Is it even possible that you’ve never read the prolific poet named John Grey?
Grey, a long-standing award-winning speculative poet whose writing has appeared in virtually every quality horror magazine I can think of, is someone I’ve idolized for years. He’s one of the few writers of poetry that I would call a “master” of horror. I’m not sure if it’s because I admire his no-nonsense, almost minimalist, approach to free verse or simply because his dark imagination always surprises me with a fresh idea. His sense of irony is profound and deep. Whatever it is, he’s got one of the most macabre minds in the business and it’s a shame he hasn’t received the acclaim he really deserves. John Grey is what you would get if you combined Robert Frost with Edgar Allan Poe: he writes plain-speaking, accessible poems that always — always — surprise. Grey can easily catch you off-guard with a surprise twist ending that makes you rethink everything you took for granted in the lines that precede it. This can add a layer of depth to the poem or simply drop you down a trap door into nightmare. Or sometimes he’ll just ring a phrase so resoundingly “right” that it jolts you like an electroshock helmet juicing up on your temples. In either case, his poetry always misleads and misdirects and murders you with its final lines. It’s the sort of stuff with irony that cuts so sharp that makes me blurt out a gasp or a laugh. And I always shake my head and say to myself, “Damn, he’s good!”
“The Body’s Last Days” — John Grey’s 2003 mini-chapbook (4″ x 5-1/2″ pocket-sized, 32 page booklet) from Richard Geyer, Publisher, is Grey at his least cerebral and most physical. This book is composed mostly of previously published horror poems about death, mutilation, and decomposition that reveal Grey at his most ferocious and visceral. I’ve been reading this poet for years and this collection really strikes me as his least subtle, most horrifying, body of work.
The title poem, “The Body’s Last Days,” is deceptively simple joke that actually suggests much more than what’s on the surface. The poem describes just what it suggests, relating what the body experiences as it rots, “told,” as it were, from the viewpoint of a corpse decomposing in a coffin. Its rotting narrator seems almost hilariously fixated on the worms that feast on him, as you can tell from the opening lines:
Worms, then voices, then more worms,
then the rhythmic thump of rain,
and, of course, a veritable
worm invasion and some wind through
the pear trees, and then all
the worms these worms know
The rapid and deceptively cavalier return to the worms again and again throughout the poem seems glib and silly, but it drives home the horrific notion that there’s really nothing the narrator can do about it and that it’s really all that matters because of the recurring trauma. And though one might come to the conclusion that the narrator is somehow fixated on these worms, the poem is all about how the worms are fixated on the narrator.
In another poem, “Last Laugh,” Grey catalogues a imaginatively original battery of body parts in stanzas that read like haiku — from “two dismembered lips/like flattened pink slugs” to “insides of a throat/torn out/stretched like saran rap/around a busted jaw” only to end with the clincher: “what a sense of humor/looks like dead.” This strange poem is an example of what makes Grey so talented — a whole revenge plot is carefully placed “off stage” in the implications of the title and the last line, which allows the images to confront us with revolting horror first and inviting us to fill in the blanks with “poetic justice” via our own imaginations.
Other poems in the collection inject new life into the typical tropes of the dead: haunted houses, cannibals, rats, suicide, torture…it’s all here. There’s so much horror packed into this tiny little book; I think any horror fan would love to find it festering in his or her stocking this Xmas. To get these twenty-seven chilling poems — including the Rhysling Award winning poem, “Explaining Frankenstein to his Mother” — send just $3 to Richard Geyer, Publisher, 1338 West Maumee, Idlewilde Manor #136, Adrian, MI 49221. Or review the following website for more information: