Review: three Pagan poets for National Poetry Month

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If, as is proclaimed in the Charge of the Goddess, “all acts of love and pleasure are my rituals,” then the pleasure of poetry is among those rituals, too.

April is National Poetry Month in the United States. Here’s a look at the works of three female poets: a Wiccan priestess, a pioneer in the modern women’s/goddess spirituality movement, and a priestess in the Welsh Bardic Tradition.

The Charge of the Goddess: the Poetry of Doreen Valiente

Doreen Valiente Foundation in association with the Centre for Pagan Studies, expanded edition 2014, 142 p.

Ironically, the Charge of the Goddess included is this collection by the acclaimed “mother of modern witchcraft” is not her rhyming, poetic rendition but rather her far more famous prose version.

The late John Belham-Payne, a friend and “working magical partner” of Valiente’s, shepherded her poetry into publication following her death in 1999, thus fulfilling a deathbed request by the Wiccan priestess who had been initiated into Gerald Gardner’s coven by the man himself in 1953.

Belham-Payne made the right choice. Valiente’s prose version of the charge flows, slithers, breathes, and pulses with organic rhythms in ways that are constricted out of the rhyming version. The poetry version (available in Valiente’s book The Rebirth of Witchcraft but sadly not included in this volume) reads like a poem, albeit a beautiful one. The undulating cadences of the prose version sound as if the goddess is whispering in one’s ear.

Valiente, by the way, never claimed to have originated the Charge of the Goddess; see Jason Mankey’s excellent, thoroughly-researched history of the work’s lineage, from Charles Godfrey Leland to Aleister Crowley to Gardner and Valiente, here.

Fueled by the span of Valiente’s life in this world (1922-1999), one of the charms of her poetry collection is its mix of archaic and modern styles. In these days of hipster wannabe free verse, a sonnet or rhyming quatrains of A-B-B-A or A-A-B-B may seem quaint, but such formats properly evoke Valiente’s legacy as one of the key founders of modern witchcraft.

“The Tarot Trumps,” “To Aleister Crowley,” “Poem on the Death of a Witch,” “To the Necronomicon,” “Deus Cornutus” (a 1984 work which ponders “How many names has the Horned One?”), “Homage to Pan” (perhaps a homage to Crowley’s “Hymn to Pan”), and other poems all vibrate with an archaic beauty.

However, one of Valiente’s most soul-stirring poems, “Elegy for a Dead Witch,” weaves its spell without use of rhyme:

To think that you are gone,
Over the crest of the hills
As the moon passed from her fullness,
Riding the sky,
And the White Mare
Took you with her.
To think that we will wait
Another life
To drink wine from the horns,
And leap the fire.
Farewell from this world,
But not from the circle

Valiente reveals her playful side in “Computer Blues” (written in 1975!) and even a bawdy limerick, titled “An Unsolved Problem of Psychic Research,” about “a young lady named Freeman who had an affair with a demon.”

“Pop Song,” written in 1975, indeed swings with the rhythms of a pop song’s lyrics, despite its lament of a world gone awry:

. . . Up in the Andes where the air is thin
Where Che Guevara’s ashes are blowing in the wind
I heard that condor’s ghost saylListen son
When you get that power from the mouth of a gun
You can’t put it back
Oh oh
Sorry ’bout that . . . .

What would a poetry collection by the “mother of modern witchcraft” be without a piece that is more spell than poem? That’s fulfilled by the “Witch’s Chant,” the last work in this volume:

Darksome night and shining moon,
Hell’s dark mistress heaven’s queen
Harken to the Witches’ rune,
Diana, Lilith, Melusine!
In the earth and air and sea,
By the light of moon or sun,
As I pray, so mote it be.
Chant the spell, and be it done!
Queen of witchdom and of night,
Work my will by magic rite.

Seasons of the Witch: Poetry and Songs to the Goddess

Patricia Monaghan,  Llewellyn, 2002, 200 p.

The late Patricia Monaghan, a writer of numerous books on goddess mythology, professor of interdisciplinary studies at DePaul University, and a key figure in the modern women’s/goddess spirituality movement, curiously opens her poetry collection with a piece titled “Warning:”

She won’t make wigs
of it. She has more brutal plans.
Some she feeds to pigs.
Some she burns in distant lands
you never want to visit.
Is it
strange that nude
before a flat stone altar
she fashions crude
and obscene figures from your hair?
women who don’t falter
when they pick up scissors or a knife,
who know the names of poison plants,
the purpose of each star,
the absolute anatomy of life.
Such women are, however,
individual and rare.
A single warning:
never let one cut your hair.

If Monaghan, who died in 2012 at age 66, wanted to alert readers that no fluffy-bunny Pagan-goddess poetry resides within, then mission accomplished. She’s more subtle, however, through much of “Seasons of the Witch.”

Again and again, in poems that invoke Hera, Maeve, Persephone, Oshun and other goddesses, and in poems that explore the wheel of the year, the essences of the seasons and the spirits of place, Monaghan writes of how new growth is born of struggle and pain, how change is the only constant, and how that ol’ yin-yang infuses life in this world.

In “Hera Renews Her Youth,” the goddess proclaims “Oh, I’m drunk with my greenness again!” Yet the poem concludes somberly with, “Hold my ripe breasts. I’ll be gone in an hour.” In “Maia, Grandmother Spring” (note the paradoxical title), “the air is moist with rot and growth, she is all mud and death, daughter, grandmother.”

Monaghan reveals her impish nature in “She Hexes Newscasters” (which, nevertheless, is quite a somber poem), and “The Witch Complains of Hansel” (“. . . Nothing interests him, not fresh mushrooms folded into omelets, not my soft spiced gingerbread . . . I am losing patience. Tomorrow I will turn him into a green bean. I will snap him in two”).

Scattered throughout the volume are four installments of “The Goddess Instruction Manual,” a delightful pastiche of self-help affirmations that nevertheless could serve as pungent magical incantations.

In “Part Two: How to Act Like a Maenad” readers are advised to “Drink mountains. Eat the wind. Dance with everything.”

Similarly the message of “Part Three: How to Make Love Like Oshun” reads in part: “Begin with fingertips. Read every burning tree . . . move on to wind and water. Then seasons, futures. When adept, try this: read the body. First your own. Its history and poetry, its intimate geographies. Keep eyes closed. See with touch. Memorize yourself. Touch each other. Continue as above . . . .”

It’s such mixtures of sly attitude (you too can make love like a goddess!), wistful reflection and spry wordplay that will make one want to continue reading Seasons of the Witch from front to back.

The book also includes a CD with 25 of Monaghan’s poems fashioned into songs by various musicians, with hypnotic soundscapes that range from Tori Amos-like piano pop to incantatory tribal folk.

This review is based on the second edition of “Seasons of the Witch,” published in 2002 by Llewellyn. A third revised edition was published by Creatrix Resource Library in 2005 and includes a double CD.

Candle, Thread, and Flute

Kathryn Hinds,  Luna Station Press, 2013, 80 p.

This collection by the late Kathryn Hinds, a Welsh Bardic Tradition priestess, academic, and writer who passed away in January, includes such poems as “Priestess Song,” “Beltane,” “Hymn to Bacchus,” “Witch’s Waking,” “To the Cauldron Tender” and other Pagan-witchy pieces, as well as poems that turn on scenes from everyday life, such as the charming “Travelling to Florida.”

Hinds’ poetic muse doesn’t allow her to draw sharp distinctions between the Pagan life and the mundane world, and isn’t melding the everyday and the metaphysical the unspoken goal of anyone’s spiritual path?

At first glance, “Summerland” is not a poem about that Pagan concept of the afterlife, but rather a poem about the quiet joys of family and parenthood in that time of the year when “crickets thrum to its nearness, and a butterfly lifts its veil.” Then again, with its talk of memory, the “distant and changing sea,” and the “westering sun,” maybe “Summerland” is a Pagan meditation upon what comes after one’s life upon this mysterious and beautiful world.

Such is the subtle power and beauty of Hinds’ poetry.

In “Sky Goddess,” the poem’s narrator finds herself in the throes of passion not only with her lover but also the night sky:

I arch my back in counterpoint
and overhead you arch
Lady of Heaven
your indigo body spangled with the suns
of all the worlds

My lover moves beneath me
and I gaze on him again
as if I am seeing the Earth
as it rises and falls from mountains to valleys
and the streams moving and swelling toward the seas

I move with my lover
close my eyes
and see again the indigo deeps
Lady of Heaven
I open and embrace the stars

In the poem “In the Fallow Garden,” the narrator speaks of “a November twilight” and “a noisy arrow of geese” that draws her attention skyward as she goes about the mundane task of taking laundry off a clothesline. Akin to Yeats’ “The Wild Swans at Coole,” Hinds’ potent poem becomes a wistful evocation of the passage of time, the immutability of the past and the uncertainty of the future. Embracing the stars, as she did so passionately earlier, is now only a hope, as revealed in the last stanza:

The wind plays a rattle of leaves;
the sky promises stars.
I remember falling in love,
and understand its limit.

Love poems are sprinkled throughout Candle, Thread, and Flute, and range from the playful “Anniversary, April 1” (yes, April Fool’s Day!) to the poignant “To My Love Asleep.” For those who knew Hinds, it’s impossible to read these poems and not think of her surviving husband, Pagan musician Arthur Hinds. Yet these poems have a universal appeal: as one is taught in freshman lit class, the “I” of a poem’s narrator is not necessarily the “I” of the author.

In “To My Love Asleep,” the narrator wonders if her soulmate would recognize her “if I could somehow drift myself into your dreams, or is the rift of daily separate ways too great to span in simple sleep — but what in dreaming cannot be attempted? Steering by desire, I sail to meet you at the beacon’s fire.”

Anytime a poet leaves this world, one is tempted to search for a fitting epitaph in her or his own words. With Hinds, such a moving epitaph can be found in “Sunset Over Lake Ontario,” the last poem in this collection:

We resist temptation
and at last are reprieved by the blessed dusk,
the between time before the stars, when the earth
undergoes its own dark changes, shadows
lending shape to elemental creatures
at the water’s edge, at the fringes
of our sight — we acknowledge them
without voice or conscious thought . . .
and know it is time to leave.
Walking through the white sweet clover to the road,
we savor what we have tasted —
our world transfigured, transformations far beyond
our human reach, yet reaching us — and wonder
what we would be if we closed all our days
silently watching the sky into night.