the sea as a blooming flower takes on an incantatory quality. Thus
"the words /of flesh are written in the leaves /of the books we cannot read."
"Soul of a Victorian" gives a new life to Gothic props, here a woman in her
cellar who "tells of the graves in the yard: /one cat, three dogs, a fetus."
The speaker warns the reader:
And while you are listening
you taste the dead hours and grasp
the worms’ artless consummation:
you feel time between your fingers.
"The Contemporary Witch" is a humorous poem about a witch of the present
day, who “sniffs coke” and “wants to sing,/ to dance, to sit naked/ in the
library stacks / eating oranges.”
The chilling lyric "In the Darkened Hours" is probably the best poem in the
volume. Here the protagonist returns to the old house of his youth. The
suggestion is that he is there for a funeral:
So you are lost again
where the night prevails
and you call it a dream
in the oldest city of all.
He travels alone, "without weapons or maps," to the house of his father,
which is "drawn from" his own "flesh and blood." The final stanza concludes:
So you call it a dream:
this house you inhabit
this city you traverse
with blind expectancy,
these faces you fashion
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
these visions you conjure
in the darkened hours
with haunting replication.
This may well stand as Boston's horror masterpiece, a deeply felt song for
the poet’s 's true self.
"Mean Time 2000" achieves futuristic horror through time itself. "As the
styles run from ostrich to beaver" and "as the names upon the marquees
ripple" "we hammer out totalities /to celebrate the changing race" "in an all-
night factory of mutation."
His second collection of horror poetry, Faces of the Beast, appeared in 1990.
Here entries present the many faces of the avatar of darkness but ultimately
the beast is shown to be man himself. The first section of the book presents
what may be called the "faces" poems, because they show various
incarnations, some drawn from legend and myth, of the dark side of man. In
"A Curse for My Demon Father" and "Born of a Royal Beast" the horrible
children of chaos are imaged. In the latter the striking figure of a vicious
tyrant proclaims his isolation from, the world, from "the throngs within the
street." And as "the pale priests intone their cant, / I curse their mumbling
litanies /and dream of angels while I sleep."
In one of the best poems in the book, "The Tiger Does Not Know," the image
is of a poet who seeks "the god whose words /are weaved in wood." Several
of Boston's poems, both science-fiction and horror, include poets, and one
senses that here he is speaking for himself. The last few entries in the
collection deal with social issues, especially the more horrifying elements of
this century and the future. "In the Wake of Sensuous Debris" likens the
aftermath of holocaust in America to "the blood of light. " And
once the mitred beams
of the domed Capitol
have been removed
you can rush to touch
the unfurled wingspread
of bed warm violence.
In "Beyond Procreation" the children of the future wait for "the ultimate
flash/ dance of some genocidal pulse."
Short Circuits (1991) is a group of prose poems ranging from fantasy to
humor--mostly the latter. As the author has remarked, humor is "one of the
experiences/emotions that keeps darkness at bay." In "Separate Vacations"
he writes of a couple who part for vacations; the husband returns but the
wife does not--except in pieces in mailed packages. "When the Wordmonger
Screams (for James Joyce)," a homage to Finnegans Wake spells out the
problems that arise in trying to market Joyce's work. As a whole, Circuits is
something of a diversionary excursion for the author, and is one his most
Boston has long worked with computers, and Cybertexts (1992) reflects his
fascination with them. Its entries surely stand as some of the author's best
speculative verse. In the opening poem, the pilot of "the template of the
stars" is a woman "alone in the dark." As her thoughts become "one with
the universal birth of stellar excitation" through her computer, her
experience becomes mystical and "she unclips the sensors to breathe again."
Finally, her "thought
once more is only thought
her eyes, blue cognizance
fixed in transient space,
reflect her destination.
In "When the Silver Plums Fall" the starship of the computer is shifted
into living vegetation. For
When silver plums fall
in anachronous time
and noon is noon again
in the nocturnal remission
of an eastering sun
our envelope of air
stutters with leaves.
"Polar Chronologies" is divided into two sections, "Down Flashing" and
"Up Flashing." In the first the images are of death and putrefaction. As
"ghostly dirt-limned apparitions /. . . rehearse their passage endlessly /with
no passion of a human kind." . .. these "drowned shadows we invest with
life, /these fabled constructs of our minds." In the second section, the
cyberpunk enters the future that he cannot fully know:
until I’m only a needle wide projection
quivering back and forth across
the bell shaped curve of future lines
where fractals propagate and splay.
In the final stanza, the speaker comes to realize the endless anticipation of
In microcosms and in worlds on high
it’s graven soon as soon can be,
hardwired in our histories,
and still I scan unwritten texts,
anticipate the flight to next,
and scope the growth within the seed
to feed my time bound curiosities
"Psychopathia Cybersexualis" presents a fascistic world in which sexuality
via a computer is implemented after planetary-wide annihilation. It is
than the smoke-churned aerial debris
of carcinogenic dawn.
A similar theme is presented in "Against the Rush of Ebon Night," but here
man is cloned into the computer itself and loses something of himself in the
The narrative poems in Chronicles of the Mutant Rain Forest (1992) describe
changes in the South American jungle after a nuclear holocaust. In essence,
the plants and animals have mutated into sometimes enormous and often
terrifying entities. This book was written in collaboration with the Nantucket
poet Robert Frazier, who also drew the illustrations for it. Some of the
poems are wholly by Boston, some wholly by Frazier, and some are
collaborations. In a letter to me Boston describes their genesis:
Bob wrote the first MRF poem. I read it in Asimov's right after I'd read B.
Travern's "The Night Visitor," and the combination prompted a reply-poem
which I sent to Bob. At his invitation, we began doing the solo and collab.
poems in the MRF and the book that eventually came about has been called
the first shared-
world poetry collection. .. .
“The collabs. came about when one of us had a partial poem that we
became hung up on. The unfinished product would then be passed back and
forth, by mail, with each of us adding and changing lines, until we were both
satisfied with the result. .. . In some cases, one of us would begin a poem
and the other would finish it. We both shared the world we created, in terms
of its conceptions and its particulars, though both of these evolved as a
product of the poems we were writing rather than in any planning sessions. I
think that the series of poems we created is something that neither of us
could have accomplished solo.”
The result of this collaboration is a volume of striking, evocative and
sometimes beautifully horrifying poems. In "Three Evocations of the Mutant
Rain Forest" the forest is shown developing and finally, in the last stanza of
the "Elan Vital" section, its mutant birth is depicted:
A retreating tribe has suffered
an enchantment and possession
in the shadow of the forest wall,
for now they divinate its growth
and foretell our changeling future
as the read the clouds’ collisions.
Certain characters, such as Gaea and Genna, recur throughout the book; in
one example, Boston's "Genna Takes a Lover," a mutant becomes Genna's
lover, and she knows she can never want a human man again. One of
the most horrifying of these narratives is "A Missionary of the Mutant Rain
Forest." Here a priest is the victim of mutated cats who not only convert him
to their religion but turn him into a fanatic who returns to civilization to
preach their beliefs. In the collaboration "Holos at an Exhibition of the
Mutant Rain Forest, "a series of word pictures describes the terrifyingly
beautiful horrors of the transformed area, as akin to a gallery of bizarre
This volume contains some of the most lapidary poems Boston has
produced, and the illustrations, superb printing and fine binding combine
with them to make Chronicles of the Mutant Rain Forest one of the author's
most impressive books.
Accursed Wives (1993) and The Complete Accursed Wives (2000) describe
various mistreatments of women, which range from the darkly humorous to
the truly disturbing. The wives in these poems--of the shapeshifter, mad
scientist, werewolf, devil, demon, angel, etc. all illustrate unique ways of
husbandly abuse. Perhaps the most vivid is "Curse of the Telepath's Wife,"
whose husband does not harm her physically, but manipulates her mentally
until she feels she has lost her emotional sanity. In a truly horrifying twist,
she regains control when she knifes him to death. The book is generally
remarkable for its sensitivity about man/woman relationships, and it shows
that marriage, that fragile institution of our civilization, can often be
unhealthy. Accursed Wives has been one of Boston's best-selling books, and
he has donated part of its proceeds to a woman's shelter.
Specula (1993) is a sheaf of uncollected verse. It shows Boston in many
different moods and modes, and some of the entries are frankly
experimental. Not all of them are speculative; for instance, "To Dine with
Poetry and Mathematics" looks at the marriage of two realms he feels are
The mathematics of poetry
is irregular in the extreme,
an unbounded system
the way parallel lines
converge at infinity.
Readers will recall that we have already encountered this metaphor in "Poet
after the Holocaust." "Speculative Poetry Is the Song" is a prose poem with
words divided by slashes rather than broken into lines. It concludes that
speculative poetry is "a rocket beneath your belly," and that you are
“stretching language through the limits of space with stars for stanchions.”
Three particularly unusual poems are "Song and Descant for a Broken Lady,"
"Babel Triptych" and "Vagina Dentata," all of which are written in columns
and read coherently both horizontally and vertically. Under the title "The
Last Existentialist" the volume presents a series of poems showing
twentieth century existential man faced by the changed world of the next
In addition to these, Specula includes titles written in collaboration with t.
winter-damon, Scott Green and David Hunter Sutherland; its wide variety
augurs well for more of the author's unusual poetry in the future.
In the 1996 collection of poems and prose poems Conditions of Sentient
Life, Boston continues to observe man in the universe with a highly critical
eye. The conditions of mankind do “not vary much from one system to the
next,” as Boston writes in the title poem of the collection. But he sees in
mankind a tendency to improve itself in spite of itself. In the prose poem
“Crucifixation,” Boston sees a political and religious fascism at the heart of
civilization—and he fears it because he sees that man can commit genocide
or suicide, all in the name of the powers that be.
Three related futuristic poems toward the outset show how expectation can
lead to horror and finally a plea for “mass illusion,” the safety of a dark age
to which man inevitably retreats. Here man is “Somnambulating in a staid
river of racing light.” In “The Evening News on the Morning After the Final
Solution,” Boston sees in man’s condition a “genocidal rage, / of tongues so
slick /with carnage they can /call the darkness ‘day’.” There are also here
some additional “Mutant Rain Forest” poems discussed earlier. In “Love
Song of the Holo-Celebs” the popular media icons that so permeate our
culture are shown to have “never existed.” All is illusion.
The 1998 collection, Cold Tomorrows, is not primarily rooted in science
fiction, fantasy, and horror (as Boston has said in a note appended).
However, in one way are another, they are all speculative works or approach
the fantastic in varying degrees. In this respect, these poems are more
surreal than other of Boston’s works.
An example is “A Mortal Kingdom Lies on Both Sides of the Mirror.” Here,
the act of shaving in front of a mirror is rendered in surreal terms: Boston
speaks of “the cartographer who dwells behind my eyes.” And later, the
impression is created that the speaker is embarking on a fantastic journey
. . . while I watch from
a distance and wait in a queue, and turn
out my pockets and rummage my baggage
in search of a ticket for land I once knew
The profoundly surreal poem, “Critical Mass,” offer two-line stanzas that
detail one fantastic event after another. For example:
Three coffee filters appear
In the sky over Cannes.
The hydrangeas in your yard
Sprout luscious genitalia.
In this sense, the poems in the collection are enigmas. And this
mysteriousness as in the collaborative poem with Roger Dutcher,
“Unextinctions,” this quality of the unknown is like “sightings first taken /as
misidentifications, /as the hallucinogenic /dream fulfillments / of ecologic
romantics.” The poem moves into a description of the carnage that man has
created by his own ignorance and fear. But finally
Nature does have a sense of humor.
It is a dark and wild one.
And having violated her
more than once too often,
we have now become
the object of her mirth.
The themes in these poems are very much akin to the poems that come
before it: there is a cold, critical eye studying the animal that is man.
Boston is thus the outsider looking in.
The long poem, “Confessions of a Body Thief,” published as a broadside in
1998, is another example of Boston as an outsider, for it is really a narrative
poem about the counterculture movement of the 1960’s, with which, as I
have noted, Boston was involved. The opening stanzas are, in a sense, like
the prologue of a novel:
To take a stranger’s mind
and wear a stranger’s face,
to step into another’s flesh
and claim a life in toto
was a talent I discovered
at a raw and tender age,
when the world itself was
changing in unexpected ways.
Youth was in rebellion.
Generations ripped apart.
A war on foreign shores
and injustice on our own
soon led to cries of protest
and bloodshed in the streets.
Consciousness expanded like
a roiling mushroom cloud.
Those who offered answers
said it had to do with love.
This was the generation of the “flower children,” and Boston sees his role in
it as the creator, the critic, the assumer of identity, and the artist-outsider.
Wielding my axe like a pen,
and often like a sword,
I defined a shaggy credo,
my generation’s song.
As the narrative poem moves on, the speaker says that he gave up his
youthful ideals and became one—and more—with the identity of the
generation he protested. He becomes a computer programmer, then several
women. He says “I’ve been brown and black /and white and yellow, /and all
the shades between.” Finally, the poem ends on a dark note: “I have left
my spirit far behind /and forsaken my own name.”
Boston continues to break new ground in speculative verse in the long mood
piece “The Lesions of Genetic Sin.” The incantatory cries of a woman show a
movement from beauty to horror, which settles on modern cloning and the
AIDS generation of the 1980’s. It’s a horrifying world we see here. And
ultimately the woman says at the close:
enough, she sighs through parted lips, c’est fini
as you give her back all the dead petals
she once gathered from the gardens of the moon
(finite compost fragments coalescing
to a shifting teleidosdcopic symmetry
that redefines the lesions of genetic sin)
The shifting, enigmatic imagery reminds one of the poems of John Ashbery
in that one sensessomething there, but it cannot be conveyed in rational
One reviewer of the poem in Star*Line confesses that he doesn’t have any
idea what Boston means. Boston has written an answer to the reader. He
says that the poem is not necessarily meant to be understood, but felt. He
relates the poem to twentieth-century jazz music in that one comes away
with a feeling, not knowledge. Boston remarks as he has said before that
science-fiction poetry lags behind the times—it takes time for it to relate to
the mainstream poetry written before it. “The Lesions of Genetic Sin” is an
One wonders how much Boston’s long poem “Pavane for a Cyber-Princess” is
inspired by the death of his first wife Maureen. He has created a computer
image of a woman as she is dead:
Her exquisite cadaver
rises from a laboratory table,
the fascia of her reconstructed spine
arching in a sensuous circumflex
that could pique the interest
of the most jaded lover.
The poem narrates a “pavane,” a ceremonial dance, to the electronic
princess, that is bitter at the same time that it conveys love destroyed.
Ultimately, the cyber-princess devours her lover in a violent, computerized
The pastilles that crumble-dissolve
in the wet silence of her ample mouth
create scattershot impressions
of her trashed personae,
phantom mirror shards that
can only be trusted deeply as they sever,
purely as they pale her lengthening paean,
slowly or swiftly as they are borne to fade.
White Space (2001) is one of the most dazzling of Boston’s collections.
From the title poem “White Space” through “My Wife Returns as She Would
Have It,” to the remarkable “The Poetry of Science Fiction,” Boston often
writes about the creation of poetry itself. In “The Poetry of Science Fiction”
Boston weaves a poem that is composed of science fiction book titles: each
line (except for capitalization and punctuation) is from the title of a book or
periodical of science fiction. This is really a unique piece, and I wonder if he
is the only poet who has ever done this. The moving poem “My Wife Returns
as She Would Have It” is based on an actual event that Boston experienced
after the death of his wife Maureen. In this book, there are “Curse of the
Husband” poems which are related to his Accursed Wives volumes. All of
these poems bring the reader, as Boston writes in “White Space: Science
Fiction Poetry” to “a place that you never / knew existed.”
In the broadside In Far Pale Clarity (2002) Boston writes a poem that
moves from dusk to dawn, a mood piece that is like a deeply felt symphony
that is meant to be experienced, not necessarily understood:
for this is far pale clarity
in the dark’s extension
this is pale certainty
etched in bone time
and stretched like a victim on the sand
Collaborative poems by Boston and his present wife Marge Simon are
collected in Night Smoke (2007). I sense in these poems two voices: Boston’
s hard, precise language that cuts like a knife, and Simon’s softer
femininity, hearing words and music from a lost past that can never be
recovered. In this sense, there is a pessimism in these poems that seems
feminine, as if a mother is grieving for a lost child.
The language is stunning: from the heightened sexuality of “Conjuring her
Embrace,” the mother trapped in being a wife and mother in “Less than
Children of the Night,” to the evocation of the music and thought of the
psychedelic sixties in “Reunion on Mars,” these poets have written poetry
that they were destined to write together. The poem “A Tale of
Collaboration” is an instance of this. The two poets, named Hansel and
Gretel, for poetic purposes, express their frustration in writing about an era
that is long gone. Actually Boston said that Marge wrote the Hansel poems
and that he wrote the Gretel poems. As Gretel concludes sadly and
ironically: “How could I have guessed / you had fallen so far behind / that
our tale was over?”
The long poem She Was There for Him the Last Time (2002) is an
incantatory poem about the supreme woman, all women, the great one,
utterly cold yet utterly sensual, yet withholding herself yet giving herself to
the man. This poem reminds me of a similarly depicted woman in Fritz
Leiber’s novel Our Lady of Darkness. Here the great mother of everything,
good, bad, and indifferent, takes on a kind of epic importance. This poem
is more accessible than some of the mood pieces, like The Lesions of
Genetic Sin and In Far Pale Clarity, and one senses Boston’s first wife who
passed away hovering in his mind as this poem evolves.
A Head Full of Strange (2003) is a fine collection of speculative, surreal,
dark, and darkly humorous poems and prose poems. From the title poem to
the astonishing “The Crow Is Dismantled in Flight,” these poems continue
the solid work for which Boston is well known. The majority of these poems
are composed of short lines that offer a staccato, biting, and bitter depiction
of travelers in the stars. Here again, as was the case with Boston’s first
collection of speculative poetry, these poems show how treacherous the
stars can be.
In “The City and the Stars” offers a fantastic place is “there regardless, /
enormous in its conceit.” The drama experienced in this place “are strictly
for backdrop, / eclipsed by the neon suns.” There is a good “mutant rain
forest” poem and several collaborations with Marge Simon. The prose poem,
“Surreal Subway,” is written from the viewpoint of a passenger so bedazzled
by his experience that another passenger seems to be both a man and a
woman, he can’t be sure which.
"The Crow Is Dismantled in Flight” is the long poem showpiece of the
collection. Here a crow is a traveler. A recurring motif is the woman who, it
is suggested, is a whore in a strange, alien world. Here the bird “is
crucified on the altar” that is a table, /geometrically perfect in the
symmetry of night.” And here
Wings, head, torso click together
with a sound mechanical
in precision and sickeningly
organic in its osculation.
This poem concludes with
A yellow claw leaving furrows in flesh.
Blind tracks. Dyslexic scribbles.
In the loudscape of the rush that swings
from time up to time idle,
a moment of dream sanity snuffed by incision.
Pitchblende (2003) won the Bram Stoker Award for horror poetry from the
Horror Writers Association. This collection is particularly noteworthy for the
arrangement, selection, and introduction by Michael A. Arnzen. He divided
the poems under the headings “Flesh,” “Bone,” and “Blood.” Some of the
longer poems were originally published as broadsides as noted above.
There are “curse of husband poems” and a number of surreal prose poems.
This is an outstanding collection. One important thing about these poems is
that some are darkly humorous. The "surreal" poems fall into this category.
Etiquette with Your Robot Wife and Thirty More SF/F/H Lists (2005) is, like
the earlier collection Short Circuits, humorous poems. However, there is a
cold and critical intelligence here that is using humor to make a serious
point. Boston is the social and political critic in these pieces.
Boston’s most recent collection Shades Fantastic (2006) won the Bram
Stoker award for poetry. However, the collection is not all traditional
horror. Rather, the book contains poems in a ghost language that haunts
the reader through Boston’s many worlds. This approach may be called
“secular supernaturalism” in that, while a belief in the supernatural is not
present, poetry itself becomes supernatural. Poems dedicated to Salvador
Dali, poems that deal with famous writers and musicians, all come down to
an ecstatic, fantastic mystery.
Another outstanding collection that is a sequel to Boston's The Nightmare
Collector is The Nightmare Collection (2008). This is an astonishing array of
pieces closely related to many other of Boston's poems. There are "accursed
husband" poems that are humorous, but it is cutting edge humor. There are
quite a number of "surreal poems." In a poem such as "Surreal Waiting
Room" one finds underneath the bizarre imagery a fantastic darkness:
The lean table before you is
covered with alien magazines
touting organic automobiles
and the pacification of death,
promising sudden gratification
of needs you never knew you had
And in a poem such as "Your Bad Binary Brother" Boston uses the internet
as a metaphor for a force of power over others, that invades "the sanctum /
of your private chambers, / a calculating viral infection." Here and in so
many of these poems, Boston's outlook is grim. This book contains some
excellent poems from other collections, such as "The Crow is Dismantled in
One of Boston's most impressive books is Double Visions (2009). It is
comprised of poems written in collaboration with other poets. Boston
regards collaboration as a very useful way to write poetry. This has been
shown in the Mutant Rain Forest collaborations with Robert Frazier.
This collection is so impressive that it is difficult to say any poems are
better than the others. The poem "Reunion on Mars," however, stands out
because it is about Boston and Marge Simon's lifelong relationship. Allusions
to rock artists with poets and writers of the "psychedelic sixties" recreate
Boston's and Simon's indebtedness to the world created by the people of the
North Left of Earth (2009) is a fine display of Boston's many-faceted
speculative poetry. There are poems about creativity in the universe. Most
often Boston's figures are outsiders who turn to the stars for inspiration. In
"Star War Report," for the speaker, the news broadcast shows how space
itself impinges on man's behavior:
Yet raining down from the sky
the surreptitious raids continue
without relief: agitprop illusions
mainlined directly to our dreams,
seducing our thoughts with
a guerilla theater of invention.
The book has several "accursed husband" and "people" poems. Boston also
revisits the Alchemist figure from some of his early poems in "The Last
The poetry collection Dark Matters (2010) with illusrations by Italian artist
Daniele Serra is indeed some of the blackest poetry of Boston's career. Like
the illustrations the poems are deep black, with little light. The opening
poem "The Scarified Man" sets the tone of the book and shows the
pessimism Boston has about man's place in the universe. It shows a scarred
man who has everywhere intaglios in his deepest self of the horror that
possesses him. Sometime these incisions change rapidly, some are carved
as in stone. Just before sleep, " he touches / them one by one, and wonders
/ if anyone can see them."
In "A Stray Grimoire," the speaker wanders through antique shops searching,
and finds " . . . a book penned to decimate /the tenets of your mind." This is
Boston's paranoid world, in which the outsider is suspicious of everyone, and
finds little transcendent beauty, only the beauty of horror.
In one of my favorite of Boston's books, Surrealities (2011) one finds some
of his best poetry influenced by the early twentieth century artistic
movement known as Surrealism. The first poem, a prose poem, resembles
similar images to the first Surrealist novel, Nadja, by Andre Breton. The
poem "Surrealism Is" is a poetic definition of central ideas of the book:
Surrealism is the thought
that hides behind thought,
a slip of the tongue,
the caress and burn
of sand upon stone,
the intrepid pun
you only grasp
in the lucid moments
of visionary dreams.
In "A Life in the Day of" there are allusions to Freud, who influenced the
Surrealists, with sexual metaphors and innuendo. As Freud was popular in
his day and was known as "the love doctor," the poem springs forward with
subconscious, sexual imagery.
Also in this book are reprints from previous books, such as "Surreal People,"
and other "surreal" poems.
Anthropomorphisms (2012) gathers all the "people poems" from other books
and provide new ones as well. The interesting thing about these works is
that they often make the reader think that they are going to be humorous,
but at the ends there is horror, as in "Knife People." Frequently Boston's
books center on a particular theme. In this case there is variety in the kind
of "people" chosen, so while the overall collection is unified, there are very
different poetic ideas in the them.
The collaborative poems in Notes from the Shadow City (2012) take my own
earlier "shadow city" poems and expand on them. Like Robert Frazier's
collaborative book with Boston, Chronicles of the Mutant Rain Forest, the
poems were constructed in the same way, but by email. I wrote the first
Shadow City poem on the email poetry workshop group Wicked Verse. Over
time, I discovered that the Shadow City is a fertile ground for horror poetry,
and began to write more, leading to the collaboration with Boston.
In the longest poem Boston has written, "Thirteen Ways of Looking at and
through Hashish," in Charles Lovecraft's Avatars of Wizardry (2012) Boston
alternates past and present, different views on the use of hashish. Allusions
to poets Clark Ashton Smith and Wallace Stevens emphasize the powerful
high that can be obtained by its use. References are made to "the
psychedelic sixties" and the sometime outlaw of the drug in certain
countries. The poem is really opposed to the everyday, dull life that those
who do not use it cannot escape.
As I have shown, some of Boston's poems bring into play the present
technological age, with references to computers and virtual reality. Many of
Boston's poems display a love of language that is Boston’s strongest point
as a poet. As reviewer Mary A. Turzillo has written
“Boston has the gift of making his poetry appealing to people who generally
aren’t fond of poetry. At first blush, it seems that most of the poems are
free verse, with no set rhythm, and no rhyme scheme . . . . He creates
cadences . . . by using syllabic and blank verse with startlingly varied iambic
pentameter. He creates his own stanza forms. He also manipulates rhyme
in sly and original ways . . . . he uses advanced techniques: slant, internal,
and vowel rhyme.”
As the examples quoted throughout this article show, Bruce Boston utilizes
chiefly the techniques of mainstream moderns. In this he is unlike fantasy
versifiers from earlier in this century--H. P. Lovecraft, Stanton A. Coblentz
and Lilith Lorraine, for example--who usually adhered to traditional forms.
But although he and other poets of his generation prefer a less confining
approach, they have successfully drawn on traditional science-fiction themes
to show liberal humanist values. Many critics feel that in this fashion they
have liberated and transformed the genre.
In all of Boston's work the focus is on man himself in relation to the
universe, whether the theme is extrapolating into the future, nuclear
holocaust, time travel, distortions of time and space or, even, the creation
of poetry itself. He is undoubtedly speculative poetry's master, and while it
appears he aspires to a novelist's career, one hopes that he will never
abandon poetry or forget the genuine contribution he has made through it to
Rev. of Specula: Selected Uncollected Poems. SFRA Review # 215 (January
February 1995): 44.
Boston, Bruce. “A Few Words on Speculative Poetics.” Star*Line 23.5 (Sept.
/Oct. 2000): 11-12.
Eng, Steve. “The Speculative Muse.” Anatomy of Wonder 4th ed. New York:
R.R. Bowker, 1995.
Rich, Mark. “Throwing Off the Prison Stoop.” Magazine of Speculative Poetry
1.4 (Jan./March 1987).
Sneyd, Steve. “Empress of the Stars.” Fantasy Commentator 7 (1992): 206-
Turzillo, Mary A. Rev. of The Complete Accursed Wives.