Caught by the River

Spells: 21st Century Occult Poetry

11th July 2019

Spells: 21st Century Occult Poetry, recently published by Ignota Books, brings together thirty-six contemporary voices exploring the territory where justice, selfhood and the imagination meet the transformative power of the occult. Jez Winship reviews.

The anthology Spells: 21st Century Occult Poetry, edited by Rebecca Tamás and Sarah Shin, derives inspiration from the matter of magic and witchcraft, its symbolism and history. The word occult used to trail with it 20thcentury associations of lurid Wheatleyesque devilry, dodgy scarlet ceremonies in ancestral piles and secretive suburban summonings behind tightly drawn velvet curtains. The poets gathered together in the 21st Century Occult Poetry collection steer well clear of this ripe tradition, with its mouldy must of 1970s paperbacks. They draw more from the folk traditions which were also explored in the post-war period, and which feed into the thriving field of ‘folk horror’, whose boundaries grow ever wider and less clearly defined. The occult is relocated from the Lord’s manor house to the everyday world of the village. The magus presiding over luridly theatrical ceremonies is replaced as a predominant figure by the witch. The witch becomes a powerful metaphorical locus of identity for a feminist perspective, both contemporary and historical. There is also a sense of continuity and connection with a female lineage of the fantastic in art and literature, from Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes through the surrealism of Dora Carrington and Dorothea Tanning, to the myth and magic infused worlds of Rachel Pollack, Elizabeth Hand and Ursula le Guin. 

Le Guin is a presiding presence in the anthology, her poem ‘Come To Dust’ encapsulating the themes of transformation, of a magic inherent in nature the intuition of which helps us recapture a sense of the sacred, of meaning beyond the material. The line ‘rise up in the smoke of palo santo’ also brings to my mind James Tiptree’s (aka Alice Sheldon’s) Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, and thus her astonishingly potent short stories in general. And it turns out that Livia Franchini, one of the poets in the anthology, has translated Tiptree’s work. More significant correspondences. 

The very first poem, Kaveh Akbar’s ‘Prayer’, also seems to invoke another key literary godmother. The line ‘the stomach of the girl who ate only hair was filled with hair’ brings to mind the phrase ‘hairy on the inside’ from Angela Carter’s ‘The Company of Wolves’ (short story and film script both). The immortal spirit of Carter resides in a number of works here. The female ‘monstrous’ appears in werewolf guise in Elinor Cleghorn’s ‘Umbra’ (‘More moons passed, now she bore a dusky pelage, it was quite the wild shroud’) and elsewhere there are medusae (‘the salvaged medusa of nerves my body has become’ in Khairani Barokka’s ‘What Chani Nicholas Told Me’), sirens and banshees (‘I was born with a gift passed down from the siren’s on my father’s side, the banshee on my mother’s’ in Jen Calleja’s ‘The Gift’) and the ‘lady centaur’ in ‘a novelty t-shirt’ in Jane Yeh’s hilarious ‘A Short History of Mythology’ (a light, springing exit from the anthology). Rachael Allen’s ‘Banshee’, the second poem in the collection, verges on a verse horror story, with a revenant filled with the spirit of collective vengeance approaching a ‘red door’ through the darkness. 

The occult is in many ways an ideal subject for poetry. There is something magical in the way it conjures associations, reveals hidden meanings and creates lyrical music from the word. Its incantatory qualities, the alchemy of the word. It has been said before (by Alan Moore amongst others), but there is a more than superficial link between spelling and casting a spell, between grammar and the grimoire of magical knowledge (a dictionary, in effect). What becomes clear in these poems (although clarity is perhaps antithetical to the occult purpose inherent within them) is that the very appearance of the words on the page, the manner in which they are laid out, lends them a power which sometimes seems to drift free of fixed meaning. They move towards the magical formulae of the Sator/Rotas square or the abracadabra triangle, abstract letter patterns imbued with the obscure potency of imaginative suggestion. 

Capitalisation is often dispensed with, as if all words (names included) are to be given equal weight. Cleghorn’s ‘Umbra’ (a title which alludes to astronomical occlusions, moonshadows and sunspots) uses variable spacing between phrases. The spaces inbetween become part of the poem, pauses, held breaths or windows into hidden thoughts beyond. Nisha Ramayya’s ‘After The Event’ uses such variable spacing to create a stuttering, staccatto delivery, the litany of resistance to entrenched power akin to urgent broadcasts on a secret radio channel, sporadically tuned. Vahni Capildeo, in the extract from her poem ‘Blackbox Testing’, uses grammatical symbols as visual signs, sigils pulled free from their accepted usage. Multiple brackets are like reverberant vibrations and curlicued dashes between words and phrases evoke the flow of the Thames which Capildeo hymns, its eddies and whorls. Nat Raha also uses grammatical symbols and textual alterations to create visual effects and play with meaning (and the manner in which the poem is read). Full stops, backslashes (sometimes bracketed), underlining and indentations (the indented phrases shunted to the left of the main body of the poem, like a whispered aside) and double commas shift emphases and reshape the structure of language. 

Words have power, therein lies the true magic. The ability to transform worlds within the universe of human consciousness, whether on an individual or a collective basis. These poems refuse fixity of meaning. Their mystery, the occult power they contain, lies in the form as much as the subject matter. But the occult themes help to articulate the nature of this power and mystery. The occult, in the sense of occultation, also becomes a potent metaphor for the marginalized, for hidden histories and identities. Several of the poems here make play with the contrasts between substance and ethereality, embodiment and evanescence.  The sublimation from the solid to the spectral, or the materialization of the incorporeal conveys the sense of these hidden histories being made manifest, or being rendered invisible. Sometimes the invisibility of powerlessness and oppression; but sometimes a useful cloak, the ability to quietly slip away into fertile hinterlands beyond the zones of control. 

In Elinor Cleghorn’s poem of nascent lycanthropy, she speaks of her subject being ‘too long a subtle body’. As she grows into substantial being, a triumphant, indented aside whispers ‘and no-body knew she was there’. A useful invisibility, a membership of an occult order. Rebecca Perry’s ‘Beaches (10)’ relays a sense of alienation in terms of spectral insubstantiality, the stunned sensibility of the traumatised or mentally dislocated outsider. ‘Ghosts have no blood’ she writes, ‘no flesh, no bones, no muscles, no skin as we know it’ (I can’t reproduce the significant spacing between words here). The first person subject hints that she is the ghost, but even this is conveyed through ‘rumour’ spread by others. The decisiveness of self-definition, even of a negative character, is not possible for the phantom in their own life. Nuar Alsadir, in her gnomic ‘Augury’, incorporates the oscillation between corporeality and insubstantiality in a line which embraces seemingly contradictory states: ‘I grow spectral, imitate stone’. 

The poems also vary between celebrations of self-containment, secret sisterhoods, and attempts to articulate a more universal magic. Bhanu Kapil, in ‘1947: Spell to Reverse A Line’ makes a magical journey mapping the routes of geographical place and the spaces of memory in an effort to dispel the effects of the cartographical sleight of hand which invoked the horrors of Partition. It is in effect a spell of manifestation, a recollection of suppressed but everpresent trauma; ‘a spell to stop the loop. To regain one’s wholeness as a human being’. From the specificity of personal, familial and national rituals and healing incantations an open spelling is offered (‘I want to make this spell open to others’). Personal experience and family memory is transformed into a universal magic, a universal art. The closed loop is broken, the line reversed and new geometries and geographies opened up, boundaries dissolved. 

One thing the matter of the occult offers is a common symbology, a gallery of familiar archetypes which can be used and recast in variable forms, creating a new set of metaphors. The idea of the night as the medium for witches, and by extension for female creativity is prevalent. The presence of the moon in its sacred aspect is also pervasive. It’s there in the first poem in the collection, Kaveh Akbar’s ‘Prayer’, representing the preference for the authenticity and hidden beauty of the small in the face of the monumental: ‘compared to even a small star the moon is tiny   it is not God but the flower behind God I treasure’. It is there in Elinor Cleghorn’s ‘Umbra’. It is there in the title of Caspar Heinemann’s ‘Full Moon Leech Party’, hanging cool and milkily detached above the burning ‘fuck u’ rage of the snarling, spitting verses (one to shout aloud, this). And variants of the phrase ‘and the moon bends back, and the wheat lolls back’ recur in one section of Ariana Reines’ lengthy, incantatory ‘Thursday’, a symbol of cyclical change, death and rebirth. 

There is a sense of continuity which can be found in this use of venerable symbolism, a connection with the hidden and forgotten figures of the past. A revival of the female sacred which can be held up like a bright banner in the face of the deadening materialism of the present. Ancient avatars are invoked, ancestors honoured and modern icons summoned to forge new and personal canons, new saints and demi-gods. Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield are night presences swept along with the Thames in Vahni Capildeo’s ‘Blackbox Testing’. Music is also drawn upon for ritual purposes. ‘I could put on Peace Piece tomorrow’ writes Ariana Reines in ‘Thursday’, willing the night to end and Friday morning to come with Bill Evans’ tranquil meditation. In the Air section of the elemental reflections and ritual instructions from Francesca Lisette’s ‘Ecstasy (Dispersal)’ she suggests a dance to PJ Harvey’s ‘Is This Desire?’ to delineate a personal sense of space. 

Ultimately, the art of magic is simply the creation of art. The occult trappings are a set of symbols and metaphors held in common which can express its transformative power, its ability to reconfigure our perception of the world (and thus, perhaps, the matter of the world itself). In ‘Ecstasy (Dispersal)’, Francesca Lisette meditates upon the four elements. Water leads her to muse that ‘flowing is also thoughts’, and that ‘perhaps process and practice are crucially different’. Whether this is magical practice or artistic practice is unimportant. There is really no difference. The process of creation, in all its imperfection, its noble failures and misfiring experiments, is the stuff of life. It tells us ‘about art as inseparable from life’. CA Conrad condenses this credo with epigrammatic concision in their poem ‘Camisado’: ‘Poetry is the opposite of escape/but makes this world endurable’. The great is reflected in the small, the occluded: ‘the smallest puddle reflects the entire sky’. All is interconnected, and so all is sacred. ‘Everything matters because everything/hurts someone somewhere as it is mattering’. That is what this new vision of the occult arts in the 21stcentury is offering. Dispensing with the old rigmarole whilst refashioning some of its mystique and stage trickery, it’s really working towards this central, transcendent truth, hidden for so long in an age of concrete materialist realism. Why everything matters.


Spells: 21st Century Occult Poetryis out now and available to buy here, priced £12.99.

Anthology contributors Rebecca Tamás, Rachael Allen, Will Harris and A K Blakemore will read from and discuss the book on our stage at Port Eliot Festival in a couple of weeks. See the rest of our lineup here.