Millennial Mysticism: Why Contemporary Poets Are Turning to the Occult: Spells: 21st-Century Occult Poetry Argues That Poems Are Spells

By Estruch, Sarala | New Statesman (1996), January 18, 2019 | Go to article overview

Millennial Mysticism: Why Contemporary Poets Are Turning to the Occult: Spells: 21st-Century Occult Poetry Argues That Poems Are Spells


Estruch, Sarala, New Statesman (1996)


Is there something inherently magical about poetry? Spells: 21st-Century Occult Poetry argues forcefully in the affirmative. Yes, there is power in the naming of things. Yes, the rhythms and repetitions of poetry are akin to incantations.

An anthology edited by Sarah Shin and Rebecca Tamas, Spells is the first publication of the new esoteric press Ignota Books, which "publishes at the intersection of technology, myth-making and magic". (Ignota's other publications are a 2019 diary "filled with historically significant magical and sacred dates from around the world", and a print edition of the academic paper that first devised Bitcoin.) As Shin and Tamas insist in the book's promotional materials: "Spells are poems; poetry is spelling."

An illuminating introduction from the film critic and poet So Mayer opens with a quotation from Ursula K Le Guin, author of The Wizard of Earthsea (l968):

Magic exists in most societies in one way or another. And one of the forms it exists in a lot of places is, if you know a thing's true name, you have power over the thing, or the person.

This collection of 36 poems, by contemporary American and British poets, can be read as a eulogy for Le Guin, who died a year ago, and a celebration of the ways in which she enriched literature, particularly through her explorations of magic and the supernatural, and her championing of the imagination over the limitations of empirical knowledge. In "Come to Dust" (the poem of Le Guin's that is included here) the speaker addresses the "Spirit" that has been held by "matter" and commands it to "rehearse the journeys of the body/that are to come" and to realise that "All earth's dust/has been life, held soul, is holy".

The anthology repeatedly turns to the relationships between language and power, memory and the self. In "For Those Who Mispronounce My Name", Kayo Chingonyi writes about the significance of names and naming, and the crucial importance of pronouncing a name correctly:

   Did no one tell you
   naming is a magical act,
   words giving shape
   to life, life revivified
   by utterance,
   so long as proper care
   is taken to pronounce
   the words correctly
   thereby completing the spell?

In "1947: Spell to Reverse a Line", Bhanu Kapil writes about her mother's memory of crossing the line dividing India and Pakistan during the partition, and casts a spell-poem to begin unravelling the trauma of all those who experienced the partition directly, as well as the "inherited trauma" given to their descendants, "like the water passed from one generation to/another, placed in the hands of each person in turn". …

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