Jane Yolen’s The Last Selchie Child doesn’t look like much – if you are one of those people who judge a book by its cover. Only about 60 pages, and smaller format than a typical paperback, it sits unassuming on a shelf, but the poetic power it contains belies the simple form.
The book is divided into three pieces. For most, the first and third can be ignored, and one wonders what they are even doing in the book.
The first uses a few short works to delve into the tribulations of being a poet and author – something Yolen knows well, with over 300 books under her belt. These poems are well-wrought, but would have little meaning to anyone who is not a writer.
Similarly, the final section, also very short dives specifically into what seem some personal, feminist issues the poet was working through, all well and good, but doesn’t fit the rest of the book thematically, even if it does fit imagistically.
The strength here comes sandwiched between these two sections. Luckily, it’s the greater part of the book (34 of the 60 pages).
Each poem in this selection is a reflection of a historical or contemporary fairy tale or myth. Nearly every one of them is clever and carefully crafted in an obviously experienced poetic voice; the voice of one who has told and been told many stories.
Thematically, the works range from transparent allegories of the poet’s life and relationships to musings on the meanings and greater context of myths and fairy tales themselves. Fully half of the poems deal with the titular mythology of the Selkie, a sort of seal-people from northern European folklore. Tales of the Selkie are often very similar to tales of Mermaids and Sirens – Men falling in love with women from the sea, resulting in tragedy.
It seems odd at first sitting, as the Selkie are alongside tales of big bad wolves and glass slippers – both strong images through the whole book – but the poems as a whole create a skillful tapestry of tragic romance symbolizing the frailty of the human condition.
Even if all the parts don’t quite fit together, the book is skillfully crafted cover to cover, and would be a great addition to any shelf of fantasy poetry.