Spelling the ritual, urgency, and the future lineage

Line-drawn veve featuring a heart shape for Maman Brigitte, a Vodoun loa.
The veve of Maman Brigitte, Vodoun loa. Veves are spiritual and magical symbols used for bringing the energy and presence of loa.

As we start to practice magical poetics and create real effects in our poems, we also begin to think about the consequences. The ethics of magic is at the very core of historical perceptions, definitions, and discussions of magic itself. Witches and their constant demonization are our most common example, and if we are to read Silvia Federici’s Caliban and the Witch and other scholars who theorize the witch symbolically, we read of a scapegoat perpetuated to exorcise communal demons — by which we mean powerful women, queer people, people of color, and others deemed nonnormative. From the first “Western” notions of magick recorded by the ancient Greeks (I’m thinking of the Greek Magical Papyri as a good example of syncretic magical practice), mageia was a derogatory word for street magicians. “Outlawing” an act or tendency or identity is to label it wrong, to ascribe meaning and punishment to the act and socially agree — or force agreement — to that sometimes arbitrary meaning. As CAConrad so clearly declares in Amanda Paradise, this violence, for this poem specifically “heterosexual violence,” “gave us empires” (103).

Imperial thinking is meaning-making, not meaning-finding. To name another is to make meaning on top of, unwillingly, as in Adam naming the animals (Adam was an imperialist). The unnamed species does not describe itself in a language other than its own. Empires first lay claim by moving in and naming things, lands, rivers, and animals. In surveying, they send in researchers, and by working power through research, the empire classifies. Once one is classified by name, one is controllable, and in many cases, one is owned. Names become a shorthand of ownership, like my own name represents ownership over my selfhood, my body, my mind. Married names historically replace(d) women’s last names to show property ownership — not parity, sorry, heterosexuals. Marriage is, historically, an imperial naming project and property transfer ritual. Other unifying rituals that predate heterosexual marriage, or evade it, may be less imperial, but name changes ally a body with what owns it, which may be some other entity’s name.

Name magic is an entire branch of ancient magic; we are familiar with it in fantasy works like those of Ursula K. LeGuin or J.R.R. Tolkien, in which names constitute power over entities. Name magic is prevalent in Ariana Reines’s poems, perhaps especially “Thursday” in A Sand Book, which incants the name Uma Thurman alongside Thor’s name. We see name magic and the reclamation or appropriation of names all over texts like the Greek Magical Papyri, to pull us back to our central thread. Magic is an occult ritual practice that often does not fall within the boundaries of sanctioned religion. Different communities define magic differently because “mageia” is named in reference to a center of power. Magic declares, as Yeats declares, that those centers of power cannot hold. As we practice magic, we create opportunities to disrupt centers of power and oppression, and so we must be clear in our ethical, magical poetics.

The practice of magic is a way to exercise power that is not sanctioned, is not central, and/or is intentionally marginal. Magic is marginal in that, though the practice of magic was widespread in the ancient world and still is in rural communities, it remains so in what we might consider today’s global capitalist world. The resurgence of magic in popular thought and culture represents, I think, a manifestation of need. The redistribution of power from patriarchal centers is needed. Short of redistributing financial capital, magic redistributes cultural and spiritual capital. A good example of this work is the reclamation of words. I’m thinking specifically of slur words used by those in central power to marginalize and oppress others, but which are co-opted by those same oppressed people and turned into vehicles of empowerment and community. For instance, the word f*ggot for gay men and the word queer are slurs in contexts outside of the queer community and are, historically speaking, originally slurs in the more popular context. Reusing those words as tongue-in-cheek endearments or sexual identifiers for the self is a magical practice of empowering the words and thus the people they are aimed at. This is a redistribution of power.

Reusing words in new contexts, incorporating words of power, like names, into metaphors, and other magical acts of poetry require a strong ethical understanding of what happens when one uses magic. A single-author poem that incorporates magic can be a very individualistic spell and can do harm to others. The “wizard wars” of Robert Duncan and Jack Spicer did harm, as does Spicer’s poetry or Aleister Crowley’s interpersonal hexes. This harm is as real as a slur and creates trauma and oppression, and we must take care with what we produce.

However, this final post on magical poetics and ethics is an invitation, not a warning. I would invite all poets and all magical practitioners to be generous, compassionate, and joyful in their ethical magic. I invite you to read and share that way, too. To bring this conversation full circle, I’ll reflect a little on CAConrad and what they’ve created. Conrad is a firebrand that inspires others to create and to act through creation. The inspiration, though fiery, sparkles. When I think of Conrad, I think of Selah Saterstrom writing about Conrad’s glitter, which they have often carried around with them and offered to others as a small way of making the world sparkle a bit more. This never fails to give others a smile or a laugh, or in those who aren’t quite ready for it, a bit of apprehension, thinking, why not? Magic and glitter challenge central power and those who rely on it.

The patriarchy in all of us won’t go down without a fight, and the patriarchy fights with words and black magic as much as it fights with money, policies, and the fist. So must we. The fist has less power without the words to back it. I’m thinking of Andrea Abi-Karam’s Villainy, particularly the last poem in the book “After Cecilia Vicuña,” as involving itself in Conrad’s lineage. I hope Abi-Karam thinks of themselves as in community with Conrad, poetically at the least. “After Cecilia Vicuña” credits poetry with the capacity to change actual things when accompanied by action. Poetry “made of forces” can enact political will on and through language (117).

This is what I want to leave you with, a poetry made of forces. Drawing on the poetic lineage as a source of power in magic connects us with those who fought the battle of the imagination as we are doing today. As Lisa Jarnot sought Robert Duncan, who sought H.D., who sought Stesichorus, Helen, and the eternal feminine, so we seek our ancestors for guidance and strength. The fist of poetry is magic, and that fisting of poetry can really perforate our actual reality and the centers of power we fight against every day.

I’ll leave you stewing in the magic beneath that metaphor.

— Eric