A Moth Can't Be Held Onto:
Vulnerability and Witchcraft in Shelley Marlow's Two Augusts In a Row In a Row
Review by Jenny Montgomery
I gingerly climb through the largest hole in the side of the shipwreck. An artist with a Belgian accent, wearing a kimono, graciously greets me with a deep bow and leads me to squat on a floating square for a cup of tea. I notice Shelley First, the avant-garde shaman songbird, perching nearby. Her hair, black with white streaks, snakes around her head, larger than her thin body, which vibrates when she speaks. I wave to her and say, ‘I’m ready for my singing lesson.’
Philip/Philomena, the OCD drag king Jewish magician narrator of Two Augusts In a Row In a Row, is an unforgettable character who must summon many skills to survive a difficult year. Sporadically employed as a freelance transcriber of letters by Swann (a 1930s-movie star with whom an ancestral link is discovered), Phil careens vulnerably between love affairs, drag performances, plane, train and automobile journeys, art parties, synchronistic events, and run-ins with helpful, aggressive, or mystical figures. The plot simmers toward Phil’s grand romance with a Boston witch named Magi and the devastating catastrophes of 9/11 and his father’s death. Questions of love, grief, sanity, and how to sustain one’s power in a threatening world are thoroughly engaged in this mesmerizing story with several suspenseful threads.
Marlow’s style is appealing and beautiful, propelling the reader forward with its mix of sophistication and Zen-like neologism. Syntax lifts off the rails in exhilarating ways, prepositions stand in for one another, and rich, leisurely descriptions succeed in creating a fully realized world saturated with the far-out colors, sounds, and textures of Phil’s urban and inner landscapes. (Marlow received an Acker Award for Excellence in Avant-Garde Writing in 2017.)
Witchcraft, visionary experience, dream intervention, and the need for spells of self-protection appear regularly throughout this book, as if one could not possibly navigate such an unpredictable world without heeding them. Phil summons power to triumph against gender misunderstanding, parental incomprehension, unwanted come-ons, and rude behavior on the subway. Witches populate the wider world: Phil’s two cousins are introduced early and swoop in again at the end: “Betsy is a leader of a whole region of witches in the north, while Susun has a coven of lesbian rabbi witches south of here. They have faith.” A witch named Freesia appears in a dream and is later located on the Internet.
I was left wanting to know more about Magi’s well-paying freelance gig in Italy, serving as a witch consultant to a mysterious group of architects (“I will help clear the energy from old hotels, participate in a think tank in Ravello, and work on top secret investigative work.”)
Marlow’s novel may be a cousin to those modernist works which fold the occult and magic into disenchanted, denatured, urban, industrial settings. Poets such as Yeats, Eliot, HD, Robert Duncan, Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes and James Merrill challenged the disbelief of the secular / psychological age. For some, the world could be re-enchanted wholly—for others, only partly. Skepticism, irony, and defensive joking regarding the occult all thread through Merrill’s Ouija-channeled long poem, The Changing Light at Sandover, which also questions authorship (Merrill ostensibly takes a side seat to the entities which speak through the Ouija pointer). In "Mirabell: Books of Number," Helen Vendler excuses such eccentricity as primarily a sly language experiment, but Merrill remained a believer in important ways. Contemporary writers who identify themselves as #bruja on Twitter are also brought to mind by Two Augusts, as well as the Voodoo practitioners of Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo and the subjects of Darius James’ documentary, The United States of Hoodoo.
How does humor operate in Marlow’s work? It is not there to subvert the magical, but to bring it down to earth. “I get lost for hours reading my magic books with their diagrams and magic symbols and numbers. I sit in my comfy chair under the standing lamp dropping pale yellow light on my pages and hands, only getting up to use the bathroom or make a spicy taco with beans and cheddar cheese.” Repartee right out of a Mel Brooks film ensues in the Italy section: “‘Did you say you were looking for Australia?’ Magi calmly says, ‘No. La strega.’ The British woman says, ‘Las Vegas?’ I say, ‘Witches in Naples?’ She thinks we are daft and walks away.”
Marlow deftly and comically reveals the frailer side of Phil’s radically sensitive nature: classic neurosis. You may never encounter so many instances of hand-sanitization or manic house cleaning in a work of fiction. Phil is wary of physical contact with strangers and, at times, intimates: “A moth can’t be held onto, because the wings’ iridescent powder sticks to your skin, and the contact speeds the creature’s end. I am like that too, because I am afraid that any contact will speed up my demise.” This makes the novel’s erotic passages even more complex and colors the ultimate question: in a time of extreme vulnerability and grief, should Phil open to Magi’s apparently steadfast love, or retreat into sanitized solitude?
Printed by Publication Studio and bound in rich, oyster pink stock, this art edition of Two Augusts is a luminous beauty. The hand-letterpress cover is embossed in the style of the old Olympia Press’ “Traveller’s Companion” series, which it references. (From Paris, Olympia brought out erotica and avant-garde literary fiction, which could not be published without threat of legal action in the English-speaking world, and is remembered for printing scandalous works like Lolita, Naked Lunch, The Story of O, and Candy by Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg.)
Publication Studio presents work they feel has been effectively “censored” by the market, and has spared no expense or attention to detail in this edition, which contains twenty-four of Marlow’s spontaneous and intimate ink-on-rice-paper drawings, watercolors, and tempera and oil paintings are interspersed throughout. Compact yet hefty, it sits emphatically in the hand.
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 Helen Vendler, "'Mirabell: Books of Number," Part of Nature, Part of Us: Modern American Poets, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980, 220-221.
 Timothy Materer, Modernist Alchemy: Poetry and the Occult, Ithaca: Cornell. 1995.
 This is evident as well in Marlow’s riveting St. Petersburg Review piece on her encounters with Tuvan shamans, “Notes in Kyzyl,” which can be accessed here.
About the Author:
Jenny (Seymore) Montgomery has appeared or is forthcoming in publications such as Barrow Street, Tar River, CALYX, Unsplendid, the New York Times, and the Cairo Times. Her poetry installations have been shown at galleries in Montana and Washington. She resides in Missoula, Montana where she owns a distillery with her husband. Her poem, “The Privative Alpha,” was a finalist for the 2017 Kay Murphy Prize for Poetry, judged by Myung Mi Kim. Her poem “Proofed” was runner-up for the 2017 Brittany Noakes Award judged by Sandra Beasley. Find Jenny online at jenny-montgomery.com, and tweeting @jennymtgomery.