Review by Stephanie Ellis
Black Flames & Gleaming Shadows by Frank Coffman, pub. Independent, 28 Feb. 2020
‘This is Frank Coffman’s second large collection of speculative poetry. As before, the verses herein cross the spectrum of Weird Horror, Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Adventure and include examples from sub-genres of these modes of the high imagination. Following his chapbook, This Ae Nighte, Every Nighte and Alle (2018) and his acclaimed magnum opus, The Coven’s Hornbook & Other Poems (2019), this collection of 93 poems (six sequences of poems: sonnet sequences, a “megasonnet” sequence, a sequence in an Old Irish metric, etc) continues in the same tradition. A formalist whose rhymed and metered verses follow in the tradition of the exemplary work of the great early Weird Tales poets such as Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard, H. P. Lovecraft, Donald Wandrei, and Leah Bodine Drake, he is also a great experimenter with a broad variety of exotic and cross-cultural forms and an innovative creator of several new ones. His poetry has been published in several magazines, including Spectral Realms, Weirdbook, The Audient Void, Abyss & Apex, Gathering Storm, Phatasmagoria and Lovedraftiana; and in anthologies such as Quoth the Raven, Caravan’s Awry, and Sounds of the Night.‘
Black Flames and Gleaming Shadows by Frank Coffman is very much verse in the traditional sense, by which I refer to his employment of recognised forms, for example, the sonnet, or his adaptation of them to create his own variant. Having read, and written much, in recent years in blank or free verse, it took a while to settle back into reading poetry of this style, but settle I did.
During my degree studies, I spent some time on Victorian poetry which led me to the likes of Tennyson and Browning, the latter remaining a favourite, especially with his “Porphyria’s Lover” and “The Laboratory”. Coffman’s poetry took me right back to that place, that sense of enjoyment of a tale told well, in poetic form. One word of advice: this collection is one very much to dip in and out of as I find my brain has a tendency to try and overlay the pattern and rhythm of one poem onto the next – which does the subsequent poem a disservice until you pause, reset and re-read. You might find the same.
From the King in Yellow to King Arthur, Coffman covers a wide variety of subjects, each fitting neatly into the convenient sections: Weird Tales & Cosmic Horror, Vampiricon, Samhain Halloween, Poems of Science Fiction, Fantasy, Myth, Legend, and Metapoetry, Homages & Some Traditional Verse. All are written in traditional form and there is a very useful Glossary of Forms explaining those he uses.
Yet tradition does not mean dry mimicry, instead, he adopts an element of playful homage at times as in “The Spooky Path Not Taken” (a wonderful ghostly take on Robert Frost’s classic) and “It WAS a Dark and Stormy Night” (which is most definitely not the opening line).
Whilst the writing is in this ‘older’ style, the subject matter is often very modern and pertinent to the concerns of today. “The Cyborg Dilemma” questions our advance into a brave new world where biomechanics bring the human and machine into ever closer contact, a synthesis of worrying implications. “Leaving Earth Behind” finishes with a poignant couplet effectively asking – shouldn’t we look after our own planet first before trying to ‘terraform’ others. Strong emotion with the lightest touch can be found in “Fib-on-ac-ci-dent?”, such wistfulness in so few words.
Other poems are akin to the epic narrative verse of yore. The gothic “The Vampire Ball” is surely something that should become a must for reading aloud at a small gathering, by a roaring fire, on a dark and stormy night …
Frank Coffman has taken tradition and made it his own, indeed amongst some of his poems are pleas not to discard the old, simply because it is just that. “Post” starts ‘This age of ours – it seems to me – is flawed/Things and Ideas “Old” must be replaced … That traditions are deemed anathema is scary.”
With Coffman’s journey not yet done, I’ll finish with his own words from “Verse’s Vagabond”. ‘No rest! So many roads I’ve never gone!/Though I set off at dusk … ‘twill soon enough be dawn.’
Let us all accompany him on his adventure, vagabond readers traveling with him.