By Randy Stafford
Allen, John, ed. Songs of the Shattered World: The Broken Hymns of Hastur Limited Edition. Tickety Boo Press: 2016. Chapbook UK £12.00. 40 pages.
Oh the sin of writing such words, — words which are clear as crystal, limpid and musical as bubbling springs, words which sparkle and glow like the poisoned diamonds of the Medicis! Oh the wickedness, the hopeless damnation of a soul who could fascinate and paralyze human creatures with such words, — words understood by the ignorant and wise alike, words which are more precious than jewels, more soothing than music, more awful than death!
That was the bar Robert W. Chambers set for anyone wanting to join him in the sin of writing about the King in Yellow, the masked king and monster, avatar of death, subject of the eponymous play The King in Yellow, the center of Chambers’ work of the same name.
Death, decay and decadence are said to follow him. This chapbook’s poets aren’t content to follow a single interpretation of the King, to play pliant apprentices to master Chambers. And why should they? Chambers struck the opening notes for a suite that others could add to with their own grim pavans, desperate waltzes, and apocalyptic ballets.
A form and not just funny typing, memorable lines, and some kind of sense are what I want in my poetry. With the King in Yellow, though, obscurity, mystery and ambiguity aren’t bugs. They’re frequent features. Plenty of these poems give us poisoned jewels, mummeries of mystery, dramas penned by sick and diabolic minds.
There’s no need to actually have read Chambers before listening to these songs. I myself had to refresh my memory of Chambers after finishing the book. It didn’t change my judgement of any the poems, though.
The ones that worked for me gave me the bitter wormwood of despair I wanted or leprous mysteries furtively glimpsed. The successes follow.
The Yellow King reminds us that all the plans and pretensions are captured by death in Mark Samuels’ “Hope in Dying Brains.”
Chambers told us the King in Yellow is to be feared because he wears no mask. Don Webb plays with the notion in two poems. “Song of Lake” asks if the King is a mask himself. “The White Silk” says there is a mask, a decayed concealment of the King’s true nature.
With echoes of Walt Whitman’s “O Captain! My Captain!” and the metaphors and images freshened by scientific lingo, I liked Kristin Prevallet’s “Blueprint Not Unlike Monster My Dear King”:
The Yellow King exists in the past, seemingly a medieval one, as “The Leper King” from Eric Basso.
“The Hungry Grass” from John Thomas Allen has a dearth of Chambers’ sourced motifs, but the geology imagery won my approval.
Bruce Boston’s “She Walks in Yellow to Please Her Lord” has echoes, very discordant ones, of Byron’s “She Walks in Beauty,” as well as H. Rider Haggard’s Ayesha, in its chanting description of the King’s “rank courtesan.”
Bryan Thao Worra’s “The Worms Ascendant” takes first prize for working in the most allusions to the Lovecraftian Mythos.
The rest of the poems each had merits of their own, even if I found them of middling effect. Several lack any real anchoring to Chambers. I don’t have any specific copyright details for anything in the collection, but I suspect several of them are reprints.
Wesley D. Gray’s “Tatters of Man” ended up a bit too obscure to close the deal with me, despite nice lines like “resonance-tickled emerald flesh.” Michael Brautigan’s short “Analysis” failed similarly, though I appreciated “fluxion of light particles” as an attempt to move away from too-familiar metaphors.
Basso’s “Secular Superstition” seemed another entry adrift from the book’s theme, though, in fairness, we get a mad king.
John Thomas Allen’s “Click” seemed to be going somewhere before it was terminated too soon and seems (at least by my reading) to owe as much to Facebook as Chambers. Allen’s “Remember Us” may have been my least favorite poem, a mostly bland entry in the memento mori genre.
I’m not a big fan of the prose-poem, even when done by a master poet of the weird like Clark Ashton Smith, so it’s natural I thought Christina Zadawisky’s “Black and Yellow” an unfortunate clot of prose with some nice language that would have been better served by the funny typing of free verse.
Just having “King” in the title and mentioning Goblins is not enough to put a poem in the court of the Yellow King, so I mostly didn’t like John Yau’s “How to Behave in America When You Are No Longer a King.” However, I do acknowledge he seems to have written a variation on a pantoum.
The look of the book is nice with black-and-white illustrations, often looking like woodcuts. Some words are not printed in black but another color.