In Elisheva Fox’s first collection of poetry, readers gain insight into one particular experience of Judaism on the Gulf Coast. Fox’s compact poems braid together a sapphic narrative of the speaker’s late-blooming romantic life — a journey from fear and repression to joyful self-certainty, all set against the threat of patriarchal violence. Layered with kabbalah and tarot, textured by bluebonnet ovations and chemical sunsets, and complete with monsters human and otherwise, Spellbook for the Sabbath Queen finds in its lyric “you” a sense of hopefulness throughout.
The monsters in this book — the mystic ones, at least — are a curious sort: they are the Behemoth, selkies, shapeshifters, and witches on whom the poet calls for strength. There is also Leviathan, “all oil-slick sinew and chemical eyes — //whispered rumor is that he/favors the gulf because the water isn’t clear.”
Intertwining Judaism and life in Texas, Fox creates tension between what we expect of each. For example, the speaker explains that the man she protected her body and children from “knows now that i am not some/texas limestone golem born/to crumble under salt and tears … ” Fox’s best images are as slippery as that golem, or as the speaker herself, who claims, “how unlike the ocean/i am — /i have no/depths that i hide from you.”
In “aorta.,” which uses the Texas Freeze of 2021 as an extended metaphor for her romantic life, the speaker imagines she’s been frozen like her house and its pipes, then recognizes that if she’s truly seen and touched by a woman, “the way the sun holds the first wildflowers//I will expand/and burst//and drown.”
The book unites emotional and religious devotions quite earnestly. Sometimes this means that the poet wears her heart on her sleeve — the word “heart” appears often — and the danger of the prosaic intrudes. Yet by leaning into sentiment, Fox conveys an incredible directness. One can see this movement in a poem like “filly.,” which begins with the flat declaration that “texan summer is technicolor — ” but becomes more musical as the poem continues: “ … golden horses/flashing against blue clouds/dark with sponged up sky.// is it bright like this,/where you are?”
Fox’s use of direct address takes on a rhetorical force that serves her throughout the collection. In “inquisition.,” one of the best poems in the book, the narrator begins:
you’re damn right,
i’m a witch.
we can start there
and skip the trial.
It’s a righteous and wild poem, with worshiped oak trees, strong thighs, paper amulets, and the deepest witchcraft, all of which have been predictably lacking in contemporary poetry. Spellbook for the Sabbath Queen is a promising debut.
Joshua Gottlieb-Miller is the author of The Art of Bagging, out now, and Dybbuk Americana, forthcoming fall 2024.