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Spells for the Apocalypse coverSpells for the Apocalypse, a small chapbook by the poet and academic Vivian Wagner, and published by Thirty West Publishing House in 2020, is a collection that has a tremendous amount of promise yet does not live up to the nearly impossible ambitions it sets for itself. Which is, in a way, a different kind of triumph: the ambition that leaks out of these poems is quite amazing, especially near the end. But I’m afraid that the apocalypse hinted at in the verses and alluded to directly in the chapbook’s title fails to meet reader expectation (especially given the landscape we're living in), or provide enough of an escape from our current predicament through fantasy or a completely different, alternative reality. The poems are simple, ordinary, and stunning at times—but there is little speculative element in some of them, and when they reach towards reality and try to comment on it, they inspire boredom rather than hope or awe.

Surely, this mismatch of audience and poet expectation is not what Wagner intended. This chapbook was published in July 2020; meaning that she had been working on these poems for at least six months before this date, possibly longer (and like most poets I know, most probably longer). So while this work was released in the midst of early COVID-19, there was no accounting for that landscape when Wagner assembled these tender and simple pieces which Thirty West would eventually publish. I tried to keep this in mind as I went through the work. As with most works I read, I usually look at the copyright page to get a sense of the historical and cultural context from which a work and the author’s voice emerges. So while I did my best to keep our current definitions of what apocalypse means out of my head, the reality of our everyday world would creep in, the inevitable comparison to the world Wagner projects in her verse would happen, and I’d find myself wanting more.

For instance, the first poem in the work is entitled “Confessions of a Blind Bulgarian Psychic” and draws comparisons between 9/11 (“planes crashing into towers”), “the fall of democracies,” and the “nuclear bombs scraping life / from the landscape like / butter off a dirty floor.” While these images are heartfelt and carefully chosen, they also make me want to roll my eyes for what Wagner attempts to make them stand in for: oblivion, annihilation, the end of the world. We are already quite familiar now with how that world will end. Not with a whimper and a bang any more, but with the duck-and-cover PSAs we’ve all seen, and the same footage from the Twin Towers collapse played over and over again. These are clichés, not profound moments any longer. Tragedy like this should not make me want to yawn. This is not Wagner’s fault entirely; it is simply the landscape we live in now, where the end of the world is spoken about all the time, and so it has become harder and harder to muster the energy to be moved by previous images of annihilation. Not only have we heard it all before, but now in the age of COVID-19, these images don’t apply in the same way.

The rest of this poem attempts to make a point similar for which I’m criticizing it. Indeed, she opens the work by explaining that “Everyone wants to hear about [the tragedies the speaker lists]” rather than the “smaller / prophesies.” As an artist, Wagner is aware that these images are cliché, that they are overwrought, but she, like her narrator, also decides that “those are the stories I tell” anyway. What she keeps to herself are those smaller and more subtle futures, describing the “silhouettes of deer” and the “sugar maples [that] will bud early” as sacred objects in this harsh world where no one understands her. The last line of the poem—about a wren that also adores the “quiet future”—should, once again, move me. But I’m still left annoyed rather than awed.

Don’t get me wrong: I want to like this poem. I think it could really move me. But in the same way I can’t muster up enough empathy and energy to care about the poetic images of annihilation that Wagner uses, because they all seem too far away from me, too distant and too rooted in the past, the plea for this quiet future also seems like folly and narcissism, especially as her narrator keeps it for herself. Maybe in July 2021, when I was getting vaccinated and things seemed like they were cooling off in the world, I would have an entirely different reaction to this poem and the world that Wagner creates with the rest of the pieces. But it’s now 2022, and the news about variants is never-ending, and my small circle of friends and family is fatigued. What quiet future?

None, there is none here. And if there was such a quiet future, why on earth would you keep it all for yourself?

Of course, I see the irony in the work—the poem is about a psychic, and by virtue of writing the poem she is not keeping those images to herself—so perhaps I am being too harsh. Vivian Wagner’s work is good; her lines are spare yet beautiful in many ways, and I shouldn’t project too much of my own frustrations onto her, or criticize her for the world she and I both live in now, when that world was still a distant image to both of us when these words were being penned. Why can’t I see Spells for the Apocalypse as a poetry collection devoted to moments of quiet futurity, a work where the poet wants us to notice the quotidian details in our everyday lives and nourish them with our attention? It seems like a noble goal, and one of the best uses of poetry, in my opinion, is to render the everyday beauty of the world in lyrical terms. When you add in the feeling of annihilation, these small moments seem completely worthy of devotion and dedication.

But Wagner contradicts herself, and these goals. In “Edge” she documents a narrator who looks out through a window as traffic ebbs and flows, a calm and seemingly wonderful vignette (similar to the short poem entitled “Doing Yoga During the Apocalypse,” which I loved), only to then add in a parenthesis “(and doesn’t it feel good this / warmth, doesn’t it not seem like / an apocalypse, a fiery end?)” which makes me unable to parse the speaker’s overall meaning. Is the apocalypse good? Do you want the world to end? When Wagner writes in “Edge,” “I feel like I am the last human on earth, / and maybe I am” I’m struck with the sense that the narrator is a small child, a sort of Joker figure, who is delighting in watching the world burn. I don’t think that’s what Wagner’s going for, though, and so, overall, I’m unsure how to read many of the poems in the first half of the work.

I really hate giving bad reviews and, truly, I do not think Wagner is a bad poet. Most of her poems in this collection are quite good, even if their timing or overall quality seems off-kilter. I think the fault in much of what I’m reading, and how I’m reading it, is inherent in the meaning of the word “apocalypse” itself. Derived from Latin and Greek origin words, apocalypse is built on apokalyptein (Greek, meaning to reveal or disclose) and apocalypsis (Latin, meaning revelation); there is a way in which I want Wagner to tell me something I don’t already know about the end of the world. I’m looking at her for revelations, for her spells to enchant me instead of revolt me. When she fails to achieve a rather lofty goal of inspiration and revelation, I feel let down that much more because of our current cultural climate. Or if she is successful—and she does wow me with many of her poems near the end of the collection—then I am left feeling as if I should be even more wowed, even more motivated to do something with these revelations, or else they mean nothing as they fade into obvious and hopeless destruction.

In other words, Wagner’s skill as a poet comes from her meditative quality, her quietude, her tenderness and kindness in her language. But when something—anything—is labeled apocalypse now, it’s yelling “fire” in a crowded theatre. And we’ve all got far too many opinions on what it may mean.

So let me then take the rest of this review to focus on the quiet nature that sometimes struggled against the stranglehold of the era this was published in. The second half of the book, with poems that focused on landscape and, particularly, Alaska, is the strongest. I believe this to be because of my own penchant for poems that deal with snow; I quite frankly don’t think there are ever enough of them, especially since snow is so pervasive in my part of the world (Canada, of course). Snow is also as poetic as it is frightening; snow can mean a wonderful and cozy night around the fire, but it can also mean the end of your life if you’re trapped in it. Snow is white, a blank canvas, maybe even neutral (though is anything neutral now?)—yet it can become so dirty so quickly and hold the stains of something tragic long after it is over.

The image of snow can, in this manner, be linked with an apocalypse narrative. A nuclear winter, a storm that does not stop, or even something like the vampires who charge through snow in 30 Days of Night or the zombies that emerge from their frozen graves in Dead Snow. When Wagner writes about the Alaskan winter (“After Alaska”), and the snow that falls in “Hatcher Pass,” her images hold the potential of fear and revelation that merely conjuring up images of past tragedies does not do in previous poems. Even when Wagner does evoke outright annihilation, in “3018,” her use of the image of snow once again—this time speaking about its absence—roots her language in something we can understand and crave along with her: “we see photos / of white covered hills, but we / no longer know how it / feels to hold a handful of / icy fluff as it melts.” Snow gives Wagner’s quiet poetry a solid image that we can latch onto, and it gives her observations some specificity that can become beautiful and deadly at the same time.

Take for instance, this poem entitled “Trash Day.” On the surface, it has nothing of the other poems in this collection. There is no outright mention of apocalypse, no snow, or hinting towards an Arctic rendering of the last days on earth, not even a gesture to a future technology. It’s just a story about people going to the dump and what they find there. Yet Wagner’s lines—“Trash is a naked opera / sung under a full moon / obscured by filth”—evoke the same presence of the snow: hidden and mysterious. The image she creates of the woman in the middle of the trash pile, and the song she sings, that is “the only sound / we can hear the only / song we can understand,” evokes the raving derelict at the end of the world, shouting the End Is Nigh. But because Wagner uses trash, and conjures unique images of that trash, this work manages to stand out amongst the rest. It’s simple, yet it’s tender. And this is where her work becomes the strongest: in that simple tenderness.

Because this is a chapbook, and only thirty-five pages in total, I’m only given so much to work with in terms of judging this book’s overall merit. And admittedly, it had a bit of a rough start with the earlier poems and my submergence in a cultural event that her title and her publisher could have never anticipated. But after finishing Wagner’s work, I’m not left with a permanent bad taste in my mouth; I’m left with the sense that a snowstorm outside my window at night gives me: a radiant, wonderful, and oddly compelling feeling of mystery for the future—but a future I can wait until the morning to truly see with my own eyes. I want to read more of Wagner; I’m intrigued by her; but I’m also not in any rush to go out and find more. I’ll wait and see what happens, and maybe in that time, my final opinion will emerge.

Or the world will end. Either way, one of us will be happy.

Eve Morton is a writer living in Ontario, Canada. She teaches university and college classes on media studies, academic writing, and genre literature, among other topics. She likes forensic science through the simplified lens of TV, and philosophy through the cinematic lens of Richard Linklater. Find more information on
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