The Sunflower Cast a Spell to Save Us From the Void
(Nightboat Books, 2021)
In Jackie Wang’s The Sunflower Cast a Spell to Save Us from the Void (Nightboat Books, 2021), the eponymous void refers to our world of technologized alienation, which the book compares to a destroyed city. The cover features the poet as a child standing next to a sunflower, a flower with which she has apparently had a lifelong relationship. Throughout the poems, the sunflower retains a power to ward off the influence of the void. The book, which also functions as a frame for this photograph and a journal of doodled drawings as well as words, suggests that the poems are not the only part of the spell. The reader also needs the material objects the speaker uses to cast the spell.
The title can be read in two different ways. If the title is declarative, it is the title of an existential children’s book in which a sunflower casts a magical spell. Or it could be that the words of the title and the story they tell are themselves a spell. I am confirmed in my resolution to hear a spell cast over the void by the magical repetition on the first prefatory, unnumbered page:
(I dreamed I turned them in as my poems)
This prefatory poem discloses, within the parentheses, how the process of spell-making works. The words come to be on the page as a result of their being turned in, as the hair is turned in the making of a chignon. The words received via dream are both turned inward (taken to refer to the speaker’s unconscious) and submitted to others. The result is the repetition that turns the reader’s head—sunflower-like—toward the all-caps type that registers the magical transformation of words into objects, first accomplished in the dream. The words are now something like the chignons (of which the page includes two images).
The randomness of this allusion to the chignons evokes the decontextualized images and phrases that circulate on the internet. Perhaps the internet will save us from the void? People plugged in to the internet consciousness through social media can participate in the sense of occupying a ceaselessly active, collective mind:
But are you you? I am uneasy about the fact that I cannot verify it is you on the other end. You are writing to me with uncharacteristic effusiveness.
Revelation upon revelation scrolls on the giant LCD screen. About human sacrifice and religious experience, how everything felt boring after the riot.
It is too much! I want to pull away. Your scattershot epiphanies pierce me like bullets. I want a room just to sit in and contemplate what you are saying.
All I remember now: “hashtag of the future.”
You were near the ocean when it happened.
And though you must speak around the event I somehow grasp it perfectly. Not through cerebration but through the real-time experience of the emotions it stirred in you.
Looking at the enormous LCD screen, I am confused about who wrote what! In the puddle of our psychic fusion, I could have written your part.
When the speaker looks back at the old messages on AOL instant messenger in her dream, the mediation by the screen makes it seem as if the messages do not come from another person, but flash across a collective consciousness. But the void the internet promises to fill remains: “The ‘there’ (of ‘you’) was both the ocean and the state (of divine perfection).” There is no longer another person or an alternate physical (or spiritual) location. Once the internet and social media seem to merge everyone into a single hivemind, there is no longer an interpersonal connection that preserves the distinction between you and I and the sense of the unconscious, the self that is other.
In Wang’s collection, the poems that save us from the void cast the same kind of spell as dreams. When dreams cast a spell, they rearrange the raw materials of everyday life in absurd and surprising ways that transform them into symbols, which enable self-transformation through analysis. Such imaginative and oneiric experiences suggest the political possibility of leaving the void behind. Thus begins “HOW TO SHED THE WORLD:”
A woman comes to the class inside the theater bearing flowers, a critique of femininity. There are many floors. You have to take a mystical elevator to get to the theater in the sky. All I want is to abscond with my lover. There is a hotel room and before entering I say, “We have to shed our connection to the world.” At the threshold we leave our phones, computers—everything that binds us to the world so that inside the room it will be…just us.
A strange abyss. The abyss you face when you no longer exist for the digital world.
It becomes yet clearer that the speaker must be in a dream when she starts growing fur. But perhaps most remarkably, the idea of entering a room without computers and with another person has become as fantastical as ascending in the mystical elevator. This shedding of the digital world has also become something that can, strangely, only be achieved with the assistance of technology. It is only against the backdrop of the technologized and depleted social reality that such an escape can come to seem so final and strange.
The infiltration of capitalism into every aspect of life, facilitated by the internet, erases the boundaries between individual people, and between the conscious and the unconscious. In The Sunflower Cast a Spell to Save Us from the Void, poems and dreams reinforce our sense of these boundaries by “invading” them. The collection’s final, eponymous poem begins:
daughters with invading
dreams distilled into layers of
singing ray petals that meet the eyes as
lemons, I don’t remember, now the sunflower is an equation, now a
now lance or condition of heart, its Fibonacci radiance excreting
phyllotactic spirals of light (in the absence of sun) tomb
The line break after “invading” attaches the invasion to the daughters, so that the dreams become physical objects that invade the body. This activates the difference between being physically violated and dreaming. Similarly, the “layers of / singing” draws attention to the difference between hearing a song and seeing “singeing” rays. The claim that the sunflower is an equation reminds us of the Fibonacci pattern of the spiral of its seeds. But how different is math in the abstract from its embodiment in nature or in the speaker who, a few lines later, “Wanted to catch the whole of mathematics in my questions, to offset the mortification of being caught in my underwear.”
The poem thus violates the ontological boundaries between dream and reality, the visual and the musical, sunflower and lemon, and sunflower and equation in a way that activates those boundaries and preserves them. The spell of this book preserves the multiple-layered, multiple-petaled nature of life. Wang’s collection professes the potency of dream and sunflower; it professes the persistence of powers that save.