A Close Reading of “Elegy for My Father,” by Annie Finch

Detail of the cover of Spells: New and Selected Poems, by Annie Finch

Annie Finch titled her 2013 volume of selected poems Spells for good reason. A Wiccan as well as a poet, she recognizes the power of incantation in creating an altered consciousness, a state in which a strongly held vision can move from the realm of possibility into reality. Not all of Finch’s poems are visionary or transformative in intention, but they do share a powerfully persuasive incantatory quality.

Finch relies on a number of poetic techniques to create these incantations, most notably repetition of words and phrases and the use of iambs—the thump-THUMP of a heartbeat that calls up instinctive memories of the womb. But her repertory far exceeds the basic iamb, as we see in “Elegy for My Father.” While the poem definitely meets the criteria of an elegy – it recounts the vigil at her father’s deathbed – its complex dactylic meter runs counterpoint to the somber subject matter. Lines alternate between pure dactylic tetrameter and dactylic trimeter with a final, stressed syllable at the end, as in this example:

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Some Notes on Imbolc

  • Imbolc means “in milk,” or “in the belly.”
  • The Wheel of the Year turns to Imbolc on February 2.
  • If it is warm and sunny on this day, it will be cold for six more weeks. If it is cold and cloudy on this day, it will be cold for six more weeks.
  • Lambing season starts in February.
  • A shepherd’s hut is a tiny house on wheels.
  • At Imbolc, the shepherd is the trusted servant of the sheep. The lamb lies in the belly of the Great Mother. It emerges into darkness.
  • Shepherds wait in their tiny houses, they shiver and they stoke the fire.
  • They keep vigil with the ewes. They usher the lamb out into the cold.
  • Many cultures kill and eat a lamb in the spring. Easter happens near Ostara, when the sun shines merciless over the thawing ground.
  • Imbolc happens in darkness.
  • At the monastery, we would sing “Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world. Have mercy on us.”
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Annie Finch, Author of Spells: New and Selected Poems

Detail of the cover of Spells: New and Selected Poems, by Annie Finch
Photograph of poet Annie Finch and her cat Merlin
Annie Finch, author of Spells, and her cat Merlin

Fearless in its lyricism and expansive in its range, Annie Finch’s work spans four decades and encompasses eight books of poetry, a translation, and numerous anthologies, plays, libretti, and books and essays on poetics. The more I researched her, the more I wondered how our paths had never crossed before. Neither the poetry world nor the pagan world is all that large, and the overlap between them—pagans writing poetry with the depth and seriousness she brings to it—is even smaller. “As a Wiccan,” Finch writes in the foreword to Spells: New and Selected Poems, “I write poems as incantations to strengthen our connections to each other, to the passage of time, and to the sacred cycles of nature.” Her celebrations of the turning wheel of the year and her goddess invocations connect us with age-old traditions but root us in the present day with economic and unsentimental language. Consider these lines from “A Seed for Spring Equinox:” Continue reading “Annie Finch, Author of Spells: New and Selected Poems”

(In)Gratitude on Thanksgiving

All the FeelingsI recently heard a historian giving an interview about the original Thanksgiving. She pointed out that what made the English colonists so thankful was the awful year that had come before. The Pilgrims hadn’t meant to settle on a rocky coastline with poor soil and long, frigid winters. They’d been heading to Virginia but got blown off course and landed on Cape Cod in desperation. That first winter, they lost a huge chunk of their numbers to famine and illness. Native Americans in the area had also been decimated by a smallpox epidemic. If it weren’t for assistance from Squanto and treaties with other members of the Wampanoag, the Pilgrims would have been no more than a footnote in the history books.

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On Samhain and Being a Bad Witch

Think of the year as a wheel. Then divide that wheel at the Solstices and Equinoxes. Then divide it again between each of those days. That is the wheel of the year, and those eight holidays are the days when Wiccans mark the turning of the wheel. We call those days Sabbats, or the Sun Holidays. Samhain and Beltane are the two biggest deals in the Wiccan calendar. Many witches also observe the phases of the moons, or the Esbats. They’re important too, but I’m not going to talk about them right now. I’m going to talk about Samhain and why I am a bad witch.

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Trigger Warning: Jesus is Lord, Francis is Pope

Pope Francis’s recent visit to the United States raised a lot of complicated feelings for me. On the one hand, I’m glad he walks the walk of his namesake. In the other hand, it’s far too little and far too late; nothing he does or says in his tenure as Pope is likely to repair the damage of my Catholic upbringing. Continue reading “Trigger Warning: Jesus is Lord, Francis is Pope”

Review of Mark of Voodoo, by Sharon Caulder

Cover image of Mark of Voodoo by Sharon CaulderThere are a lot of books on the market about pagan and neo-pagan traditions like Wicca and Asatruar. There’s a smaller number of books about Afro-Carribean syncretic religions like Santeria, Voodoo, and Candomble. This is the only book I’ve come across that is the personal story of a voodoo priestess’s own reclamation of her heritage. It’s fascinating for a variety of reasons. Caulder’s personal story is wrenching and compelling, her description of her trip to Benin to rediscover her Voodoo roots is fascinating as travel writing and cultural comparison, and her account of the cultural differences between African Americans and native Africans is eye-opening. It’s also a good foil to the many myths and misconceptions that surround a religious tradition that, like any religion, has the potential for both good and evil.

Garden of Images – Women’s Circle Seaside Retreat Mandala

I drew this mandala during a seaside retreat with the Women’s Sacred Circle in Maine this September. We were there during the autumn equinox (Mabon in the Wiccan calendar) and it was a pretty magical weekend. The last morning I was there, I took my final swim of the season. The water was so cold I got pins and needles, but it was worth it.

Scan of a mandala drawn at a retreat with the women's sacred circle
Women’s Circle Retreat at Ferry Beach, Maine, September 2014

One Year After the Boston Marathon Bombing

Image of military vehicles in Boston in the aftermath of the 2013 marathon bombing.
Photo credit: Jeff Cutler (Flickr Creative Commons)

Ever since moving to Boston in 1999, I’ve been keenly aware of the ways in which I am separate from the city’s mainstream culture. As a queer woman, as a poet, as a [insert any one of a variety of labels that apply to me], I’m used to feeling different, apart, separate. About this time last year though, an odd thing happened.

In the hours and the days following the Boston Marathon bombing, I began to feel like I was part of a unified whole. That the Boston portrayed in the national press, the Boston of skinny white women sporting Tiffany bracelets in the Back Bay, the Boston of drunken Red Sox fans on the Green Line, the Boston of disaffected immigrants in search of a reason for living — that all of these Bostons — was also the Boston that I know: the Boston of slam poets congregating at the Cantab in Cambridge, the Boston of nerds in black turtlenecks eating sushi and joking about obscure internet memes, the Boston of queers congregating in living rooms and church basements, the Boston of police brutality and entrenched segregation.

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