Friday, April 04, 2014

Review of Spells: New and Selected Poems by Annie Finch

Review of Spells: New and Selected Poems by Annie Finch
(Wesleyan University Press, 2013)
By Lawrence Kessenich

In the preface to this collection, which covers her poetic works from 1970 to approximately 2010 (the pieces in the New Poems section are not dated) Annie Finch promises a lot of variety:

The collection includes lyric and narrative poems, performance texts, verse drama, translations, libretti, chants, rituals, elegies, sonnets, villanelles, ars poetica, epithalmia, valentines, prayers, letters, dialogues, pastiche, and other shapes. Most of the poems are spoken in ancient and contemporary rhythms: sapphics, cretics, dactyls, amphibrachs, trochees, anapests, folk stanzas, iambs, and others.

I was afraid that this was a lot for Finch to bite off—and for me to chew. But once I was immersed in the work, I didn’t really think about form all that much, except in a very few places where, for me, the form called a bit to much attention to itself. But mostly the book is a rich feast of words.

The structure of the volume is also interesting, presenting the poems in reverse order of their creation, starting with new poems and moving backward a decade at a time. This seems to me a very sensible way to present a significant portion of a life’s work, because most of us feel that our latest work is our best, so why not start there?

Spells is a good title for this book, because, as Finch herself puts it, “As a Wiccan, I write poems as incantations to strengthen our connections to each other, to the passage of time, and to the sacred cycles of nature.”

The first poem where that incantatory quality comes across is “Your Land,” a poem that plays on the old Woody Guthrie song, “This Land is Your Land,” mostly known in its sanitized version, which eliminates the two more political verses Guthrie originally included. Finch’s poem restores the political commentary to this subject with lines such as:

As I went walking in the land of our heart,
I found animals crying.

and (about trees)

They turned in their power and knowledge and pain.
Their arms grew wide open, their lives fell apart.

The incantatory quality comes in using the words “As I went walking” to begin each stanza and in having a single-line stanza after each of the longer ones that echoes the song: “This land is your land, this land is my land.”
“The Naming” uses surnames as incantations:

Weinstein, Villanueva, West, Sadaque,
(Spirals, dust and some spiraling dust and hours)
Bowman, Burns, Kawauchi, Buchanan, Reilly,
Reese, Ognibene.

While I like this approach, and love the wonderful variety of the names Finch uses (over fifty of them throughout the poem), I wasn’t always certain that the names provided a pleasing enough rhythm.

In a much shorter poem, “Walk With Me,” however, the rhythm is strong enough to create a true sense of incantation. Here it is in its entirety:

Walk with me just a while, body of sunlight,
body of grass, surface of trees,
head bending to the earth we have tasted,
body of death, surface of leaves.
Sinking hooves in the mud by the river,
root of the live earth, live through my body.
Sinking body, walk in me now.

The Wiccan celebration of earth is clearly and powerfully communicated here.

Although nature is by far the most common subject of Finch’s work, she applies her highly sensual sensibility to other subjects, even to something as simple as baking bread.  I really enjoy these opening lines in “Wild Yeast:”

Rumbling a way up my dough’s heavy throat to its head,
seeping the trailed, airborne daughters down into the core,
bubbles go rioting through my long-kneaded new bread;
softly, now, breath of the wildest yeast starts to roar.

Her sensuality and love of nature and the incantatory all serve her well in a poem called “Two Bodies,” about making love, which begins like this:

Two bodies, balanced mass and power,
move in a bed through the dark,
under the earliest human hour.
A night rocks, like an ark.

They reach through the ceilings of the night,
tall as animals.
Through their valleys bends the light
of their fertile hills.

The book also includes a section on performance pieces—and I say “on” rather than “of” for a reason. For me, the excerpts are too short to get a sense of the whole, especially when there are no summaries of what comes before or after the excerpts. I would perhaps have preferred one longer piece, so we could see how it played out in full. But Finch’s sensuality, sensitivity to nature and partiality to the incantatory are well demonstrated in what’s here.

The final section contains Finch’s translations and co-translations of four poets: Louise Labé, Anna Akhmatova, Andrée Chedid and a fragment from Sappho. They are all high-quality translations, but I was particularly taken with Labé’s work, all sonnets, which I hadn’t previously known. Here are the first six lines of Finch’s translation of the Labé poem “Sonnet 16 [Impotence]” to convey a sense of their power:

After a time in which thunder and hail
have beaten the mountains—the Caucasian height—
a fine day comes, and they’re clothed again in light.
When Phoebus has covered the land with his circling trail,
he dives to the ocean again, and his sister, pale
with her pointed crown, moves back into our sight.

Considering her own work, one can see why Finch’s sensibility would mesh well with Labé’s. She serves this poet well as her translator.

I’ll end with an excerpt from the beginning of a poem, “Samhain” (named after a Wiccan celebration of those who have died) that, for me, well characterizes all of the aspects of Finch’s poetry—subject matter, sensibility and use of form:

In the season leaves should love,
since it gives them leave to move
through the wind, towards the ground
they were watching while the hung,
legend says there is a seam
stitching darkness like a name.

Now when dying grasses veil
earth from the sky in one last pale
wave, as autumn dies to bring
winter back, and then the spring,
we who die ourselves can peel
back another kind of veil

that hangs among us like thick smoke…


  1. Great to see this thorough and thoughtful review here. Thanks Doug for your attention to the book.

  2. I mean, thank you Lawrence!