Review: Cradleland of Parasites by Sara Tantlinger

cover of Cradleland of Parasites by Sara TantlingerCradleland of Parasites by Sara Tantlinger
Strangehouse Books (October 2020)
89 pages; $14.95 paperback
Reviewed by Joshua Gage

Sara Tantlinger is a phenom when it comes to horror poetry. Author of three poetry collections, including the award-winning The Devil’s Dreamland, Tantlinger is one of the vibrant new voices in horror poetry. Her newest collection, Cradleland of Parasites, is no exception, and this take on the Black Death is a brilliant and chilling book of poetry.

Tantlinger’s Cradleland of Parasites is as much an education as it is a book of poetry. She has clearly done her research and takes the bubonic plague back to Athens and Constantinople. She very much captures the eeriness and the unknown in these early poems, and the visceral imagery she focuses upon really drives this tone forward:

Birds arrive, dropping low to feast
on carcasses, but even they only peck
once before cawing and spiraling far
away from this place of sickness,
the vulture who stays and eats, who
devours spoiled rot, cannot process
carrion such as this, and I watch
as even the underworld birds pale and die.

Tantlinger’s ability to focus on unique imagery within the topic of the plague, and yet still create strong voices and personas in her poems, is what makes this collection stand out among the general horror poetry.

Tantlinger isn’t afraid to deal with the standard images of plague, either. However, even when she does, she’s able to tap into the human emotions of suffering and moral torment that individuals in the medieval times would feel, and forces her reader to participate in that anguish.

Father forgive me,
I burned mother’s body
late last night
when the whole town slept,

except for us, we chosen few
who knock on your doors
who clean up your dead,
and father forgive me
I will have to burn you, too.

This sort of anxiety is just as haunting as any image of blackened, dead bodies or festering rats. Tantlinger demonstrates her skills as a poet with lines like these as she’s able to tap into not just a narrow emotional horror, but really delves into the whole range of human emotions surrounding an event like the plague.

It is clear that Tantlinger is using the Bubonic Plague as a metaphor for the global reactions to the current COVID-19 crisis. This is evident in later poems like “Scapegoat” or “Preventative Measures,” in which public reactions and misinformation are explored. Within the collection, these poems seem a part of the larger narrative, but taken individually, it’s very clear that Tantlinger is using the history and horror of these events as commentary on the current crisis. While this politicizing might turn off some readers, others will champion the use of horror as social commentary and thrill at the skill of a poet using history and terror to shine a spotlight on current social-political events.

Cradleland of Parasites is a really gut-wrenching collection of poetry. Tantlinger is taps into some unique imagery that will create a visceral reaction in readers. She’s also able to capture the breadth of human emotion, from terror and fear to guilt and even rage and hate. Overall, this is a brilliant collection of poetry and certainly one any horror reader will want in their library.

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