This small book of narrative poems offers a mix of subject matter, from tales based on or inspired by traditional folktales, such as the River King from African folklore, to tales that provide modern social commentary. Some of the poems are disturbing: traditional tales of murder and revenge, and modern ones that deal with Internet predators, sexual tourism, necklacing (a form of vigilante execution in which a tire is filled with gasoline, placed around the torso of the victim, trapping hands and arms, and then set alight), and formal justice gone bad. But not all of the pieces are heavy. Some are just fun: In “Haunted” Macbeth encounters the ghost of Duncan at the supermarket. “Inanimate Amour” is quite funny. Though the tales are both ancient and modern, the magic of the book is that the ancient tales are fresh and the modern ones resonate with the same ancient beat of the blood as the fantasy tales.
The book is divided into three sections: fantasy, reality, and a small closing section, fantasy/reality. One of the things that really makes this collection special is that both the fantasy and the reality sections evoke the otherworldliness of the fantasy tale. Tones of melancholy and sheer creepiness play just as well in the reality tales as in the fantasy tales, giving the reader a very strong sense of the underlying flow of life, reminding us that fantasy is a depiction of deeper realities and that reality is far stranger than we realize, or perhaps than we like to admit.
The poems in this collection are often misty and enigmatic, with delightful twists, surprise endings, unexpected humor, and in places, lovely language and imagery:
When jealous clouds draw curtains and rid the sky of light,
A man kneels in the glen and cries his secret to the night.
In a room filled with antiques and dust,
Covered metal cases all painted with rust
The masquerades are out tonight;
Mothers stay in and hold the children tight.
… my bloody blade like a waving red flag …
The story-poems in Tales Of Fantasy And Reality are suggestive of an oral culture, and like much poetry are far more effective when read aloud. John makes good use of enjambment and internal rhyme, which helps give power and weight to poems that might otherwise seem light or amateurish. Again, do try reading these aloud. Some that seemed clunky or awkward when read silently worked much better when read aloud.
All in all, however, this small collection is very pleasing. Tales Of Fantasy And Reality is a somewhat uneven effort; some poems demonstrate grace and power, while others seem a bit trite or simply not quite polished. The rhythm is often bumpy, and sometimes the rhyme seems forced. It has been too many years since I studied prosody, and I must admit that I could not identify very many of the rhyme schemes used here. However, in places I was reminded of Robert Frost. The subject matter in the fantasy section made me think of Neil Gaiman’s poems. “Mauvin Manor” is reminiscent of Poe at his creepiest. There is likely something here for most tastes. For me, “The Price Of Milk” and “Rules Of The Land” are worth the purchase price of the book. James Brown’s illustrations are also very nice.