Millennial mysticism: why contemporary poets are turning to the occult

Spells: 21st-Century Occult Poetry argues that poems are spells.

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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 Tamás, 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 Tamás 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 (1968):

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”.

Another recurring concern is that of
revolt, of fighting against the status quo, and the injustices issued against the disenfranchised and vulnerable. Nisha Ramayya describes shared experiences of attending rallies and protests with other women, while Dolly Turing writes in “The Past’s Future” about the recent Windrush scandal in a bold anthem:

We weaponize mold
to grow new forms. If fungus can eat plastic
we Mycelium are the fungus
that can eat these structures, it is not a drill but a
Growing, and the patterns can be moved through,
Can be adapted or SMASHED
We say NO to this
repeat pattern built of slavery.

Many of the poems in Spells explore the human experience through fantasy or the supernatural. Certainly, there is much here that is strange. Kaveh Akbar’s “Prayer” describes a girl’s stomach that is filled entirely with hair. In Emily Berry’s “Canopy”, the poet communes with trees: “They got inside us and made us speak; I said my first word in their/language: ‘canopy’.”

In Erica Scourti’s “Lost to the Phosphoros”, several lines of untranslated Greek appear within a predominantly English-language poem, raising questions about borders and the porousness of languages and cultures.

The diverse collection of poets opens up new ways of thinking, allowing room for ancient modes of knowledge (ritual, incantation, meditation, divination) as well as creating space for fresh ways of approaching the world. Spells succeeds in doing what Shin, who is also the co-founder of Ignota Books, has said her press is striving to achieve: developing “a language that makes possible the reimagining and re-enchantment of the world around us”. 

Sarala Estruch is a Ledbury poetry critic

Spells: 21st-Century Occult Poetry 
Edited by Sarah Shin and Rebecca Tamás
Ignota, 144pp, £12.99

This article appears in the 18 January 2019 issue of the New Statesman, How Brexit trapped Britain