Spells: 21st Century Occult Poetry
Eds. Sarah Shinn and Rebecca Tamas 2019
‘Spells are poems; poetry is spelling’, is the enchanting aphorism that greets readers upon perusing the blurb of Spells: 21st Century Occult Poetry. The undulating cadence of the syntax, not to mention the words themselves, capture the essence of the anthology as a whole, in addition to a subtle friction latent in its very title. In an age where the mention of ‘magic’ conjures the image of a vast, diverse scale, ranging from the absurd proliferation of cartoon unicorn patterned everything, to the commodification of ancestral practices as a marketing tool employed by Western capitalism – both of these examples arguably representing two sides of the same coin – the relationship between ‘21st Century’ and ‘Occult’ is a complex one to unravel. The independent publisher of Spells, Ignota Books, describes itself as ‘an experiment in awakening’ and such an approach can be observed in the method of editors Sarah Shin and Rebecca Tamás. In an interview with The Bookseller magazine, Shin, who is also one of the founders of Ignota Books, voiced her concern that:
those seriously engaged in the production of culture must attend to the creation of new narratives that enable a habitable and sustainable future, as the old narratives (such as financial capitalism) glitch and fail around us.
Examined under this light, So Mayer’s lyrical introduction to Spells, lingering somewhere between prose and poetry, offers a hazy boundary between dream and reality, waking and sleep, which casts the first spell of the book as these domains collide to create a place
in recognition of a “pluralistic magical language” that provides “sacred spaces away from everyday experience of violence and harassment”. Not an escape, but “a space for healing and liberation”
where 21st Century Occult Poetry can exist because of, and in spite of, the world and people who inspire it. Mayer places our interpretation of the occult in the anthology on the shoulders of ‘the broken open’, on the exploration of language as the means and origin of our identities.
To know one’s place becomes a profound art, in the broken open.
It takes this density of words, their history.
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.
Considering how we use words is integral to the creation of ‘new narratives’ to represent the voices of those who have been repeatedly silenced by society. Sounds, shapes and meanings become ‘broken open’ to be redefined and reinterpreted, in the pursuit of a unique linguistic arsenal to portray the sounds, shapes and meanings of an individual. The name ‘Ignota’ finds its source in the Lingua Ignota, Unknown Language, invented by 12th century German Benedictine mystic Hildegard of Bingen. The poets included in Spells chisel and perfect their own homage to the power of delving into the reaches of language to articulate an original conception of the world. As a result, the poetic process becomes a form of life writing, ‘that difficult birth’ tapping into individual thoughts and histories to express an intensely personal power, as well as multitudinous conceptions of self. To borrow a phrase from a school teacher of mine – which words taste good?
The roving stream of consciousness in Vahni Capildeo’s ‘from Blackbox Testing’ captures this spirit and movement of language. Personal taste and bodily experience become intertwined through memories of the past and hypothetical projections for the future. Capildeo’s prolonged parentheses create pockets of time between thoughts that flow with an equivalent force to the Thames she describes. The future becomes the past, as the poet’s self and the reader’s imagination is caught under the same enchantment, propelled upriver from London to Oxford, against the current of the water, against the current of time.
If I ever moved to London, it would be for the Thames (not for
you (or you (or you (or a job)))).
Memory’s exiled engineer deposited years of thoughts in
horse-chestnut leaves on Magdalen Bridge that they might
fall into traffic & water & light & wheel back again
Magic means power over the displacement of the self, both physically and mentally. ‘Again’ is the opening word for Kaveh Akbar’s ‘Prayer’, and its weight, ‘again I am thinking of self-love’, combines the ritual nature of the occult. In Akbar’s poem, enchantment becomes a matter of perspective, looking inside to push beyond the limits of spiritual constructs against which creativity strains. We are compelled to share the view that ‘it is not God but the flower behind God I treasure’. The important presence of an inward perceptiveness is carried forward into the feminism offered in ‘The Gift’ by Jen Calleja. Here, the ability to thread words into poetry and song becomes a form of witchcraft, refuting yet reclaiming stereotypes of sirens and banshees. Not only does this talent provide a literal voice, but also a means of channelling and articulating the poetic speaker’s consciousness of womanhood; something not simply to be heard, but listened to, comprehended as meaningful. The knowledge of confidence and self-worth found in this ‘greatest source of power’ can be nourished both materially and spiritually, through ‘oily black coffee’, ‘gaseous black tea’, along with ‘a trickle of gems’.
Even at my most lacklustre I am better than men.
They think it’s all about the words –
that mouthing or howling or pronouncing them is enough.
Words are a form of self-determination as well as communication; Calleja informs us that ‘the catalyst is sincerity’. Another, perhaps more intriguing, way the everyday can be transformed into a spell is illustrated by Rebecca May Johnson’s ‘to purge the desire to write like a man’. The act of cooking becomes a ritual, a 21st century potion to subvert the traditional conception of a purge; instead of locating strength in emptiness, this poem finds it in satiety and sustenance. Knowledge not only aids the feeding of the body, but confidence in this knowledge also feeds the soul, as Johnson’s poem asserts in the line ‘even if I didn’t put them in my story it helped my vocation’. The unexpected language of a tomato sauce recipe incites an individual awakening. If knowledge of language is a form of witchcraft, then ‘What Chani Nicholas Told Me’ by Khairani Barokka illustrates how in order to fortify oneself with words, one must know the language connected inextricably with wounds. History gains a new identity, written from the female perspective, as the notion of a fallen woman is conveyed as ‘femmeness and creative wombs’ ‘slapped red to know one’s place by muscly hands’.
Spells manifests a will to fight these wounds and the accompanying acts of persecution inflicted alongside them. Occult poetry becomes a means of resistance – in the words of CAConrad’s ‘Camisado’ it is ‘a way to end this secrecy of suffering’. In ‘1947: Spell to Reverse a Line’ Bhanu Kapil explores the psychological ramifications of the mass displacement caused by India’s partition.
Is inherited trauma like the water passed from one generation to
another, placed in the hands of each person in turn?
One line at a time Kapil probes the answer to this meditation on the cumulative effects of family trauma, which gives rise to the equally pressing question of ‘what will others inherit from me?’ The spell cast in this poem is one rooted in empathy and collective survival, as first and second person pronouns float in and out of use. Words become a similarly powerful resort in ‘The Past’s Future’ by Dolly Turing as a means of recognising the suffering undergone by the Windrush generation. In an attempt to fight the attitudes and institutions that have inflicted such pain, words straddle the line between seen and unseen forces. Language is poised not only in the form of ‘threatening letters’, but also as a counter attack, shape shifting into poetry and resistance in order to recognise the real, valued presence of Windrush migrants, a way to ‘say NO to this’, and ‘make magic in the mountains/of our dreams’. The call for justice gains further momentum in Nisha Ramayya’s ‘Following the Event’, a poem expressing solidarity with numerous protest events that took place in 2018, from strikes concerning the pensions and pay of university staff, to feminist and trans feminist demands, to urging for a more humane approach towards the women detained at Yarl’s Wood. The lines encourage empathy, supported by ‘we’ and ‘us’, with no mention of ‘I’; strength is found in numbers, in particles claiming their whole, as various group identities merge and join in each other’s causes, united by a sense of what is right, and their shared right to insist that compassion and equality are made a reality.
The poets of Spells find a model for human behaviour in the processes of the natural world. Often associated with the earth, occult and pagan ritual is drawn upon to render the lights and shadows of our sense of kinship, not to mention deep fascination, with our elemental surroundings. Language assumes the role of mediator between humanity and Mother Nature in Ursula K. Le Guin’s ‘Come to Dust’, as the words urge us to ‘rehearse’ ‘the motions/of the matter that held you.’
Come down to earth as leaves in autumn
to lie in the patient rot of winter.
Rise again in spring’s green fountains.
With the smooth up and down motion of a carousel, we are lulled into a meditative state of contentment that the spiritual and seasonal cycles are one and the same. Rather paradoxically in the search to forge an individual identity, it is the location of a wider process to which we all belong, the earth itself, which becomes the patron saint of idiosyncratic power. This relationship positions nature as a redeeming influence, born through poetry, a notion intensified in Emily Berry’s ‘Canopy’. The opening line, ‘the weather was inside’, immediately dissolves any boundaries separating the realm of nature from that of the imagination. A connection between human and tree is riveted by telepathic force, as the urgent tones of Berry’s verse leave it difficult to distinguish which is the artist and which the muse. Both entities blend into a new, empowered being; a being on whose tongue the words taste different altogether, yet are charged with an even greater meaning.
I think they were telling us to survive. That’s what a leaf feels like
anyway. We lay under their great awry display and they tattooed
us with light.
They got inside us and made us speak; I said my first word in their
The lives and voices recorded in Spells invite the reader to spell their own magic into existence, to become part of a new world that is poignant, dynamic and alluring; a world that restores the ancient, spiritual significance to the simple act of placing words one in front of the other. It is a reminder that the linguistic stone out of which human history has been carved, refined and immortalised is the same material that will shape the future. With the help of the OED, the etymological family tree of the term ‘occult’ traces its ancestors back to the Latin ‘occultus’, used to refer to something secret that evades comprehension. Yet the success of Spells relies on its ability to achieve the opposite, as all thirty six poems unite under the aim to reveal, as opposed to conceal. The prolific manuscripts penned by Hildegard of Bingen were prompted by a godly vision instructing her to write down what her eyes and ears perceived. One could say that the poets of Spells are driven by a similar, albeit secular influence, to honour the spirit of self-knowledge and resistance embodied by witches of the past, and an ideal for witches of the future.
Art by Alex Haveron Jones
REBEKAH COHEN reads English at Somerville. She one day hopes to have memorised enough literary quotes to include an apt reference in every conversation.