Poet as Spell Caster – Whittemore, Raine and Hirschfield

American poet Amie Whittemore. Photo from The Baltimore Review

American poet Amie Whittemore. Photo from The Baltimore Review



















Spell for the End of Grief

No incantations, no rosemary and statice,
no keening women in grim dresses.
No cauldrons, no candles, no hickory wands.
No honey and chocolate, no sticky buns.
No peonies and carnations, no handkerchiefs.
No dark and lusty liaisons.

Only you and me to see it out.
Sweet self, let me wash your toes,
brush your hair, let me rock you gently.
Together we’ll change the sheets
and I’ll pull you to me, little spoon.
You be the marrow, I’ll be the bone.

Amie Whittemore from the Baltimore Review, Summer, 2015

The oldest job of poetry: spell casting.

Marie Howe, at a Vermont poetry and music retreat, July, 2015

Poets as spell casters! When I heard Marie Howe say this at a retreat in Vermont last month my ears grew as big as a deer’s! And I remembered Amie Whittemore’s recent poem, published in The Baltimore Review, written as a spell. But more. I thought of possible precedents for Amie’s poem. It is rare that we as poets write from a vacuum. We write so often on the shoulders of others.

After reading Whittemore’s poem in The Baltimore Review I contacted her and sent her the poem Spell Against Sorrow. It was written by the important 20th Century English poet, poetry biographer and commentator (especially Yeats and Blake), Kathleen Raine ( 1908 – 2001). Although very different, the two poems share a strong incantory energy.

Here is Raine’s poem:

Spell Against Sorrow

Who will take away
Carry away sorrow
Bear away grief?

Stream wash away
Float away sorrow,
Flow away, bear away
Wear away grief.

Mists hide away
Shroud my sorrow,
Cover my mountains,
Overcloud remembrance,
Hide away grief.

Earth take away
Make away sorrow,
Bury the lark’s bones
Under the turf.
Bury my grief.

Black crow tear away
Rend away sorrow,
Talon and beak
Pluck out the heart
And the nerves of pain,
Tear away grief.

Sun take away Melt away sorrow,
Dew lies grey,
Rain hangs on the grass,
Sun dry years.

Sleep take away
Make away sorrow,
Take away the time,
Fade away place,
Carry me away

From the world of my sorrow.

Song sigh away
Breathe away sorrow,
Words tell away, Spell away sorrow,
Charm away grief.

Kathleen Raine from The Collected Poems, Golgoonza Press, 2001

Prolific American poetry commentator and poet, Edward Hirsch, says Raine wrote her Spell poems under the influence of old Celtic folk poetry. These spells, he says, are designed to inspire and even induce bliss.

I don’t think Whittemore and Raine’s poems induce bliss but I can believe they cast a healing spell on their authors which I concede might lead to a kind of bliss. And I so appreciate how Whittemore, in listing the kinds of incantations (beginning with the thudding repetitions of No) she says she refuses to write, she contradicts herself; she does write them and comes to a remarkable place of peace and self-healing as she says in a note to her poem in The Baltimore Review:

Spell for the End of Grief emerged during (surprise!) a time of grief. I was being hard on myself, and overwhelmed by the mistakes I’d made that led to the grief and losses I was experiencing. Instead of punishing myself, I tried to reimagine myself as my own caretaker, which turned out to be quite a healing process. ”

In my email to Whittemore I asked if Raine’s poem had been an influence. She said no, but that her impulse to cast her spell in words was triggered by reading Jane Hirschfield’s Spell poems in her book Lives of the Heart (1996).

Casting spells: three generations of English-speaking women poets – two who are acknowledged as leading poets of their time, (Raine – 1908 to 2001 and Hirschfield – 1953 ) and one, already making a big splash early in her career (Whittemore).  For a link to The Baltimore Review and Amie Whittemore’s bio and two poems click here.

I was lucky enough to meet Amie at a writing retreat with Jane Hirschfield earlier this year and while I never met Raine directly I feel a kinship to her through her spiritual longing and mysticism and long friendship with my friend Sir Laurens van der Post.

My first introduction to Raine was through a talk van der Post gave at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City in 1991. For a link to my previous post  in 2011 on Katheen Raine and Laurens van der Post click here.

Raine lived through a frightful time of unimaginable grief after she cursed a dear friend and he subsequently suffered through huge losses in quick succession including his own life through cancer.

Rightly or wrongly, I can imagine Raine’s poem Spell Against Sorrow as her way of trying to recover from that overwhelming grief and sorrow.  Just as I know that Amie’s poem became one of her ways of healing after her divorce.

The raw pleading of Raine’s poem knocks me out! How she hammers out her repetitions and variations using the word away – carry, take, make, fade tear away sorrow and grief. How she tries to will away her sorrow and grief. It feels like a kind of self hypnosis. Trance making. A spell!

Jane Hirschfield’s poetry has insinuated itself inside my psyche for many years. Her poems: rich and complex yet so simple. This is a paradoxical description for a poetry of paradox. A poetry built on simple images that hold such mystery. When my left brain tries to decipher Hirschfield I yell to my right brain for help. Here is one of her Spell poems that so influenced Whittemore:

Spell to Be Said Upon Departure

What had come here to do
having finished,
shelves of the water lie flat.

Copper the leaves of the doorsill,
yellow and falling.
Scarlet the bird that is singing.

Vanished the labor, here walls are.
Completed the asking.
Loosing the birds there is water.

Having eaten the pears.
Having eaten
the black figs, the white figs. Eaten the apples.

Table be strewn.
Table be strewn with stems,
table with peelings of grapefruit and pleasure.

Table be strewn with pleasure,
what was here to be done having finished.

Jane Hirschfield from The Lives of the Heart, HarperPerennial, 1997

Truncated syntax, dense imagery. And the koan-like poetry of Jane Hirschfield. I allow myself to get lost in her hypnotic incantations. To sink inside her words without drowning as long as I give up looking for a life jacket and trust the way her words hold me and let me breathe.

In this poem I have to trust the images. Images that speak to be of comepletion, finishing. Water not moving. Copper leaves, yellow leaves and falling.. Completed walls.Food eaten. Just stems, peelings left. Also a sense of loss. Yet trying to focus on the moment of being together. Of connection. Before the leave taking.

I so appreciate how the poem builds its momentum, how the repeated phrase, having eaten, leads to the chant-like spell of the repeated table be strewn. And all the images of ending, of finishing, of what is leftover – stems and peelings and pleasure. How she ends with the pleasure. And we are left to imagine the pain of departure that comes later.

What a feast Hirschfield gives us. And the details of its completion. What a spell she casts to celebrate its ending. Before the moment of departure. How her spell celebrates the being together. Not the separation. We know the separation is real. It is also invoked: What had come here to do; what was here to be done. But the pleasure, the taste of figs and pears in the mouth. The stems, the peelings. These too are honoured and are left as a wonderful consolation.

Last words to Whittemore. In an intriguing way her spell is an anti-spell. She does not use incantatory spells to heal herself. Sure she lists the spells and/or distractions –  dark and lusty liasons – she will not use and in that refusal she eschews any self hypnosis and faces her grief face on.

The power of that second stanza and its beginning: Only you and me to see it out. Only the absolute need for self care. Self love and compassion. No recipes for extirpating or numbing her grief. No shortcuts. Just images of taking care of herself as she lives inside the heart of her despair and grief. And what an exquisite affirmation of wholeness: You be the marrow, I’ll be the bone.



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