A Grimoire: Poems in Pursuit of Transformation

…call it break call it bloom

—Nadia Alexis, “Letter to My Friend Robert”


depend on poetry to connect me to a spirit of resistance. When my work seems to count for little, poems remind me that saying can be a kind of doing. They may not alter corrosive laws or troubled institutions, but they nurture communities of thinking and feeling. Islanded in a small town full of Confederate relics, I am sustained by poetry’s company.

This portfolio grew from my curiosity about what poetry can change in this world besides a personal sense of embattled aloneness. I could have been projecting when, in or around 2015, I detected an upsurge in a special kind of literary appeal and started calling it “uncanny activism.” Poems in this mode—prayers, spells, charms, curses, wishes, and invocations—imagine transformation nourished by mysterious forces, sometimes supernatural, sometimes ecopoetic, but always more-than-human. Maybe I just started paying a different kind of attention, or maybe poets really are exploring, in greater numbers, that old affinity between poetry and ritual utterance. Metamorphosis is physical as well as emotional, intellectual, and spiritual, so prayers and spells emphasize rhythm and other sound patterns that affect our bodies, even when we read silently. If reading and writing poetry can regulate respiration and soothe distress, why can’t we build on those effects to improve our ecosystems and our politics?

This grimoire contains poems that try to do so or document a process of trying. Among the experiments are varietals of medicinal charms from Lisa Russ Spaar and Luisa Caycedo-Kimura. Playful disarrangements of language by Sam Herschel Wein and Anna Lena Phillips Bell ward against sadness and laurel wilt disease. Nadia Alexis summons sugar and the power of flight; Yun Wei turns a litany into a counter-prescription; Chloe Martinez conjures a mandala; Luke Munson chronicles memory’s ceremonies; Renee Emerson channels secrets; Jeannine Hall Gailey dispels the very idea of divination. “At some point, you will have to deal with your body,” Carolyn Oliver warns us in a poem-as-manual, or we could, like Anna Maria Hong, “exeunt left.” Ann Fisher-Wirth and Simon Shieh give impossible, credible voice to the lost. Heid E. Erdrich locates sacredness in poetry and confronts the risk that it could disappear.

Ariana Benson’s poem comes to this issue via a different process—“Dear Moses Grandy…Love, the Great Dismal Swamp (1930)” was selected by Kyle Dargan for the Graybeal-Gowen Prize, with a citation included below—yet in giving voice to a landscape, Benson’s poem is an incantation that manifests hidden sympathies between a place and a human being. Likewise, finalist Erika Meitner invokes communities and lights candles against what threatens them; Chelsea Wagenaar imagines drinking a charm dissolved in water and presents instructions for a better future. Perhaps the way these pieces resonate with the portfolio confirms my intuition that uncanny activism is an ascendant poetic subgenre.

Some of these poems strike me as spells or counter-spells through and through. Others deploy eerie fragments in pursuit of different agendas. And that raises another possibility: maybe most poems, or most of the poems I’m drawn to, deploy aspects of incantation. In any case, I hope that some of these constellations of words open new possibilities for you. At minimum, I believe they’ll banish what ails you for as long as the syllables resonate.


Graybeal-Gowen Prize Citation

At the beginning of the pandemic, many American poets publicly questioned whether or they should write, whether or not people want to read or hear, poems responding to this strange and deadly experience we found ourselves in. I am thankful to those who found their way into rendering what we were (and are) living through, and thankful to those who continued to believe in and work on their drafts that predated, and whose relevance, was not erased by the pandemic. These submissions represented a mix of that—a stew of creative defiance and human hope. And as someone with many Virginia ties, and who has spent may days this year escaping on the Old Dominion banks of the Potomac, it was a privilege to read these works.


“Dear Moses Grandy . . . Love, the Great Dismal Swamp (1930)”
by Ariana Benson


In a year when a virus has driven us, maybe counterintuitively, out into the natural wilds, I must admit that I was likely primed to read Benson’s “Dear Moses Grandy . . . Love, the Great Dismal Swamp (1930).” There is a strange way that, when we are really in tune with the poems that we can uniquely write, they will always be “on time.” This persona piece, much like 2020 in America, weaves a mutual sensual gravity between human and nature with the hauntings of apparent violent pursuit and subjugation of brown people. And though the employed persona inherently operates on pathetic fallacy, it proves that, through one’s intent, a risky device can be made meaningful.


Honorable Mentions

“Audience Appreciation” by Erika Meitner
“How I Will Teach My Daughter to Mop” by Chelsea Wagenaar


I also want to commend Erika Meitner’s “Audience Appreciation” and Chelsea Wagenaar’s “How I Will Teach My Daughter to Mop.” Meitner’s piece, with its sophisticated subtlety, poignantly reminds me that for some of us 2020 and the pandemic was “the end of world”—their world—and how disorienting, though somehow necessary, it is to be one who did not die and still lives among, and witnesses, those who flout the broadscale death. A heart-heady poem. Wagenaar’s poem—whose title I initially misread as “map” because of its mapping nature—wades into the human fascination with experience, trauma, and genetics. How much of what the parent serves as sieve for migrates into the blood and bone of the child, and what, if anything, will we do to stem that? And the intersection of class and gender violence spotlighted by the pandemic (giving us new terms like “maskual harassment”) made this poem of hard pivots feel very weighty and anchored in the tides of this year.

—Kyle Dargan
Washington, D.C., December 2020

Lesley Wheeler is Shenandoah's poetry editor. Her new books are The State She’s In, her fifth poetry collection, and Unbecoming, her first novel. Her essay collection Poetry’s Possible Worlds is forthcoming in 2021. Her poems and essays appear in Kenyon Review, Ecotone, American Poetry Review, and elsewhere.