Review: Tea with Death: A Gothic Poetry Collection by Abigail Wildes and Jeanna Pappas (Illustrator)

cover of Tea with Death by Abigail Wildes and Jeanna PappasTea with Death: A Gothic Poetry Collection by Abigail Wildes and Jeanna Pappas (Illustrator)
Alban Lake Publishing (February 2020)

101 pages, $19.99 hardcover
Reviewed by Joshua Gage

Gothic poetry is an interesting concept. Originally a nineteenth century invention and an offshoot of Romantic poetry, Gothic poetry was pretty much any poem that had elements of gothic literature. However, it was popularized by Romantic poets such as Keats and Coleridge, and became its own subgenre of poetry. Almost two hundred years later, it’s interesting that this subgenre of poetry is seeing a slight resurgence. Obviously, the advent of Gothic music and the Gothic subculture in the 1980s influenced this, but many speculative poets are returning to older models of poetry for inspiration. One such poet is Abigail Wildes, whose newest collection is Tea with Death.

Wildes is clearly working within older models of poetry. The poems break with most modern conventions of poetry—the language is archaic, they are centered on the page, they are dependent on abstraction as opposed to imagery, etc. However, Wildes isn’t attempting to write a conventional poetry collection. She is tapping into a two-hundred-year-old tradition and using those historic conventions to create her poems. Take, for example, these lines from her poem “If I Die Today”:

I keep two pennies in my pocket
In case I die today
For I need to have my payment
Should I meet him ‘long my way

For you must pay the Ferryman
To bring you safe across
Or you’ll be left upon the shore
Forever you’ll be lost

Readers will note the archaic language choices in lines 3 and 4. Wildes clearly wants to write poems in an older mode, eschewing the modern conventions of poetry for more historic conventions. In this, she is successful.

It should be noted that the poems in this collection are gorgeously illustrated by Jeanna Pappas. The art is simple black and white illustration, but really well done and quite striking. Not only is Pappas an accomplished artist in her own right, but her art serves to illuminate the poems instead of simply being there. Occasionally the art will be basic border pieces—waves or rain clouds—and other times its more detailed, like a full page stained glass window or a full tea service in a cemetery. Either way, it’s clear that there’s collaboration between Wildes and Pappas, and that the art works to enhance the poems instead of merely existing on the page. 

Obviously, this collection will not work for all poetry readers, even fans of horror poetry. This is not modern poetry with rich imagery and metaphor, but Gothic poetry working within two-hundred-year-old structures and tropes. It is clearly designed to be such, and for the most part works within that genre of poetry. If readers go into this collection expecting Gothic poetry, archaic yet probing and haunting, they will not be disappointed. 

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