I first became aware of Ariana Reines’s work through her early poetry collection The Cow (2006), which went on to win the prestigious Alberta Prize. I was struck by its focus on abjection, female filth and the damage we inflict on animal bodies. Reading that collection marked the start of a full on, visceral engagement with Reines’s work. The expansiveness and courage of her voice has helped to build my sense of what poetry might be capable of at its best – visionary, politically engaged, wrestling with the point at which body and spirit meet.
Reines’s books are works of intellectual commitment and structural sophistication; at the same time, they allow the raw stuff of being, in all its messiness, to enter the page. Her work experiments with form and structure, often using long lines and unorthodox punctuation, alongside a rangy, conversational and slangy diction – all of which leads to a sense of delicious intimacy with this rich and dynamic poetic voice. It is poetry I continue to teach, read and respond to, a touchstone of inventive poetics.
Reines was born in Salem, Massachusetts, lending her what she describes as a ‘heavy Salem lineage’. The awareness of female agency as ‘threat’ is ever present in her books; that strange mixture of a power that is both terror and desire. As a poet, playwright and translator, Reines is concerned with the complications of female experience and liberation and how these meet the knowledge of the body, and in excavating the difficulties and strange pleasures of contemporary sexual and romantic relationships. She writes stringently about the death-cult of late capitalism, and its chaotic imaginary. Reines is also interested in the occult, and the ways in which it might open up new kinds of spiritual and poetic understanding. This is most clearly seen in her alchemical work Mercury, which explores symbolism and transcendent experience. It re-appears in the titanic ambition of her newly published collection A Sand Book, which explores Jewish identity, spiritual transformation, and the poison of climate collapse – interrogating the space between the divine and the self. The book is both a philosophical work of thought and politics, and a deeply human one that addresses trauma, sexuality and suffering. It is also a monumental object, divided into twelve twisting sections which make the average ‘slim’ book of ‘verse’ look like an appetiser. It is Western poetry returned to its ‘epic’ classical origins – meaty and full of drama, with more Big Dick Energy than any ‘Great American Novel’.
Alongside her poetry, Reines has published translations of Jean-Luc Hennig’s The Little Black Book of Grisélidis Réal: Days and Nights of an Anarchist Whore, Charles Baudelaire’s My Heart Laid Bare, and Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl by Tiqqun. She has taught at Columbia University and the New School, as well as organising classes in non-academic spaces, such as ‘Ancient Evenings’, a ‘writing sabbath’ of liturgical reading and sacred writing, which ran in Toronto’s Gallery TPW among other venues. Reines has worked as a translator for a group of trauma clinicians in Haiti, as part of the UN Mission in Port-au-Prince. She is also a professional astrologer, and offers readings in person and online.
I interviewed Reines shortly after the publication of my first poetry collection, WITCH. Unsurprisingly, thoughts of the occult and its liberatory potential were already on my mind. Over email Reines and I discussed astrology, Salem, gender freedom and escape through language, as well the possibilities poetics might offer to refigure and reshape our current capitalist rigidity.