Ideal Suggestions: Essays in Divinatory Poetics
By Selah Saterstrom
Essay Press, 2017
251 pages, $14.95
Reviewed by Torin Jensen
An exquisitely printed new book from Essay Press, Selah Saterstrom’s Ideal Suggestions: Essays in Divinatory Poetics dives deep into the crosscurrents of divination, narrative, and writing. In a series of lyric essays and accompanying notes on process, Saterstrom weaves together a radical approach to literary production and reception; divining is reading is writing is reading, a call to embrace “uncertainty, simultaneity, contradiction, paradox, and parable.”
The result is a collection of writing that hovers precariously in and out of your explicit comprehension and challenges you to fuse together the edges of what you implicitly understand is taking place. There are, however, significant waypoints that shape the essays and your reading of them: for one, Saterstrom is a long-practicing reader in the Southern Rootwork Divination style, a practice that runs in her family and which provides an ancestral, historical field to draw from throughout the book, as she connects the deeply intuitive practice of divination and making sense of the various narrative threads brought together by the Tarot’s symbology, and applies it to actual texts and other art forms.
Her collection also shares its title with a 1893 book by Henry C. Wood titled Ideal Suggestion Through Mental Photography: A Restorative System for Home and Private Use, Preceded by a Study of the Laws of Mental Healing, a volume that “maintained that one’s brain could photograph positive affirmations, or ideal suggestions.” As for “divinatory poetics,” Saterstrom declares:
“To me, this means participating (reading and writing) from within the membranous precincts between our multiple bodies in the larger rhizomic field of resonances, where much is sounding and is also unsounded.”
And finally, as for the lyrical essays themselves, she states, “The essays that follow take the genre at the site of its rhetorical spaceship casing, of the word ‘essay’ itself, an attempt.”
The attempts – there are six of them – take wildly different approaches at plumbing the realm of Saterstrom’s narrative constellations. The first and last essays read as the more accessible; that is, the way to read them is more apparent. Threading the end of a marriage, the repetitious prayer of the Rosary and its three mysteries (of the Mother), “On the Rosary as a Structural Paradigm for a Mirage” is a quiet series of vignettes written across nearly three decades. Together, they form a rhizomic field of grief that is both neatly delineated by decade and mystery (Joyful, Sorrowful, Glorious) and delicately wrinkled by lush prose that fills your mouth with its multivalent pronunciations and horizon-expanding allusions. “Touch doubles the word: the candles burn in symmetry// Your mouth is lovely, halves of a pomegranate, gospel,” she writes in “The Glorious Mysteries, carefully layering echoes of the Gospel of John, her first marriage, and the dualities of certain Tarot cards. Meister Eckhart and Simone Weil and Edmond Jabès make brief appearances and a pastor describes love in especially beautiful terms. But Saterstrom herself, in mapping out for the reader how to approach the piece, provides the most poignant line: “How we look for structures upon which to hang grief, but then how grief slips under the railing of its shadow and becomes a catacomb full of souls.”
In the final essay, “On Ideal Suggestions and the Paintings of Matthias Grünewald,” Saterstrom at last attempts a reading that combines both the ideal suggestions of Henry C. Wood and those of her own long-developed practice, bridging an ancestral space of over one hundred years with the art of Grünewald and its influence on her and her grandfather. Gathering her interpretations of his famous Isenheim Altarpiece, a triptych that invites multiple readings (as any Tarot card would) into a short, dense, lyric essay, Saterstrom teases out a vibrating, psychic palimpsest that hints at a narrative of loss and acceptance. She notes that the exercise failed to provide the sort of healing Wood intended, but for the reader inclined to raise from the nest of imaginative tailings an emotional whole, it was a pleasure to explore. Some kind of catharsis for the writer does seem to take place, though: “a horizon confesses another horizon.” The act of confession, of release, spun into a narrative, lyric essay, leads to some kind of gain, even if it is more narrative experimentation.
The meat of Ideal Suggestions is in the middle pieces, where Saterstrom’s alembic experimentation plays out with a series of enacted exercises. Here, the pleasures of her rich language are farther apart; more immediate is the hint of the narrative collaboration of the different ways of reading, or as she notes earlier, “reading-as-being,” punctuated and energized by ekphrasis, lived experience, and contributions from the writer’s friends. Sometimes, the pieces are shaped by physical metaphors, as in “Writing from the Exclusion Zone,” where a loose narrative is contoured by “the line” and “the funnel.” Other times, as in “The Tale of Brother and Sister,” the experiment loosens traumatic experiences with conceits of play and collaboration.
Readers familiar with CA Conrad’s Somatic exercises and Alice Notley’s metaphysical revelations will feel comfortable wading into Saterstrom’s realm. There’s “uncertainty, simultaneity, contradiction, paradox, and parable,” yes, but it’s bounded by imaginative, intuitive conceits when it needs to be while leaving room for the reader to straddle the border between the depth of their own experience and Saterstrom’s.