• Emily Win

Have You Ever Wanted to Cast a Spell? Read This Book of Poetry.

It’s that time of year again—cranberry lipstick, David Pumpkins, the sudden trend of orange as an acceptable monochrome outfit. To kick off a month of spooks and ghouls, I thought it might be fun to share an informal review of a little mystical poetry book known as Spells. Edited by Sarah Shin and Rebecca Tamás, this collection of words from world renowned poets offers hints of "feminist, queer, decolonial" verse embedded within spoken magic (p. xii). 

Aptly named, this collection dives deep within an intricate web of words to pronounce power through attention to politics of the body and the self. Romantic, jarring, and forthright, these poems straddle the spiritual realm of "the moment before the word, when everything | inside you is broken open" (So Mayer, p. ix). Curated via pure witchcraftery, each poem graces the page with a loud crash or a slow burn, oozing proclamations of expression, race, gender, society, sexuality, colonialism, love, heartbreak, oppression, violence, ancestry, environment, and herstory. As So Mayer gently asserts, "This isn't about God making the world with the Word. It's about | the witches who've been remaking the world, unmaking the mess | he made, ever since that difficult birth (p. x). 

Through a careful re-crafting of syllables, these witches invite us to "enter the archive | it is your body | remember" (Rebecca May Johnson, p. 33). The way in which sounds come together allow us to access the feelings of our body. As Nia Davies writes, "The way to take poetry seriously is you can | all come and pull up on my cervical spine" (p. 21). As we read through this archive, we see that "Poetry, or magic, takes charge of intention: of how our name is | said, how our bones are held, how we breathe, how we see" (So Mayer, p. xx). And as we make space for this expression, we confront the ghosts deep within the confines of our matter. Nisha Ramayya writes, "admit your obsolescence | unblock | every opening abandoning property | smoke out your own | occupying space" (p. 77). These lines remind us, when worn by the demons dancing from the earth into our minds, that we can evaluate how our bodies respond. Rebecca Perry confronts herself:  "rumour is that the ghost was me" (p. 68). An empty womb of self and center, we can reclaim the connection between myth and body, joining Ariana Reines to say "I can see the Red Sea | It drains inside me | It parts | It drowns your severity Aaron" (p. 93). 

With the dripping pain of loss (of self, of love), Dorothea Lasky shares, "I used to take your spirit out and put it in my pocket | And ride a horse that did not exist" (p. 50). The season of changing and transformation begs us to ask, "Can I slit the black cloth | we're sitting on and put you in my orbit?" (Nia Davies, p. 20).  Our orbits, as connected as the are, sometimes expose us to movement deep within ourselves and others. It shines light into the void of capturing a fleeting fleshy substance. We meditate with Erica Scourti: "I wanted to ingest, digest, secrete | process everything down, into smooth paste | instead of starting anew | so why does it all still taste of endings?" (p. 113). From the carving out--of body and brain space-- we are opened to blossom into textual spaces of political grief, rage, and reformation. 

We realize we can occupy the space. We can form the occult. We recognize our own temples crumbling to ruin. Kate Duckney describes, "When my shrine stopped being my shrine I did not consider the | violence that was sent to me, but rather how | I could put distance between myself and the canyon I love, the spiders | cartwheeling down the dune" (p. 25). Gaining strength in shared stories, we brave the courage to speak, saying, "fuck u capitalism, who's laughing now? me | because i can build a fire to roast chestnuts and | warm my hands but you | don't even have hands. | people are not made of bricks, they're mostly made of systems, | my drag | persona is called Nature." (Caspar Heinemann, p. 29). Subversive and wise in knowing our capabilities, we rise against the systems, "We say NO to this | repeat pattern built of slavery" (Dolly Turing, p. 118),  "We say it with sigils. We say it with alchemy." (p. 119). Spells yield oppositional power. A power so strong it sometimes has us thinking, "Cast a spell on my own brain?" (Bhanu Kapil, p. 39). To which Kapil replies, "I am writing this spell for: Other women or non-binary folks. | In the Punjabi Diaspora. (p. 43)" Because "you don't need a visa or cash or ticket. | To cast this spell." (p. 43). They take us to places far away, or deep within the truth of announcing our selves, our skin, our proper names. 

Holding the hurt of the body within the realm of spells and mystics, we meet Jane Yeh to "stomp on a few thousand years | Of lady centaur history | without regrets | To leap through a waterfall | in a novelty T-shirt" (p. 120). These witch-poets verbalize the spirituality of a collective hurt laced deep within the throbbing restless hearts of the weary power-structured world. Considering the spells heard and unheard, we can join Mayer in concluding: "To be a witch, then, is to know words. To be a witch is to know, in | your bones (your tired bones), where the word 'witch' might come | from." (p. x).

The salve to a salty wound, these poems release a fear of the unknown to bring comfort in alternative realities. They allow us to feel the reverberation inside our own human temples, worshiping the organs and healing the ruin, to reach a sense of community, strength, and liberation. If you have an itch for dark magic, a scratch for shouting your truth, or maybe a yearning for lost love as the leaves fall into endless piles of crunchy mess, I recommend you throw on a fluffy scarf and take this book for an autumn stroll. 

Spells: 21st Century Occult Poetry, edited by Sarah Shin and Rebecca Tamas (Ignota, 2018)

Photo by Dan Farrell on Unsplash