Book Review

In a 2015 interview for Touch the Donkey, Lisa Jarnot explained her process for writing the long poem that would eventually become A Princess Magic Presto Spell: “I began it in 2009 after my daughter was born. Pressed for time, I decided to write three words a day. At the end of every year of word-gathering, I cobble the phrases together. The book is evolving to be a record of the quotidian—family life, social and political incursions into the everyday domestic scene, and also child development.” The underlying texture of the resulting collection, which operates as a whole while organized into nine sections, is the accumulation of these three-word phrases, whose rhythm drives the energy throughout:

pale dead tree in the sky
the whirled imperfect

while bumble bees
breakfast in the
lamb’s ears’ stalks

own some land
have some trees
Google in Indonesia

            (in a dream)

                  land of wheels  dominated by sycamores

Jarnot builds around the tight, insistent structure and rhythm of these daily phrases rather than smoothing their transitions or otherwise obscuring their beginnings. She embraces the holistic process of this accumulation, extending the grace of acceptance to the full breadth of the experience of motherhood—from the whimsical speech of her young daughter to the language of children’s books to the imagery of the home and garden. In one way, this strikes me as the undervalued labor of motherhood: taking in the loud, discordant pieces of the world and collaging them to give a holistic sense of this overwhelming reality to a growing child.

One of the most pleasurable aspects of reading A Princess Magic Presto Spell is the vibrant collage its imagery renders. The collection operates by parataxis and juxtaposition, situating conflicting images and tones of voice alongside one another to a jangling and refractive effect: “a night bird / singing to / a crescent moon // a will you die? / an are you old? / a blue bag / in a pink tree.” Jarnot has said that “poems are always collage on some level,” and this awareness shapes the physical form the poems take throughout her collection. Short lines splash from one margin to the next, while others shift in scale from taut tercets to overflowing prose. This effect is upheld by literal collages of photographs, art, and typography that appear in black and white denoting the collection’s different sections, as well as the full-color cover. From a design standpoint alone, Flood Editions’ books are always such treasures, and A Princess Magic Presto Spell is no exception.

Another operating feature of Jarnot’s collection is repetition—a more aural texture. If collage is the disparate words and images of a poem coming together, then repetition is the recurrence of emergent themes through those words and images. Language becomes reflection and refraction. Even with repetition, change is inevitable, as any child who’s repeated a word until it makes no sense knows. But the force of repetition does not have to work toward dissolution, and in fact, Jarnot demonstrates that accumulation is one outcome of repetition that gestures toward flourishing, with “office max / copy max / furniture max,” or from “a princess magic presto spell” to “a Christian Winter Sally Daisy Princess Magic Presto Spell.” Aside from the joy inherent in the surprise of collage, this is perhaps the most pleasing part of the reading experience here—that repetition, too, is subject to dynamism.

I find it important now to return to the connection between collage and the labor of motherhood. This collection particularly moved me in its genuine portrayal and holistic embodiment of this labor. Jarnot’s poetry can serve as a model for a mother’s creativity and nurturing—a way to celebrate both. As I look toward the possibility of my own motherhood, this collection offers the potentiality of joy in being a mother who writes, instead of internalizing the dread our society pushes mothers of all kinds to feel about the conflict between parenting and a career. A Princess Magic Presto Spell recalls the writing of Bernadette Mayer, but set in our own overscheduled, oversaturated, and hyper-connected era. Mayer wrote her canonical Midwinter Day under the pressures of an American feminism that built upon the deeply flawed structures of late 1970s capitalism. Neither were open to Mayer’s ability to write an entire collection of poetry in one day, much less while mothering her children. Jarnot takes up Mayer’s mantle, insisting on the value and particular joy of contemporary motherhood as an artist.

Even the title of Jarnot’s collection is playful, winking at the threat inherent in Spell, and fully embracing the most feminine of tropes—and a favorite of daughters everywhere—the Princess. Our productivity-obsessed society considers the early years of motherhood less valuable than they are for similarly-aged adults, much as they deem what is traditionally considered women’s labor generally less valuable. But if slowing down for motherhood isn’t essential to our world’s flourishing, then what is? Jarnot’s work in A Princess Magic Presto Spell celebrating her creative process’s slow accumulation amid the labor of motherhood is radical and as necessary as ever.

About the Reviewer

Katherine Indermaur is the author of the chapbook Pulse (Ghost City Press, 2018), winner of the Black Warrior Review 2019 Poetry Contest and the 2018 Academy of American Poets Prize, and editor for Sugar House Review. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Bad Pony, Coast|NoCoast, Entropy, Frontier Poetry, Ghost Proposal, the Hunger, New Delta Review, Oxidant|Engine, and elsewhere. She holds a BA from UNC-Chapel Hill and an MFA from Colorado State University. She lives in Salt Lake City. More at