Holy Magic by Priscilla Long, published by Moon Path Press, 2020 Winner of the 2020 Sally Albiso Poetry Book Award
• The opening quotation
The source of Priscilla Long’s title tells something of her methods as a word-world builder. She is a practitioner of collage and catalog, of oral readings and artist communion, of scrupulous research and meticulous observation.
Wallace’s “Hey-di-ho,” a nonsensical musical line, places her focus on sound, on performance, on sharing art—as does the cover photo (by a member of her Seattle-area writers cohort, M. Anne Sweet) of the music stand on an empty stage, awaiting the arrival of the poet—in front of the reader, before the lights go up.
• The Table of Contents
Long divides her collection of 91 pages into 7 sections. Each section title includes a hue or suggests one. Find red, orange, grape-colored, blue, jade, bitter ale (I see amber), night and sun (I see black and white/bright). I anticipate explorations of color.
• The Holy Magic
56 poems, more than 6 pages of notes, more than 30 quotations.
Among the poems are many ekphrastics, some inspired by familiar artists, such as Picasso and Matisse, and others by lesser-knowns, such as Margaret Tomkins and Leonora Carrington. The poems and their epigraphs web-weave relationships between visual arts and artists, writing and writers, writings of artists, and memory, imagination, and observation. There are history poems and paleontology poems, celebrations and remembrances. The magic involves indigo, coal, Trayvon Martin, and T-Rex.
Colors evoke meaning. Doesn’t every reader bring associations to named colors? Priscilla Long endows colors with additional meanings. For example, in “Things That Are Yellow” (p. 37), Long lists butter and corn and urine, things a reader might bring to the poem, then veers personal and fraught with the last thing: “My/face, blue-black yellow/bruises—that memory.”
• A Selection of Color Words Long Uses—In Order, One from Each Poem
Priscilla Long attends to sound and form and their interplay. Among the recognizable forms: villanelle— “Black Diamonds,” pantoum—“Pterosaur Pantoum,” and ghazal—“Ghazal in Orange.” The familiar shapes of the familiar rhythms resonate with the predecessor poems in the same forms, and amp expectation for thematic returns. Weight accrues.
More than half of Holy Magic’s poems are in first person (singular and plural), although a number of these, not until a late turn, and, on at least one significant occasion, in the voice of another—her father. Five are in second person.
Most of the poems fit on a single page, many on half a page. This is a feature of Long: concision. She wastes no words. She wastes no lines. Yet she serves up sumptuous sonic combinations: “Oceans strange with sea urchins//or that unctuous orange octopus” from “Tarot Spread: Divination” (p. 21), and “Grotto of sleep, dark,/ not black but soft,/deepening to violet/below dream…” from “Abstraction” (p. 31).
Long’s great skill in and great love for research shines through this collection in its precision of descriptive diction, e.g. “Green air trembles dragonflies/amid horsetails and ginkgo/verdant beside warm seas.” From “Green Air” (p. 51), and its specific details, e.g. in the appearance of twelfth century coal mining practices in “Black Diamonds” (p. 75), and the tragic geography depicted in “Bluebirds” (p. 59). This precision may be thematic, but it is also sonic.
• A Poem That Made Me Cry
“His Daily Walk,” for Winslow Long (p.74).
“Whoever says/that man’s above a common bird/has never lost a child.”
• A Poem I have Reread Multiple Times
“Abstraction” Mark Rothko (p. 31). Here, in its entirety:
Grotto of sleep, dark, not black but soft, deepening to violet below dream, to underwater cave, imageless, edgeless, the dream of not dreaming, floating in corporeal darkness, down below down, a weightless weight, the self dissolved in a sea-change, strange caverns gathering night.