By Zara Raab
Many contemporary poets use meter and rhyme, and write in traditional forms such as villanelles, but they often do so selectively, for sizzle, like Chinese spices in California cuisine. Annie Finch’s new book, Spells: New and Selected Poems, collects work by a poet who finds in the meters of English poetry a spiritual mantra, an invocation–linked to the old spells of witchcraft–of powers lying hidden beneath of the surface of the ordinary, a way of achieving personal integration. Spells selects poems from four earlier books by this scholar, translator, librettist, critic, and women’s activist––a leviathan who foregoes improvised originality and edgy presentation for a more ascetic, fully achieved meaning.
Arranging the poems chronologically, Spells opens the 1990s decade with the rhymed sequence “Watching the Whale,” telling how the poet followed a whale that has
down through my life in the making of her difference,
fixing my mouth, with the offerings of silence,
on her dark whale-road where all green partings run
Annie Finch herself began to surface as a literary behemoth after working for decades in academia, earning degrees from Yale and later Stanford University, with the publication of her second book of poems, Eve. A series of critical works on poetic form, including The Body of Poetry: Essays on Women, Form, and the Poetic Self, and the more populist encyclopedic treatment of poetic forms, A Poet’s Craft: A Comprehensive Guide to Making and Sharing Your Poetry, secured her a place under the big tent in the late 20th Century’s Greatest Poetry Show on Earth. Adding to her many guises as translator, librettist, verse playwright, and editor, Finch was the founder in 1997 of WOMPO: The Discussion of Women’s Poetry Listserv, an on-line discussion of poetry that often brought forward, as inspiration and models, the work of foremothers, women poets neglected, forgotten, or silenced by history.
As a mammal apart from other mammals, and mostly hidden from view and silent to the majority of other mammals, the whale works as an emblem of the enormous aspect of life that necessarily goes on outside cultural or political notice: diurnal life in the cycle of seasons. Once hunted perilously close to extinction, the whale can seem a mostly silent presence, and for Finch, silence ” lies / under each word”. This is the paradox of the poet-word-smith’s life as “earth-digger”, “fire-maker,” “word-taker” and “sound-lover,” as Finch tells us in her “Blessing on the Poets.” In “A Carol for Carolyn,” Finch’s ode to her mentor, the poet Carolyn Kizer, Finch writes,
I dreamed of a poet who gave me a whale
that shadowed clear pools through the kelp-making shade.
The surface is broken and arching and full,
impelled by the passions of nation and woman.
The waves build and fall; the deep currents pull
toward rocky pools cupping the salt of the human.
Finch’s “silence under the word” can be the quiet of attention and mindfulness, or the silence of those rendered unable to speak, muted by the powerful. Key elements of the poem are silent, too: the verse line’s meter and rhythm have, to use Finch’s phrase, the “nonverbal, physical power” that Finch deems “radically important in reconnecting us with our human roots and rediscovering our intimacy with nature.” Some of those literary roots extend to white male poets, the literary dons who in the inexorable cycles of taste have themselves fallen into silence and neglect. Finch speaks for them, too, out of a kinship of aesthetic spirit. “Stone and Cloth and Paper” describes the monument of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in the courtyard of his old New England house, and Finch’s visit there to the marble urn in Longfellow’s yard that “has fallen, / knocked down in the emptiness of the fountain”.
Interviewed in the fall of 2014 by the Poetry Foundation, Finch was asked to select some favorite poems for autumn. Rather than contemporary free verse poems, as the moderator had expected, Finch chose among others a poem by Longfellow. She liked, she said, the way Longfellow’s lines of verse felt in her mouth. Reading aloud—or reciting by heart––with palpable pleasure, Finch opted for richness of aesthetic experience over the unexpected, edgy, or simply the original.
Death is the great silencer, and in “Frost’s Grave”, one of a handful of new poems in this collection, Finch seems to feel her own voice rise in the silence of the great poet’s:
I think of your quiet grave now and again
When innocence has rolled me out of sleep
Close to my husband’s side, to lean again
Against his breathing human side, to keep
Myself breathed in his liquid human breath.
I think of your nurturing grave so often. Death
Has made you a place I like to imagine going:
Opening the gate to your grave, entering in,
Reaping your silence where a small tree, growing
Generous in the forgiveness of your sin,
Leans over your stone, the grass, your bones, the grass,
The grass. The grass. I like to imagine frost there, hung
Like frost on a beach in November, when the sun
Rises on winter, just as it rose on spring,
On the humid decision to grow, past everything.
The fifteen lines of “Frost’s Grave” juxtapose praise with a dark understanding of Frost’s willingness “to grow, past everything” and all that implied. As in whale- watching or in “Stone and Cloth and Paper,” Finch here attends, beneath the words, the silence acknowledging pain and grief, given and undergone. If Finch’s deep scholarship prepares us for the formal qualities of homage to Frost or Longfellow, there are nonetheless elements of quiet subversion here, too. Resisting a tight sonnet form, Finch varies the meter from five to six beats and uses a falling rather than a rising rhythm; she adds an extra line to the usual fourteen, and she breaks from the rhyme scheme with “grass” in the 11th line, just after the place where a turn in a sonnet would normally fall. That “grass” calls out, almost as taunt. The sole unrhymed ending, “grass” rebels against the sonnet form long dominated by white male poets.
The influence of ten centuries of English literature doesn’t prepare for all goings-on in Spells. In titling her book thus and inviting readers “to speak these poems aloud (even if only in the mind), and to be open to the spells they cast,” Finch attempts to bring her early, more hermetic and culturally alternative poems into the main body of her work. With this title, she assumes the role of spell-caster, a suitable role for a pagan, a role she adopted early in her career and how she described herself at a public reading in Portland, Maine in 2014. Spells are invocations embodying the age-old connection between words and magic. The chant-like quality of a spell is evident in such poems as “Homebirth,” a hexameter 10-line stanza rhymed aa bb cc etc., whose lines often enjamb:
This is my body, which you made to break,
which gave you to make you, till you bear its mark,
which held you till you found your body to take,
(open at home on my bed in the dark.)
These lines recall flower children of the Sixties, as well as the Scottish folk ballads of an earlier time. Like many of the longer-lined poems in Spells, they seem to come from, and induce, a trance of mental associations. (This is the effect the critic and scholar Helen Vendler professed John Ashbery’s poems sometimes had on her.)
“Abortion Spell,” too, invokes the alternative culture of America at mid-century:
Hands born of woman will not stop this flood,
this generous, selfish, long-opening gift.
The poems from the 1970s and 1980s, especially, link to Finch’s life-long interest in the cult of the Goddess, and, to my mind, to the Brothers Grimm fairy-tale world of transformation and flux, of children conceived and lost, of grief, of wandering and sensual, sexual love; of tigers and autumn. Many poems are invocations, prayers, pleadings, requests, inquiries: They are full of portents and omens, entreaties, petitions, and warnings. Poems like “She That” and “Wine-Glass Woman” often use invented words and syntax, and reference madness and “high capascades”, mirrors, sand and dust, windows and looking-glass, invocations and muses, secrets and tender, mysterious tapestries, as well as unlikely intimacies and alliances.
Spell’s title poem, written in the 1970s, begins:
From music, I bore
Some gold-stone fins,
but they sank away
through the waffled shallows.
From nature, I gleaned
Some hope of rice—
But it edged deep away
In sunk stone bowls.
These stanzas owe something to William Wordsworth’s Lucy poems: “A violet by a mossy stone/ Half hidden from the eye!/ –Fair as a star, when only one / Is shining in the sky.” Finch’s poem “The Ages’ Years: A Dialogue” with its lines
Take me out to the autumn world, to roam
outside the legs of roaming, outside home
calls to mind another Romantic poet, the peasant poet John Claire and his “Child Harold” song, as well as other roaming nature poems of Claire’s (“I’ve wandered many a weary mile / Live in my heart was burning”).
More recent poems, like “Keys,” are less densely packed, tightly wound, as we saw in the paeans to Longfellow and Frost. “Keys” has three stanzas, each of nine lines, each end-rhymed abcbcbaca, and carries the theme of spells and calls up, not the gypsy camps Claire loved to visit deep in the glade, but a coven of witches meeting in the woods. “Keys” treats Finch’s perennial themes in a less dreamy way than her earlier lyrics.
Meanings, silent until we code them open,
Clued to us by the random knowing tribes:
Carvings, letters, hands, faces, symbols, stars.
Each warm friction’s vibration circumscribes
One more seat in the clearing where we are
Gathered, circling a home we can’t describe.
Opening locked places may itself be an act of magic going back to ancient history, folklore, and Ali Baba and the seven thieves.
A ring of keys hangs like a question at your side.
You move through the answering darkness like a key,
While windows of moonlight branch down the catacombs
And rustle each prisoner into mystery.
Each lock, like each room, is alone till the opening comes;
Below the surface, the totemic and iconic stirs with the mention of codes and rings, the locked boxes strewn all through Western culture, from Pandora’s box to the safe deposit boxes in a Swiss bank in the Jason Bourne movie thrillers. Finch’s allusive, metaphoric rendering gives us a key ring hanging like a question from the belt of the key master. We are in the dark, and darkness itself is a locked room, opened by the one who traverses it. Locks and keys naturally bring up liberty: “Liberty / repeats down the corridor”. The specific repeats infinitely in each individual instance.
There’s a lot to unpack in the dense structure of these lines. Ultimately, it is human and familial connection that interests this poet, with peace and reconciliation, not abstract notions of liberty, not noisy protest: “Exploding more showers of sweetness through the combs / Whose locks had been waiting for one key to be tried.” Finch puns to end the poem with the lover unlocking the beloved’s heart, as he combs her tresses, another word for locks.
The villanelle “Beach of Edges” recounts a lover’s quarrel, subject of many poems in the past half century’s gender wars. The poem’s narrator admits:
I want to go back to him, as to the land;
light, carry me over from the wild old grudges.
A drift of snow edges a new drift of sand;
Wet rocks yield to pebbles like opening hands.
Here we have feminist power, yes, but not rage. True power, Finch has shown us, is silent as the submerged whale. The desire for connection extends to the planet in “Earth Day” where the lines “All we want is to find the love in the faces of the people we love [. . . ] // All we want is to find the love/ in the face of the planet we love” echo John Lennon’s “All we need is love.” There are no fireworks in these poems, no pyrotechnics, no edginess, even on such politically rousing topics as the environment. Finch’s sense of love and diurnal power is also an inner one, almost ascetic, a world away from the onrush of sensory or visual detail that fills the lives of city dwellers, global tourists or cyber-explorers. The inward turning quality is evident in these intimate lines from “Revelry”:
Chairs root. Their trunks are runged with snow.
Curtains grow velvet thick, like bark,
in this warm landscape ringed with dark
Is passion only revelry?
Voices believe words and move free.
Lust moves our lips. Blood fills our skin.
We bend alive around cup and cloud.
These are the hours to revel in.
Over time, as her work matured, Annie Finch has reached beyond that hermetic system of language and thought with its small lexical range and repeated references to earth day and earth goddesses and sky goddesses, to dusk and home and bones. As the hermetic tendency falls away in the later work, Finch begins to showcase her impulse to originality within a broad cultural context, a trajectory fuelled and energized by the forms of traditional verse, learned from the texts of the dead, made new for the living.
Zara Raab’s books are Fracas & Asylum, Swimming the Eel, Rumpelstiltskin, or What’s in a Name? and The Book of Gretel, narrative poems of Northern California where she grew up. Her work, including reviews and essays, as well as poems, has appeared in Mezzo Cammin, Verse Daily, River Styx,Crab Orchard Review, Raven Chronicles, and The Dark Horse. She lives in western Massachusetts.