Bending, Curving, Humming Cosmic: Bryan Thao Worra’s Sublime DEMONSTRA
If there’s a problem with genre fiction at all (and particularly the horror genre, and even more particularly Lovecraftian genre fiction – OK, multiple problems, I know, I know), it’s that its writers have an unfortunate tendency to bog down in the minutia of the form and format, resulting in stories which merely rehash the already fragrant pulped material of previous years. And so we end up with protags going for a drink down at Tcho-Tcho’s Bar & Grill, or yet another shuddersome “Check it! The Yellow Sign!” and so on. I highlight Lovecraftian tropes here (because that’s my eldritch bailey-wick) but this same issue can and does appear anywhere in genre material: we all know what to expect from zombies, vampires, Little Green Men, and the like, and most toilers in the genre vineyards see little reason to break from those tried-and-true molds.
That’s prose, and such laziness can in most cases be forgiven. There’s only ever one Story, after all, or at most a dozen, so more repetition than reinterpretation/rehabilitation can be expected, even tolerated.
Unlike mere story, though, each poem is (or should be) unique, and when the above happens in poetry, and particularly poetry in the speculative fiction arena, the results are disastrous: lame re-treadings of sci-fi or horror tropes, humourous barely-a-poem asides loaded with references for the in-crowd, and no examination of wider themes relating to the poet’s world or indeed, the world outside that world. This is why (with the exception of Ann K. Schwader) I’ve steered clear of reading “horror poetry”: it is largely a shallow dip into a mostly empty interior geek-space, the space of the specific subject of the poem (zombies, extra-dimensional beast-gods, whatever) and it has nothing to say to me. With a poem like that, once read there’s just no good reason to re-read, and that, for me, is what characterizes a decent piece of poetry, the urge to return and begin again. So why start?
Well, on several recommendations I bought and started Bryan Thao Worra’s DEMONSTRA. I read it straight through in one sitting, and have since read it several times more, in whole or in part. DEMONSTRA is clever, insightful, compassionate, often funny, sublime. Worra brings a very human eye to the world he sees, and that world is filled with, yes, Lovecraftian critters and deities, rampaging kai-ju, giant robots, and the occasional zombie, but also the cultural warping of the Lao diaspora, the god-forms and spirit beings of Laotian belief systems, wrestling sages, surreal road trips, and the meathook realities of wars public, secret, and internal.
Only two pieces into DEMONSTRA, there is a poem about the Deep Ones. Now, there are only so many places a poet can go with Lovecraft’s batrachian breeders from below, right? Worra doesn’t go to any of those places and the result is a poem of peculiar melancholy and spiritual intensity. A line:
Bending, curving, humming cosmic.
Awake and alien.
That is as good a definition as any of what great poetry actually is: the written word used as a hyperspatial bridge to another, radically different point of view, an eyes-wide-open felt experience of ourselves as not-ourselves, which yet comes round again, bending, curving, to speak to our centre: great poetry is a humming transmutation device for the soul. And that is what Worra’s writing in DEMONSTRA does, piece after piece.
Some highlights were Zombuddha (a striking comparison of the traditional Western zombie with the rough lineaments of enlightenment that made me laugh out loud with the pleasure of recognition “Yes! Of course!”); the rich re-telling of Call of Cthulhu from a Lao perspective in The Terror in Teak; the epic road poem The Dream Highway of Ms. Manivongsa (“Fifty years from now, no one will see any difference / Between J.R. and J.F.K., or who shot them. / Now, flee.”); and Full Metal Hanoumane, which includes a geeky reference to Planet of the Apes, true, something that in lesser hands would make a clanging mess of the poem, but here transforms it into a clear bell tolling in the purple depths of space.
Worra has mastered his subjects, instead of the other way around. He has, over four previous books and multiple publications, also mastered his poetry, and I suspect he has mastered his self, his own “writer’s ego”, to a degree that allows him to enter his interior world, return with jewels that reflect that world and ours, and then place those jewels in perfectly appropriate settings that only add to their lustre. I highly recommend this book: it is a bright spot in the overwrought gloom of standard speculative/horror poetry and well worth acquainting yourself with. The appendices: of Lao spirit-entities, and Cthulhu Mythos deity-names translated into Lao; as well as the lovely artwork of Vongduane Manivong that grace the pages, are an added bonus.
DEMONSTRA is published by Innsmouth Free Press, a Canadian micro-publisher of weird and truly wonderful work. You can order DEMONSTRA from them directly here. Bryan Thao Worra can be found here and followed on Twitter @thaoworra