Blood & Spades
It is my extreme pleasure to welcome poet/writer/editor Sydney Leigh. She is native to the North Shore of Massachusetts. Leigh's short fiction, poetry, and reviews have appeared in various magazines and anthologies, including Shock Totem, Shroud Quarterly, and Enter at Your Own Risk: The End is the Beginning. Last November she published Inkblots and Blood Spots, Michael Bailey’s collection of poetry and short fiction, which was illustrated by British Fantasy Award-winning artist Daniele Serra. This year, her short story, “Baby’s Breath,” is a finalist for a Bram Stoker Award® for Superior Achievement in Short Fiction.
Forthcoming work includes short stories and poems in The Library of the Dead, Our World of Horror, and more. She is an Active Member of the HWA and the Chief Editor of both Villipede Publications and Eldritch Press’ novel division. Drop into her Web site at http://thespiderbox.shawnaleighbernard.com.
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The Slow Bite of Horror’s Tiny Teeth
as I drill into you,
crushing the brittle shell
of your false existence;
exposing the raw nerves
of your primal fears.
and don’t scream
as I scrape away
your pseudo veneer—
I’ve waited so long
to suffocate you,
to bring tears
to your eyes,
make you ache—
because I know you,
and because I know how.
Horror sunk its hooks into me at a very young age. Between books and movies, horror became a facet of my existence just like my love of animals and music, road trips and summers by the ocean, the punk rock scene and half pound bags of sour watermelon candy slices.
When I started writing poetry in my teens, it was mostly fueled by nightmares and social and emotional circumstances, since I was a deep thinker from a young age and that always proved challenging. An English teacher gave me John Ciardi’s How Does a Poem Mean, and I clearly remember that being what inspired me to express myself in poetic form. I fell in love with Plath, Blake, Crane, Ferlinghetti, Frost, Henley, Wilbur, Poe, Roethke, William Carlos Williams, Snodgrass, and Yeats, and quite a few poems from that book made a profound impression on me: Shapiro’s “The Heart,” Davidson's "A Ballad of Hell,” and Barry Spacks’ “An Emblem of Two Foxes.”
The thing about poetry is it really doesn’t have to be classified as “horror” to serve as an influence if you write in that genre ... and it can still strike nerves that resonate with fear, dread, panic, and even dark beauty and a deep, lingering sadness which reflect more subtle elements of what most people consider run-of-the-mill horror.
During one of the courses I took while pursuing my college English degree, I had to choose an old piece and rework it. I found a rhyming poem I had written in my early teens which plainly exposed a father who had been sexually abusing his daughter. It was told from the girl’s point of view and perhaps fell prey to the trap of a somewhat forced rhyme scheme:
Floating down the river
I look beyond the pale
and see a world so dreadful
through madness I now sail
I dream of empty toolsheds
and father’s callous voice
I did what he demanded
I thought I had no choice
Mother never noticed
the bruises on my skin
Nor had she been aware of
the pain I bore within ...
So when I reworked the poem, I chose a much different approach.
the spider box
in the thick, sightless
must of dreams,
I am caught, still
in the silkened steel threads
of your tangle web labyrinth;
in the split and rot
of a timber box
forged by the consanguine joints
of a mortise and tenon nightmare.
cold rain spilled off the pitched lid,
pooling in the moldy soil
and narrow clefts
of moss covered rocks
fringing the wooded lip
of your old tool shed.
you’d come down slowly,
one pair of legs at a time,
scraping the youth from my skin
in serrated layers.
claw hammers rattled on rusty nails,
and the silver teeth of saws glinted,
catching the amber flames of sun
as it stole through splintered cracks
in the sinking frame.
from somewhere outside,
in the canopy of trees,
the muffled song of a starling
whispered through the wood
while blue venom dripped
from your hollow fangs,
in the pale yellow gaze of a blackbird,
her coda became my own.
your skin glistened
in a chitinous pile
by the door.
you left it there each time,
just before you smiled
and said you’d see me at home.
mother dried the dishes
as I climbed the stairs,
my bare feet
leaving a bitter, viscid print
on every step,
the long empty hall
filled with the muted murmurs
of a passerine lullaby,
into the theridion silence
When my classmates read this poem, some of them had absolutely no idea what it was about—and those that did knew very little about the concept of a poem’s speaker and just assumed the “I” was me, so they were too mortified to respond. My poor father!
Admittedly, this version took more work to understand—instead of directly exposing the abuse, I had the narrator view her father as a tangle web spider who would “come down slowly,/one pair of legs at a time,/stinging bristles/scraping the youth from my skin/in serrated layers”—and the language is obviously much more mature. I did a lot of research on the habits of these particular spiders and used symbolism to weave the theme of victimization throughout the poem: the song of a starling is “muffled” during its death—the blackbird is a predator much like the girl’s father, and the starling’s coda, or last song—echoed the girl’s own.
While not all the students attending that UMass Lowell Poetry course may have “gotten” it, I knew I had succeeded in improving the poem and reached my target audience when it received its first review years later, wherein a reader singled “the spider box” out from the anthology in which it was first printed and claimed it had “a very dreamy/nightmarish appeal. Languid and sexy. The horror is intelligently insinuated, not blatantly splayed out.”
Finally, my own first bite had drawn blood ... and it tasted damn good.
The next poem of mine that received a similarly meaningful critique was “Flesh, Blood, and Bones,” which appeared, much to my delight, alongside Joe Lansdale’s poetry in The Horror Zine last November.
Flesh, Blood, and Bones
It happens at night.
The thin, salty flesh crawls across your bones,
looking for its way home.
It finds, instead, too many mistakes—
grooves and speed bump calcifications,
a poor reward for living.
It doesn’t fit.
If you think about it,
it almost makes sense. Almost.
You told him slowly, carefully,
as the blood drained in haste, that the doves flew away
too soon. The water
still rippled on the lake,
cool, blue steel
shook like a sheet.
The flesh stretches over your face,
holes left for you to see. Hear.
Breathe. Scream. Love. Lick. Lie.
you had reached deeper,
that the skin was more ... forgiving.
Could you let it go this way?
Allow for a fall
from grace? From higher
than you knew they could fly?
Stand aside. It’s moving again.
Unlike “the spider box,” this poem didn’t take two tries. I sat down and wrote it as is—without much effort even, really. No research, no revising. The idea itself seemed to bite into me as it came, and it translated very easily onto the page. Sometimes poetry flows naturally like that, and I was honored to have Anthony Servante provide some very lovely feedback of it on the "Poetry Today: Trends and Traditions" section of his "Servante of Darkness: Words and Sounds for the Living" blog alongside poetry from Viggo Mortensen.
“This three-line form harkens to Dante’s Inferno, though the rhymed tercet was used there. But a prose form of the tercet is a welcomed venue for modern poetry as it echoes the traditions of the great authors of yesteryear, while maintaining a new modern approach with its lack of rhyme. But to the theme. Is the unrhymed tercet aptly applied here?
"The poem is a philosophical account of the creation. Its theme: The flesh of man is flawed. Thus, the words are suited to the theme. Subtly blasphemous, openly critical. Life is designed for death: 'The thin, salty flesh crawls across your bones,/looking for its way home.' Home, of course, being the grave. Note that such thoughts occur at night. But the flesh, the symbolically living part of the body, the tactile or tangible matter, finds only the skeleton (the death symbol of the living person), 'calcifications,/a poor reward for living.'
"Further adding to the fragile construct of the human body, Leigh adds, 'The flesh stretches over your face,/holes left for you to see. Hear./Breathe. Scream. Love. Lick. Lie.' Note the conflict between 'Breathe' and 'Scream.' Birth and death. Then Sydney questions the reason behind our fated state of being: 'Alone, wishing .../that the skin was more ... forgiving.' But this observation leads only to more rhetorical questions: 'Could you let it go this way?/Allow for a fall/from grace?' Yet she has no answers, for she begs the questions and supplies what little explanation she can: 'It’s moving again.' It, referring to the flesh of the first tercet, returns in the form of infants who are cursed with the same fate as their parents.
"Sydney Leigh does not discuss the cycle of life in magical moments, blessed days and nights where sleep, dream, and wakefulness are equal stages of growth. Rather, she sees this cycle as a flawed fatality inherent with our first breath to our last. At night, we will always consider the journey of the flesh, from the 'bones' to the boneyard. Lovely turn. Worthy of Shelley and Keats.”
To reiterate, the thing about poetry is it really doesn’t have to be classified as “horror” to influence you if you write in that genre.
Shelley and Keats. Would you call them horror writers? No. But have you ever read the stanza that was omitted from “Ode on Melancholy” prior to its publication?
Though you should build a bark of dead men’s bones,
And rear a phantom gibbet for a mast,
Stitch creeds together for a sail, with groans
To fill it out, bloodstained and aghast;
Although your rudder be a Dragon’s tail,
Long sever’d, yet still hard with agony,
Your cordage large uprootings from the skull
Of bald Medusa; certes you would fail
To find the Melancholy, whether she
Dreameth in any isle of Lethe dull.
The language looks like something you’d see in one of our poems, no? And did “Ozymandias” bite you with its teeth like it bit me at sixteen? It certainly bit the writers of BREAKING BAD, who named and modeled what was considered the series’ best episode after it. It may not be “horror,” but I don’t know too many people who don’t watch that show.
Oh, and guess who Percy’s second wife was?
To come full circle, the mighty force in horror fiction that
is Shock Totem released an issue in October of last year which
ran a review of Darkness Ad Infinitum, Villipede Publications’
first horror and dark speculative fiction anthology. Before I
signed on with the Villipede team, they had accepted my
experimental poem “The Undertaker’s Melancholy” for the
anthology—and while I won’t include it in this essay, I will tell
you what John Boden, Shock Totem’s sensational contributing
editor, said about it in his review: “‘The Undertaker’s
Melancholy’ is a sprawling, crawling prose piece by Sydney Leigh.
The words are gorgeous and bite with tiny teeth.”