In recent years, in the UK, and across Europe and the US, there has been a growing fascination with the occult, and especially with the figure of the witch, in all her variety, difference and infinite capacity. Much has already been written about contemporary Western culture’s renewed interest in witchcraft and the occult, from the appearance of ‘insta-witches’ to the rise of neo-pagan practice. But what I want to do here is think about this ‘occult moment’ in relation to poetry. I want to explore this because these occult elements, to me, seem to offer something that speaks particularly to the nature of and difficulties of poetry itself – to what it might be possible to make language do, to what might be made possible through language. My particular occult interest is the witch – the witch as an explosively radical female figure, a site of resistance, a way out of silence and silencing. What she has made possible for me is a new relationship with poetic speaking, with the power of the word, and with what that power might make possible for liberatory, feminist thinking. But before I begin to unpick those possibilities, I need to look back.
It was not my body, not a woman’s body, it was the body of us all.
It walked out of the light.
— Anne Carson
Poetry, like the occult, embraces the necessary irrationality that exists squashed up against rationality in the material world. It does not ‘reject’ the rational, but it does extract what else is there, the elements that don’t fit. Dorothea Lasky, in her poem ‘Thing’, says, ‘It is the irrational / That is worth living for.’ Irrationality is not apolitical, but politically radical; radical because it takes an interest in what it’s actually like to be alive as a human being – what it’s like to live alongside many nonhuman creatures and things, what it’s like to not make perfect sense, to not always be in control of what happens, to want joy, to have a complicated body, to rise and fall unpredictably, widely, to love or desire others more than ‘procreation’ or ‘hormones’ ask of you, to want to worship while also feeling extremely sceptical.
At an event where the American queer astrologer Chani Nicholas was speaking, a member of the audience asked (rhetorically) ‘Why is it that all straight white men hate astrology?’ Ignoring the slight exaggeration for effect (of course some straight white men love astrology, just not many), this struck me as an interesting enquiry. There are many elements to what might look like an answer. It can certainly be frustrating to get caught in the binary of male knowledge: rationality, science, facts; female/queer knowledge: irrationality, magic, feeling, instinct. After all, women and queer people are as capable of rationality as anyone else. Yet it is in the derided ‘feminine’ spaces of magic, myth, history and feeling that we have found new kinds of power, forms of knowledge that fill in the gaping wounds that rational capitalist society leaves in our communities and beings.
To assert that you like or believe in astrology, or tarot, or magic means asserting forms of knowledge which you cannot prove, whatever their importance to your life. But such fluid, unprovable understandings are not simply escapes from rationality. They are ways of challenging what power and knowledge are and might be, and asserting that there might be spaces in which emotion and feeling are valid forms of knowing; forms which can encompass a diverse female experience at odds with the structures that attempt to control us.
The poet, astrologer and cultural diviner Ariana Reines, talking to me over email about the huge recent growth in ‘internet astrology’, stated:
I love that the internet loves astrology. I think this is phase one of
the feminisation of this very warped and weird network. Astrology
answers our yearning to feel more connected to the planet we live
in and to the tiny corner of the cosmos that we occupy. I think the
current craze for it is as much about the mass hangover from the
old systems of knowing, which as everyone can see and feel, have
made a hellhole of our strange and blue little home.
We live on a planet. We are part of a complex machinery orbiting a star in a universe of stars. For me, astrology is just one dimension of a much larger coming-to-consciousness that is beginning all around us while the most virulent forms of evil double down and metastasise.
Feminisation, for Reines, is not about any of the degraded associations of ‘weakness’ or ‘shallowness’ that stick to ideas of femininity like barnacles. It is not the decried ‘feminisation’ of late capitalism, where pundits bemoan the increase of ‘female’ jobs such as care work and retail work, as opposed to the more ‘manly’ pursuits of factory jobs and physical work – a world of emotional labour that will implicitly taint the action of masculinity. For Reines, feminisation, in this case through astrology, is a way of re-seeing the world, of removing the mental shackles that make ‘rational’ Western capitalism seem like a normal and logical system of living. In the case of Reines’s astrology, knowledge is both inherently mysterious and hugely fruitful, deepening material understanding about other people and the world, at the same time as accepting forms of knowing that cannot be directly communicated. In this kind of thinking, what we learn from the occult is not the answer to questions, but ways to ask new questions.
Louis MacNeice, from his poem ‘Snow’:
On the tongue on the eyes on the ears in the palms of one’s hands
There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses.
The question this poem is asking is, what is that more? I don’t know what happens in, between and around the glinting membrane of the world, the spaces of snow, of glass, of roses, but my body and my mind tell me that there are inhuman voices, light leaking through in shards, the smell of sun and plant matter. I know that’s not it, but that it may be part of it. I know it’s possible for me to know what’s there, without ever being able to express it, in language, or even to myself.
If I had a simple kind of self-respect I would keep quiet about that thing I know. It would be easier: I wouldn’t have to worry that people reading this might be embarrassed to read my poetry in the future. I would avoid 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. I know it’s a risk to mention it here because, even among the most supportive and thoughtful friends in the world, it can be hard to say the word sacred. The tender, gauche, fragile, unclear, freighted nature of this word makes it hard to bring into the open.
‘Spirituality’, when it is derided and taken advantage of in the West, when it is appropriated from indigenous cultures and diluted, turns the material strength and power of the sacred into the softness of catchphrases and distraction; be it some thoughtless yoga classes usurping ancient South Asian religious practices for improved toning, or those selling products like decorated scented candles and inspirational posters which proclaim self-care but make no effort to explore the societal conditions that make this care necessary. But the sacred – that mysterious, shifting, vital thing – should be accessible to anyone with an interest in the vibrant possibilities of material existence. The sacred, for me, is the strange holiness of being alive in a world of living things, the infinite possibilities for becoming, change, transformation and connection which that world offers. I want to be able to look for this mystery without being forced to name it, without having that sacred potential turned into mollifying and commodifiable products or systems.
I find, then, that I can most effectively get closer to kinds of sacred mystery in poetry’s open expanses, rather than within a single form of religion, with its specific strictures, and expectations. Because in poetry, this sacredness, in all its lambent impossibility, can rush in. The play of language can crack it open like a dark blue egg, dribbling liquid you cannot explain, but want desperately to touch with the tips of your fingers.
Poetry can be frustrating because it doesn’t always make sense, or have narratives we can follow. As hard as this can be, this resistance of linear meaning, of clarity, of A to B, also makes it the perfect vehicle for things which do not make total sense, which are not clear, which do not follow a plan. Poetry knows that expressions in language can be much more than the sum of their words – I can ‘describe’ a poem to you, its events, tone, style, rhythm, but until you read or hear it you have absolutely no idea what it is or where it can take you. The language is the meaning, is the experience. The sacred, too, is frustrating, because it can also not be explained in any way other than itself – it asks us for experience as knowledge, inside the body, specific yet impossible to pin down. Poetry is language that means in this way, that makes experience the source of meaning, rather than a route to that meaning.
Poetry brings what is hidden, what is beyond or outside of words, momentarily into language, through the complication of placing ideas and images next to each other, without them having to find total conceptual or narrative clarity. In poetry things are glimpsed, touched, but rarely held still – they remain a tangled, gloopy, struggling mess, and yet you still might find something in them. Because of this, poetry is the perfect place for the hidden to dip into view, to be witnessed without being contained. This is not magic tricks, just magic: things unfixed and hard to fathom and viscerally there. The mystery.