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Sci-Fi and poetry. Matt Bialer's FORMATION

On June 24, 1947, small businessman and hobbyist pilot Kenneth Arnold was on a business flight in his CallAir A-2 Mountain plane, when he saw something. An unnameable thing. What becomes the topic and title of Brooklyn poet Matthew Bialer’s epic poem,Formation.

In terse and clipped three and four word lines, bundled mostly in couplets and tercets and occasion longer stanzas, Bialer delivers up a narrative poem that traces events from the middle of the last century surrounding the origins of the phrase “flying saucer”. The New York-based literary agent, well-known street photographer, watercolorist and author of eleven previous books from such prestigious presses as Coffee House, effectively uses repetition and imagistic description, artfully (and interestingly) combined with a quasi-journalistic research of the topic. He has located both official and anecdotal materials recording these events from all sorts of sources and in the book he recounts various versions of these mysterious sightings.

You can feel the sense of witness mixed with astonishment in his short lines that trail down the one hundred eighty eight pages of the poem. In one section, for example, he describes “strange aircraft/Life slowly/ Drift westward/Out to Sea/Light shines on them/Through the clouds/They are brilliant/Not one brilliance/But of many brilliances”. It is beautiful and even reverential writing.

Epic poems have a long history, dating back to antiquity, of course, with Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, poems that recount both real and mythological wars and political machinations of their day. Bialer’s epic poem steps into this tradition, recounting wild occurrences with similar detailed episodes. But where Homer used strict dactyllic hexameter to deliver his epic narrative of glory and derring do, Bialer has adopted free verse short lines in the tradition of John Ashbury’s epic poem, Flow Chart, to parse and regurgitate these individual interviews of possible alien witness experiences.

It is the documentary seriousness of Bialer’s poem that makes it extraordinary; he sticks to facts and spices them with interesting details about the people and their backstories. (He confesses he only departed once from the historic record to give his readers a thrill, when he inserts glowing rocks into a cereal box on a plane, “I couldn’t resist,” he says.)

It isn’t all abstract. Things actually happen, beyond the sightings of the mystery crafts in formations. “falling fragments/ Hits and kills Chip/ Their dog/ Yelps/Chip!/ No!/Chip!/Rain of metal,” Bialer writes of “Fragments/ Hot and molten” than rain down from one “doughnut shaped craft”.

The glue for the book, what engines the reader on, is the slow unveiling of the mystery in cryptic and clipped lines and the use of several repeated phrases: “I swear I am not lying/I swear it,” in one section and “bright flash” throughout the poem. In a sort of comic and curious twist, everyone of the era in the book, seems to smoke the brand Chesterfields, whose name pops up again and again. (Maybe they did?)

The cousin of speculative fiction, the genre of sci-fi and fantasy, is the genre of speculative poetry, into which one might relegate the book Formation. It is actually a popular and growing field, with numerous literary magazines, an association called the Science Fiction Poetry Association, and at least one serious national prize, the annual Rhysling award. But Formation is only one part sci-fi; it resides in the realm that limns the territory in between history, mystery and sci-fi, a genre all its own. Bialer’s intense research lifts the poem out of the country of pure sci-fi and gives it historic heft. At the end, the reader is dazzled and curious and wondering, what really happened back then? What were these formations seen and described by so many, and, moreover, is it still happening now?

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