“Incantation” by Sadiqa de Meijer
The poem “Incantation,” written by Sadiqa de Meijer, is included in The Walrus (April 2020). I’ve included a screen shot of the poem below, which is also freely available to read on the web here.
In January 1904, in a letter to an art historian and friend, a twenty-year-old (!) Franz Kafka wrote this now-famous rationale for literature — an impassioned reason for reading:
I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. That is my belief.
To paraphrase: books should hurt us; they should shake and bruise and awaken us. They should arouse in us a great unyielding grief and an incomprehensible sense of solitude. To remix Kafka’s awesome “axe for the frozen sea” line, they should thaw the icy atrophy of our minds to allow a new, unimpeded passage.
Kafka’s belief in destabilizing books reminds me of another, more recent quotation by the now-tarnished David Foster Wallace: “Good fiction should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” For the 20-year-old artist, or for any creative type burning with poverty and angst, art must be dangerous, or else it will seem too much like the dreaded world of the bourgeoisie: a world of politeness, narrow-mindedness, cruelty and indifference. Leaping 118 years ahead of Kafka’s Prague, this is today a world of corporate culture and consumer products; a lack of curiosity in the artistic, philosophical, or spiritual; a commitment to grasping materialism and a revelry in shallow appearance, in empty gesture; and a moral coldness to colonial-capitalism’s rapacious wounds, its limitless victims, which includes people, animals and the planet. This is a polite but ruthless society, prone to prudishness and conspiracy. They have no need of books, and those that do exist are balms, distractions, rather than axes meant to cleave.
I conjure this tired, rather suss conflict in arts and artistic production, in ideological positioning, to introduce our talk on “Incantation” because our speaker has summoned this famous Kafkaesque axe — and for me it sits over our reading of the poem like a sword of Damocles, promising peril. But let’s leave it here for now, as if poised to drop.
The poem begins with setting. We are draped in the “Cider light of spring” — an airy, sibilant image, summoning a palette of oranges, browns and yellows, the crispness of apples, the sweet tartness of something mulled, heady or alcoholic. If we read the next line, “perforates the maples—”, as continuing the rhythm above (certainly an option for “perforates”), then we have two lines of trochaic trimeter. Each line contains long-vowel internal rhyme (cīder + līght, perforātes + māples). These words are also easy to pronounce: I feel like they’re mostly voiced at the front of the mouth — bilabial, labio-dental, interdental, etc. Sweet harmony. An easygoing, open couplet.
The next line, “they bloom in tight vermillion packets”, shifts the rhythm but continues the elegance in iambs and elevated diction (not pierces, but perforates; not red, but vermillion). Hold up, though. “Packets” is funny, isn’t it? It performs a very subtle shift from a natural to industrial vocabulary — a fabricated, plastic description. Seeing it here also makes me backtrack; I now see “perforates” as a verb that might accompany manufactured packaging, not sunlight through leaves and branches.
Even with these odd words, or this imagistic discordance, a more consistent continuation of the above might be “they bloom in tight vermillion packets/ each devoured in turn by squirrels at work” or something. The next line, “that the squirrels chew, discard” casts off this stately pace. The line is blunt, rhythmically, and drops the logical conjunction between chew and discard. The “squirrels” (never an easy word to say) gnaw and litter. They eat and bounce. After this, it’s “Fabric of small aggregates of families”: rhyming “fabric” with “packets” above and continuing our general connotational movement from nature to an icier tonality: a more synthetic, modern perspective. Speak this line aloud, exaggeratedly, and feel yourself grimace with all the unrounded æ sounds, perhaps even uncomfortably (expose those teeth!). It then hits us with “pushbikes, buckets, stuffies” — three thudding troches, three ʌ sounds (uh!), blunt commodities, plastics — to form a fragment, missing the verb.
Overall, these three couplets are creating an overlay of feelings: an understated ambiguity. We’re still setting scene, but we’re flickering between the bucolic and graceful and a lurking sense of ugliness and utility, of garbage and litter — and these ideas are folded into one another. For me, this gets summed up in the couplet, “Single thunder of the metal slide undenting./ The mothers clutch coffees, they wave and relate.” The first line has balance in consonants and vowels (“single thunder” + “slide undenting”). It’s lovely and archaic sounding in the adverbial ending (“the slide undenting”). But it blends a natural image (“thunder”) with the thought of a dirty metal sheet. Those ʌ sounds, heard in “pushbikes, buckets, stuffies”, reappear in “thunder” and “undenting”, “mothers” and “clutch”. The sentence fragments revert to complete clauses as the “mothers” partake in a communal activity — “they wave and relate.” But they also “clutch coffees,” which, even as it maintains harmony by rhyming with “families” two lines above, cannot be read without condescending judgment. A sneer.
Then: “I’m not quite right.” Ah! Here a speaker ‘appears’ in the poem, creating a lyric narrator. They also resolve the mounting stress we’re feeling — even if we don’t recognize it just yet in our first reading — by siding with discomfort, validating our subtle sense that something’s off. “The mothers” haunts this line — with the admission that “I’m not quite right”, these moms are reformed as a brood, a collective: clutching strangers in opposition to the speaker. Hands mark this narrator’s otherness; neither waving nor clutching a coffee, “one hand pushes the swing, the other holds an open book”. Hands also explain why the speaker is enfolded, or why this person indeed belongs in this scene: they are a parent, or guardian, pushing a swing. In other words, they are present and absent, a part and apart.
In fact, a substantial aspect of their attention resides in the “paper valley of an elsewhere,” or the transporting dimension of a text, which is also “an axe, Kafka said —” So here we arrive at that promised discussion — polemical, oppositional, kind of suspect — of what a work of literature should be: an axe “for the frozen sea inside us.” Let’s continue to orient ourselves and summarize the poem so far: we’re listening to a speaker describe their experience in an urban (or suburban) park, pushing a swing (presumably with a child in it!), surrounded by both gorgeous spring-time blooming and the detritus, plastic debris and coffee cups, of other mothers and their children. The speaker lets us feel this beauty and ugliness, and then openly says, “I’m not quite right.” They are vibrating with social, perhaps culture- or class-based dissonance. And what is the engine, the locus of this separateness? A book — a “paper valley of an elsewhere. And an axe”. The speaker is a reader; they perceive, and feel, as a reader does. And they see in the literature they consume a need for disaster and rupture, a grief far from the security and happiness of the domestic.
As many creative people might attest, art can both justify and perpetuate our feeling of distance from our peers. This distance might begin in disappointment, in shame or loneliness, for not being able to bond or participate as we assume we should. So we look to books to fill this hurt, to repair the blow to our ego. Art rushes in to vindicate our perspective; we find dialogue with other estranged creators. And what we find and share here, in the “paper valley of an elsewhere”, is often a sense of being elite (a specialness, bought with bitter struggle). Or so the story goes. Blithely happy people read books to continue their feeling of success, if they read at all. We read to be stabbed, and to be transformed. With Kafka, we read so we do not become the comfortable, happy bourgeois people for whom art is idiotic, or inconsequential; we do not freeze — morally, emotionally — like them but stay attuned to a more thrilling, radiant, ecstatic, intelligent, curious (etcetera) realm of being. But we may also read to seek solace in a mirror. We may read to feel superior, the pleasure of superiority, over those with whom could not bond, or by whom we were pushed away.
What is our speaker feeling? At this juncture, “Incantation” surprises us with a shift to dialogue. The speaker addresses their child directly: “love, I recalibrated all catastrophes/ when you were born,/ and they were worse—”. This is one way in which the speaker is “not quite right.” With a nasal, clicking, cerebral-sounding line like, “recalibrated all catastrophes” (beep, boop!), we see someone possessed of too much imaginative speculation — someone who cannot partake in the dance of mothers and children wholeheartedly, unselfconsciously, because of this worry. The rhythmic balance between “when you were born,/ and they were worse—” brings a sense of even-keeled weight to this realization: plainspoken, unadorned certainty.
The em-dash, with an elliptical, somewhat disorienting quality, jumps us into sharper focus on what these “catastrophes” might be, or from where they might emerge. For our speaker, reader, worrier and social bystander, it’s “the sloping lines I read/ in gulps while automatically repeating/ wheeeeeee”. The lines are “sloping”, presumably, because the book is held in one hand, canted. They are read “in gulps” both to signal thirst, voraciousness, and to summon to mind that cliched image of an anxious swallow (eek!). The adverb and verb, “automatically repeating”, sustain the robotic, analytic quality of “recalibrated all catastrophes”: the mind attaches to worrisome thoughts, indulges in horrific fantasies, while performing functional motions and empty verbal cues (in this case, a most ironic “wheeeeeee”). This is a speaker divorced from the bloom and joy of the present; they are living in a fantasy projection, and one addled or stoked by text. This realization comes even before the next, confirming revelation: the child flies “elliptically out/ of my attention, which should be undivided”.
Instead of being present and attentive, the speaker is “skulking for the possibility/ that words/ could suddenly align the elements—” Sonically, I’m sold and serenaded with the rhyming echo of “sloping” and “gulps” in “skulking,” all the long ē sounds in “catastrophes,” “automatically repeating”, “wheeeeee”, “elliptically”, “possibility” and “suddenly.” But it’s also here that I feel some confusion well up — the poem ceases to follow a perfectly linear plot. Do you feel the same disorientation start to seep in? We’re delving deeper now into parenthetical asides created by em-dashes (we’re exploring parentheses within parentheses and soon we’ll be within another bracketing set). This is also the continuation of one rolling sentence, starting with “And an axe, Kafka said—”, which will see us through the rest of the poem (the first 11 lines have six sentences, or faux-sentence fragments; the next 20 lines, roughly two-thirds of the poem, are sustained by this long, dash-strewn clause).
Beyond punctuation, I think there’s some narrative disjointedness, too, and it rests in the wish that “words could suddenly align the elements—”. Maybe we can backtrack to repair our befuddlement. Books are Kafkaesque axes, we’re told: they wound and dismember. They cleave the speaker, all blade-like, from paying mind to the happy parkland scene, to the other parentals and to the kid in the swing. Instead, they are seen to worsen, rather than alleviate, the speaker’s notion of catastrophe, of bad endings, which have developed in response to parenthood. So far, so good. But now it seems the speaker turns to books not to be aggrieved or “banished,” to use Kafka’s term, but to “suddenly align the elements—”. In other words, books are sought to make sense of, or to soothe, their confusion.
Strange. This took me several reads to screw together. Now, as I write this little talk, I’m more pleased than thrown by its swerve. Briefly, we should return to the notion of the “axe” of literature. Books are art — they wield a brutal edge that turns our worries into terrors! They exacerbate the fact that things lack cohesion, that no comfort can exist in the face of unlimited catastrophe or, as the poem suggests, the unthinkable eventuality of harm — and harm specifically befalling one’s child. But to the speaker, this is no virtue — in fact, it’s more of a cold truth, and one better ignored or avoided. The speaker reads with a false but understandable, maybe relatable, hope: that books might allay their fears, or make things make sense. Is that right? This is the swerve: that the speaker corroborates Kafka but does not endorse his vision (his youthful, ardent, rallying cry).
The rest of the poem elaborates on what our speaker’s hoped-for harmony might have encompassed, had it lurked in books:
[that] every gesture
has a choreography: rope climber in its tilted
orbit, woman emptying
a shoe of sand, fledgling
robin’s skimming flight— …
A “choreography” implies a plan, a script of movement. These are purely visual images; with the combination of “align the elements” and “tilted/ orbit,” I see a celestial dance of spheres, satellites, helixes and curving arcs (it’s a pay-off to how the swinging child moves “elliptically out” a few lines earlier). There is harmony in the spheres! Children climb like tumblers, circus performers. Women pull sand from shoes. With rhythmic troches and a flickering tongue we watch, and pronounce, the “fledgling/ robin’s skimming flight—” which once again lands and bounds away with a punctual dash. Woman, child and bird are part of a recognizable, comfortable sequence: gone is the class-based discomfort and gone is the condescension. The scene ceases to be dissonant, even in the poem’s subtle way of being dissonant: things are what they are, simply, without struggle.
Superior to natural, universal alignment is the speaker’s sense of relief. In other words, art, or literature, has not only brought order outside, but solace within. They are “forgiven, bookish, motherly” — they have fused what were primary oppositional forces operating in the poem. The speaker is a mother even among “clutching” mothers (the bourgeois, the comfortable) and they can dwell simultaneously in the “paper valley of an elsewhere” (and stand apart as the artist, the exile, the disturbed). In seeking escape, they find union. Literature resolves, paradoxically, the social conflict and the angst it was generated by, for now the “weave, made visible, leaves nothing out,/ not even you, not even me.”
A happy ending, then. All is well. If only this were not a fantasy, a projected outcome! Remember that the speaker has clearly not found this choreography, this metaphysical cohesion, and this corresponding social fit. This is what they wish to find. Whether they ever do is not captured here, in this short poem, but I don’t think it’s very likely.
William Gass wrote:
Ordinary readers want their view of the world reinforced; they want to be reassured that wickedness is really wickedness, that all is well in just the way they wish it were, that all is not well in just the way they like to fear; they want to wear a text like gardening pants; they want romance, escape, or sameness.
Harsh words for the ordinary reader. But aren’t we all, from time to time, the “ordinary” reader quoted here? Even the most punk, transgressive, avant-garde, or uncompromising among us sometimes seeks that mirror of comfort I spoke about earlier. We want to see, as Gass scoffs at, a world reflective of how we hope it is — not what it really is. To see clearly, constantly, without a soft or smudged lens of hope, might be too cold. It might be beyond our powers as ordinary readers, each with our small torments and fears that start at birth and sometimes continue beyond our own small deaths.
If we follow Gass, and deride the ordinary reader’s pedestrian hope for “romance, escape, or sameness,” chiding their wish that books reflect their narrow view of the world, we should also be sure not to elevate other views as if an endless dance of empathy or role-play could get us out of dodge. Trying on someone else’s hat (or, to use the cliché, walking in their shoes) is surely, demonstrably valuable, but it still means you’re wearing a hat or pair of sneaks. Trying on another “view” still traps us in a view, and almost any view you can imagine in turn comes with hope, comfort, fear, and dread: the same board, just a different arrangement of pieces. Experiencing other positions and perspectives keeps us within the same language games and mazes necessitated by limited perspective. An opinion or perspective is, by nature, necessarily limited, necessarily incoherent because it can be seen from a limitless set of external perspectives. This is why, when one engages in sincere Zen training (and please forgive this small personal, digressive reference), one learns to very slowly drop opinions, views, perspectives, full stop. It is very difficult. But in the drop, we arrive at suchness, in being just as it is. It seems there is a world outside of ourselves, after all. It seems there is a park, filled with robins and vermillion leaves, and mothers emptying boots of sand. The world “leaves nothing out/ not even you, not even me.”
For Kafka, a book should be a disaster; how dare it make us happy? For Wallace, there’s no point in a book comforting the already comfortable. For Gass, books that reinforce pre-existent worldviews belong to ordinary (merely ordinary!) readers. Prodded in any way, these three perspectives dissolve into gibberish. But despite this, I will bet my meagre savings that holding such views relentlessly (clutching them!) produced extraordinary pains for these three ‘giants’ of western literature. I would bet even more money that, regardless of who we are and what we do, the most hurt and aggrieved among us are those who hold our opinions with the fiercest of passion.
For the speaker of “Incantation,” I feel this struggle to determine what opinion is true, what worldview might alleviate their sorrow and worry. I feel in them this endlessly compelling reason to return to books. I feel in them something I feel, deeply, myself: that at heart I am nothing but an ordinary reader. And though I know that there is no magic way to save those I love — known with certainty as fixed as a frozen sea — I will look for help anyway. Even in books.