Wesleyan University Press ($30)
by Bethany Rose Prosseda
Annie Finch’s Spells is an aptly named compilation of poems, performance pieces, poetic dramas, and verse translations written by the author over the past forty years. Deeply inspired by the feminist movement of the 1970s and the incantatory quality of language, Finch’s collection engages in a conversation with both cultural and poetic foremothers—from Demeter and Cleopatra to Sappho and Lorde—that aims to transcend all space and time.
While an exploration of the feminine mystique lies at the heart of Spells, the collection works towards bigger themes. Organized into six sections by decade, Finch’s poems unfold in reverse chronological order. Opening with her newest poem and ending with a translated fragment of Sappho, Finch seeks to transport the reader back in time. Or rather, she seeks to transport the reader to a space devoid of time. In this space, where time is no longer a unit of measure or a means of comparison, all distance is lost.
Finch succeeds in transporting the reader to this timeless space not only through the employment of a reverse chronology, but also through her use of a strange yet familiar metrical language. Although metrical poetry can often tend towards anachronism when viewed through a post-modern lens, the strangeness of Finch’s meter prevents her verse from being predictable or feeling dated, and its familiar pulse creates a deep and mysterious relationship with language that drives each line forward. The pulse and patterns of Finch’s meter preside over the collection’s lexicon and work to evacuate, at least in part, language of its meaning. The hybrid language that results from the collapse of language into rhythm is less polarized, and more open than the one we know:
All we want is to find the love
in the faces of the people we love.
All we need is to find the dark
in the nighttime sky, to lie down to sleep
in the darkness, where stars and moon keep vigil,
in the silence of a sleeping earth.
All we require is to wake to sunlight
in the morning, to simple sky,
to breathe aloud as the sky is breathing,
to drink the water of the earth.
All we need is to touch the planet
and find it clean where we were born,
where our ancestors breathed and planted,
where we live with the plants and birds.
For Finch, to be open is to be whole. However, such wholeness cannot be achieved in the present, where binaries and time cleave us from other people, the world, and ourselves. As such, the only way to achieve any semblance of wholeness is to return to the past and to our prelapsarian state where there were no binaries: no good nor evil.
Spells is an incantation meant to make the reader complete. Finch succeeds in creating a sense of wholeness by abandoning the minutia of the present for bigger and more human themes, such as love, spirituality, death, nature, and the patterns of time. This book’s grand dream is to bestow us the chance to forge newer, more open, and deeper connections between ourselves and others—a chance to build a better world. Finch acknowledges the likelihood of this dream coming true in the collection’s final moment:
It is not appropriate, in a household
Given to the Muses. Those lamentations
Do not belong here.