Sundress Reads: Review of Book of Levitations

Anne Champion and Jenny Sadre-Orafai’s arresting new collection Book of Levitations (Trembling Pillow Press, 2020) is an intricate dance of spellwork, incantations, curses, and ghosts. Containing instructions on how to resurrect a dead animal, make a voodoo doll, and become a mermaid, these enigmatic poems both startle and spellbind. Champion and Sadre-Ofarai’s words conjure the mystic energy of divine female power, where girls shapeshift into wolves and women use magic to ensnare and enchant. Filled with both the ordinary—trampolines, moths, roadkill, and the underwire of bras—and the occult power of witchcraft and ritual, this collection is alive with the unexpected and the charmed.

Book of Levitations is an ode to the girls who experimented with Ouija boards and told fortunes with tea leaves and tarot cards. The opening poem of the collection, “Predictions,” is dedicated to the girls who “like boys, you too were born with power— / you just didn’t know how to steal, / asking politely, your fingertips / under your friend’s body, chanting / light as a feather, stiff as a board, waiting / for her to hover, searching the night / for hidden constellations.” In these poems, witchcraft becomes a source of hidden strength that releases women from their assigned gender roles, a divine female power universal in its scope. The women in Book of Levitations draw on the matriarchal lineage of power to subvert ideals of feminine beauty in order to harness the mythical power of womanhood. In “Mermaid Spell,” the speaker imagines her daughter seducing and killing men with her charms: “Your daughter will tell you she’s a mermaid / and you won’t disagree—every woman / is born into an ocean full of baits and hooks / and traps… You need her to transform mythical— / napping on coral and seducing lonely / sailors with her sexless body / only to drag them under and bind / them in seaweed.” Champion and Sadre-Orafai resist the romanticized image of a passive, beautiful mermaid by embracing the original legend warning of their danger, a reclamation of narrative control that recognizes the autonomy and power of mythical female figures.

Throughout Book of Levitations, the authors invoke spellwork as a means to counteract sexual harassment and empower women. In “Spell to Stop Harassment,” the speaker instructs the reader to collect a sachet of baby teeth, then “when you have a shiny row / of vagina fangs, fling your legs / open like an umbrella in a thunderstorm.” “Curse for Men Who Hurt Women” is a ritual for counteracting domestic abuse, harnessing the power of witchcraft to achieve autonomy and empowerment: “If he hunts you, bathe in gasoline and threaten / him with a match—if you must / set yourself on fire to escape, do it on your knees, / tell him sorry, sorry, sorry.” The spells in Book of Levitations are grounded in the tangible and ordinary, a recurring narrative thread of everyday objects that include baby teeth, chandeliers, saltwater, and flames. The ensuing imagery is both startling and memorable, a vivid depiction of the power of witchcraft to both enchant and repel.

The pages of this collection are haunted by the ghosts of dead lovers and the disappeared, who “stay / gone, disappeared bodies, / bone in dirt closets.” In “The Gone, the Disappeared,” the spell is dedicated to the families of missing people, “who keep / your pictures pinned / in sacred rooms, who / burn tall candles / at church, who roll / milagros at dinner tables.” Another poem, “Spell for a Widow,” begins: “Hear how the wind mouths the names of the vanished. It never / stops. No one answers it back. The widow’s chair creaks through / long dusks and unthinkable daylights… There’s no such thing as resurrection, only endurance.” The authors explore absence as not simply a state of departure with the potential for new growth but an all-encompassing condition that consumes the present and future. In “Spell for Dead Lovers,” the speaker reflects on the haunting nature of deceased lovers with each new encounter: “Skin regenerates / every few years, so the selves we used / to touch had already departed. / If I smell like dead / flowers, he won’t notice the scent of dead / names on my tongue. Were you hoping / for a spell that halts grief?”

A collaborative effort between Champion and Sadre-Orafai, Book of Levitations is an enchanting spellbook haunted by the witchy magic of girlhood. Filled with fairytale sorceresses, Ouija boards, and red blood moons, these poems are otherworldly and magical, a meditation on the enduring association between witchcraft and womanhood: “In every myth, there’s a good girl and a witch— / you already know which one is more real.” Here, the poets propose an alternate vision of femininity that allows women to harness full control of their romantic lives, dreams, and desires. The collection closes with an incantation to “burn a dollhouse back to ember. / Swallow the ash,” a haunting command reminiscent of Sylvia Plath’s “Lady Lazarus”—“Out of the ash / I rise with my red hair / And I eat men like air”—as well as the witch burnings of medieval Europe. Only through trial by fire, Champion and Sadre-Orafai suggest, will these women seize full control of their power and emerge anew.

Book of Levitations is available at Trembling Pillow Press

Eliza Browning is a student at Wheaton College in Massachusetts, where she studies English and art history. Her work has previously appeared in Rust + MothVagabond City LitContrary Magazine, and Up the Staircase Quarterly, among others. She is a poetry editor for EX/POST Magazine and reads poetry for COUNTERCLOCK Journal.