by David Crews
Directangle Press, 2022
Reviewed by Anne Marie Wells
Not having known David Crews wrote his chapbook collection, Incantation, in response to John William Waterhouse’s painting, The Siren, I asked myself upon my first reading: “What are the speakers of these poems incanting?” If an incantation is a series of words recited or sung to invoke a magic spell, what is being conjured and why?
The incipit poem provides one answer to the “what” in the first line: “Come light.” A phrase in itself that can both invoke an invitation–Dear light, please come for a visit.–and a directive–Don’t come heavy, but rather come light.” And who doesn’t need more light(ness) in their life? The speaker calls upon magnolia blooms in a subsequent line and the rain even further on. Together the elements feel like ingredients thrown into a cauldron by the stirring poet, perhaps in hopes of creating a healing elixir: “…come fill / this low throb / and ache now.” This opening poem, in a way, sets an intention for the collection the way yogis are invited to set an intention at the beginning of their practice or the way a prayer is sometimes said before a meal. I imagine Crews choosing this poem to begin as if he were beginning the collection with the simple phrase of “I hope,” or “please.”
In the poems that follow, hints of bittersweetness pepper the pages, giving the reader more context for why hope may be needed in the first place.
The poem, “Just above water in some flight” ends with,
…[T]he sky opens each morning
swallows me whole Again and again
I am found I am lost
introducing a motif of presence and absence throughout the work. In “She remembers” the lines “[N]arwhals are dying, / you know, songs in the ice // their tusks a myth” elicits a feeling of impermanence, but more so a feeling of not believing if something from the past was real or not. Does absence leave a question of whether or not presence existed at all? The poem “In my dream you were there” continues the motif and answers the question: “I cannot ever know your touch / without having felt your absence”, in other words, absence does not negate presence’s existence, it in fact reaffirms it, since presence never could have existed without absence. They are tied together. One can only be felt because of the other.
The motif of presence and absence gives the reader a clearer understanding as to why the speaker may be invoking an incantation in the first place, perhaps needing more certainty and groundedness within the many images of water, vastness, and infinity found throughout the collection. “[I]n the ocean’s music / here the world will end”, “when horizon / stretches endless / to humpback breach”, “and what then / if she vanished into the sea”, “In the dream / you were gone / carried away on the crest of a wave“.
Toward the end of the short manuscript, the speaker seems to find that sense of completeness they searched for, creating a kind of optimism, a light in the dark, creating a feeling that the incantation served its purpose. “It feels like this world / wants to destroy itself / then / there you are This love so delicate, new”. Then upon reading Paul Genega’s afterword describing Waterhouse’s painting from 1900, and viewing the artwork myself, a deeper appreciation for the dialectic motif of presence and absence took root.
The work depicts a pale-skinned young woman with cascading auburn hair, sitting naked on ocean rocks, a lyre nestled under one arm. Her feet and ankles, scaled like a fish, rest upon the rocks’ moss above the waves. She peers into the sea below as if only just noticing the figure at her feet who gazes back up at her with the intensity of a drowning victim. Ropes dangle from the figure’s arm as if he represented an iteration of the Odysseus legend, an iteration in which he breaks free from the mast on his return home to Ithaca from the Trojan War. Is this nymph-like young woman actually a vicious monster hungry to taste man’s blood? Do her scaled feet and ankles indicate there’s more to her than what appears? Or do they indicate that she simply lives unashamed in her authentic self?
Is then, the incantation of this collection one that invokes as a spell, hoping to conjure whatever magic they need in their life at present? Or is the incantation a siren song luring the reader into the water with its beauty and apparent innocence, while hiding its ulterior objective? Can it be both? Or neither? “[W]hat ache comes / as though one could save the delicate / and unsaveable / remains just beyond reach… // … adrift, chilled / to bone”. Is the monster not the siren but the world that both she and the figure live in? Is it the water that keeps them apart?
Regardless, Incantation‘s ekphrastic origins reaffirmed in me the belief that art is never just art, and once departed from the artist’s hands, the beholder then has the right to interpret what they will. Crews’ ekphrastic exploration furthers my curiosity of Incantation’s catalyst more so than the incantation itself: what or who is the siren from Waterhouse’s painting? What or who is the figure within the water at the Siren’s feet? What or who sparked the hope or urge required for eliciting a magic spell, prayer, or siren song in the first place?
Each reader’s siren and each reader’s figure within the water will differ, of course. Crews’ collection may be a kaleidoscope to the many lenses through which these poems are absorbed. Each reader’s “light” will filter through their own life experiences to turn these poems into an incantation unique to each individual. With faith and a little magic, I believe each reader’s incantation will in turn render if not the outcome they want, then the outcome they need. If it is a siren song, disguised as hope and magic, I believe in this collection’s ability to invoke the courage within the reader to hold two opposite truths within the same hand: our monsters can, too, bring beauty into our lives; perhaps our monsters, too, can fill our low throbs and aches with light.