Cosmic Songs for Human Ears – A Review

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Review by Sandra J. Lindow

Cosmic Songs for Human Ears by Greg Beatty, Amazon, 2021, 71 pp., Kindle ebook $4.99.

Greg Beatty’s Cosmic Songs for Human Ears collects 50 well-wrought speculative poems that were published between 2002 and 2012, including his 2005 Rhysling winner “No Ruined Lunar City.”

An introductory essay published in 2005, “Driving the Machine Backward Through the Graveyard of Dead Narrative,” explains the evolution of genre poetry through reference to Johanna Russ’s 1971 critical essay, “The Wearing Out of Genre Materials.” Which argues that genre tropes progress through three distinct stages: “Innocence” which seems to be characterized by novelty and sense of wonder, “Plausibility,” which describes how authors use the rules of verisimilitude to support readers suspension of disbelief, and finally “Decadence” where a petrification of genre rules, “stylized, like ballet,” tempts writers to break long established conventions, for instance, combining magic with aliens and dinosaurs. Although Russ writes that it is not possible for a genre to return to Innocence, Beatty argues that it is possible for genre poetry to create a “liminal space” where tropes from fantasy and science become metaphor for human experience, thereby avoiding Decadence and possibly returning to the novelty and energy of Innocence. His poetry spans the range of the genre, including responses to science fiction, science, fantasy, myth, magic realism, and fairy tales, introducing readers to robot poets and shepherds, a werewolf poet laureate, and a trio consisting of a septic tank, a garage, and a Chevy up on blocks. Although primarily working in narrative free verse, Beatty experiments with a number of forms such as rhymed couplets and haiku. “Relativity and Reason,” is a sonnet that examines the breakup of a marriage. Effectively space-suited with a Ph.D. in English from the University of Iowa, Beatty also finds William Carlos Williams’s red wheel barrow on the moon and Robert Frost’s fences “marking bounds / of not property but air.” “Lunar Beach” redacts Matthew Arnold’s poignant “Dover Beach.”

Certainly, this collection represents an engaging life-long yearning for wonder that was early inspired by the space race. Beginning with the rocket, ray gun, and moon car, “fan toys” nostalgically recalled in “The Martian in the Mirror,” Beatty explores growing up within a fan community. Throughout the collection, science becomes metaphor for human experience. “The Physics of Age and Baseball” describes older hitters facing “a paradigm shift:”

where light curves, and
bat masses approach infinity,
eventually making it impossible
to touch the relativistic fastball,
and that sad moment of hesitation is
forever frozen on the October event horizon.

Beatty’s poems slip easily between the humorous and the tragic, displaying a compassionate, though ironic,  humanitarian sensibility “Dogs in Space” begins with a whimsical description of dogs’ potential for flight “doggie farts, / fueled by massive consumption / of broccoli and jelly beans,” becomes a tribute to the Russian space dog Laika and then wallops readers with the space disasters like the Challenger they would like to forget:  

as dogs, and just as loyal
as man’s best friend, humanity
will keep leaping for Frisbees
and dying in orbit, if need be
just so in the end,
we get to go home.

“War is For the Hard of Hearing” begins: I swear I heard the president say / we’d be shooting spent geranium / bullets.” In “The Nanogardens of Detroit,” the “dead motor city /shines, because technology solves everything.”  “Seeking the Lovetrino” reveals a powerful longing for connection while “We Three Meet Again” evokes a shiver of impossible to explain mysticism. Poems like “Where Seelie’s Shop” demonstrate his gift for unexpected combinations, putting magical or alien creatures in everyday places like Walmart. Sometimes dark romance enters the swamp: “The best/ I can do is ask you to / be my Balrog, baby! / Meet me in the echoed dark.” Or this:

Helen Egraine tongued
the entire Great Black Swamp. With relish. Chafing her lips
on dark box turtle shells,
nipping her canines along
cool amphibian throats.

Overall, this collection transcends genre constraints, representing the best that 21st Century speculative poetry has to offer. This is a book that spec fans will want to read and reread.


Sandra Lindow has served as Vice President and Acting President of SFPA. Her poetry has been seen in various markets including Asimov’s, Star*Line, Dreams and Nightmares, Dwarf Stars, and the Rhysling Anthologies. Her spec related editing includes Dwarf Stars, Eye to the Telescope, and most recently the Rhysling winners anthology, Alchemy of Stars II.  She lives on a hilltop in Menomonie, Wisconsin where she waits out the pandemic and attempts various strategies to keep varmints from eating her vegetables and perennials.

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