The Poetics of Spells

I’m really excited to have my essay, “Medusa and the Poetics of Spells” up at Guernica today. You can read it here.  The essay began as a craft talk for a poetry class and evolved into something much more historical and much  more personal, so I thought I’d share some outtakes of poems and essays that informed the earlier, more crafty version.

One definition of magic is “making things happen.” Under that rubric a spell is “words that make things happen.” In this context, a political poem can be understood as a spell. Especially the most powerful ones like:

Other spells, like the Anglo-Saxon aecerbot to heal barren or cursed land, or the healing spells practiced by the accused witch Lisbet Nypan, which we can read about in the testimony from her witch trial in 1670 (where she confessed only to being a healer and denied any and all charges of maleficium, contain a description of a previous time the spell worked that end in a plea for the magic to be repeated now. This formal balance between a prose and verse, between the how-to logistics and the ethereal use of rhythm and silence, reminds me of CA Conrad’s (SOMA)tics. (There are lots of examples here.) The way Conrad’s work also proposes magic is rooted in the powers of imagination, that a spell requires a speaker with a capacity for imagining a way justice or joy might be called forth, also reminds me of this ancient tradition.

Loricas and caims are ancient forms of protection spells that use litanies as a way to make a circle of language, to have the lines wrap their arms around the speaker. One famous example is St. Patrick’s lorica, also known as “The Deer’s Cry.” The story goes that St. Patrick recited this poem-spell to disguise himself and his followers as deer. I call bullshit on the suggestion that the enemies they sought protection from were druid warriors, though, or at least declare any enemy of a druid is an enemy of mine. Jennifer Givhan’s book Protection Spell is rich with more contemporary examples how the circle of a poem can become a shield. Here’s one.

I wrote a book-review essay on other contemporary poets whose work might be interpreted as spells for West Branch, available online here. Faylita Hicks, Kenji C. Liu, Gala Mukomalova, Ariana Reines, and Janaka Stucky’s work, reviewed in that essay, is always in the back of my mind when I’m writing and thinking about spells.

Published by Kathryn Nuernberger

Kathryn Nuernberger's latest books are THE WITCH OF EYE (Sarabande), an essay collection about witches and witch trials coming out in February 2021, and RUE (BOA, 2020), a collection of poems about plants historically used for birth control and pissed off feelings about patriarchal bullshit. The End of Pink (BOA 2016) won the James Laughlin Prize from the Academy of American Poets. Her collection of lyric essays is Brief Interviews with the Romantic Past (The Ohio State University Press, 2017). A recipient of fellowships from the NEA, American Antiquarian Society, Bakken Museum of Electricity in Life, H. J. Andrews Research Forest, She teaches in the creative writing program at University of Minnesota. Recent work appears in 32 Poems, Cincinnati Review, Copper Nickel, Gulf Coast, Paris Review, The Southern Review, and Waxwing.

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