Invocabulary by Gemma Files is a poetry collection with a humble beginning. The very dedication page caught my attention, and is worth quoting, since it is more than a standard opening:
To Sonya, who said why not start
writing poetry again; what’s the worst
that can happen?
(This, I suppose.)
The dedication works on two levels: as a nice nod to a fellow speculative fiction poet, Sonya Taaffe, and as a demonstration of the main thematic core of the entire work. Invocabulary is about invoking people--but it’s also about invoking the worst that can happen, and elevating both of these tasks to art. From poem to poem, the target of Files’s invocation shifts and changes, and she never fully commits to a standard object of worship, which thereby enables a sense of free-play and association throughout. Be it the Norse gods in “Lie-Father,” the elder Gods in a series of Lovecraftian poems, infamous serial killer Ed Gein in “Ed Gein at Night,” a prolific French letter writer Mme. Sévigné or even just a nameless ghost on a telephone, Gemma Files invokes numerous characters and real-life people to dine at her poetic table.
Many of her images are quite stunning and linger long after reading. I am fond of thinking of Little Red Riding Hood as someone with “Judas-hair” and I’m captivated by a haunted house filled with cupboards that are “grinning like rotted pumpkins.” Like many speculative poets, Files uses her keen insight into folklore and mythology to retell these stories with modern flair and sensibility. I particularly love the narrative poem about receiving an unknown god in the mail, and precisely because the narrator answered the door once, more and more packages filled with unknown gods keep coming and coming. “Build Your Own” manages to take the banal instance of online shopping and misdirected packages and use it as the basis of an urban legend with deeply Lovecraftian horror themes. After the boxes come daily, and the narrator’s apartment is filled with gods “small, large, benign, not,” the narrator sends out a prayer to be delivered from this torment. Files concludes her epic with:
No answer yet, but every little bit helps,
is all I can think (or hope).
Excuse me: the bell.
“Build Your Own” is the best example of what Files does well: unique comparisons, interesting language, fun anecdotes, and clever retellings. But these poems are not mere idle chatter or amusement traded among friends (though it can feel that way sometimes with the dedication page and numerous works also dedicated to Taaffe). There is a strong message running through so much of Files’s work--and there must be, since Invocabulary is part of Aqueduct’s Conversation Pieces series. The Conversation series often includes speculative poetry, but many other works have been novellas or collections of essays. The introduction to Invocabulary (and all others in this series) states that the publisher’s goal is to trace feminist SF’s “existence into the past and from there see its trajectory extending into our future.” Files’s work shares a similar goal, be it her poetry or her fiction.
I’m particularly fond of her fiction. Files’s novel Experimental Film won a Shirley Jackson Award in 2016; it is one of the better depictions I’ve seen of a “found footage” horror work. So easily these films/novels can descend into utter madness and depravity, but Files elevated that work to the level of art while also showcasing her devotion to film as a medium. I can see remnants of Experimental Film in some of the poems in Invocabulary, such as “Speedometer” and “Metropolis/Babel”; these two are among my favourites. I tended to enjoy her poems which dealt more with cities, modern life, and haunted houses since I could relate to them instantly while also seeing the echo of her former work. Meanwhile, while reading her denser and more narrative-based poems I sometimes felt like I needed to Google every other line. Files can be intense, whether it’s her poetry or the precise and particular knowledge of film that she showcased in her novel. This intensity and peculiarity is part of her charm, and I like it, even if I sometimes feel like I need multiple footnotes and annotations.
In one section of her novel Experimental Film, the main character talks about the concept of echolalia, where someone repeats the words of someone else unsolicited, and which is often diagnosed as a symptom of a broader disorder. Files uses this real-life phenomenon to haunting effect in her novel, but I also see echolalia within her poetry and constant retellings. We repeat these stories, be they about Little Red Riding Hood or the creepy objects that can possess us, because the very act of echoing something is terrifying; an echo is a disembodied voice that is us but not us, which startles and enchants. Echoing can also be quite beautiful. We repeat things, also, so we can take them back from others who have used and possibly misused them, and this is yet another core theme of Files’s work. She speaks (and re-speaks) for others who may or may not be heard. The main character of Experimental Film is a woman, a mother, and has a son with autism (which the lead character may also have); this is not your typical horror novel protagonist. I see the same echoes with this poetry collection, precisely because it is a Conversation Piece title, but also because so many of the stories Files retells are about women; showcase women; or explore their experiences in a particular way. Indeed, precisely because Files retells so many stories without committing to any particular mythos completely (though if pressed, I’d say she devotes much of her collection to cosmic horror—an observation I will return to), her work carries an anarchistic sense of rebellion. Little Red Riding Hood is now a Judas figure and Mme. Sévigné joins an opulent table for dinner. That’s pretty cool. And definitely a conversation starter.
In fact, I want to share something that can also be a conversation starter: I completely misread this title when I first received the work. Initially, I saw that Files had released something with Aqueduct and immediately wanted to read it, since I’d enjoyed Experimental Film so much. I knew it was poetry and that it was called Invocabulary, but I thought the title was a play on a different set of words and conditions. “Invocabulary”—the poem which starts the collection—is about invocation. It begins: “At this very moment, what I’m avoiding most of all / is laying a curse on you.”
The cover image of a stone tablet with an arcane carving furthers the theme of curses and incantations. After I read this poem and compared it to the image, I realized I hadn’t been thinking about invocation at all. I had thought Invocabulary was a reference to inner vocabulary; I’d thought this work was going to be an exploration of the dark and so-called mysterious depths of women’s experiences. Women’s internal bodies have always been mythologized—just look at Freud’s diagnosis of hysteria as the wandering womb—and women have also been simultaneously seen as the givers and destroyers of life in mythology itself. So that is what I thought this poetry collection was going to be about: the so-called cosmos inside a woman, how that was mishandled or misinterpreted, and how it could be reshaped.
I was wrong, but I also don’t think I was that wrong. Files is firmly staking herself in the language of curses, but to not see the connection with (cisgender) women’s bodies and perceived interiors is to also miss another point. To be a woman has been seen as a curse; menstruation is called “the curse”; and women without menses are often portrayed as the crone archetype, who can be viewed as a witch and decrepit figure who hands out these curses. And indeed, Files invokes the witch archetype in several poems. But instead of presenting the witch as a dried-out husk of a former woman, she romanticizes her as “sugar turning brown.” She imbues the figure with mythic power. It is impossible to not see how Files reverses certain mythological constructions—the father as all-god now becomes a deadbeat dad in “Bad Fathers”—and how she elevates myths in other constructions. Invocabulary is a prototypical feminist interpretation of numerous folkloric and mythic stories, which is, in a way, an inner vocabulary.
But I think that it’s when Files engages with the H. P. Lovecraft mythos and her own brand of cosmic horror that we truly see a real sense of “inner vocabulary.” The cosmic horror writer of “Call of Cthulhu” and Shadow Over Innsmouth was virulently racist (see here for a more in-depth treatment of said racism, if needed). Whenever I teach him in my fantasy class, I have to preface his work with this context, yet I don’t stop teaching him altogether because I think his work is important. I’m happy to see that Files, in this work of speculative poetry, still wants to acknowledge Lovecraft, while at the same time reworking his themes.
Some poems in the collection have been formerly published in a Lovecraft anthology; they are easy to find with their obvious references to his name in the title, and they are quite enjoyable, especially “Jars of Salt.” Once we move past these obvious odes, however, I start to see Files’s own voice in the allusions to Lovecraft; “Container of Ashes” is a great example of this transition from using the language of Lovecraft to merely riffing off Lovecraft and creating something new. “Container of Ashes” is similar to “Jars of Salt” in its construction, but uses bats and rhesus monkeys to provoke the same kind of fear of the cosmic unknown in a “city grid.” It is “Bits and Pieces,” however, which emerges as her own brand of cosmic horror, and gives me a solid image—or thesis statement--for what Invocabulary really is.
Women, as proven, are used to blood.
The old tall tale—worms split and form new worms,
eat each other, to learn what they already know.
Termite queens give birth to new
cosmologies, dynasties, language-universes.
It is here where my misunderstanding of this poetry collection as women’s inner vocabulary and the invocation of curses now merge together. The secret “language-universes” of women have often been used to hold them down or brand them as something Other—but in “Bits and Pieces” this secret language is now glorious, cosmic, and horrifying. Yet it is a horror that women are writing and controlling, and it is one where they will emerge as the elder gods. That’s kind of cool.
My one criticism of Files work is minor, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention it before concluding my otherwise laudatory review. While I love the occult world she plunges me into in every single poem, I also felt as if I was being pushed out of numerous other poems at the same time. This is the difficulty of speculative fiction that tries to set up a secondary world, but it’s also the major issue of poetry itself. We need years to understand all the elliptical references that John Milton put in his works. Why should any modern author of poetry be different? So while I loved some of Files poems, I felt lost in others—and I know for sure that others will feel utterly lost in some of the ones I loved. For instance, her poem about Ed Gein is incredible, especially the lines about “her crotch’s crease salted-stiff / with silver paint, fringed in red ribbon: A valentine sent straight from Babylon.” But these lines are particularly awesome only if you know exactly what Ed Gein’s house was filled with at the time of his arrest, and not everyone does (or wants to know!). Without that connection, the poem becomes obscure rather than occult. The knowledge at the heart of it is not hidden (the Latin translation for occult), but rather dark and doubtful (the Latin for obscure). The tension between what is occult and what is obscure is a fine line to walk, and not everyone does it well. Not even H. P. Lovecraft. When I taught his “Call of Cthulhu” this semester, one of my students remarked that Lovecraft seems to write about the thing he wants to talk about, and in my response to him, I explained the difference between the occult world and the obscure world. Files draws so much from Lovecraft that of course her brand of cosmic horror can feel quite obscure at times. But I like to think that it is deliberate, and it is obfuscation with a purpose. As she writes in “A Black Thraw,” “words / cannot be called back, no matter how hard you try. / That is why we call them spells.” Files’s language is deliberate--we call them spells, not anyone else—but it can be deeply unmooring. That is precisely the point.
All of this now brings me back to the dedication page. This work is a conversation piece in the grander scheme, the cosmic scheme, but it’s also so clearly a conversation between two friends as they bond over poetry. The dedication is a type of ekphrasis for the entire work. “What’s the worst that could happen?” is often the main point of a Lovecraft story. What’s the worst that could happen if Thurston reads the manuscript of his dead uncle? Oh, he discovers Cthulhu and now may die. But for Files and Taaffe, what’s the worst that could happen is this poetry book—which is to say, the worst that can happen is women creating another, long-lasting world so much bigger than we can comprehend. And if that’s the worst thing here, then I feel rather lucky, because it’s pretty cool, too.