Amy Fleury’s Sympathetic Magic

Reviewed by Kevin Miller

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Sympathetic Magic, by Amy Fleury
Sympathetic Magic
By Amy Fleury
Southern Illinois University Press, 2013
ISBN: 978-0-8093-3224-3, 80 pages
Her second book of poems, Amy Fleury’s Sympathetic Magic is a wind’s whisper of illuminations eased into five sections, each new poem appearing as if by divination. It starts in the heart of the heartland and ventures beyond. To turn each page is a dowsing technique of its own. The first line of the second stanza of the title poem reads, “Sometimes what is needed comes to hand—.” This line falls quietly on the page, speaking of an unassuming possibility, as if, perhaps. Fleury’s lines are too humble to be prophecy, too tender to be imperative; nevertheless, they tip their hat to Yeats as they walk the path toward the closing “Spiritus Mundi.” It’s no understatement when the opening poem ends: “you lean toward / whatever is coming to you, the waters / of loving, the sump of loss. Lean in.” The choice is no choice really, Fleury casts her spell, and we find water.

Section One grounds us in detail and wonder. “Elk Skeleton” shows the benefits of leaning in: “… at dusk seven mule deer come / to browse the blanched grasses around the cabin.” Day closes as “these timid sisters nudge the bitter tufts.” Morning chills the window panes to leave the intricate “frost ferns.” While the title has us expecting the skeleton, the scene itself is a composed cathedral of bone: “Gone the ruminant heart, the once pink / and capacious lungs. On the spine / a moth opens its delicate hinge.” Fleury’s deft sequence starts with marvel, then slows in the hollow heart of bones. She ends on a rising note, the lovely elevating line: “a moth opens its delicate hinge.”

In these early poems, readers will find trust and comfort in simple things, “our pack of cousins / turned half-feral at the scent of rotting leaves, / yipping and kicking through brush up to our knees.” Even though the persona in “The Fort” is “the only girl, (who) stayed behind to make do” when the cousins are off “to war,” she is the one who says “I liked how being there made me feel wild inside.” In this poem’s end, our persona finds the light that connects us:

                                         When the quiet came
and the gray flannel of evening dropped
down on our haven, our hovel, the same,
it wasn’t darkness or cold that moved us
toward home. Always it was hunger.

Fleury’s good at uncovering an ember near the end of her poems, the barest flicker in the dark, in this case hunger and the need we share, our primal connection.

She continues to thread a steady and refined connection in time. “Penmanship” winds its way with the “slant / and weight of a pen stroke, this dying art— / the means by which we might come to know / one another, how we wish to be understood.” The speaker takes great care keeping her grandmother’s letters, showing us a way to tie generations, to keep alive the art of stringing lives together. What occurs in the last line works throughout the collection, the unseen magic the wind creates as it lifts us to “…The last upstroke, a scarf unfurled in a gust of wind.”

Fleury emphasizes place and focus—paying attention—with her specific and descriptive language. In “Bicentennial Year,” she marks time with linguistic compression: “Grown-ups said Nixon like a sneeze,” but ends the poem with place:

At school we got stars for being
courteous, helpful, and neat.
After morning bell we faced the flag
and said the pledge of allegiance.

The poem “Assumptions” uses six quatrains to show that paying attention is no guarantee for getting it right:

Only the plain girls stay in this town
where the quiet is so violent
that the sidewalks seethe and pitch,
where wind will chasten a face.

This sturdy, biting view works its way through town on a sensory tour “the rich shit smell of feedlots / clinging to their dollar bills.” The strength lies in honest, accurate, and clear appraisal, and then Fleury lets the lightning strike at the end of the poem, “…Whatever you believe / about a place, well, it’s going to be true.” Her use of the word ‘well’ assists in letting the casual reveal the conversational magic of the truth.

In a compass-like gesture, Section Two finds the persona making an X of her body as she lies down just outside of Lebanon, Kansas to “mark the middle, the nation’s navel.” This ten-line poem ends with an important image for the collection: “My heart is at the heart of my country.” After the wonder of discovery, these sustaining occurrences of sympathetic magic, the image of the heart at the heart connect the opening section with the “ordinal directions” to follow. Here, poems open and move. The center cannot hold; we escape in spite of wire barriers. In “A Brief History of Barbed Wire” we are moving outward:

Now a deputation of starlings alights the fence,

which does not hold snowmelt, pollen or smoke,
not the hawk, not the shadow of the hawk.

Evenings the strung wire thrums a hymn of wind.

Wind’s quick and unseen persistence continues. Whether it be the shadow of the hawk or the hymn of wind, these poems celebrate “that which will not be contained.” Poems like “Home Altar” and “Vocabulary of Ashes” continue this tricky pilgrimage, where “tiny flames will stutter out” yet strength is found in commonality. “We all live under the self-same moon, / no matter the phase.” Section Two ends with two poems of solitude speaking to a difficult truth. No cowering, just the courage to speak to common ties like uncertainty and frailty. “…I gather / an armload of wood so that I might make / a little fire for myself in the evening.”

How right the early line proves to be, for these poems have come to hand. They help us “lean toward.” And leaning opens us to the waters of loving, the sump of loss. It’s fitting these poems end with her own “Spiritus Mundi” and this final, opening couplet: “Listen round to the long sentence the land is saying, / to the wind rumoring through the aggregate grasses.” Fleury provides us a spirit world and allows us to recognize “our own shy gestures / in the weft of the fields.” These verses are a chance “to shiver and bend, press our knees / into the earth…” At the end of the final section, this is what’s needed. Fleury’s made it so, and the subtlety of her attention to and creation of sympathetic magic opens the eyes wide, and the heart wider.

 

Pleasure Boat Studio published Kevin Miller’s third collection Home & Away: The Old Town Poems in 2009. Blue Begonia Press published Everywhere Was Far and Light That Whispers Morning. He lives in Tacoma, Washington.

Header image courtesy Pixabay.

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