The Songs of Hecate: Poetry and the Language of the Occult


I have gone out, a possessed witch,

haunting the black air, braver at night;

dreaming evil, I have done my hitch

over the plain houses, light by light:

lonely thing, twelve-fingered, out of mind.

— Anne Sexton



Above all, magic seemed a form of … insubordination, and

an instrument of grassroots resistance to power.

— Silvia Federici






This is the tower of the past. The battlements are formed of anthills, the anthills the curves of the goddess, the curves snakes agreeing sealing themselves away. Lookouts lie face down, mouths open to the earth, swallowing the matter of their warnings.

— Nisha Ramayya



In the room full of witches, I am meant to be disgusted. Disgusted, or scared, or even, perhaps, aroused. Each artist in the 2014 British Museum exhibition Witches and Wicked Bodies hoped to elicit these reactions from their images, which took the form of etchings, paintings, sketches; images, without exception, of women. Some of the pictures show ‘crones’ or ‘hags’ sketched with crude, banal misogyny: breasts drooping, private parts rubbing against chapped broomsticks. Some have the veneer of seduction: tempting sorceresses who hover over gently bubbling cauldrons, long black hair slithering round tight waists, robes billowing in the silver moonlight. Each image was designed by rigid Christian imaginations to create fear, to create disapproval, horror or disgust – women copulating mid-air under starlight; women worshipping at strange altars; women tearing off the body parts of men; women carving runic images; women dancing backwards on the Sabbath; women making love with dogs and frogs and toads. Yet each one awakens me. These women are undoubtedly BAD and EVIL and GROSS and DEGENERATE and UGLY and SEXY and SHALLOW and PAINTED and OLD and YOUNG and HUNGRY and MAD and DANGEROUS and AWFUL. Yet I am not disgusted. Instead I am deeply happy to be with them. I am happy because of their power. When I got home, I wrote a poem – it was a spell.





If you are a woman, writing about your experience of being a woman,

you are part of one of the most avant-garde literary movements there

has ever been.

— A.K. Blakemore


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.


Silvia Federici, historian, theorist and Marxist-Feminist activist, is a key thinker for establishing the figure of witch-as-resistance. In her 1998 book Caliban and the Witch, Federici writes about the European ‘witch panics’ or witch trials of the early sixteenth century, where approximately 60,000 people, most of them women, died. She questions the traditional historical narratives around these ‘witch panics’, exploring the witch trials not as examples of mass hysteria and superstition, but as instances of state-sanctioned female repression:


The witch was not only the midwife, the woman who avoided maternity, or the beggar who eked out a living by stealing some wood or butter from her neighbours. She was also the loose, promiscuous woman – the prostitute or adulteress, and generally, the woman who exercised her sexuality outside the bonds of marriage and procreation… The witch was also the rebel woman who talked back, argued, swore, and did not cry under torture.


The qualities of disobedience and free-thinking Federici describes, that led women to be condemned as witches, are the very ones we must now claim and re-figure: taking the clichés of the badly behaved harlot and the hysterical wild-woman, and turning them over to reveal their powerful and dissident underside. For Federici, the witch was a figure of anticolonial, anti-Western resistance, who rejected state power and misogyny; a woman doing battle with the many manifestations of racist, patriarchal and hegemonic societal control.


The version of the witch that Federici is describing is one who emerges, imaginatively, through Western ideas of what a witch is – the demonic, malevolent figure of Christian mythology, re-figured as a force of liberation. This witch is always marginal, always despised, inevitably resistant. She is a mixture of myth and reality – of healers, midwives, ‘good’ witches and pagan priestesses, lumped together by the pious imaginations surrounding them, which saw these innovative and powerful women as ungodly and profane; which took folklore and suspicion and branded it onto their bodies; which saw their strength – in whatever form it manifested – as evil, rather than fruitful.


In non-Western societies the picture is, and has been, very different. Certainly there have been witch trials across the world, and the persecution of ‘witches’ (most of these so-called witches would never define themselves as such) remains current, especially in The Democratic Republic of Congo and Ghana. But at the same time, once we step outside of Western hegemony we also awaken to the traditions where magical power has held real importance to the culture at large. In Southern African tradition the figure of the ‘sangoma’ is a diviner or fortune-teller, who seeks out illness or even predicts the future, while the ‘inyanga’ uses magic to heal illness and restore strength to her patients. In Mexico there  has long existed an indigenous practice of brujeria (witchcraft), Santeria, voodoo, occultism and magic, explored by all genders. This witchcraft is such a part of ordinary life that despite Mexico’s strong Catholicism, one can go to the Mercado de Sonora in Mexico City for magic herbs and occult supplies, as easily as you might get your groceries. In Diné Native American culture, ‘witchcraft’ itself is seen as a powerfully negative force, but spiritual leaders with magical abilities perform ‘sings’ for healing and the safety of their community, harnessing occult power for good.


Whether used as a way to think through female power, queer sexuality, class insurrection or indigenous freedom, the witch can be a powerful figure of strength, sexual and emotional freedom and justice. But she is experienced and harnessed in many different ways within different communities, and through different intersections of oppression and experience. There is no one witchcraft, and there is no one witch. I listen and learn, and consider my version of the witch as only one small part of a powerful, diverse and vibrant world of expression. My own witchcraft does not begin with my ancestors, or with my individual history – my witchcraft begins, and lives, in language, and what language might make possible; how it might turn our fury, and our knowledge and our desire, out into the teeming world through the mouth of a poem.





I have not been able to touch the destruction

within me.

But unless I learn to use

the difference between poetry and rhetoric

my power too will run corrupt as poisonous mold

or lie limp and useless as an unconnected wire

— Audre Lorde



Where do I look for all the angry women’s voices? Where do I look for all the really angry women in writing, in art? After all, I am so angry. I do not find that a rare or unusual state.


Sara Ahmed talks of the importance of being a ‘feminist killjoy’, of bringing ‘negative’ aspects of patriarchy and racism into the light. Being a feminist killjoy means being prepared to be ‘the cause of bad feeling’, and being ‘willing’ to create this bad feeling; remaining angry, despite the inevitable criticism and repression, ‘because that’s a sensible response to what is wrong.’ Anger is, then, a necessary response to our situations, a proportional reaction to our complicated history and our present moment. It is also powerful in its disrupting and upsetting potential – not bending ourselves to patriarchal expectation, but resisting, whatever we might then be called in retaliation. Anger is the cause and the tool of feminist uprising and change, the energy that pushes up from the ground of the past and into present possibility. Thus, anger is often a crucial part of feminist or liberatory poetics: poetics that seeks to use language as a space for transformation and change.


How then to build a truly convincing, and new, angry language in poetry? One that reveals and makes change without destroying, undermining or silencing the expresser of that anger? There are many ways, of course, but one thing I keep returning to in my store of resources, relatively ignored by patriarchal capitalism, are hexes. Spells. Curses. Rituals. The language of undoing, of hate that does something, that doesn’t rebound on its owner and turn her to ash, but names and recognises the hurt, purges it and makes it ashamed.


The witch’s anger can be cold (considered, vengeful, clever) or hot (thick, vibrant, cleansing, furious) but in either form it is she who is in control, she who decides how to channel and use it. For a witch, anger makes things happen. It is creative, relaxing, rich. No personal destruction. No apologies or reticence or politeness. The witch absorbs anger as an inherent part of her self and her life force. She has no need to reject it as a dangerous emotion; instead it feeds her, makes her stronger. For anger to be a revolutionary force in thinking, it must be channeled; it must not collapse. In a society where, again and again, we see established forms of power fail vulnerable, oppressed or abused women, to serve the interests of powerful men, there is something particularly compelling, for me, about witches’ angry magic.


The language of spells and hexes offers a powerful vector of movement, of becoming – one that allows the internal to become external, hate and anger to exit the victim and move outwards, giving relief, restoring agency, allowing feeling to become language, language to become action. This action is a refusal to shut up. It is a way of repeating the very things which patriarchal society would like to forget, and it is also a release – why should we shut up, just because it embarrasses people? Makes them uncomfortable? What if we take our spite and horror and pour them into language – make them a power source, not a drain? Poetry, like all kinds of language, has long been the preserve of powerful men. So spells, hexes and curses can offer renewed ways for a poet to write in a language that has not always had a home for her – shuddering and changing it so that she may inhabit it with more comfort, so that she may find ways to bend it into expressing what has long been muted.


Such use of the occult to channel anger, to protect and strengthen the silenced, does not exist only in poetry, but in the material organisation of many magical practitioners. We think of Tituba, an enslaved woman accused of witchcraft in the Salem Witch Trials. Tituba was caught up in a wave of persecution that sought to configure her indigenous practice as devil worship – a history of oppression which makes it unsurprising that African-American magic often focuses on protection and the restoration of community power, and the powerful inscription and expansion of ancestral and indigenous strength. In a modern context, ‘Witches Against Trump’, a global coven of contemporary witches, has come together over the internet to hex the president, an act that is both material and symbolic – restoring linguistic power to women, through the hexing of a man who often corrupts and maims language to reflect his own corrupt and misogynist agenda. The hexes on Trump rebut the idea that feminist movements such as #MeToo are ‘witch hunts’ in the traditional sense of the powerful hunting the powerless. Rather, as Lindy West wrote in her New York Times article about Woody Allen and Harvey Weinstein: ‘Yes, This Is a Witch Hunt. I’m a Witch and I’m Hunting You.’ In this version of the witch hunt, the witches are turning on misogynists in power and refusing to be subsumed or silenced. They are reversing the expected discourse and speaking back through spells and enchantments. These witches are not only finding new forms of expression, but are building female-identified solidarity across borders and nations through shared, and angry, magical language.


When a new friend or colleague says to me: You’re nice! You aren’t scary at all, like I thought you would be from reading your poems, I know the angry magic has worked. In a witch’s hands, poetry’s force of language becomes supple and wet: it circles round the silent void of women’s history, like a damp finger round the rim of a glass, and you can hear something.



spell for joy




nothing can be trusted!

raise up your rinsed hands!

terrible fury and becoming!

take off your clothes!



one colossal owner of the void

brightness folding into itself

again and again vulval or filo



I see a shaking which is total and absolute fear



one day yr gonna die!



the hot impossible apple of

your perfection



you freckled you covered in something

you utter



just open up your face

light’s ice cream cone coming

on the inside of yr eyelids



say yes five thousand times

(o love)





I like when you rub sage on my door

I like the lamb’s blood you throw on my face

I like heaping sugar in a jar and saying a prayer

And then having it work

— Dorothea Lasky


I was once interviewed for a university job (without realising who I was speaking to) by an expert of Western witchcraft and paganism, the historian Ronald Hutton. He had looked at a few of my poems and asked me, among various questions about pedagogical strategy and research frameworks, how I would define a witch. I said I would define a witch as someone who uses language to cause change in the material world. When we spoke later, Hutton told me that, though I didn’t get the job, I had given him one of the best definitions of ‘witch’ he had ever heard. My feelings at that comment pretty much wiped out any disappointment about the job.


This small anecdote made its way into the 2017 book small white monkeys by the poet Sophie Collins. The launch of this book centred around the idea of shame. The poet Vahni Capildeo read a long poem which, in one section, described her having a conversation with a powerful poetry editor who had requested to meet her. Despite having invited her, the editor took their meeting as an opportunity to tell her that she was an utterly worthless writer, and should stop publishing. He poured out his barely concealed racism and misogyny directly to her face. He said all this while her book of poetry, which she had brought as a gift for him, sat in front of him on the table. Capildeo described how, in this moment of total horror, and shame, and attack, she suddenly felt the ghosts of Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf standing next to her, one at each side. With those writers close to her, ghosts pressing her body, she said, she lost her shame, came back to herself, and found it possible to take back her book from the publisher (to his horror and upset – after all, he was just trying to be ‘helpful’), and leave.


Capildeo described these events as experience, rather than imagination or fantasy. They were something that had happened; a summoning. Unlike a spell, which uses language to create change, a summoning brings others into presence even when language has been temporarily lost. A summoning is the magical action of community – the awareness that what cannot be borne alone might be borne together. When Capildeo described her experience, in powerful poetic language, she widened that community further, including us, taking us into the fold. This was no kind of comfy, heartwarming community spirit, which ignores structural racism and misogyny in a kind of holistic fakeness; rather it was an injunction to join the poet in the moment of enforced shame and the moment of its undoing.


Capildeo’s ‘taking in’ involved no merging – after all, the oppressions she experienced were particular to her position not only as a woman, but as a woman of colour. I cannot simply ‘join in’ with that oppression and ‘share the load’. What Capildeo made possible, in her poetry, was a standing-with, a being-with, in which one is confronted by the complicated reality of her experience and the reality of the change that she brought about – both for herself and for her listeners, changed by what they heard. If we have to live with a history of silenced, damaged, unwell, suppressed women writers, Capildeo seemed to suggest, then we can at least work with that history, summon it into new, dynamic positions. This is not quite ‘re-writing’ the past, because it is more potent than that. We can’t change what has come before, but we can access it, and address it, differently – finding the power in creative female figures such as Woolf and Plath, rather than the tragedy and poignancy that they are often made to represent. This is not to ignore their suffering, but rather to locate the other parts of what they make available to us, their bravery, their intelligence and their fight. As the mystic philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote, ‘Nothing that has ever happened should be regarded as lost for history.’ History only finds a temporal existence in its contemporary expressions, and so when we change it, the change is real.


Capildeo confronted us with the knowledge that the past is not dead if we can bewitch its corpse in language and bring it back to us, hold its clammy, tender body in our hands; that fury can live and do its work like cleansing fire, magic that makes change, around and within language, and out into the world.



spell for midsummer’s day


burn the fire and jump


dear heart


under all this is a centre of human jam

red and pulsing



what you feel touch your face

    in a wavering immense cut



the sun is   hovering at her absolute mid-point



    do you feel that fucked and desperate gilding stir in you?



your stinking consecrated jam?

throw yourself down on the floor like a bad dog

get on your knees     and lick the boards

get up again



the fire is doing things to   you



that feel amazing

this earth is so









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.



spell for reality


what do you do when the answer to

too much is absolutely nothing?

honey sits on the table

fat and glowing

winter light gives you a pass

nine minutes of feeling nearly

completely alive


sometimes the ashy body in the ground seems

to have all the answers

ultimate realness     nasty truth as the final only truth

why then     this stupid relentless yearning for snow

    why the honey and talking


the burning bush is another form of ultimate realness

but what is it telling us

certainly it’s nasty

however also     gold

also the entire pocket cosmos shifting and flapping

gentle limbs     holding each other     in the depth of the fire


then       somehow


as much snow as you could ask for

wet-gold honey and locusts






war is corny & revolution threatens

irony, still I want my soft sockets

touched & refuse to give birth

heartlessly: I won’t budge on wanting love:

human touch: not everything

has to be profitable

— Jenny Zhang


In an interview with The Huffington Post, the American queer poet and

seer-witch CA Conrad says:


(Soma)tic poetry rituals create an extreme present, keeping us in the deep awareness of everything around us, a present tense we didn’t know we longed for until we find it … The magic of language is always counting on us to make the effort to reach it, and once we get there the real possibilities, the infinite possible directions are finally clear.


Conrad created (soma)tic poetry rituals to make creativity possible in an impossible situation: the aftermath of the homophobic murder of his partner, Earth. Conrad’s (soma)tic poetry uses rituals and actions in the material world to produce language. ‘My idea for a (Soma)tic Poetics,’ he writes, ‘is a poetry which investigates that seemingly infinite space between body and spirit by using nearly any possible THING around or of the body to channel the body out and/or in toward spirit with deliberate and sustained concentration. The writing of (Soma)tics is an engagement with the thing of things and the spirit of things.’


Conrad uses the ritual of repeated actions and language forms, interventions within ‘normal’ society, and connections with nature and mystic structure, for example, immersing himself in one colour all day, wearing it, eating it, keeping it near; being directed to write poetry by words taken at random from wildly different genres of books in the library, or following an ant back to its nest in the Chihuahuan Desert.


In enacting these focused rituals, Conrad manages both to write brilliant poetry, and deal with some of the pain and despair of traumatising events. These rituals belong to Conrad alone, and to his power and suffering, but they can show us a way into thinking about what it might mean to see language, to see poetry, as a direct reckoning with the world – a form of bringing ourselves into the present. In the same interview Conrad says:


When I conduct (Soma)tic poetry workshops, especially in the university setting, there is often one or two young people who admit to feeling like they are wasting their time learning poetry or art while the world falls apart. One of my most important goals is to address THAT whenever it comes up, to make clear just HOW ESSENTIAL being creative is to the future health and happiness of our species and other creatures and plants.


Artistic creativity can seem like… what? Distraction? There are certainly forms of creativity that bury their head in the sand. But making art can also be a way of bringing the world to itself. In poetic language there is the capability to exist in a moment that is meaningful, yet without a clear takeaway message or ‘value’. How strange. What is meaningful is not always straightforwardly ‘useful’ or ‘productive’. To express it crudely, capitalism wants everything to have a value that can be fixed, and which is therefore commodifiable. If a poem does not tell us how to live morally, or how to ‘get over’ our problems, if it does not comfort or clearly ‘entertain us’, then what is it doing? Perhaps it might just be showing us something of the world covered over by familiarity – the differing, complicated world which we live in and have a right to witness, and become intimate with, and consider.


The poetic moment rushes at us, real and opaque and present; full not only of us, but of many other human and nonhuman beings and things. It is this complexity that we might be able to touch, just briefly, so that it isn’t just us in a stifling prison of subjectivity, fixed eternally on purpose and result. The poem, in these cases, doesn’t ‘tell us something’, it is something. The poem itself is a part of the world and its mystery and  strangeness, and a passage into that world. It is part of the conflicting and varying forms of meaning and being that exist within it; ones that can never fully remain in our grasp, but which we can experience.


Wallace Stevens, from his poem ‘The Snowman’:


For the listener, who listens in the snow,

And, nothing himself, beholds

Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.


In this poem, the human witness of the world sees ‘nothing that is’, because he always brings himself, his imperfect understanding and conceptions to his seeing. Yet he also beholds ‘Nothing that is not there’. He is blocked from seeing truly, at the same time that he sees everything – it is all in front of him, all real and materially present and full of its own agency, if he could find a way through himself to its reality. It is the realisation of not knowing that allows us to momentarily glimpse the very reality of the world – what we don’t know swimming into view in all its opaque, contained brightness. The poem becomes a form of ritual in which the present floods into our consciousness, full of evasive potential. This is poetry that gives us unexchangeable, unconsumable, resistant, vibrant knowledge: an occult practice of reality.



spell for emotions


make a cake that looks like a picture of your mother making a cake set up an industrial skyline with more and more tender phalluses

hitting the air


don’t     you   realise     how little           time there is?


you can’t set up a portfolio


or reason about the amount of passengers through the border






    you have to cup a breast just there in the suggestive lamplight

    or put yr mouth on a fox’s mouth though it hurts and hurts

    or carry a person on your back over a revered mountain


you have to



      hurry hurry hurry hurry





& there are places in which love reproduces itself like a lizard’s tail, heeds to no alarm or database. places where the sun raises like a fat cunt glowing in the sky.

— Sophie Robinson


In Malleus Maleficarum (often translated into English as ‘The Hammer of Witches’) the fifteenth-century Catholic clergyman Heinrich Kramer expressed his virulently misogynistic and vile thoughts on witchcraft, encouraging rulers to hunt witches down, and to treat their crimes with the same violence meted out to heretics – burning at the stake. Yet in Kramer’s text we can piece together the pieces of historical folklore, myth and rumour which fed into the version of witchcraft believed at the time, and turn them to our own devices. Kramer writes:


[W]hat shall we think about those witches who somehow take members in large numbers – twenty or thirty – and shut them up together in a birds’ nest or some box, where they move about like living members, eating oats or other feed? This has been seen by many and is a matter of common talk.


Apparently, a man who had his member taken by a witch was encouraged by her, in reparation, to ‘climb a particular tree where there was a nest containing many members, and allowed to take any one he liked’.


Kramer existed in a world full of stories of penises in nests, fed and watered, penises taken and returned, used for pleasure, penises put on, worn, discarded, picked up again, exchanged, rejected. Kramer’s world also told of witches’ vulva trees, couples copulating under them furiously, vulvas fluttering open and closed like the wings of huge coloured butterflies. Kramer himself was disgusted and terrified by this bodily movement and undoing, this fever of change, female power, and pleasure.


Yet Kramer’s descriptions of fear and disgust at women’s potential agency and sexuality, can, like the etchings of witches’ terrifying but vital power, give us paradoxical insights into our own creative and political needs. Kramer’s book, and the stories of freeing sexual flexibility kernelled within, help me to ask: how to find the magic of the body? How to bring it into language?


Witches reach out and pluck from the branches exactly what their bodies need. They do not worry about propriety, or fret about fixed shape or the shape of others. They do not worry about the limits and expectations of their own desires. They do not worry about the material reality of the body, its visceral need for sustenance and touch and increase, but embrace that vitality and that extension. They reach out and take.


The witch does not find it hard or problematic to say cunt, or to have one or not, or to interact with one. The witch eats onion rings, and fucks with her hands still smelling of oil, turns into a dog, a wolf, a beast and back again, and shifts, and laughs, and is happy. It is impossible to imagine a witch faking an orgasm, or dieting to make herself manageable, or putting up with boring or painful sex out of politeness or kindness, or deifying penetrative intercourse, or tying sex to making babies, or accepting the construct of a virginity.


If to be human means being tied into a system of patriarchal power struggle and rigidly heterosexual, normative sexuality, then the witch will go beyond the human: slipping out of her skin into a body that shifts and changes at each point of touching. The witch’s sexuality gives her pleasure, but that is not all it gives her – it gives her material entry into the validity of her wants, the ability to love herself for her wishes and needs and longings. A witch’s desire changes what is thinkable within the body – much like poetry might do.


The witch gets bigger and bigger and bigger. She shouts.




spell for the witch’s hammer


a two pronged sword

to put them down


out there a lot of things happen



undo   each other.   a candle in each opening


witches wake at night and cry

beasts with curly horns comfort them

/suck gently


witches go astray

carnality    swooping and fluttering   like a ragged flag


they    laugh so much

covered in purple bruises

teaching.  tricks     GPS of the eternal flagellant light      always going home


the witch’s hammer sinks into flesh

then     disappears    and only mercury remains.    its little peasant trail


the witches eat your book

then you

then everything



REBECCA TAMÁS is a Lecturer in Creative Writing at York St John University. Her pamphlet Savage was published by Clinic, and was a LRB Bookshop pamphlet of the year, and a Poetry School book of the year. Rebecca’s first full-length poetry collection, WITCH, was published by Penned in the Margins in March 2019. She is editor, together with Sarah Shin, of Spells: 21st Century Occult Poetry, published by Ignota Books. Her collection Strangers: Essays on the Human and Nonhuman was published by Makina Books in October 2020.  



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