Are you a witch? Do you consort with witches? Have you sought a witch’s guidance (romantic, financial, professional or otherwise)? Does it please you to tup with the devil, kill the cows and blight the harvest with a curse? Do you wear hats? Have you installed a tarot app on your phone? Have you cracked an egg, found its yolk doubled and laced with blood, and proceeded to make an omelette anyway? Do you have a cat? Do you want to have a cat? Do you cast spells? Do you like poetry? Do you agree that spells are poems? Do you agree that poems are spells?
Perhaps you are not a witch yourself. But you must know one. By now, you will have noticed, at least, the brazen way a new sort of witch occupies public space. Maybe you saw her at a protest, hexing local government. Or online, sharing details of an independent candle boutique with reasonable shipping. Or maybe you saw her at a poetry reading, casting a spell.
The witch is old and the witch is new. The witch seems to be in her mid-to-late-twenties, but she calls herself an ageless daughter of Hecate, at once maiden, mother and crone. She’s been turning up to things since at least 2016. You’ve seen her at events, carrying a tote bag which seems to claim that someone once tried and failed to burn her Mum. You remember her, you think, from the fancy-dress shop in your childhood town, the one that also had a line in crystals and shaky water colours of the Fae Folk. But she’s not really that kind of witch, you notice. This witch dresses like an architect and goes to therapy. This witch hates the Tories and Trump, talks about the apocalyptic cruelty of the neoliberal agenda. Perhaps she’s a political witch, a W.I.T.C.H., but then doesn’t she also seem to really believe in magic? Who, then, is she? Bewitched, bothered and bewildered, you turn to literary criticism to find out.
While she may have been lurking out of sight for centuries, the witch re-entered Western cultural consciousness in the wake of the 2016 Trump campaign and election. Through Trump’s triumph, and the following year’s #MeToo movement, the concept of the patriarchy regained a popular traction it had lost in the ’90s and ’00s, and a new feminist movement settled on the witch – maligned, silenced, and vengeful – as its icon. Socially liberal, anti-racist, her feminism informed by queer theory and her craft by the legacy of pre-colonial arcana, the new witch became a symbol of #resistance.
Modern witchcraft is no mere metaphor for a new coalition of activist interests, however. Across the last decade, a significant (or at least culturally prominent) group of young women have begun to dedicate time, money and energy to the pursuit of ritual practices which emphasize a blend of nature worship, self-care and protest. Journalists covering the trend have developed a popular explanation for the recent surge in occult activity: in moments of political instability, people reach for mystical tools to help explain phenomena that seem out of their personal control. Beyond the legislative reach and explanatory power of the American presidency, in Ireland, the UK and other European countries, a potion of post-2008 social and economic shifts can help to explain the appeal of the occult. Austerity measures, decreasing work standards, stagnating wages and a drawn-out housing crisis have created a sense of dislocation and disempowerment for a generation of young people, among whom a select group have turned to witchcraft, tarot and astrology for guidance. Reading through the many articles published on the subject over the past four years leaves the impression that witchcraft is to millennial women as populism is to modern liberal democracies – a response to the political and economic extremes of late capitalism.
Among this cohort of new witches are the authors and publishers of a series of anthologies, pamphlets and poetry collections which address contemporary secular phenomena (renting, dating, parliamentary politics, climate change) through arcane language and symbolism. While these books clearly share a set of aesthetic, rhetorical and sometimes spiritual reference points with the broader witch subculture, they deserve attention as a literary phenomenon in their own right. Issued by small or independent presses (though a more mainstream witch publishing trend is also well established), their authors play with sacred images and language, place obscenity front and centre, and frequently claim that their writing is in itself a form of magic: that poems are spells.
Chief among such publications is the anthology Spells, a compendium of modern witch poetry from thirty-six of the genre’s leading names and published by the new independent press Ignota in 2018. Ignota itself is best understood as emerging from the neon-lit crossroads of occult interests and digital art practices that characterise the contemporary Western witch subculture. The press ‘publishes at the intersection of technology, myth-making and magic’ and seeks to ‘develop a language that makes possible the reimagining and reenchantment of the world around us.’ The idea that language can have a causal impact on the world, can (re)enchant and alter the fabric of our reality is a calling card of the poems in the collection. Indeed, the attribution of illocutionary force to literary language is so pervasive among the poems of Spells, that we can consider it the definitive belief of the ad hoc witch-lit movement the anthology represents. As the cover copy to Spells puts it ‘[s]pells are poems, poetry is spelling’. Why? Because spells do things, and these poems want to make things happen too. The poems in Spells all seek to bring a different kind of world into being through the performative power of their own poetic language. As So Mayer writes in their introduction,
This isn’t about God making the world with the Word. It’s about the witches who’ve been remaking the world, unmaking the mess he made, ever since that difficult birth.
These witches live in a cosmos ruled by the twin stars of mischief and exasperation. They walk behind God as he tidies nothingness into creation, moving his work out of divine alignment and back towards a more charming chaos. Words are the tools preferred by witches for unpicking God’s tapestry, as Mayer makes clear: ‘[to] be a witch, then, is to know words’. Mayer alerts us to what this magical power means in terms of literary style: ‘[w]itchcraft — like the violence it opposes — works by repetition, by the looping and looping and looping of a thread’. Throughout Spells, threads of images, words, symbols loop endlessly, creating an incantation of their own. Here’s one I jotted down as the terms surfaced again and again across the thirty-six poems:
Hair teeth stones murder cotton gifts trees
birth hymns sea cuts rabbits/hares milk
rivers (Thames) tea oil autumn / fall God
clay guts kitchens knives mothers cunts
maths howls birds leaves sex glass knots
water moon throats songs wombs night …
The impulse to categorise the key terms of reference for literary occultism must also have inspired David Keenan. His Empty Aphrodite: An Encyclopedia of Fate, is one of four new pamphlets, all collaborative productions between a writer and visual artist, issued by Rough Trade Books in association with the Cornish Museum of Witchcraft and Magic (MWM). Empty Aphrodite is a useful introduction to the time-travelling aesthetics of witch-lit, which approaches pop culture with a magpie’s eye for the shiny (Lana del Rey) and the kitsch (Carl Sagan), and appropriately enough a magpie’s disregard for the contingent effects of historical context. Once elevated to the level of magical language, cultural references lose their temporal specificity: Blake is no longer a Romantic poet, reacting to the cataclysms of the French Revolution, but rather an eternal mystical spirit whose bardic presence can be invoked as an aid to the lost modern witch. Sometimes the banal (frozen margherita pizza) appears as a fact of life in just the way a piece of bread does in the accounts of witches in the Malleus Maleficarum, reminding the reader that witches too sometimes need a ready meal. Capitalisation lets you know when a word, such as ‘Aftermath’, has become a concept, and it doesn’t seem to be a problem that this typological move places proper nouns (Gary Snyder) on a level with symbolic constructs (Death). Keenan’s entries work best when read as distinct prose poems, rather than in succession, as the charm of mystical ambiguity wears thin after too much repetition. At its best, as in the entry for ‘Forgiveness’, Keenan humanises his concept-subject with such infectious sympathy that a definition becomes a story, the Devil becomes just a scared, lost boy, missing his Dad:
… can’t you imagine God taking him on one knee, his most faithful son who never doubted Him, even as he despaired of Him, and gently stroking his horrible blistered head, blistered from falling all the way from Heaven, you would imagine when all the time he could have taken the easier route just like every angel else, God having him on his knee and telling him, pointing out, tenderly, this is as much you as it is me, …
At other times, the elision of the sacred and the profane feels worn out by its own stretching, as in the entry for ‘Golem’: ‘A Disney film. Out of control.’ Nevertheless, Keenan’s ability to balance the perverse and the obscene with the sweet and the holy, to flip an image of one to the other and back again, is dizzyingly fun. Keenan’s pamphlet also introduces us to another tenet of witch-lit’s philosophy of language: the hollowness of words. Entries in the encyclopaedia are not fixed or defined but rather evoked, summoned into a shapeshifting display of feeling and resemblance which, depending on your tastes, is either elegant sorcery or a show of smoke and mirrors. Things mean what they mean until they don’t, language cannot be trusted to fully convey the power of magic, which exists before the word.
Not all of the texts published as part of the witch-lit trend share the instrumental and associative view of language found in Empty Aphrodite and Spells, however. Jen Calleja’s Rough Trade x MWM pamphlet, Goblins (illustrated by Rachel Louise Hodgson), uses the idea of a gruesome magical creature as a springboard for a series of short essays investigating the author’s childhood passion for the uncanny (particularly of the Jim Henson puppet variety) and her complicated adult relationship with fully embodying the role of a powerful performer in a punk band. The result is a sharp blend of art criticism, feminist commentary on the live music scene, and memoir, which uses a goblinry as a binding theme throughout. Similarly, Wendy Erskine’s contribution to the series, two short stories under the shared title Satan Is Real (illustrated by Steph von Reiswitz) play metaphorically with the figure of the devil, and the cultural fear of devil worship, as ways of developing plot and character. In the first story, a Beelzebubic figure, Furfur, enters post-seance as a balming, pet-like presence for a grieving girlfriend, but soon drags her life into a sluggish state of depression, isolation, and bad plumbing. In the second, the satanic panic of the 1980s sweeps Belfast and ups the stakes of a pre-teen rebellion for Jamie Devine, wunderkind of his family’s Christian country band. Erskine and Calleja’s pamphlets mine the symbolism and power of the occult for their own narrative and argumentative purposes, but make no claims to the act of writing as a form of magic in itself. In the words of one of Erskine’s characters, a beleaguered tour manager, ‘It’s not satanic, Ronnie. It’s just showbiz.’
Completing the magic pamphlet quadrant is The Cult of Water: The Line and The Circle, by David Bramwell with illustrations by Pete Fowler. Part epic poem, part BBC Radio 3 script, Bramwell narrates a journey upstream to the source of the river Don. He is in search of a resolution to a childhood mystery, a sunken town he shouldn’t remember, but also the Roman goddess Danu, from whom the river derives its name. Danu’s mythic enemy is Vulcan, god of destructive fire, whom Bramwell sees as the malign spirit behind South Yorkshire’s pollutive industrial past, embodied particularly in the Templeborough steelworks,
Choked by the coal industry at Mexborough, polluted from the
heavy steelworks of Rotherham and Sheffield, the Don is diverted
to soothe Vulcan’s hellish heat.
The Cult of Water is representative of witch-lit’s noble concern for the devastation of the ecological world by human industrial activity. Yet Bramwell’s disdain for the steel industry feels a little lopsided. Ten thousand people were employed at Templeborough alone at its peak and the decline and eventual closure of the works in 1993 was a ruinous blow to the area. The elevation of the river to the level of pagan goddess demands a sacrifice, which in this case is the economic stability of the region. Twenty-seven years after the steelworks shut their doors, the Don is once more ‘accessible’ and ‘[t]he Templeborough steelworks is now Magna, a science / adventure centre.’
Within Empty Aphrodite nestle a set of ‘fate cards’, included with a centrefold instructing you on how to cast the deck along a crux of categories, from ‘querent’ to ‘future’. Produced from the artwork of Sophy Hollington, the cards are decorated with thick outlines of punctured bodies, flaming cups and crying moons, merging the colour palette and fonts of 1960s acid rock posters with a heavy, inky, flatness reminiscent of early-modern woodcuts. Finding tarot, or tarot-like, practices enmeshed within the texts of witch-lit should come as no surprise. Tarot and its divinatory cousin astrology are often described as entry points to the broader world of esoteric life, forming ‘the acceptable face of witchcraft’ as Holly Connolly has written. Witch-lit, tarot and astrology all clearly share an alignment with Jungian psychology, an understanding that human experience can be distilled into a recurrent set of symbolic images and scenes which convey an interpretable pattern of meaning. Whereas tarot relies on a set of visual images, and astrology on a set of planetary associations, witch-lit’s symbolic playing card is the iconic power of the word. The problem posed here, however, is that while tarot and astrology can claim that their ambiguities are in fact proof of an ineffable power which transcends human language, witch-lit must find a way to communicate the pre-verbal meaning of a symbol in words. Mayer claims that the poems in Spells are, ‘about the moment before the word, when everything inside you is broken open.’ Nevertheless, words must be deployed unbroken to make a book. For many poems in Spells, a way out of this bind is to use the shifting cosmic terms of astrology, to invoke nebulously what cannot be spelled out literally. In ‘What Chani Nicholas Told Me,’ Khairani Barokka turns to a birth chart reading to explain the erratic violence of patriarchal society,
The stars when I emerged:
Close to the sun.
Venus retrograde, in Aries, twelfth house.
I hear from Chani Difficulties. Here: Fallen woman.
Chani knows the term is archaic, gives its history
for mystifying chart, points to femmeness and creative wombs
broken, bust open, diminished. Disrespected, pushed
slapped red to know one’s place by muscly hands.
Nicholas is an astrological star of the internet, a charismatic and glamorous populariser of the practice among anglophone dabblers in divination. Her work blends a commitment to social justice with an insistence on introspective self-acceptance. She tweets horoscopes to her sixty-thousand followers while explaining the relevance of her interpretations to protest movements such as recent calls for police abolition. Barokka is upfront about their infatuation with ‘Chani’ in the poem; Chani cuts through the misogyny of terms like ‘fallen woman’ and reveals the vulnerable individual behind the archetype. Chani explains how the conditions of your pain were formed at birth, but so were the possibilities for your resistance. In her study of the new-age spiritual community of Sedona, Arizona, the anthropologist Susannah Crockford observes how astrological knowledge can act as ‘an explanatory model for misfortune’, an observation which chimes well with the use of astrology in these poems, where it is called upon to explain the hurt and harm of social exclusion. Astrology, with its cyclical and repetitive movements of stars, its sense of a higher, if obscure, order, gives the suffering poet a mystical cause for their pain beyond the miserable cruelty of capitalism. It provides a crucial element that materialist critique cannot, the promise of definite renewal as stars and planets shift into their next house, the promise that, without the poet becoming burdened by agency, or exhausted by failure, a change will soon come. As Barokka writes, ‘my orbit of all things renews itself’.
While Nicholas herself is not a poet, writers Dorothea Lasky (whose work appears in Spells) and Alex Dimitrov have blended horoscopes with verse in their successful collaboration as Astro Poets. Via Twitter, Astro Poets have made a name for themselves with their own mixture of humour, mystical imagery and horoscopes (and controversial promotional work for AirBnB), though their tone is more irreverent than Nicholas’. Their tweets often take the format of a meme, reliant on the reader’s knowledge of the characteristics associated with the zodiac signs for the joke to work. The content of these tweets also presupposes a set of shared experiences among their readers — dating, housing problems, bad bosses, creative frustration — giving us a snapshot of their perceived audience of mostly millennial, mostly women, unfulfilled by the realities of their urban lives and careers, yet unwilling or uncertain of how to meaningfully change their own conditions. Astro Poets may joke about how ghosting an ex is so totally Aquarius, but they take the craft of astrology seriously. In the introduction to their recent book Astro Poets: Your Guides to the Zodiac the duo argue for a philosophy of language and poetry harmonised with that of the Spells collection:
Just like astrology, poetry—all language, really—has to do with the past and the future. Language is the way into who we are and have been, and who we still might become. It’s the way into a holy present, where the sounds of our ancestors meet the sounds of our future selves. In other words, poetry returns us to ourselves.
In this view, poetry becomes a tool for improving self-knowledge. Like astrology, it doesn’t promise answers, but offers a framework from within which we can learn to ask better questions, and reconcile past, future and ‘holy present’ versions of ourselves. If the world is making us sad, confusing us or rejecting our best efforts at actualising the kinds of lives we want, poetry, astrology and language can all be used — apparently interchangeably — to illuminate heretofore unseen elements of our personalities. If this seems therapeutic, it’s probably meant to. ‘Sadness’ and the ‘self’ are the warp and weft threads of witch-lit. Just as Crockford points us towards an understanding of contemporary esoteric spirituality as a reaction to misfortune, modern witchcraft and witch-lit alike seem to respond to a particular kind of female sadness. Often, this leads to a poetic language deeply concerned with spaces of healing and regeneration. Sophie Robinson’s contribution to Spells, the poem ‘mystics of youtube’, creates a chalk circle within which the lyric voice regresses, snacks, watches Madonna videos and Gilmore Girls episodes, and returns cyclically to an infant self,
everything returns so I don’t have to
moon now reflected
in a wide & round reservoir of milk
‘mystics of youtube’ is an ode to the moon, a benevolent figure in Robinson’s life according to her remarks in conversation with Ariana Reines, the poet and astrologer whose work is a tangible influence on a great deal of witch poetry. Reines herself has been publishing work inflected with mysticism since her 2011 collection Mercury. Her poems are filled with astrology, the politics of precarious urban life, spiritual practices which skirt the edges of organised religion, obscenity, the grotesque. She is cited constantly as an influence by younger witch-poets, and her poem ‘Thursday’ forms a long near-centre piece in Spells. Reading it within the anthology reminded me that many of the key terms I identify at the start of this essay are in fact a glossary derived from Reines, a tribute to her lexical influence — hair, tongues, tattoos, lovers, planets, trees all intermingle in images that drip from line to line. In an interview with Rebecca Tamás, co-editor of Spells and author of WITCH, a collection of poems published by Penned in the Margins in 2019, Reines puts forward her view of the connection between poetry and magic,
Writing is a transformative act and writing the occult, which I interpret as writing what’s invisible, or apparently invisible, is inevitably connected to writing my desire as a woman.
While Reines clarifies later in the interview that the kind of desire in which she is interested is a genderless one, the centrality of womanhood to witch-lit cannot be avoided. In ‘Thursday’, Reines describes poetry itself as bound up with a female subjectivity,
I have a woman’s heart
Is the name of poetry
My cock is so huge it touches my woman’s heart all the way
Is the work of poetry
In these lines, poetry takes on a penetrative force that does not negate but rather emphasises its connection to womanhood. The lyric voice is both receptive to poetry’s intrusion and the agent of that intrusion itself, the name of poetry contains the penetrating ‘I’. This view of poetry and womanhood is unquestionably active, and witch-lit demonstrates an abiding concern with destroying the association between femininity and passivity, with making the invisible seen, the silent heard. In ‘to purge the desire to write like a man’, a poem by Rebecca May Johnson in Spells, the reclamation of the non-male authorial voice is connected to the occupation of two spaces, the archive and the kitchen,
enter the archive
it is your body
a great many things
enter the kitchen
you will find
a sharp knife […]
Whether in the archive or the kitchen, female experience is rooted in the body. Both scholarship and social reproduction lead us back to ourselves, though only the latter arms us with a potential weapon. That these active moments must follow a purging suggests that historically, to be feminine is to be in some way hidden from full view, not quite intelligible, as well as to be fluid, lunar, cyclical. These experiences have placed the occult feminine subject in contradistinction to a linear, rational and controlling masculinity, as Tamás has also written in The White Review,
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.
I find this distinction uncomfortable, not only because of the implied expectation that as a woman I ought to find it easy to believe in astrology, tarot or magic. That a language which encompasses a female experience is also one which at some level opposes rationality (even if it doesn’t reject it entirely) seems an unnecessary binary. ‘[W]omen and queer people are as capable of rationality as anyone else’ Tamás concedes in the essay, but it’s with a sense that stopping there would be failing to live up to one’s entire potential for other emotional forms of knowledge too. But are my feelings not also, often, an expression of my rationality? How to know what counts as rational knowledge and what as emotional? It’s unclear what the measure of rationality is here, except that it seems to rely on a positivist experimental method developed during witch-lit’s other bête noire, the Enlightenment. It can make a woman feel like a bad feminist to defend the Enlightenment, but when I do identify with the figure of the witch, it’s through a lens provided by the historical work of Silvia Federici, who shows us how capitalism functioned to occlude from measurement the value of women’s labour, not their feelings. Witch-lit, however, tells us that this distinction is invalid, that powerful men attempted to destroy the witch as part of the transition from feudalism to capitalism not just because of the unruly disruption she caused in the categorisation of productive work, but because her capacity for emotion was too large and scary. The historical truth of this is unknowable, but, as Tamás writes,
history is so old and gross
wake me up when
wake me up when it really gets started
If the scholarly history of the witch holds little interest for these poets, the witch’s appeal must be located elsewhere. In the same essay, Tamás spells out the precise draw of the witch as muse, and the particular form of creative expressions she enables,
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.
In the theory of poetic language advanced here and throughout witch-lit, there is an impulsion to speak, to bear witness, to confess, to render oneself vulnerable by assertion of experience. The sacred, as Tamás says in the same piece, asks for ‘experience as knowledge’. In witch-lit there exists the central belief that to deny what one is would be to do a greater violence to oneself than the burning stake ever could. The witch-poet, then, is a figure created through her relationship to speech, her abolition of silence through speaking out, speaking up, protest and chanting. She speaks herself into existence, and thereby into the historical record, but in doing so must use an unreliable tool: language.
Here and elsewhere, Tamás and other witch-lit authors call for an oracular, truth-telling speech, they claim speaking from experience to be a fundamental act of witchery. Yet there’s an ambivalence in the claim for poems-as-spells about whether the words being said can be relied upon to signify themselves — whether words say what they claim to, or if they are in fact vehicles of a deeper pre-verbal truth. This is a tension I’m sympathetic to — poetry fucks with the truth. We don’t always want truthful poems. Nor do we always want effective poems, though effect is the value by which a speech act (such as a spell) is judged. But if the meaning of language is opaque, how can we use words to make things happen? What’s the point in casting a spell-poem?
The point is not to change the world. Language cannot be trusted with this task; the spell, like the poem, is too open to bad interpretation. Instead, the spell-poem aims to create a new version of the self through magic, a version more resistant to the shifting cruelties and misfortunes of the world. The self, as unknowable and unreliable as language, is the basis and subject of witch-lit, the channel through which experience becomes knowledge without needing external validation from rational, masculine authority. The spell-poem is a speech act that creates the witch, changes her perspective on, but not her experience of, a growing sense of disempowerment. Spell-poems may help you survive capitalism, but they won’t help you destroy it. Spell-poetry is political, insofar as it chronicles capital’s cruelty to the self, but stops short of associating itself with a defined political critique of our present moment. Collectivity occasionally has its uses, in anthologies as in covens, but ultimately the witch-poet acts, writes and speaks alone. Her spell-poems are simultaneously acts of self-creation and self-protection. Amid the cosmic disarray of 2020, this seems a very practical magic.