New collections to make life more lyrical.
I greet you all from the desert Southwest, where we’re entering our fourth week of triple-digit temperatures in what I’ve been assured is the last coolest summer I’ll ever have. I find myself studying the clouds along with novelist/poet/artist Leslie Marmon Silko in her memoir, The Turquoise Ledge, a book I hungrily fell into just as the heat dome descended.
Written over a decade ago and set around her daily walks in her Sonoran Desert home, Silko’s ruminations and rituals strike deep echoes in me, especially her descriptions of the desert as not experiencing the usual four seasons but rather two endless cycles of “rainy” and “dry,” which are becoming all too familiar in the high desert of New Mexico. It’s clear we no longer have four seasons — if we ever really did.
During the latest episode of the “In the Wild” podcast dealing with the realities of climate grief, guest host Báyò Akómoláfé said, “I’m kind of tired with light metaphors. Endarkenment is what we’re doing now.” Endarkenment is a new chaos ritual, like when you’re revising a poem and must turn it on its head to reshape its emotional core. It’s a necessary violence, this self-editing. So, to endarken is a new kind of chaos magic, a new conjuring.
The petroglyphs that dot the interior of the Southwest, which Silko occasionally finds on her walks, might point the way toward water (the way you know there’s groundwater nearby is when you see desert willow trees). Craig Childs posits in Tracing Time: Seasons of Rock Art on the Colorado Plateau that the powerful art scattered across desert rock formations indicates an ancient people who followed the clouds, marking where the possibility of water existed as call signs for each other.
This art also often depicts beings that look extraterrestrial, possibly gods or aliens. But just like our gazes struggle to make sense of these petroglyphs and an obscured (not forgotten) way of life, to survive in this new reality, we must revise our cultural worldview, our way of life, our acceptance of the lie capitalism has told. We must return to the land, to the clouds, and give our bodies over to unearthing the knowledge and way of life lost to us through centuries of assimilation.
As always, the keys to discovery and imagination can be found in poetry, and this month’s selections help forge the pathways through these new-old doorways.
Power pulsates in Poetry as Spellcasting: Poems, Essays, and Prompts for Manifesting Liberation and Reclaiming Power (North Atlantic Books), edited by Tamiko Beyer, Destiny Hemphill, and Lisbeth White. Many poets do not consider themselves to be practicing magic when they write, but human history reveals the truth. Poets were the storytellers, the Druids, the shamans, the soothsayers, the sorcerers. Spells are poems; they hold the potential of an individual’s will to shape energy. In workshops, when student poets are asked to consider their audience, to hone their voice, this is all alchemy. Every essay, poem, and prompt is an invitation to an entire universe.
Throughout the book, as in this column, Lucille Clifton’s spirit and influence are present. Like Emily Dickinson, Clifton became a master of the brief form, albeit via necessity: She was a mother and worked hard to keep her family fed and housed. But one of the more obscure facts about Clifton was that she considered herself a “two-headed woman,” which scholar Marina Magloire, in a 2020 Paris Review essay, explains is “a traditional African American term used to describe women gifted with access to the spirit world as well as to the material world.” Clifton discovered a form of trance writing in communication with spirits she named “The Ones” — whom she first met through a Ouija board she used with her children — and amassed a large body of spirit writing.
What I found particularly interesting as I read Poetry as Spellcasting in tandem with The Turquoise Ledge, is that Clifton’s descriptions of her spirit beings are remarkably similar to Silko’s “Star Beings,” a series of portraits she felt called to paint while writing her memoir. Both women (decades, regions, and cultures apart) describe their beings as not interested in the day-to-day business of individual human survival but rather with the tenuous future of humanity should we continue on our current path.
The Ones and the Star Beings want to help us but cannot be described as human; they contain their own logic, something like a cosmic amalgamation of energy. It’s a spiritual communication one might attribute to mycelia and plants, which plant healer Dominique Matti writes beautifully about in the essay “Articulating the Undercurrent” (each section of which begins with a Clifton quote), which outlines her process of learning to speak with her ancestors via writing during the first wave of covid.
“Poetry, for me,” Matti states, “is an essence-making process. The words serve as the clear bowl of water, a conduit for communication between the mouthless subterranean in me and that which has been buried, unarticulated in you. Poems are not the words themselves but what the words transmit. Not the thunderclap, but how our bodies respond to the boom.”
Matti also describes poetry as a portal, a sentiment echoed in Hyejung Kook’s essay “Poetry as Prayer.” She writes:
“Poetry, like prayer, comes out of urgency and necessity and at times desperation. Both involve a calling out from the heart, addressed to an Other with the hope of being heard.”
In 2022, I took part in a project called Writing the Land, a series of anthologies based around land trusts across the country, with a focus on conservation and sustainability. Each poet is paired with a regional land trust and its affiliated organization, with poets visiting the trust and writing about the land in their own unique styles. It’s helmed by Lis McLoughlin and has grown in scope in the past year-and-a-half, and I was delighted to see one of its new anthologies out this spring, From Root to Seed: Black, Brown, and Indigenous Poets Write the Northeast (NatureCulture), edited by Samaa Abdurraqib.
Many of the featured poets write with a similar sense of magical/spiritual connection to the land as those in Poetry as Spellcasting, showcasing a diverse appreciation of this country. As Joy George writes in her poem “The power of the people the color of the earth”:
“The power of the people the color of the earth
Comes from our magic and skillfulness in disruption
So much so
That the ones who came to conquer us called our trickster gods ‘the Devil’
And our medicine women ‘witches’”
Black and brown poets celebrate and honor the so-called U.S. Northeastern lands with the power of poetry as spell, as portal, as endarkening, and as reclamation. As Shanta Lee writes in the introduction, “The spellwork is the verses that invite you to do a noticing while you allow yourself to become engaged in an undeniable seduction and destruction that is what we want to stamp as the wild as if we are separate from it. However, what these poets remind us is that the concept of separation is impossible just as undeniable as the woven fact of violence, death, beauty and just-is-ness that is nature itself/ourselves.”
If you read enough poetry, as I do, especially by BIPOC poets, you see the weaving of energetic movement in a particular direction. Both Poetry as Spellcasting and From Root to Seed encompass the transfiguration of whitewashed “nature” poetry into a magical garden bursting at the seams with our newly recovered threads of ancestral memories and a deep reconnection to our bodies as inseparable from the earth. We must cover ourselves in the earth, its black soil, its brown dirt, to rebirth our survival. This invitation to endarkening, the spell being cast, is for every single one of us to come back to ourselves. As Ashini J. Desai writes in the poem “Winter of Resilience”:
“I realized I had naively grieved for trees,
as victims of nature’s force, suffering a silent death.
Yet, it was only a quiet dormancy —
a contemplative state to heal and recover from the elements.
Like the trees, we bend and crack when we uphold an unnatural weight.
Our burdens fall when a part of us breaks.
We sit on our knees and wait.
Eventually we will stand upright and sprout supple green stems.”
Angela María Spring is the owner of Duende District, a mobile boutique bookstore for and by people of color, where all are welcome. She holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College, and you can find her most recent poems in Muzzle Magazine, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, Pilgrimage, PANK, Rust + Moth, Radar Poetry, and Glass: A Journal of Poetry. Her essays and reviews are at Catapult, Lit Hub, and Tor.com. Follow her on Twitter at @BurquenaBoricua.