Thursday, March 24, 2016

An Appreciation of LITTLE SPELLS by Jennifer K. Sweeney

Lots of poets have written about the liminal space between life and death—how consciousness, rooted in the body, becomes spirit. But few have addressed the other end, wherein spirit is first made flesh through pregnancy and birth.

Jennifer K. Sweeney offers a corrective in Little Spells (Kalamazoo: New Issues Press, 2015), a gorgeous collection centered in the pain of trying to conceive.

Maybe this topic has been largely ignored because it’s an experience rooted in the feminine. Although a couple tackles the problem of infertility together, it is the female body where the new flesh is to be housed and where the weight of the issue is measured. Perhaps we lump fertility together with the menstrual cycle—an even more pervasive reality for women, but one addressed mostly occasionally and obliquely, seldom head-on and at length.

Although I have not struggled with fertility, I know many women who have, and they report that the treatment process can be painful, humiliating, and soul crushing. Surely such a harrowing and all-encompassing experience is worth poetic treatment. And Sweeney demonstrates in Little Spells that this territory can sustain an entire book—all ninety-five pages of one.

This was a book that resisted abandonment. Something important was happening, and I couldn’t leave it until I saw it through to its fruition. Sweeney offers so many different views of her theme, from the very first poem, “Abandoning the Hives”:

Wake up, the currents of bees have fled
this hour of seed
dark imaginings in their week—
unsweet feverless drone.

Comb the hillside for sleepwalkers
drowsy on some chemical spool or
beg the swarm box to dance.

This initial fourteen-line poem, ending with its haunting row of empty jars, prefigures the crown of sonnets, “Still Life With Egg,” that comprises the center of the book. The series offers myriad views of the egg: “ceramic … lined with oyster skin,” “maraca,” “first / thought,” or, in number twelve of the sequence,

I held the cool weight
up to the light
this is an egg, tiny clock

of its own making, the shape
of wonder serious on our faces.

My favorite poem in the book is “Sea-change,” which offers the first clear indication that all of the speaker’s struggles have resolved in the realization of her desire:

after the waiting years     the leaden

keening oceanside for an answer

from the original dark     you emerge

distinct     one life perpetually not-there


then     suddenly at work with long division

sac of cells we

watched in the flux

out of via negative

you eddy forth

This stunning poem ends with a promise to the sac of cells, named “littlebluefish” or “littlebigheart” by the poet: “I will not forget / the profound absence from which / you began.”

I know this is just a book of poetry. No labwork was involved in its reading—there was no cool medical precision; that which is, by its nature, beautiful and private was not made sterile and public. But when I finally understood that the desire and the suffering and the cradling of that fragile egg had given way to new life, I celebrated. Little Spells let me feel it—and it let me share this particular joy. It’s a remarkable and important book in this way.

The lesson to the poet-reviewer: Don’t be afraid to get personal. Your pain can be your source.

Jennifer K. Sweeney is the author of three poetry collections: Little Spells (New Issues Press, 2015); How to Live on Bread and Music, which received the James Laughlin Award, the Perugia Press Prize, and a nomination for the Poets’ Prize; and Salt Memory. The recipient of a Pushcart Prize, Sweeney’s poems have recently appeared in American Poetry Review, Cimarron Review, Crab Orchard, Mid-American Review, New American Writing, Puerto del Sol, Thrush, and Verse Daily, and her nonfiction has appeared in The Washington Post. She lives in southern California's inland desert, where she teaches poetry privately and offers manuscript consultation. See more at

1.     What did you want to be when you grew up, and why?
The Easter Bunny, a marine biologist, a starring role on “Fame.” Eventually, seriously, I wanted to be a choreographer. I was legitimately a dancer and loved being in an empty studio playing with time and space and imagined bodies. The large-scale thrill of filling it was so satisfying and clarifying. But poetry, another temporal art, was probably what I was really practicing all along.

2.     What is the very best word in this collection? Explain.
One word. I am not good at being selective. I often draw together new compound words and phrases, so it would have to be one of these. Something that felt new and right in the moment, and as if to really say it, one word must be sidled up against another. Bloodlight. If the book reduces itself to offer one ripple, that is it.

3.     Describe your worst poetic habit.
Not making space for humor in poetry. I am a somewhat funny person, but I fail to make space for that in poems, and then during readings, again and again the thought that I would very much love to read that funny poem I’ve never written rrright about here.

4.     It’s time someone put out an anthology of poems about ___. Explain your reasoning.
I would love to see an anthology of directives—how to’s, rules, steps. My second book had a good number of “how to” poems in it, and I came to love the odd authority this kind of poem assumes. A book of strange bossy poetic advice would be good to have on hand.

5.     It’s your poetic obituary! Sum up your writing life with an essential (past-tense) statement about your poetry.
This is a terrifying question. I cannot look it in the eye. I will answer sideways by saying that although it isn’t the reason for making art, the only salve for mortality is art, knowing I have put something out there that might go on. 

Would you like to have your book considered for an Appreciation feature? It is eligible if it is no more than two years old or, better yet, forthcoming. You may send finished books or advanced reader copies to me at Karen Craigo, 723 S. McCann Ave., Springfield MO 65804. You may query at

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for highlighting this book. It's a wonderful book, and since my first book covered similar personal topics, I love that other women are writing about what used to be an invisible topic.