The word “familiar”, like many others in our lexicon, has been stripped of its complexities and nuances as we’ve become less literate. We understand its meaning as those proximal intimacies of a person, thing, or experience that is “known” to us—something “of the family,” but not quite. Lost entirely is the reference to a deeper spiritual connection between ourselves and the world around us—a transformative relationship that speaks to our elemental belonging to all the rest of life; an embodiment of a truth outside of ourselves, but of ourselves.
A common example of this kind of “familiar” is the concept of a black cat associated with a witch. That image of the cat, at its most impoverished, is little more than the idea of a sidekick. But, in its fullness, the witch-cat image is a unity, where what differentiates the individual beings has no meaning compared to that which is true of, and connects, both. The reality of this connection is so powerful as to encompass literal shapeshifting. This is no longer symbol—one thing signifying another. It is manifestation—one thing becoming another; in other words, proof of magic. The dividing line between ourselves and the natural world is gone, and the soul migrates freely between forms.
The title of Holly Wren Spaulding’s latest book of poetry is the plural of the word, Familiars—not one, but many. A reader would be mistaken in thinking the brevity of these poems is an indication of a slight work. This collection is an extreme high-wire act by the poet over the chasm of incoherence. She dares to create a context in which the possibility exists, and is even likely, that so few words will prove insufficient to the task of conveying meaning, and will fail in what is asked of them. What she’s doing is attempting flight from that absence many of us feel every day but cannot name, the lack of connectedness in our lives, a void that grows out of purposelessness or confusion, toward their opposite: an experience of the world both conceptually and spiritually rich. Spaulding is a witch whose broom is comprised of nothing more than words. But, in using words as the means of her conveyance, she employs an ancient power in humanity’s sacred spiritual endowment.
These poems reacquaint us with that experience of discovery of our primordial selves. A prime example of this is the poet’s namesake poem, “Holly”, in which this line appears: “The forest spoke/me to me.” Each poem is a concentration of the “being-ness” of Nature’s various manifestations. The best of them are distillations to near purity, and collectively they explore different facets of being-ness and relationship, only some of which include us.
“Fern” speaks to that affiliation between Nature and the human:
My tight green
Blade then stipe
my fuse unfurls.
The air become me.
This is the quintessence of a thing, but its “being-ness”, because of Spaulding’s use of the singular identifying “me”, is also human. The fern is us, we are it.
“Poppy” is an example of the many evocations here, of encounters with Nature at the exact moment we are unconscious of it, having forgotten our connectedness to it, only to be sweetly, or abruptly, realigned to that primal relationship that has existed out of sight and out of mind.
In the searchlight
rim of weeds
the red red red red
of a whole field
This is a sudden encounter with aliens, only to realize they are kindred spirits.
In other poems, Spaulding suggests Nature has its own mind and being, only sometimes recognizable to us, only sometimes interested in us, as in the following:
of the tree’s
This theme repeats throughout the work. Nature has a strangeness and a mystery beyond our knowing. It is a kingdom unto itself, to which access and admittance are conditional.
As a collection, these poems signal to us that we would do well to be aware of what it means to be barred forever from the garden, to have exiled ourselves by carelessness and inattention. To be exiled is to be condemned to a life in which these encounters are impossible, where these powers are no longer evoked in our speech, for no longer existing in our minds, for having been too rarely, or never, encountered in our lives. At that point, the void becomes insurmountable, and we are forever lost to ourselves, and to one of the transcendent, and essential, experiences of consciousness.
Then there is the poem, “Pasture”, an evocation of first recognition, not of alien wilderness, but of the primordial eternal home that is Nature. In a child’s first encounter with the delicate intricacies of a mushroom’s architecture, she knows instinctively what to call it: beautiful.
Familiars, for all it does to warn us of the perils we face in ourselves, is also a reminder of a power greater than our callous rapaciousness—a cause for hope and a call for renewal. We see it in “Newt” in which the poet writes: “Amidst the thousand dialects/and dying languages/a thrum that needs/no translation.”
The 36 poems of this collection encompass multiple focal points and voices that grow to a kind of chorus from the natural world—of objection, protest, affirmation, and rejoicing. Together they amount to a warning, indictment, judgment and, finally, a peace offering, from one soul, and indeed, from the Great Soul, to the lost.
Matt Rigney is the author of In Pursuitof Giants: One Man’s Search for the Last of the Great Fish, published by Viking/Penguin and available as part of the University of New England’s Seafaring America Series. Giants was nominated for the Massachusetts Book Award in Nonfiction.