Ideal Suggestions: Essays in Divinatory Poetics
Essay Press, 2017
Paperback, 290 pages
Reviewed by Abby Hagler
To participate in divination is to be a part of a conversation. If you are the one who asks the question, you must speak first to yourself, then with the diviner. If you are the diviner, you will have a conversation with a voice only you can hear, which answers the question possibly with advice, images, or rituals to perform to conjure a feeling. The art behind this book, and the art this book points to, is the art of conversation. This is what I learned from reading Selah Saterstrom’s Ideal Suggestions: Essays In Divinatory Poetics.
To choose to read a book on divinatory poetics in the first place is to ask yourself: What is divination? When I think of divination, the first thing I think of is trees, which is not very helpful for anyone reading this, I realize. Wanting a little more information, I asked fourteen friends the same question: What do you think of when you think of “divination”? They replied:
A god, a goddess
Like, Jesus, looking up, with his palms up and light around
A Y-shaped twig
I don’t actually know what it means
To use two rods to find
Trees, just the tops of trees
Calm warm air and peaceful light, like flowers growing in spring
Lightening and clouds and
A gypsy woman
A man with a big stick out in the wilds
After asking this question, I returned to trees. I connected my image with the other images of nature, of rods, of sky meeting water. Like a writer, a diviner must be able to read everything. Both must be able to look for images and identify signs. Like a diviner, like a great weather forecaster, like anyone who gets really good at a job, a writer must draw on advanced reading skills because writing seeks to create meaning where meaning is not readily offered. I think that’s what Saterstrom is saying when she describes a diviner in her book in terms of an artist. She describes the diviner through writing, in terms of story and narrative arc: “This someone knows that every momentary fragment of a story can in a flash feel like death and the end of something, or its opposite: light and everything that is possible. In every story, there is an energy of potential: for transcendence, for recognition, for acknowledgement, for peace, for catharsis, for release, for arousal, for restoration.” (i-ii)
When you read this book, you must take a mental picture of the first sentence. In addition to being a writer, Saterstrom is a practitioner of Southern Rootwork Divination, an art that has been handed down through her family. The sentence says: “Within each person there are many minds, each reflecting a mosaic of every experience they have ever had…” (i). As I read, I held this sentence in mind. I ended up thinking a lot about how a reader and a question-asker are similar, and how artist and a diviner are related because both are conversationalists. I thought about how reading about this connection can help a reader to become an artist.
I wanted to go further in this conversation. When I asked the internet about poems and divination, I found Kailey Tedesco’s UltraCulture article about how Sylvia Plath used a Ouija board to write poems, and I approached Ideal Suggestions wondering if divination is less a process of controlling the future and more a process of learning to organize one’s life in terms of patterns, directions, and signs like any storyteller would do. I realized reading and writing have much in common with divination if you consider the function of narrative itself, which is a way of creating meaning where none was previously readily available. Saterstrom’s book seeks to point out that we humans are in constant conversation, which is the foundation of making meaning, of making art, of making life.
When I looked at the book as a series of suggestions for how to have a conversation, I could see each section as a stand-alone piece of art and an example of conversation. Perhaps this is why the title is Essays In Divinatory Poetics instead of Essays On Divinatory Poetics. For example, the section “On the Rosary as a Structural Paradigm for a Mirage” sets up the reader to look for unlikely ways to build a story. Using her own Catholic background, Saterstrom lets the rosary help her as she is “[skips] into narratives the way a hand moves on a bead” (10). These narratives are about romantic and platonic relationships, relationships with men and women. One narrative is Saterstrom’s own; the other is a friend’s story. When I asked a friend who was raised Catholic, he told me that the rosary is a form of meditation, which allows the mind to wander and then return to a present moment. Saterstrom investigates relationships, weaving in the story of a friend’s love with her own love story to create a single narrative of that is as much inspiration as it is warning, as much hard truth as it is ductile hope.
Other sections use conversation to inspire narrative. “The Tale of Brother and Sister” examines conversation between characters who may be entirely internal to the writer (part of one’s multitudes). Dialogue itself is a natural structure to borrow when writing. “On Writing for the Movies” is a wonderful example of conversing with the self (past and present) through interaction with art – particularly art that talks at a viewer more than talks with a viewer. The writing establishes a dialogue in the space of viewing art, a space where normally the dialogue is silent or non-existent.
The section “On Other People’s Stories” is the most playful use of conversation with other people. It is, most importantly, a joyful failure of organization in a traditional sense, and a wonderful use of other people’s words. At first, as I read, I couldn’t help but feel that the artist had purposely stepped out of the room. This section is like watching a lamb gestate in plastic bag womb – the reader sees the stages of writing but also learns about the process of creating meaning through storytelling at the same time. It also gets at the meat of an “ideal suggestion” with the copies of pages the narrator has read. A reader can read inside the mind of Saterstrom because her notes are readily available. The instructions themselves are curious. They themselves are “practical directions for ideal suggestions”; but they are also “instructions for the use of Suggested Ideals” (121-122). At once, these instructions are ideal suggestions to help the reader create ideal suggestions. The sections on failure are underlined and bracketed by the narrator-as-reader, acknowledging the difficult process of creating a solid narrative from the material given.
When I talked to myself about this book after I finished reading, I heard a phrase repeating in the back of my head. It is the title of another book by Andrea Rexilius: To Be Human Is to Be a Conversation. In it, the narrator converses with herself through answering questionnaire questions. By answering these self-imposed questions, she converses with her past, her heritage, and the reader. I’ve thought about what it means to be a conversation for a long time, and no book has spoken more clearly to this topic than Saterstrom’s Ideal Suggestions — a book dedicated to not only showing the link between the diviner and the writer, but also to helping a reader recognize the diviner within.
Abby Hagler lives and works in Chicago. Critical and creative work appears in FANZINE, Alice Blue Review, Horse Less Press, and elsewhere. You can find her book of collaborative poems with Julia Cohen at dancing girl press.