18 March 2012

The Witch's Index: Spells, Incantations, Poems

In the Notes section of Megan Gannon's chapbook The Witch's Index: Spells, Incantations, Poems (Sweet Publications, 2012), the author extends a debt of gratitude to Sandra Gilbert, Susan Gubar, and their book Madwoman in the Attic. The scholars, in their seminal feminist text, note how “afflictions...such as anorexia, agorophobia, claustrophobia...aphasia, and amnesia...strike a disproportionate number of women” (36).

Gannon's use of the witch-figure and her corresponding spells, then, makes perfect sense when placed within the context of Madwoman in the Attic. The witch, as Gilbert and Gubar mention, can conjure a “patriarchally defined association between creative women and monsters”; but from a female point of view, the witch functions as an archetype “who seeks the power of self-articulation,” and therefore presents herself more completely “from the inside out.” To the scholars' minds, self-articulation heals the speaker in that it “exorcises the sentences which bred her infection,” freeing her “of the despair she inhaled.” The Witch's Index, in many ways, can be read as an elixir for the maladies and “uncertain words” (4) that the speaker has inhaled, but an elixir that needs to be stored in safekeeping.

Not coincidentally, Gannon opens her chapbook with the trope of breath, returning to it regularly in order to exorcise afflictions and transmit identity. In the collection's first poem, “Casting Spell,” we find the following image:
      mother leaning over us at night to see
we're breathing, tells us, it keeps traveling,
the sound you send out (3)
During the poem “Wide Spaces Spell” we are told:
                         breath a thread
endlessly, casing so small
a spiral could crush one
lost on updrafts of every
further shrinking (10)
In the first instance, breath acts as a sign of life and a sonic projection of oneself; but in the latter of these two examples, the lines make us aware of breath's fragility and the possibility that it could be crushed or lost.

If there is a single poem in The Witch's Index that most fully realizes breath as both a mode of self-articulation and an inherently vulnerable concept, it would have to be “Echo Spell”:
If there is a voice who speaks
for air, for the widening four directions
unmappable within a longing for fits
of shattered, battering light, if her voice
holds inside it the brightened, less
cageable winds within a never
so ceaseless the body is a season shifting
against a spectrum of sun, then in
speaking the self is a shadow end of all
possible harbors, a shell turning
in the relentless glitter of a tide, awe full
in the shocked emptiness of unnaming
  Who speaks
  for directions
  forfeits
  her voice,
  endless
  within a ever-
  shifting
  unthinning,
  wind of all
  sheltering,
  tide of all
  among. (11)
To begin with, the speaker's “voice / holds inside it the brightened, less / cageable wind” that is “never so ceaseless.” But in “speaking the self,” the speaker compares her being to “a shell turning / in the relentless glitter of a tide” that is filled with awe “in the shocked emptiness of unnaming.” This metaphor, of course, could be read in multiple ways. On the one hand, we could read the image the speaker uses in her comparison as a naturally occurring but ornamental object communing with the ocean and its glittering tide; on the other hand, we could read it as something small and unmoored that is lost within a vast ocean and beholden to more powerful tides.

We can read the poem's formal structure in a similar manner. On the one hand, the second echo stanza could be, as Gilbert and Gubar wrote: “a complex vibration...that undercuts and ridicules the genre being employed” through a “radical misreading of patriarchal poetics”; on the other hand, the echo stanza could be read as a forfeiture of the speaker's voice since it shifts the original poem's meaning and intent.

Neither of these reading, I think, are correct in-and-of themselves. Instead, to employ both readings allows us to understand the voice, the breath, and the articulation as a self-projection imbued with life, but also as a tenuous construct subject to the “unmappable, heartless dark” (3).

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