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.

The Wardrobe’s Best Dressed: Jenny Sadre-Orafai’s “Paper, Cotton, Leather”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Nullipara Song

If it doesn’t happen soon,
it just won’t.

The weight of a smaller hand
fisting my pointer finger.

Toothless smiles humming through
playpen netting.

Matching wallpaper to a duck
or sailboat theme.

Spooning powder cereal to water,
making bowled meals.

With a lean, walking the weighty body
slapping against a hip always.

This selection comes from Jenny Sadre-Orafai’s poetry book Paper, Cotton, Leather, available from Press 53! Purchase your copy here!

Jenny Sadre-Orafai is the author of PaperCottonLeather and four chapbooks. Recent poetry has appeared in Redivider, Eleven Eleven, Thrush Poetry Journal, PANK, Rhino, Sixth Finch, ILK, iO: A Journal of New American Poetry, and Poemeleon. Recent prose has appeared in The Rumpus, The Toast, and Delirious Hem. She is co-founding editor of Josephine Quarterly and an Associate Professor of English at Kennesaw State University.

Darren C. Demaree is the author of three poetry collections, As We Refer to Our Bodies (2013, 8th House), Temporary Champions (2014, Main Street Rag), and Not For Art For Prayer (2015, 8th House). He is the recipient of three Pushcart Prize nominations and a Best of the Net nomination. He is also a founding editor of Ovenbird Poetry and AltOhio. He is currently living in Columbus, Ohio with his wife and children.

The Wardrobe’s Best Dressed: Jenny Sadre-Orafai’s “Paper, Cotton, Leather”

Paper_Cotton_Leather_cover

Hand Me Down

Cards we played on our honeymoon are still in the pink
suitcase you were too masculine to carry out to the black
trunk of taxi. We thought things don’t change when you leave
home. There, taxis are yellow too. I left the cards you bought,

forgotten by you, in the suitcase you won’t open or touch.
I kept them there, spread out, code-like, as if summoning spirits
to see what we were made of. They are sprawled amongst
slight sand and salt, a bikini I never wore, a toothbrush I bought
the day of the wedding, thinking married, bride teeth must feel

different. I saved them spread out so that when our someday
daughter unearths the suitcase for her class trip
to somewhere foreign, the cards with pictures of half-naked
women will spill out, scatter her young ankles.

This selection comes from Jenny Sadre-Orafai’s poetry book Paper, Cotton, Leather, available from Press 53! Purchase your copy here!

Jenny Sadre-Orafai is the author of PaperCottonLeather and four chapbooks. Recent poetry has appeared in Redivider, Eleven Eleven, Thrush Poetry Journal, PANK, Rhino, Sixth Finch, ILK, iO: A Journal of New American Poetry, and Poemeleon. Recent prose has appeared in The Rumpus, The Toast, and Delirious Hem. She is co-founding editor of Josephine Quarterly and an Associate Professor of English at Kennesaw State University.

Darren C. Demaree is the author of three poetry collections, As We Refer to Our Bodies (2013, 8th House), Temporary Champions (2014, Main Street Rag), and Not For Art For Prayer (2015, 8th House). He is the recipient of three Pushcart Prize nominations and a Best of the Net nomination. He is also a founding editor of Ovenbird Poetry and AltOhio. He is currently living in Columbus, Ohio with his wife and children.

The Wardrobe’s Best Dressed: Jenny Sadre-Orafai’s “Paper, Cotton, Leather”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Brocade in the Water Garden

Their hooked lips are sewn
with the thinnest skins.
The mouths open and wait.

It seemed wrong to take
the picture. You were too close.
It seemed like a cheap move.

I stood over them. My reflection
off their slimy orange, wanting
their heads to sink.

I would say I saw before you
the stippled mouths move
toward the lens and shudder.

This selection comes from Jenny Sadre-Orafai’s poetry book Paper, Cotton, Leather, available from Press 53! Purchase your copy here!

Jenny Sadre-Orafai is the author of PaperCottonLeather and four chapbooks. Recent poetry has appeared in Redivider, Eleven Eleven, Thrush Poetry Journal, PANK, Rhino, Sixth Finch, ILK, iO: A Journal of New American Poetry, and Poemeleon. Recent prose has appeared in The Rumpus, The Toast, and Delirious Hem. She is co-founding editor of Josephine Quarterly and an Associate Professor of English at Kennesaw State University.

Darren C. Demaree is the author of three poetry collections, As We Refer to Our Bodies (2013, 8th House), Temporary Champions (2014, Main Street Rag), and Not For Art For Prayer (2015, 8th House). He is the recipient of three Pushcart Prize nominations and a Best of the Net nomination. He is also a founding editor of Ovenbird Poetry and AltOhio. He is currently living in Columbus, Ohio with his wife and children.

The Wardrobe’s Best Dressed: Jenny Sadre-Orafai’s “Paper, Cotton, Leather”

Paper_Cotton_Leather_cover

Failed Bearings

One weekend morning I mark
our woods with a trail while
you’re steeping in the shower.

The trail flails and is a comet,
a centipede curled into his death.
The symmetry is a hive.

As you dry off, I tell you: leave
behind the compass, the barometer,
the metal detector. Figure it out on your own.

I guide you to the trail’s mouth
and fire the emergency kit flare gun.
We needed the dramatic beginning.

My distress signal is a traitor,
listens to itself, pings out, diving
to bury itself in a stack of leaves.

Tapping a fingernail on my father’s
stopwatch hanging from my neck,
I ache for your failure. I refuse you clues.

I await your unsafe return. Without
breakfast, I imagine you hungry and weak.
I believe you’ll eat my patient display.

This selection comes from Jenny Sadre-Orafai’s poetry book Paper, Cotton, Leather, available from Press 53! Purchase your copy here!

Jenny Sadre-Orafai is the author of PaperCottonLeather and four chapbooks. Recent poetry has appeared in Redivider, Eleven Eleven, Thrush Poetry Journal, PANK, Rhino, Sixth Finch, ILK, iO: A Journal of New American Poetry, and Poemeleon. Recent prose has appeared in The Rumpus, The Toast, and Delirious Hem. She is co-founding editor of Josephine Quarterly and an Associate Professor of English at Kennesaw State University.

Darren C. Demaree is the author of three poetry collections, As We Refer to Our Bodies (2013, 8th House), Temporary Champions (2014, Main Street Rag), and Not For Art For Prayer (2015, 8th House). He is the recipient of three Pushcart Prize nominations and a Best of the Net nomination. He is also a founding editor of Ovenbird Poetry and AltOhio. He is currently living in Columbus, Ohio with his wife and children.

The Wardrobe’s Best Dressed: Jenny Sadre-Orafai’s “Paper, Cotton, Leather”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Forgiveness Act

My doppelganger would never let this happen. She’d
swap her frilled dress for your groom pants at the
altar. She’d fling her fickle body into cartwheels down
the flowered aisle, those hired-for-the-day instru-
ments sighing at her back like some flimsy net she
didn’t hear. No one in the audience would know what
comes next so they’ll grip their hands to fight their
own applause.

From this day forward she would remember every
grocery list in her head, eat slick doughnuts only to
be reminded of symmetry, let every first date feel
her up in the backseat before the date, trash old
tickets from movies and planes. She remembers
without them.

She would take up tightrope walking to hear the
bottoms of her feet slide across wire, devote practice
time to cartwheels and splits, her specialties. After
her first performance, she will look down to you
from her glittered perch, and since she can’t feel,
you have and hold all the applause for her. You hoard
it in a jar, your souvenir.

This selection comes from Jenny Sadre-Orafai’s poetry book Paper, Cotton, Leather, available from Press 53! Purchase your copy here!

Jenny Sadre-Orafai is the author of PaperCottonLeather and four chapbooks. Recent poetry has appeared in Redivider, Eleven Eleven, Thrush Poetry Journal, PANK, Rhino, Sixth Finch, ILK, iO: A Journal of New American Poetry, and Poemeleon. Recent prose has appeared in The Rumpus, The Toast, and Delirious Hem. She is co-founding editor of Josephine Quarterly and an Associate Professor of English at Kennesaw State University.

Darren C. Demaree is the author of three poetry collections, As We Refer to Our Bodies (2013, 8th House), Temporary Champions (2014, Main Street Rag), and Not For Art For Prayer (2015, 8th House). He is the recipient of three Pushcart Prize nominations and a Best of the Net nomination. He is also a founding editor of Ovenbird Poetry and AltOhio. He is currently living in Columbus, Ohio with his wife and children.