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.

Project Bookshelf: Eliza Browning

My bookshelf is an assorted jumble of the books I’ve accumulated throughout the years from a variety of different sources, representing my shifting tastes and needs through high school and college. A revolving collection split between my home bookcases and my dorm room shelves, my books often undergo frequent purges and additions to compensate for limited space. Borrowed library books, a few old favorites, novels for English classes, and textbooks for my art history major crowd the mantel I use for storage in my dorm, while the rest of my books live year-round in two bookcases at home.

At the end of high school, I purged my bookshelf of most of my children’s lit and young adult books, saving my favorites and donating the rest to Little Free Libraries or my mother’s high school classroom. I retained my favorite books, some which were presents, and literary classics needed for my English major, many of which I inherited from the college collections of my mother and grandmother. I buy most of my books secondhand from the Internet or local used bookstores, which allows me to save money and buy more while purchasing books for class or pleasure. I also collect nineteenth-century books with embossed covers, many of which I find in antique stores or at the Book Barn in Niantic, Connecticut.

Many of my books have come to me by chance, gifted by friends and relatives, foraged from Little Free Libraries, or stolen from unused piles once owned by family members. Before leaving college, one of my friends gifted me almost his entire collection of philosophy and classics, dog-eared and coffee-stained. My collection ranges from classics to contemporary, poetry to nonfiction, theory to memoir, textbooks and Andy Steves’ Europe: City-Hopping on a Budget. I hope to one day have space for my own library in my future house or apartment, allowing my book collection to further expand and grow.

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

Meet Our New Intern: Eliza Browning

When I was four years old, my mother taught me how to write my middle name, Catherine, to apply for my first library card. It took a few tries, and I remember being jealous that my sister’s middle name, Mae, was so much easier to spell. Growing up as the daughter of an English teacher and a history teacher, I was lucky to live in a household filled with a love of books and learning. My sisters and I often wrote and performed our own plays and made up imaginative worlds for our original characters and toys.

Although I’ve always loved to read, I didn’t start writing seriously until high school. My school lacked many opportunities for creative writers and artists, so initially writing was a solitary hobby. I was fortunate to discover a community of talented young writers online and to participate in free workshops, including with The Adroit Journal, the YoungArts Foundation, and the COUNTERCLOCK Arts Collective. These opportunities changed my trajectory and allowed me to gain confidence in my own writing, experiences I hope to reciprocate in my future path as a writer. I am especially passionate about providing accessible opportunities to young and emerging writers, particularly those from traditionally underserved populations.

As a junior at Wheaton College in Massachusetts, I major in English and art history because I’m fascinated by the intersection between literary and visual culture. I also read poetry submissions and serve as a program director for COUNTERCLOCK Literary Arts, edit poetry for EX/POST Magazine, and will be a fellow in the inaugural Strange Tools Writer’s Workshop this spring. I’m excited and grateful to have the opportunity to intern with Sundress Publications to help others on their writing journeys and immerse myself further in literary culture.

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