T. Zachary Cotler
Sonnets to the Humans
Ahsahta Press
Winner of the 2012 Sawtooth Poetry Prize
72 pp

Sometimes nonhuman characters are the best vessels to portray the human condition. Although I am not an avid reader of science fiction, some of my favorite stories happen to exist in this vein. In The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula le Guin challenges gender roles and explores the nature of friendship. Pinckney Benedict’s short story “Zog-19: A Scientific Romance” comments on cultural imperialism while exploring the way humans use their bodies to love each other. Good science fiction must have a big picture and a little picture, an imagined world populated with characters the reader can connect with. T. Zachary Cotler’s Sonnets to the Humans manages to do just that with a spare, windswept collection poems. Cotler draws on familiar tropes of science fiction to explore time, language, and what it means to be human. 
Here is the premise: A fictional poet living in an unspecified year in the 21st century hears and records a pattern which he believes to be, “testimony of a sensual non-human, one who suffers because, and despite that, like angels, it doesn’t exist.” This intriguing concept, in the hands of a less capable poet, could feel like a gimmick. However, Cotler’s graceful language lives up to, and ultimately transcends, the premise. The early poems in the collection build a world that is futuristic but not far away, a world in which physical structures and spiritual beliefs are in decline. In the opening poem,

                        [...] from a canceled mecca,
                        no one one loved you as I asked
                        to return to you. Doves
                        in the cities, they
                        did not mean peace. I said
                        o the humans,
                        you are doves
                        of system crash[...]

The world is crumbling. This supernatural entity describes the fall of civilization with tenderness, as if it yearns to suffer with the humans as it laments their descent.
The world Cotler describes is eerily familiar. Dystopian societies and post-apocalyptic landscapes are common in literature, from Huxley’s Brave New World to McCarthy’s The Road. Cotler draws on these images, already a part of our consciousness. He can evoke this ashen future with just a few words: “A defunct station/ with silos and weedy flowers” and “shards are variable/ stars--it falls/ in a mineshaft”. Cotler uses short lines with plenty of bell-like simple words. Doves. White. Man. Woman. City. Wings. When he does use less familiar words, they jut out like remnants of a cathedral in a barren wasteland. For example:

                        This was a woman--who stuttered
                        code after code
                        for recursive return
                        of the loved man. He watched her
                        exit knowing: aeon
                        bridge of phylogenetic noise
                        broken at the far end--

The language mirrors the complexity of the poem. The relationship of this man and this woman becomes a microcosm for the evolution, and decline, of the humans.
As the book progresses, the voice, recorded by the fictional poet, explores time, history, and human relationships. Sometimes it describes a war between countries, sometimes a single moment between two humans. Both situations hold equal importance. My favorite poem of the collection zeros in on a man and woman:
                        They were sharing a cherry.
                        Deep inhuman
                        life I tasted:
                        the stone, because
                        they had eaten the flesh.
                        It could have been an avian
                        egg or apple. An ore,
                        a small heat. So it was
                        a stone, and the word fell away
                        like the nose of a sculpted saint,
                        a wordless, small pain.

In this desperate, yet intimate, act of sharing a scrap of food too small to sustain, the object itself becomes so important that it emits heat. The word for the object falls away and all that is left is raw physicality. The break down and creation of language is explored throughout the book. As the humans lose words, they also make up new ones to express their changing world. For example, “Wynnsent is nostalgia for what is occurring.”

The structure of the story--a fictional poet recording a fictional voice--can distance the reader from the text, and the world created can be disorientating. The poems have no titles or numbers. Sections of seven poems each are separated by snippets of prose that describe the poet as he records the voice. At times, the poems blend and wash over the reader. However, there are enough intimate moments to propel the reader through the stark, bleak future.

This book only works if the reader completely surrenders to the world. As the poems progress, the structure of reality bends. All of time occurs simultaneously. Religion is on the decline, yet religious and mythical figures have a physical presence: Jonah’s limbs wash up on a beach, Kali’s anus appears in a sea anemone. Sonnets To the Humans is brave and ambitious. It sets out to do what a good science fiction novel must, yet in the form of fourteen-line poems. The language is beautiful. The premise challenges the reader’s mind. Think about it until it hurts, or let it wash over you. You will not be disappointed.

--Genevieve Jencson


Genevieve Jencson is an Editorial Intern at Barn Owl Review, and an MFA candidate in the NEOMFA. Her poems have appeared in Alimentum: The Literature of Food, MUSE, and Dressing Room Poetry Journal. She lives in Cleveland, Ohio.