A long meditation on conception and its attendant rigors as complicated by infertility, miscarriage, and the simple baggage of living, Little Spells is Jennifer K. Sweeney’s third volume of poetry (How to Live on Bread and Music, Salt Memory), and there is nothing spare, nothing abbreviated or stark about the volume. Divided into five titled sections, the poems take every approach, with forms ranging from traditional lyrics and narratives, to prose and experimental poems, to long poems that are whole sections themselves. Yet, no matter the poem or section, the volume never shifts from its intense engagement with the speaker’s quest for motherhood.
Because the desire for motherhood is central, clear, and persistent, what the volume is about needs little interpretation. How the volume goes about this work is perhaps the better question. Each of the five sections varies in focus and form. Some sections, like ‘Four: still life with egg,’ consist of a single long poem; this particular poem-cum-section comprises 14 numbered stanzas, each functioning as its own dynamic engagement with the section title. Other sections are a series of poems organized around a central motif. ‘Two: cliffside narrative’ presents unlikely mentors in the form of fairy tales with instructions and coda, ten poems about people desperate for children. When consuming the volume, the reader likewise becomes consumed with the speaker’s burning desire for a child, the poems presenting a long progress of turning and returning to motherhood in an attempt to decode the mystery of how to get there from here.
In many ways, Little Spells is a hero’s journey, taking readers from the ordinary world of conception and trying for a baby into the special world of infertility and miscarriage before returning victorious and changed to the ordinary world of pregnancy and early motherhood. In this world, motherhood is both the prize and call to action. And, to be clear, biological motherhood is privileged here if only in the way other means of achieving motherhood are not addressed. As the volume’s first poem, “Abandoning the Hives,” suggests, everything in Sweeney’s motherhood “depends on this refusal of happiness”—the specific happiness of childless partnership, adoption, and fostering among others—in favor of the singular quest to conceive and bear a child. In service to her quest, Sweeney readily appropriates everything—spells, science, magical items, and divergent, wide-ranging medical modalities—and weaves it into an intricate personal symbolism she divines into the magic of motherhood.
Much of the volume throbs with a feeling of arrested passage, with core images and motifs revisited in multiple poems. Although her desire for a child is clear from the first, her infertility comes to light slowly, and words like “egg,” “bee,” “bread,” “nest,” and “blue” become correlatives for both barrenness and bearing. The word “blue” alone arcs across 13 poems with countless other poems evoking it through references to water and sky. Blue surrounds her; it is what she yearns for, what she grapples with, what she can and cannot grasp. The first use is in “Happy People,” who, we’re told, have “one blue secret,” as contrasted with “Winter, Parenthetical,” which finds the speaker trying to explain “the problem of inheritance in an office / lined with impossible babies, blue hush in the blood meridian.” The “effigy haunted blue in its silence” of “Aubade for the Thirteenth Hour” eventually becomes the “littlebluefish” son who eddies forth in “Sea-change” and “Wolf Lake,” the “blueprint of spring revealed / . . . and the blueprint of the boy.” “Orbit Song,” the volume’s last poem, is imbued with blue “for everything beaten and beating” is “born of blue ice, the blue scrim / of beyond that locates the tiny / helix on its stem.” Much like the failed pregnancies, when presented cumulatively, even such a simple word gains weight and substance.
Like any sane person, the accrual of failure causes Sweeney to question in poems like “Call and Response,” “Little Spells,” “Doc Solves Mystery of Frida Kahlo’s Infertility,” and “Elegy at Thirty Weeks.” Using questions in poetry is often problematic, more likely to undermine the speaker’s voice, a syntactic waffle that dulls the insight or image rather than resolves. But Sweeney exhibits a rare talent for asking questions that communicate answers. In “Beyond a Longing Lying Bluely,” she says:
Today I took out my questions again
and polished them to a shine,
student of listening for a quiver
of blood, have I been hearing it wrong?
Only to ask in “Aubade for the Thirteenth Hour,” after several more failed pregnancies and IVF treatments:
Couldn’t you feel my clutch
at street crossings? Didn’t you want to
watch the world go by from the helm
of our laps?
Particularly lovely is the echo between these questions, and how, sometimes, across the volume, a new question seems to be the only answer. In all Sweeney’s questions, the vulnerability of the speaker’s voice is palpable, a deep cry that breaks open poem after poem. Her cresting pain at the inability to conceive is transformed through pure need into a heartrending reflection of what breaks us all.
After the long protracted moment of her infertility, an indefinite season with no assurance of harvest, section ‘Five: gloss and grain’ sees the speaker achieve a pregnancy that culminates in successful delivery. Her quest complete, in “Nest: Revisited,” she reflects:
. . . the tease of symbols
having lost its charge,
loss no longer the lens
through which I attribute magic
and that gulleywash—hope—
though every hunter’s moon
and crushed blue egg ached
when my hands were huge
in their emptiness, it was my hunger
for such signs that kept me
lashed to the present.
The symbols that governed her along the way are ultimately a “divination of happenstance.” This attempt to frame a difficult passage of her life is perhaps one last act of magic, a deliberate affirmation of the present and a break with the yearning, empty self “downturned, eggless / struck from the horizontal” she had been on her journey to motherhood.
Yet, even when “the sobriety of motherhood” anchors her “inside / where a white fortress of love and milk / began to shudder into place,” a tornado siren and several hours in the basement with her newborn remind her that she “never rested easy / in your pre-life and here, throbbingly new, the world / continued to bleat forsake nothing.” Closing a book at journey’s end begs a happily-ever-after, victorious homecoming, relent from the psychic tolls paid for success, but Sweeney’s journey’s end is arrival, not endnotes and blank space. She is too experienced, too wary to let all her divination lapse. As the tornado siren suggests, eternal vigilance is always the price of life, even once the object of its magic is achieved.