In a book review for The Guardian, journalist Kathryn Hughes described the belief in witchcraft as “a set of free-floating anxieties that can be conjured at those moments when the world seems out of joint and there is not quite enough of anything to go round.”
It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that witchcraft is more popular than ever; recently, the New York Times concluded that we have reached “peak witch.” This Halloween season, we were again inundated with the increasingly familiar take—that political polarizations: social injustice, the climate crisis—you name it—are leading an increasing number of people to feel the lure of tarot cards and magic wands and healing crystals.
The theory goes that, as ever, interest in spirituality increases during periods of upheaval and uncertainty—and witchcraft offers a particularly potent avenue through which to feel as though you have meaningful power and agency.
Depending on the publication, this argument is expressed with varying levels of sincerity or sneering. Personally, I’m not sure it’s quite that simple. While there’s a lot of evidence to support the idea that periods of social upheaval engender renewed interest in spirituality, witchcraft and magic have been so prevalent in literature and popular culture over the last two decades and beyond that for a lot of people, it has the additional draw of an association with childhood nostalgia.
It’s arguable too that because of this, witchcraft has lost some of its ‘bite’; as a ten-year-old in a Catholic primary school (British elementary school) in 2005, at least a third of the kids in my class weren’t allowed to watch Sabrina the Teenage Witch because their parents weren’t comfortable with anything that presented occult themes. Visiting the school ten years later, a class of six- and seven-year-olds were having Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets read to them by their English teacher.
‘Witchcraft’ also encompasses too many iterations and varieties to make talking about its resurgence in Western culture simple. It’s established religions, such as Wicca and Paganism; it’s also teenagers buying a few chunks of rose quartz, lighting some incense, and hoping something exciting will happen. It can be a cynical marketing tool for exploitative, pseudo-feminist businesses (aura cleansing for ‘career success,’ anyone?), and it can also tap in to histories of socialist feminist groups like W.I.T.C.H. using the witch archetype as a banner under which to rally.
Because, while witchcraft may have gone some way to losing its teeth, the figure of the witch still has a powerful set of jaws. The image of the witch is culturally charged and heavy with allusion, a transgressive figure. Until relatively recently, established scholarly practice upheld definitions of the witch as inherently malignant. Those accused of witchcraft in early modern Britain were often individuals who had isolated themselves in perceived rejection of established societal practices. Even modern definitions, including the Anglo-American sense of ‘witch’ as a symbol of female independence and rejection of patriarchy, retain associations with the transgression—and dismantling—of social norms.
Publishers Weekly has described Autumn (Fall) 2019 as the “season of the witch,” but in the last few years there has already been a stream of witchy literature that’s less fantasy and more practice. Nowhere has this been more apparent than poetry. There’s a thriving community of online and print occult poetry magazines, many of which published their first works in the last couple of years. They and the #witchesofinstagram are writing poems that blur the lines between literature and spell in a way that I find fascinating—while it might sound like a very modern concept, these spell-poems remind me of studying Medieval supernatural literature at university. We studied late Medieval ‘spells’ as literature in their own right—in much the same spirit as the spell-poems of today are being written.
A number of established writers with interests at the intersection of occult and poetic practices have produced some exciting work on these themes in recent years. Writer and divinatory reader Selah Saterstrom published Ideal Suggestions: Essays in Divinatory Poetics in 2017. The lyric essay collection posits that the veil between poetic and divinatory reading is so thin as to be practically non-existent. This sense—that occult or divinatory thinking and poetic thinking are inherently sympathetic—is one that comes to the fore again and again in the work of poets who practice or are inspired by the occult.
Hoa Nguyen, who recently sat down with fellow poet CAConrad to record the first episode of a new podcast, Occult Poetry Radio, published her most recent collection in 2016. Violet Energy Ingots is suffused with myth, tarot, and otherworldliness juxtaposed with the quotidian. Poems like ‘Haunted Sonnet’ traverse the mythical and the historical; the personal and the cosmic—there is a sense that the words on the page, with their multiplicity of tone and reference, are channeling different experiences and energies into a cohesive whole.
Similarly, poets like Ariana Reines and Dorothea Lasky have produced bodies of work that interweave occult elements as tools of and for poetic understanding. Like Nguyen, who is a practicing Tarot reader, Reines and Lasky infuse their poetry with personal practice—both are astrologers, with Lasky being one half of the phenomenally successful Twitter duo Astro Poets.
Without a doubt one of the most prominent amongst recent witch-poetry offerings has been Rebecca Tamás’s first full-length collection, WITCH, published in March 2019. Tamás, who also co-edited with Sarah Shin the 2018 anthology SPELLS: 21st Century Occult Poetry, wrote an essay for The White Review last year in which she described her “particular occult interest” in the witch—“the witch as an explosively radical female figure, a site of resistance, a way out of silence and silencing.”
It’s fitting that WITCH is comprised entirely of poems in relation to a central, archetypal figure: the eponymous witch. While it’s true that people of all genders can and do describe themselves as witches, in Western culture, the figure of the witch is enduringly associated with women, and Tamás plays on this by invoking the witch as a psychological figure from a Jungian perspective. Her witch is a feminine archetype associated with creative power and the exploration of disruptive ideas.
Roughly organised into two threads, for the most part the collection follows the witch figure on a journey through time, space, and self-exploration. Interspersed with these poems are labeled spell poems for particular purposes—‘spell for logic’, ‘spell for women’s books’, ‘spell for online porn’… The blurb for SPELLS states, “spell poems take us into a realm where words can influence the universe.” You can feel the weight of that statement in several of the spell-poems in WITCH—‘spell for change’ opens with a crack through a mountain and “BLOOD BLOOD BLOOD / are you scared yet?” Other spell poems are brief and wry, like the evocative ‘spell for sex’:
one damp steak
hung outside from the porch
whistling into the streaked and furious
In her review of WITCH for the London Magazine, Briony Willis suggests that Tamás’s “activation of the witch archetype raises questions as to whether there are aspects of our own personal experiences that we wish to transgress? Borders that we wish to cross?” This reading of the witch as a charged symbol, deployed to provoke reflection in the reader is borne out particularly starkly in longer poems like the incandescently strange ‘WITCH WOOD’ and ‘spell for political change’. Questions about the nature of identity and of individualism, anxieties, and political tensions become opportunities to transform perspectives through the transgression of boundaries.
‘WITCH WOOD’ positions feminist transgression and transformation as linked and inherently cyclical concepts. They are non-linear, sometimes not differentiable, and here rely on the will to deconstruct boundaries conceptual, mental, physical and spiritual. The poem lives in the blurred edges left behind after the crossing and then in the dissolution of these borders. Tamás deftly balances this dissipation of oppositional definitions with the endurance of identity—a new kind of identity that cannot be described within established frameworks, but which she is nonetheless able to explore through the magical (and overtly sexual) merging together of witch and woods that takes place as the poem progresses.
This merged identity is an elusive sort of womanhood, made difficult to describe in prose by its dissolution of boundaries that have variously been employed and imposed to try and define womanhood. In this poem, bodies, pronouns, and even human personhood cannot delineate it and hive it off from that which is not womanhood. This developing difficulty of definition is not a point of contention in the poem—far from it. It is both inclusive and poetically effective—the expansiveness of the womanhood offered up in ‘WITCH WOOD’ feels giddy and profoundly freeing in its lack of limitations.
As Tamás describes it, it is “raising something that is hard to talk about, because its paradoxes and subtleties are more fitted to the language of poetry: language that can hold knowledge and unknowing in balance, that can use language to go outside of the meanings language allows.”
It is also in alignment with poststructural conceptions of jouissance, which denote a transgressive excess of pleasure associated with the division of one experiencing it. Instead of this division serving to categorize and restrict, it is embodied in the witch’s self-becoming so well distributed between her body and the woods that she is able to resist the imposition of external definitions.
‘spell for political change’ does not attempt to offer a resolution in the same way. Its framing as a set of instructions, as opposed to an account of the spell or ritual in practice, empowers it to recast and reconfigure its own metaphors as Tamás teases out the next stages in the process. The dead woman’s body at the poem’s centre acts as a talisman for the realization of its ever-shifting layers of transformation. The body exists simultaneously on several planes—as a metaphor for society, a monstrous feminine object, a hypothetical variable in the process of a spell. This keeps the poem agile enough to transform and transform anew as it unfolds.
That the conclusion of the poem reveals the aim of the spell—to reach only “the first stage” of the political change it seeks to manifest—is fitting. The process is where its ‘magic’ resides, rather than in what may follow.
The poem’s most striking images are the many that convey in graphic detail the deterioration of the dead body. It’s a piece that plays with taboo on a number of levels—“take that dead ugly body into your bed / it hates you”—and also centres itself around a female form that is everything a female form is not, socially, ‘supposed’ to be— messy, physically unappealing, inconvenient.
It is a mark of the poem’s artful strangeness that, as a so-described ‘spell for political change’, its sole reference to political ideology comes in its final word. By the time I’d reached this point on first-read, I’d become so absorbed in the description of the body that this almost felt like a shock.
In structuring the poem this way, Tamás uses the last word to carry out the poem’s final transformation, and reveal the end point of its ritual. The end stage of the spell is the “first stage” of “what we decide / to call socialism,” a clear encouragement to consider the metaphorical implications of the earlier stage of the spell in light of what it is designed to achieve.
The language of ‘stages’ here is intriguing. Classic orthodox Marxism and Marxism-Leninism held that world history could be divided into sequential stages, defined by modes of production: feudalism, capitalism, and communism. To progress from one stage to the other, the contradictions inherent in a stage manifest and increase, leading to a point where they (often violently) overthrow the current mode of production, allowing for the next stage to arise. Hence, for Marxist-Leninists, the belief in the inevitability of the violent revolution of the proletariat, the downfall of capitalism and the coming of the communist utopia via the transitionary stage of a dictatorship of the proletariat.
In light of this, the dead body can be seen as a metaphor for the regrettable but necessary ‘collateral damage’ in the desired socialist revolution—the transgression necessary to beget societal transformation.
However, this is not the only potential transformation the poem’s closing lines offer us—nor do its sympathies lie with the violence done to the dead body it renders in such graphic detail. The implication that the dead body is the end result of a violent transgression, and that this transgression ultimately remains unattributed and undefined is significant here. The elision of individual guilt, in combination with the dissolution of differences between the monstrous body and the poem’s narrative voice, means that the dead body—and the subject’s relationship to it—is retroactively transformed into a political metaphor with multiple, mutually unexclusive interpretations.
For example, it enables another perspective on the poem’s repeated use of phrases like “nothing is like you,” and “she is nothing like you.” Considering these echoing moments through the prism of the poem’s concluding “socialism,” they act as an unconscious statement of socialist-feminist solidarity. If “nothing” is like the subject, then it is equally true to say that the subject is like nothing—and as such, “she is nothing like you” becomes a declaration of shared identity: like the subject, the dead woman is also “nothing.”
Furthermore, the physicality and presence of the dead body become ripe with new potential significances as ‘socialist’ metaphors. This effect is only enhanced by Tamás’s choice not to explicate the “socialism” to which she refers in her poem—in leaving the concept broad and open, untethered to strict definitions, she enables each moment of the poem’s spell or ritual to exist with multiple, valid meanings and connotations. The lines “take that dead ugly body into your bed / it hates you” take on a different sort of brutality when considered in association with socialism. What was initially behaviourally transgressive, and potentially an act of violence against the body, now seems to allude to notions of the body politic. Specifically, the incarnation of the concept expanded upon during the Renaissance, involving the drawing of analogies between theorized causes of diseases and ailments of the human body, and their ‘equivalent’ unrest and disorder in the political field.
Like this theory of the body politic, the monstrous, decaying body in ‘spell for political change’ presents us with a humanoid representation of political strife. Tamás describes the “pink awful mulch” of her so viscerally, in the knowledge that the transformation in meaning wrought by the poem’s final line will translate this into a devastated, irreparably damaged political system.
That taking the body into bed, despite its ‘hatred,’ and “adoring what it is” is only “the first stage of what we decide / to call socialism,” is entirely consistent with the body as a metaphor for a society ravaged by capitalism. It evinces a radical compassion—a willingness to embark on a process with something that seems ruined beyond repair, that is even actively repellent, and engage in acts of communal (and in this case, implicitly feminist) solidarity—“when things get really bad/ lick it.” It is also manifestly not sufficient to deliver anything approaching what “we decide to call socialism”; it is presented as the necessary first step and arguably the most difficult.
Ultimately, it is crucial for the poem that the dead body be an unidentified woman. It realizes one of the central themes of Tamás’s project—using the occult to unlock the radical potential of women’s voices, especially those that have historically been and continue to be silenced.