Queer mythopoesis, or, How Eliot's "Waste Land" failed us
This post serves as a coda to my Jacket2 blog series on magical poetics by engaging with my own writing and magical practice.
At this year’s Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture, which is a one-hundred-year-old occult gem of magical poets and thinkers, renowned critic Stephanie Burt asked if poetry has a future. By this she meant, "can poetry imagine a future?" mostly leaning into a sci-fi future-imagining for queer folks, as well as everyone else. I was thinking about the same questions for my panel talk about cyborgs in poet’s theatre as ways to queerly imagine. However, some of distrust of Burt’s desires for a techno-poetry pair with my anxieties (maybe others’, too) about how much we’re willing to marry technocapitalism with art.
I am disinclined towards a future of tech and more interested in an alternative queer futurity imagined through magical poetics, but this, too, has problems. In some ways, magical thinking avoids lived reality or pits our magic against “their” technologies at the center of systems of power. Magic is an ancient science, but it is not recognized as a rational, contemporary science. Magic may be seen to refute the literalness of chemical equations and instead rely on belief and correspondence, as I’ve explored in this series, but that’s not all there is. I think we can craft a real world through magical thinking and inspiration. Maybe that real world comes from tech after it is imagined by magic. I think we need both magic and science to live, and I want to ask how we might harmonize the two by proposing a few poetic prompts based in my own developing work.
My poetry’s answer is in the magical channeling of Tiresias, blind prophet of ancient and contemporary theatre, poetry, and thought. Tiresias engages correspondent magic via divination through different forms of prophecy including ornithomancy (bird divination). As a prophet, Tiresias inherently beckons toward and imagines possible futures that are necessarily full of technologies and industries that the present does not understand. Importantly, Tiresias becomes a woman after smacking two coupling snakes or after offending Hera by siding with Zeus on a gendered question, depending on your source. The queen of the gods, who may represent a feminine understanding of logic and power, knowingly punished Tiresias by giving him a taste of her-ness from which they return but can never forget. Tiresias is always both and also neither after that experience. Tiresias is a trans prophet, a non-binary protagonist. What can they teach us?
In the Tiresias poems I’ve written so far, grouped under the working title A Planetary Spell, I channel Tiresias as a way of accessing magical queer identity and power. My practice of writing with magic combines a few of the concepts that I’ve covered in this blog, though not all of them. The magic I most closely cling to includes the praxes that I find evocative for my own identity: name magic, channeling, incantation, and chant. I use chant and name magic to create, shift, and conjure identity, often by writing through other personae, including Tiresias, Federico García Lorca, and versions of myself that I do not fully “believe are real” (see earlier posts for irony).
A portion of my Tiresias serial poem is published in The Louisville Review with an audio recording link available. As a nod to sci-fi, actually, the planets in this section chant and name themselves while Tiresias (me, also, within that persona) struggles with binaries in identity language — gender, but not exclusively — on their float through space. Performing these poems and the section after, in which Iris, Tiresias’s interplanetary guide and goddess of the rainbow, explodes with power, feels like a sublime leap into the atmosphere on the best days. Iris’s text is built with improvisation meant to turn the performance from rehearsed to raw energy so that I can’t disengage as a performer. I can see these ideas better manifested in the work of poets like Douglas Kearney and Rodrigo Toscano, but framing the transformations of improv and performance explicitly as magic creates, in me, a unique subjective experience that would be pointless to compare to whatever else. I won’t speak for the audience.
T.S. Eliot harnessed this same potential in The Waste Land by making Tiresias a lynchpin of the narrative, possibly the voice of the entire narrative, depending on the reading, but I think Eliot engaged Tiresias in a less queer version of future-gazing. Having seen both sides of the binary and the falseness of that division in terms of gender, I believe the Tiresias figure must understand that the most natural way to be is the queer that is desiring, or not, as the body and mind push. Though I believe in Eliot's successes, I think this is where Eliot and I diverge, as Eliot’s Tiresias is cynically-minded and resigned rather than exploratory and meandering. I think Tiresias is full of queer movement. If we imagine a future through this Tiresias, what can we see?
In writing this Tiresias and imagining this future, I use magical thinking more than tech, but I don’t abandon science. Like other writers, including Peter O’Leary and Kristin Prevallet, Tiresias and I imagine alongside astronomy and climatology. Because of the present, Tiresias’s queer future has to involve tech, even as they attempt to shirk the capitalistic drive.
In the sense of a queer imaginary, Eliot failed us; Tiresias did not. If Eliot’s "city, city" is a waste land, a failure of capital drive, the queer ecos that Tiresias imagines and the in-between they inhabit is the mythopoetic landscape of possible futures. Queer futurity like this imagines Tiresias as the leader and guide out of disenchanted postmodernism, out of, possibly, humanism itself, a vice that always yearns for whatever promise of another capitalism, another manifest destiny never achieved, into a no-future of the queer now. Now means life, it means let’s live, not let’s conquer destiny, not let’s rule the galaxy together. The magic of poetry can give us the future as we read, literally by writing and speaking it into existence. Don’t write as a yearning for later tech or later love; write desire now.
Thank you for reading “Magical Poetics.” It’s been a delight exploring magic and poetry and thinking with you, reader!