WITCH is rude, raucous, shocking, intellectually bracing, sophisticated, messy, anti-dogmatic, and sexy. It’s a thrilling, visceral and totally unexpected collection, which redefines the possibilities for poetic language in the twenty-first century. If that sounds like hype to you, get ready to be sucker-punched.
The figure of the witch is an eternally potent archetype for many feminist thinkers and artists, from Remedios Varo, to Kate Bush, to Silvia Federici, to Geraldine Monk. Whereas Monk and Federici focused on the historical persecution of the witch – who is often taken as a metonym for an independent, powerful woman who ignores the rules of her society and is brutally punished and excluded because of it – this collection takes the classic associations with the witch, such as spells, hexes and interrogations at trial as structural device, rather than attempting to give a realist historical account. In this sense it bears a resemblance to Monk’s Interregnum – but though both are feminist experimental poets writing about witchcraft, that’s where the similarities end. Tamás is explicitly interested in forging a ‘difficult’ poetry which is stridently contemporary, irreverent and immediate, an attitude best summed up by her own lines: ‘a zeitgeist request here | BE SO IN ACCORD WITH YOURSELF THAT YOU GO AWAY’. The difficulty of WITCH lies not in the obscurity of its language, but its utilisation of the apparent non-sequitur as powerful response, as exemplified in the poems entitled ‘Interrogation’ which bookmark the beginning and end of the book:
What is magic?
Picture an egg yolk, that huge yellow throw-up sun.
Dementedly shining, falling out of itself, birthed and
What crimes have you enacted?
Love makes me forget myself sometimes.
I am horribly angry, I am sick with it,
my vomit turns black, but this love.
I can’t explain it, but that it is exactly.
What is especially interesting here is that Tamás upends two tropes of female experience: reproduction (the egg) and romantic love. Both are caretaking roles. Here, the witch’s creative power becomes a semi-autonomous being, unflatteringly described as ‘demented’ and compared to vomit. This theme continues in the second excerpted response, which slyly implies that the only crime the witch commits is to transgress socially-sanctioned co-dependent love relations which keep women submissive, sick and angry, rather than free and brimming with raw power like the egg yolk. Thus, it’s a protestation of innocence which holds up a mirror to the interrogator, implicating society for poisoning women with structural forces they can’t explain. In fact, the more carefully the Interrogation poems are read, it becomes clear that each response contains the kernel of an answer, hiding the key of meaning to the initiated – much like a grimoire – so that the astute reader becomes part of the coven.
to hex a penis off means taking a laugh out for a walk
laughing and laughing your mouth is open
let your girlfriend see your tongue
This is a book that cackles. In the feminist tradition of Cixous’ Laugh of the Medusa and Wittig’s The Guérillères, Tamás reclaims the laughing woman as a symbol of defiance against the patriarchy and conventional morality. In the face of logic laugh. In the face of repression laugh. In the face of sexual violence and death laugh:
you thought there was a conspiracy of women didn’t you you
yes you’re right of course
we are laughing at your dick just like you assumed
but for completely different reasons
You can’t burn this witch, who ‘rubs her foot in the salt lava | intimate and hot as god’: she knows she is made of the same substance as fire. The transgressive power of women, witches’ and queer people’s laughter is fuelled by their fearlessness of death. Why fear hell when one’s enemies seek to kill, silence and punish you above ground? ‘You might as well live’, as Dorothy Parker infamously wrote – and enjoy it.
The witch knows and respects death, and understands it as happening in the present, simultaneously with all other timelines, counter to the human understanding of both time and being: ‘ghosts rub their hands in glee | as they procreate violently’. Trusting in the cyclical nature of existence and speaking with spirits, the witch is fundamentally unafraid of ceasing to exist as a mortal, and it is that which enables Tamás’ witch to be truly liberated, and to embrace the sexual and sensual body.
If laughter is scorn it is also a refusal to conform to expectations, and you’ll find no sanctimonious paeans to nature or distant goddesses here. Instead, the pages are splashed with ‘damp steaks’ and ‘cat shit vellum’, spoken by a protagonist who ‘lived in a pre-industrial society [but] dreamt of motorways and nightclubs’, who ‘wanted to throw the broom into the grate and instead | buy an airplane rising across a tin-can-silver-sky’. As you can tell, Tamás has a great deal of fun reimagining the witch counter-stereotypically, across centuries and into a state of timelessness.
Conversely, there are certain aspects of the witch’s world which transcend language. Tamás gestures towards these via one of her specific gifts, the ability to pile imagery into a clamouring vortex, clause upon clause glowering with rooted intensity. The witch’s consorting with the devil is told here as an atypical doomed love story; in goodbye he mutters ‘something in her ear but it wasn’t words’ which
looked like a body floating on a sea
of grass with the moon pulling that grass backwards and forwards
in tides and with each tug of the moonlight more blue flowers burst up
out of the soil and stretch their capped mouths and the
body passes over them
in light so strong you could read by it
Though this imagery is vivid, it is not romantic; the light renders it heroic, even as the floating body and blue flowers are distinctly supernatural. It attains its unique poetic power not through the specialness of its language, but through the incantatory effect produced by active verbs and the present tense reimagining the fantastic in the realm of the mundane: animism in action, making visible the hidden (occulted). It is this which gives so many of Tamás’ poems their distinctly startling and unpredictable air: the language traverses familiar terrain with a totally different set of coordinates and intentions, as though the map itself is turned upside down.
So WITCH proposes a magic predicated on visceral embodiment which is nonetheless focused on futurity, via the transcendence of patriarchal capitalism’s utilitarian attitude towards nature, which has led humanity towards an approaching ecological crisis ‘where the world is what you do to it’.
I’d like to say something about the treatment of gender in this book. It seems that the opening ‘/penis hex/’ and closing ‘/cunt hex/’ have been taken literally by some readers (on the site GoodReads) and understood to be transphobic. As a genderqueer person I did not find this reading to be true. ‘/penis hex/’ acts as a distinctly comical, even light-hearted introduction to the book’s themes: ‘hex in a philosophy seminar | see them detach and start to waver | a few centimetres apart from their owners’. Such an image illustrates what is clear throughout this poem, that the witch seeks to decontaminate a phallocentric culture, and that the penis is a purely symbolic metaphor for this, chosen to shock and amuse. A potential moment of offense may have sprung from these lines:
some woman in a mint silk pantsuit so happy with
a penis between her legs and the next shucking it off
able to do exactly as is necessary
I read these lines as ambiguous, since we don’t know whether the penis between the legs belongs to the woman or her sexual partner. I am inclined to interpret it as the latter given that she is ‘so happy’, a state synonymous with sexual liberation elsewhere in the book (‘Spell for Lilith’); ‘able to do exactly as is necessary’ signifies that she doesn’t allow her temporary happiness and / or ability to fall in love to become counter-revolutionary sentimentality. Clearly the joke is not on the innocent penis, but the patriarchy.
Meanwhile, the devil is androgynous and ‘had all the sexual organs you could want’ though is referred to throughout as ‘he’, which indicates an understanding of gender as mutable, diverse and non-essentialist. Finally, WITCH reassures us,
know that as I hex you I hug you know that as
you are hexed and the blood is pouring from your head
and groin that it is only because I love
everything that is alive
A truly twenty-first century poetics, WITCH understands that the frontiers we face are also in ourselves, implanted through the virus of culture. Healing can be accomplished through working towards the destruction of external oppressors together (rather than turning that power inwards and self-destructing alone). Bravery, pleasure and reclamation are tactics for survival and resistance, and no-one is immune to the virus – we are all capable of being wrong. We are all alive. We are all under the same cultural hex – it’s just that some of us know it. We are ALL witches. This book speaks of liberation with depth, seriousness and force, yet communicates this message through spirited wit, a sly wink, and a full-throated cackle.
Buy WITCH by Rebecca Tamás from the Poetry Book Society website.