Shira Lipkin and Michael Damian Thomas, Flying Higher

Because superhero poems.

Slightly edited version here.

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You could make a good case for superhero comics as the classical myths of our time. You could—I’m not sure it would stand up to very close scrutiny, but here are vast, cosmos-encompassing stories of gods and monsters and fatally-flawed heroes, with somewhat flexible continuity and a lot of dubious sex. It sort of works.

One reason we keep going back to myths is the knowledge that most people know them. They make a useful point of reference because they’re so culturally widespread, they’re built into our idioms and our consciousness. Poets are still reimagining bits of the Ramayana, or the Iliad, because there’s something immediate and accessible and fundamental about these stories and the place they have in our lives. Might superheroes be fit subjects for poetry as well?

Flying Higher: An Anthology of Superhero Poetry might be the answer to that question. Edited by Shira Lipkin and Michael Damian Thomas, this collection of poems draws inspiration from the world of the superhero comic in numerous ways.

Some of these address wider tropes within superhero comics; I’m particularly fond of Lisa Nohealani Morton’s “Supervillanelle” (because who could resist that pun?) with its repeated “But now you must face my death ray.” Kip Manley’s “If” (not based on the Kipling poem as far as I can tell) has an ordinary narrator going through a series of superhero origin stories that they did not face. Alex Dally MacFarlane’s “The Bone Woman” is as sparse as the image it suggests, and gorgeous.

In “Darksein the Diabolic Plots His Comeback from Beyond the Grave” Mike Allen has the character (who, presumably, bears some similarity to Darkseid) address his creators directly, and the result is one of the funniest things in the collection. “What hack cranked out that script? Gaiman? Morrison? Moore?/ Tell me it wasn’t Miller. HOLY SCREAMS OF THE DAMNED NOT MILLER!?!”

Emily Wagner’s “Invisible” makes a case for The Fantastic Four’s Invisible Woman. Julia Rios and Wendy Babiak both write about Wonder Woman, both allowing her sexuality to become a source of strength rather than vulnerability. Kelly McCullough’s “J’onesing for J’onn J’onnz—A Fanboi’s Paean to the Martian Manhunter” tries out (and discards) a number of classic poems as templates, before settling on Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan”. Lisa Bradley takes and entirely different track and reads Rosie the Riveter as an iconic superhero. Other direct tributes, such as Michael Damian Thomas’s “Hawkguy” and Matthew Kuchta’s “The Wolverine” simply don’t work as well. “The Ballad of Captain America’s Disapproving Face” doesn’t quite live up to that title (it is, to be fair, a great title). Sofia Samatar’s “Apache Chief”, with its sudden, affirming last line, is possibly the strongest piece in the collection. Shawna Jaquez sums up the appeal of the recent Avengers movie in “Friendship and Butts”. In “Princess of Gemworld” Mary Anne Mohanraj describes the awful situation of children in secondary world fantasies who must come home, leaving their powers and new lives behind them.

The poets in this anthology use the form to interrogate, occasionally mock, and pay tribute to the superhero comic, but for all that a particular depth of feeling or weight is rarely invoked. Obviously this is partly because many of them aren’t supposed to, and the introduction explains that the whole project stemmed from a conversation about unlikely subjects for poetry. Perhaps that’s the problem; superheroes hold enough of a place in our imaginations that they ought to be an obvious subject for literature, but after a point even people dedicated enough to write poems about them (and it’s clear that most of these poets are comics fans) can’t entirely take them seriously. As a result, Flying Higher has much in it that is clever and familiar, and fun to read out to friends who are fans, but there’s little that stays with you or touches the heart.

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