“Poetry is a very stupid thing to be good at. Poems are basically like dreams – something that everybody likes to tell other people but nobody actually cares about when it’s not their own.” – Nadine
“It’s magic – it’s not about magic, it’s not like magic: It IS magic. It’s real magic. […] Incantations, spells, ceremonies, rituals – what are they? They’re poems. So, what’s a poet? He’s a shaman, that’s what he is. A fucking good poem is a weapon. Not like a pop gun. It’s like a bomb. A bloody big bomb.” – Ted (Hughes)
Two quotes from fairly recent films – respectively Tiny Furniture and Sylvia – that perhaps sum up two different attitudes to poetry. We might even harbour both opinions: to me, something like David Jones’ The Tutelar of the Place is a ‘bomb’ – a poem that, as Kafka so lucidly put it, is the axe to the frozen sea inside me – a violent, emotive force. On the other hand, I regret to say that most poetry I encounter – as with all art forms – unfortunately falls into the ‘boring dream’ category. It is a tortuous and hard won prize to be a poet, a title which many assume all too eagerly.
With this in mind, I’ll say it myself: the idea of an anthology of esoteric poetry is not an appealing one. Both esotericism and poetry promise a glimpse into a world of experience beyond mundane reality, and yet – more often than not – come out as half-baked, cliché-ridden episodes of self-indulgence. In this respect it may be no mean feat for Scarlet Imprint to stir up excitement for Mandragora, their second anthology of esoteric poetry. Granted, it’s fairly easy to sell a new grimoire (- diabolical pyramid schemes that promise so much, yet often return so little) or to sell an anthology of essays (- at least a couple will be worth the entrance fee), but a volume dedicated to poetry is an altogether different matter.
So, having written the above, I am happy to report that Mandragora is an incredibly successful venture. This beautifully crafted – and weighty volume – is a companion to 2010’s Datura. As such it demonstrates the publisher’s continuing commitment to the areas of magic and mysticism which they consider vital: an intellectual, aesthetic and ethical stance that sets Scarlet Imprint apart from a number of other contemporary imprints that declare themselves to be ‘talismanic’ publishers.
The work of the 48 poets anthologised here is complemented by nine substantial essays on historical, spiritual, artistic and magical approaches to poetry which should justify the price of the volume alone. It is the essays in particular that I’d like to concentrate on in this review. These pieces are diverse, covering Classical, Celtic, and modern approaches to poetry, magic and esotericism. What is apparent is that they have so much in the way of a shared mythos that they complement one another beautifully: Hesiod, Orpheus, Amergin and – most importantly to me – the concept of divine frenzy – are discussed from different angles throughout.
The ideas of divine frenzy are a particular area of interest to me: they speak of visionary states, the filling of the soul by something beyond human limitations and compelling the receiver to act upon them in some way. The frenzies had an ambiguous place in the Classical psyche: Eros was a curse, a malady and madness sent from the gods, which would drive even the most rational man to insane feats. Yet it could also inspire great poetry and move the soul to express transcendent truths, most often through the medium of poetry. Here, poetry is the language of the soul powerfully moved or in ecstasy. In the early 16th century, the frenzies were rehabilitated and incorporated into the Hermetic patchwork of Renaissance magic by Pico della Mirandola, his contemporary Lodovico Lazarelli, and latterly in the works of Cornelius Agrippa and Giordano Bruno.
In Mandragora the frenzies, of furores, appear early on in P. Sufenas Virius Lupus’ beautiful essay The Poet as God-Seducer. Grounded in Celtic and Classical approaches to poetry, Lupus’ essay paints an extraordinary picture of the antique poet as a feared and respected member of society – as capable of destroying the reputation of a man with well chosen words as he is of inspiring with the visionary furore of divine love. I was initially dubious about the subtitle of the book: Further Explorations in Esoteric Poiesis, but this opening essay makes the connection between poiesis (begetting, or bringing forth) and poetry explicit: in the Greek world the poeta is the maker, and in Anglo-Saxon he is the shaper, or scop. This essay is a perfect introduction to poetry in the ancient world, and also an explanation of why poetry was and – most vitally – is relevant. Lupus also contributes a poem, Hadrianus Exclusus, which speaks with the voice of Hadrian as a romantic bond and invocation to his favourite, Antinous. It is an evocative and powerful piece, provoking parallels with both Robert Graves’ analeptic channelings of the Roman world, and the seership evidenced in David Jones’ poems of Roman Britain.
My own essay, Black Venus and Wise Hermes looks at a fairly wide range of magical poetry – including violent hymns of compulsion in the Greek magical papyri, the exposition of ritual poetry in the tradition of Agrippa as found in the Libellus Veneri Nigro Sacer attributed to John Dee, a somewhat more naive charm found in the Folger manuscript, and the role of poetry in the initiatory furores of Lodovico Lazzarelli.
It falls to Al Cummins to bring us to the modern age with his essay On Cut Up. The very term, cut up, will make most readers immediately think of the work of William S. Burroughs, whose relevance to the magical subculture has been discussed since the 70s. More interestingly, Cummins also talks about the relationship between cut-up, divination, aleatoric art and our own inner lives, as well as the relevance of the technique to the manifold streams of modern poetry, in particular Yeats. I was also pleased to see a discussion of Jeff Noon’s Cobralingus techniques, which borrowed from music production in viewing words and poetry as an audio stream, fed through a number of effects pedals and processes. I remember being particularly drawn to this approach in the late 90s and writing many pieces with the technique – and, in the light of an emergent element of my own research regarding the reclaimation of the poetry of everyday speech, a reminder of the Cobralingus technique is timely.
Peter Grey contributes an enlightened overview of Ted Hughes’ work, a man who spoke with the violence of frenzy, closely followed anthropological work on shamanism, believed in the literal power of words (for example, his belief that he could call animals by making poems in their likeness) and – like Kathleen Raine – recognised the relevance of the occult, Neoplatonic inheritance laid at the feet of the poet and the challenge of keeping it a vital, powerful force in the present day, particularly in the face of critical misapprehension.
Orryelle Defenestrate-Bascule shares Hughes’ opinion: [verse] is made to be spoken aloud … its rhythms only come to life when it is read aloud. This discussion of poetry in the context of his ritual theatre performances, this is an amusing, readable and practical piece of work, drawing upon the experience of performing poetry through anecdote and reflection, lifting rhythm, voice and movement from the page and into the world of action.
The Celtic world emerges once more in Erynn Rowan Laurie’s Burying the Poet, a meditation on the chthonic, otherworldly prizes of poetry in Celtic antiquity. Poetic talent – imbas – is here a gift from the underworld, of fairy companions, Brigid and Ogma, cauldrons of inspiration, dream-incubation and prophecy. The frenzies can well up from below, as often as they fall from above.
I had never encountered Fernando Pessoa until coming across José Leitão’s essay on this many-faced enigma, a Renaissance man of the early 20th century who declared: It is my wish to be a creator of myths, which is the highest mystery that any member of humanity may operate. He was poet, philosopher, critic, astrologer, experimenter with automatic writing and associate of Aleister Crowley. Leitão presents Pessoa and his philosophy in magical terms: Pessoa the magus – or perhaps Pessoa the Medium – commanding or giving body to a number of heteronymous spirit-personalities (Alvaro de Campos, Ricardo Reis, Alberto Caeiro), whose nativities it seems were intimately worked out by Pessoa. A fascinating poet and personality and, as he writes himself, a lord
Of interbeings, of that part of us
That lies between our waking and our sleep,
Between our silence and our speech, between
Us and the consciousness of us …
Following an exploration of the birth-charts of Peossoa’s heteronymical personas, Jimmy T. Kirkbride’s Houses of Death opens with a compact history of magic from antiquity to the present day. I feel that this would perhaps have been better integrated into the author’s main argument: that magical literature has been ignored by the modern science, but has been a vital catalyst for artistic movements. The profound subjects of what creativity actually is and how it fits in with art, science and spirituality, alongside how language and poetry – from the Psalms to the present – creates and transcends our reality are brought up, as is the possible grey area between them that poetry and magic may inhabit. However, the relationship of these topics and the vast panorama of magical and alchemical history detailed in the greater part of the essay is unfortunately not elucidated upon. This is a shame since Kirkbride is obviously a well-read, eloquent author whose grasp of his chosen subject is readily apparent.
The final essay is Michael Routery’s excellent The Head of Orpheus: Hesiod, Plato and the Muses, which perfectly complements the Lupus’ opening work in discussing the mythical and historical contexts of poetic inspiration and seership and placing them in relation to our present situation. Almost echoing Rowan Laurie chthonic inspiration the last words of this piece, and of the book itself are: Lives shift when we bring up the dark and shining gifts of the underworld.
The “dark and shining” poetic highlights in the volume are for me Christopher Greenchild’s The Names of Ancestors; T. Thorn Coyle’s After Amergin (opening: I am the shine of neon on black leather); Rebecca Buchanan’s Fragment Burge-Gottner 4.1; Erynn Rowan Laurie’s Lost Text; the aforementioned work of P. Sufenas Virius Lupus; Jessica Melusine’s The Whole Land Dancing; Shaun Johnson’s Haiku for the Goddess; Alison Leigh Lilly’s The Hunter and Jenne Micale’s Hymn to Proserpine (an old theme given new life).
The volume opens with a quote from Martin Heidegger, which I found personally meaningful since various strains of my own work have been converging on his conception of poetry and its relation to truth. However, to dwell on one particular fragment of the quote: poetry reveals the world. Given that all the poems here are written by people involved in esoteric pursuits of one form or another one intrinsic value of this volume is that it expresses the worlds, thoughts and feelings of practitioners. For those in pursuit of a phenomenology of magic, here is a rare glimpse into numerous souls.
Ruby Sara has done an admirable job editing and collating such a coherent volume from what would at first seem to many an impossibly diverse field. As the essays highlight there is a visionary, hidden, ancient stream running throughout poetry. Ted Hughes, Peter Redgrove and Robert Graves recognised it – and were spellbound by the goddess they discovered to confusion of their critics – and Kathleen Raine expressed it eloquently in her commentaries on diverse poets from William Blake to Edwin Muir. Mandragora affirms this tradition and confirms its value, relevance and power in the present.
Mandragora is available in hardback, paperback or Epub/Mobi from Scarlet Imprint.