We don’t cast spells these days, whether to beckon sleep or fend off darkness.
We no longer chant invocations for lost things to reappear, or to make us invisible, mostly because they never worked.
Joyce Sidman, a nationally honored poet who appears to be singularly sensible, believes in chants and spells. Granted, scientific advances have eroded their mystical properties. We know now that Earth’s rotation, not an Apache prayer, causes the sun to rise. Medicines, more than incantations, rouse us from a sickbed.
But words still have magic. In Sidman’s latest book, “What the Heart Knows: Chants, Charms & Blessings” (Houghton Mifflin, $16.99), she explores how words can change our lives, if only by helping us express our feelings. Words help us repair a broken friendship, proclaim our love, face our fears.
Maybe I didn’t do all I could./Or maybe I did/but there were others who did more./Maybe I’ll never know.
“I think we still depend on words and believe in their power,” Sidman said. Yet she struggled to explain how this book — so different from her past works that revolve around nature — came to be. She hemmed: “The story of a book is always suspect.”
One reason some people become writers is so that they won’t have to talk so much. But if you are, like Sidman, good at what you do, you end up having to talk at national conventions, as she did last month in Boston, receiving the top poetry honor from the National Council of Teachers of English.
The council’s Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children is given only every other year to recognize a poet’s body of work for children ages 3 through 13. It’s a huge honor, one she’d hoped to be considered for in maybe 20 years.
“I’m floored by getting it now,” she said, then defaulted to a concern that anyone who’s just 57 might have about a lifetime achievement award: “You go from someone who doesn’t get much attention to someone of whom great things are expected,” she said, with a brave smile. “It’s tremendously validating, but there’s the danger of becoming someone who’s an author all the time, talking about writing and answering interviewers’ questions, and not spending time at your desk writing.”
Should you think we are strangers,/I will prove we are not./Should you think you know me,/I will surprise you.
From a window in the second-floor guest bedroom where Sidman writes, slate blue shadows mark a latticework of animal tracks in the snow. She and her husband live near a marsh in Wayzata, in a wrinkle between rural and suburban. East Coast natives, they moved here when he got a job as surgeon at Children’s Hospital. “The first thing I bought when I moved to Minnesota was a pair of Sorels.”
Watson, a 9-year-old pointer, is always up for a jaunt, their daily walks lending a practicality to Sidman’s need for “pondering time,” as well seeing what her beloved natural world is up to. “Dark Emperor and Other Poems of the Night,” a collection of poems about owls and snails and other moonlit creatures, earned a Newbery Honor. Her recent “Swirl by Swirl: Spirals in Nature” is a selection of the Junior Library Guild.
Sidman appreciates the plaudits, but truly enthuses about working with students during her weeklong poetry residencies in schools.
“I love to see a child — especially one who has trouble learning traditionally, who stands out in the crowd, who never tucks his shirt in — get up and read something he’s written, and the class settles down, goes dead silent,” she said. “And this kid thinks, ‘I’ve written something that makes kids listen to me.’ ”
Sidman always knew she wanted to be a poet, although even she was surprised to see this goal documented in an old journal, written at 15.
“I like connecting strange things to each other,” she said. “I love how sleek poetry is, how few words you use and how vivid they have to be. Along with being emotional and intellectual, poetry is also visceral. You almost feel it physically.”
It’s so far/from what/you expect:/the difference/between/a “heroic battle”/and/an actual blow/to the face.
“What the Heart Knows,” within its frame of chants, charms and blessings, is a departure for her. She’s not sure how the idea came about, although she’s clearly researched how humans long have explained natural events as the result of their words.
The first poem was “Chant Against the Dark,” written in 2008, in which Sidman implores the darkness, which leaves us alone with our mind, to keep its distance.
Don’t single me out/don’t make me answer your questions.
“When I needed a poem, I wrote it and they accumulated,” she said, so there are poems about repairing a broken friendship, about a thirst for freedom, about regret and illness. But there also are poems about the smell of a dog, the curl of a cat and riding a bike at night.
The book was conceived for teenagers for times “when they need a little magic,” she said. “And I hope teens will read it.” Then she laughed: “I know that middle-aged women are reading it, because they’re buying it and giving it to each other!”
She’s between projects right now, but has manuscripts in the hands of the superbly talented illustrators with whom she’s been paired, such as Pamela Zagarenski, who drew the fanciful images of “What the Heart Knows.”
Next up is a book of poems about the cold, illustrated by Rick Allen of Duluth’s Kenspeckle Press, inspired by the behavior of bees in winter.
Did you know, she said, that bees gather tightly together in a ball for the winter to keep the queen warm, slowly rotating from the center to the perimeter of the ball and back again, ensuring that all have a shot at survival?
“I get interested in something, then I do the research,” she said of her seemingly random cache of curious knowledge, which led to her mentioning that you can distinguish tundra swans from Canada geese because they fly higher, “and they sound demented. If you hear what you think are demented geese, they’re tundra swans.”