Sifting the Ashes by Michael Bailey and Marge Simon
Crystal Lake Publishing (April 2022)
222 pages; $15.99 paperback; $4.99 e-book
Reviewed by Joshua Gage
Michael Bailey is a freelance writer, editor and book designer, and the recipient of over two dozen literary accolades, such as the Bram Stoker Award and Benjamin Franklin Award. Composite novels include Palindrome Hannah, Phoenix Rose, and Psychotropic Dragon, and he has published two short story and poetry collections, Scales and Petals, and Inkblots and Blood Spots, as well as a children’s book, Enso.
Marge Simon lives in Ocala, FL, City of Trees with her husband, poet/writer Bruce Boston and the ghosts of two cats. She edits a column for the HWA Newsletter, “Blood & Spades: Poets of the Dark Side.” A multiple Bram Stoker award winner, Marge is the second woman to be acknowledged by the SF &F Poetry Association with a Grand Master Award. She received the HWA Lifetime Achievement award in 2021.
Their recent post-apocalyptic horror prose and poetry collection is Sifting the Ashes.
Sifting the Ashes is a narrative arc of poems and micro-prose that carries the reader through an apocalyptic narrative. Though what has actually happened in the narrative is left to the imagination of the reader, there are hints of some sort of global natural disaster, due to global climate change and the like. However, the vague understanding of the events makes for a challenging read, as it seems the characters and speakers in this collection know what’s happening and are simply going through the fear and panic of the events, but readers don’t know why they’re panicking other than “disaster.”
A lot of these poems read as narratives of events that are shifted because of the disasters of the apocalypse. For example, the poem “Who Are You” contains lines like
You don’t have evidence of self,
not even a living relative?
You don’t have an identity,
or paperwork of any kind?
You don’t have a way to prove existence,
nor confirmation of past?
What makes this poem intriguing is the idea that the person asking the eponymous question seems also to be the person being questioned. There’s a sense of existentialism in this poem, despite the rampant ambiguity and abstraction throughout. Another poem, “In Media Res,” which is a series of cinquains, has stanzas like:
what happened to their friends,
teacher gives up trying to teach
stare at televisions
unsure how to react, or help,
In both these poems, survivors are left to pick up the pieces of their lives and survive in a tortured, ruined world strewn with wreckage.
Overall, while the arc of Sifting the Ashes works well, many of the poems struggle with the basic craft tools. Horror readers who are willing to overlook some weak writing and struggling lines will enjoy the stories and conflicts present within the book. Readers looking for solid poetry will have to look elsewhere, but the stories contained within and the world the authors have built will be enough to sustain readers through until the end of this collection.