22 Postcards for Utopias Bach: postcard seventeen

Trainee Peaceweaver

To ignore, and so forget, one’s earliest historical records is to be as deprived as to lose one’s memory. When that happens, the sufferer cannot fully understand and cope with the present.

                   Kathleen Herbert (1997) Peace-Weavers & Shield-Maidens: Women in Early English Society Swaffham, Norfolk, Anglo-Saxon Books p. 31.

In Beowulf Queen Wealtheow, a peace-weaver and ‘devout follower of the old religion’ uses the skills of diplomacy, counselling and magic simultaneously. The all-important link between them being that: ‘if you say something the right way, it will come true’. Speaking with informed tact and care led to “magic” happening![1]This suggests another, enlarged, understanding of creative inspiration; one more extended, more collectively oriented, and more inclusive than is usually understood and something highly relevant to communally-oriented forms of contemporary art.

Traditionally (male) poets’ muses were the demi-goddesses Calliope, Erato and Polyhymnia (depending on the type of poetry). In 1990 Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill found herself preoccupied with the demands of a distinctly male muse, ‘this shadow black man who is dancing’, the “black prince” or, in Madbh Mc Guckian’s English translation, ‘The Ebony Adonis’.[1] (Again a figure who is echoed in statements repeated by Wilby). The poem makes clear that Ní Dhomhnaill is concerned with the fullness of her own humanity as a young woman, not with anything “sub-human”. Elisabeth Bronfen claims that women’s response to the need for poetic inspiration is to create ‘a dead woman’ as muse, since any writing by women ‘is writing out of death’, given women’s historical and culturally construction ‘as absent and mute, and thus, dead’.[2] Ní Dhomhnaill reconfigures this claim. She identifies ‘the lios or “faery fort”’ – which she describes elsewhere in terms of an saol eile, the “otherworld” – as the site of poetic inspiration, presenting poetry’s purpose as being to bring ‘stuff from that other world into this world’.[3] An “other world” in which what is undervalued, unacknowledged, dismissed, repressed or lost remains present.

Ní Dhomhnaill’s lios echoes the worldview of Early Modern cunning folk who regularly referred to their familiars as either ‘fairies’ (often understood at that time as the ‘spirits of the dead’), or as a ‘being connected to the fairies’.[4] The accused in “witch” trials were marginalised individuals, “absent and mute” in relation to authority, who found a voice and a social role through a relationship with  familiars understood variously as fairies, ‘”angles”, “saints”, “sprites”, “imps”… and so on’.[5] Perhaps, thinking of inspiration, we might do well to pay attention to Paula Meehan when she writes: ‘poetry is what I’m here to do. And my granny and my mother, both of whom are dead, they won’t let me alone. They won’t let me stop’.[6] Perhaps in some important sense we are “spoken through” by something larger than the ego, and by acknowledging this can enlarge our sense of care and attention? 

[1] Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill (2005) op. cit. pp. 56, 61, 62, 106, etc.

[2] Quoted in Cary A. Shay (2014) Of Mermaids and Others. An Introduction to the Poetry of Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill Bern, Peter Lang AG, p. 190.

[3] Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill in Rebecca E. Wilson and Gillian Somerville-Arjat (eds) (1990) op. cit. pp. 149-150.

[4] The etymology of duende relates it back to ‘duen de casa, “lord of the house”, which in Spanish folklore is ‘an imp, a hobgoblin’, but may also be understood as a ghost or trance. See Edward Hersch (2002) op. cit. pp. 9-10. 

[5] Emma Wilby (2005) Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits: Shamanistic Visionary Traditions in Early Modern British Witchcraft and Magic Eastbourne, Sussex Academic Press p. 57.

[6]  Paula Meehan in Theo Dorgan (1992) ‘An Interview with Paula Meehan’ Colby Quarterly Vol. 28, Issue 4 December 1992 p. 5.

[1] Kathleen Herbert (1997) Peace-Weavers & Shield-Maidens: Women in Early English Society Swaffham, Norfolk, Anglo-Saxon Books p. 31.

22 Postcards for Utopias Bach: postcard sixteen.

Fox, sorrowful woman, and plant

‘Planting seeds, where does that inspiration come from? What helps to free your radical imagination about the future?’

I’ve been pondering what links a sixth-century Anglo-Saxon cunning woman, Kirk’s very young maid, numerous modern poets and artists, and the accused in the Early Modern “witch” trials reported by Emma WilbyThe poet Mary O’Donnel describes ‘being worked through’; she hears lines and then identifies ‘an asexual form, a white-robed figure’ as their source. (in Rebecca E. Wilson and Gillian Somerville-Arjat Sleeping with Monsters: Conversations with Scottish and Irish Poets p. 20). A figure who happens to match the fairy familiar of the cunning women Janet Trall and the ‘white-clad spirits’ who talked with Janet Frazer, the pious daughter of a minister, in the 1680s. (Emma Wilby Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits: Shamanistic Visionary Traditions in Early Modern British Witchcraft and Magic pp. 62 & 68 & pp. 453-454). Medbh McGuckian doesn’t always feel she’s the narrator of her poems because ‘there is someone else writing the poem sometimes’, someone who may predict ‘things in the poem and they come true… It’s like witchcraft’. (In Wilson and Somerville-Arjat p. 2). She also refers to her poetry as ‘a gift’, one directed from the deepest dream level of her mind and heart, something she links to synchronicity and to the situation: 

“when you are in a heightened emotional state and need someone to help you, I think this help comes either externally or internally, maybe you just imagine. But I do think that our minds are tuned in to things that you don’t even know’. 

(Chapman Hood Frazier “A Conversation With Medbh McGuckian” https://staywell.mydigitalpublication.com/publication/?i=350807&article_id=2626146&view=articleBrowser&ver=html5)

This echoes claims discussed by Wilby and others implicit in the poet Edward Hersch’s assertion that the duende and the angel only appear in poetry when ‘something enormous is at risk, when the self is imperilled and pushes against its limits’. (Edward Hirsch The Demon and The Angel: Searching For The Source of Artistic Inspiration  p. xv). McGuckin’s statement is also echoed by Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill. Writing about her debt to the poet John Berryman, Ní Dhomhnaill also says that: ‘what the poet does in the process of bringing a poem together is akin to the work that a shaman does in other societies’, (Selected Essays p.139). a view echoed by the painter Paul Reynard. Similarly, Wilby claims that the techniques of Early Modern British cunning folk mirrored those of shamans. A convergence that might be dismissed as metaphorical if Dorothy Carrington hadn’t pointed out that shamans, like mazzeri, are natural poets, referencing a report that Yakouts shamans have a vocabulary three times greater than their communities. (pp. 159-160). Ní Dhomhnaill also writes: 

‘the only thing I believe in and am really interested in are angels and spirits and demons and merpeople and the narratives we have invented for them, a great collective narrative which confounds and transcends the limitations of the ego-envelope’.

To reduce this” to a “black” / “white” poetry analogous to “black” / “white” magic ignores the fact that shamans, cunning folk, and even the mazzeri were valued, or at least accepted, as beneficial or necessary by their communities. The poets and artists referred to serve neither the “superhuman” nor the “sub-human” but give a voice to a fuller, more heterodox, sense of the human and its qualities. Paula Meehan’s account of her practice as a poet is indicative. She espouses Gary Snyder’s call for poets to know all they can ‘about animals as persons’, about ‘at least one kind of traditional magic’, and adopts ‘a single ancient Irish brown Bear Mother’ as a familiar and totemic ancestor-figure linked to an old, wild, pre-Hellenic Artemis. (Imaginary Bonnets with Real Bees in Them pp. 23-31). So what of inspiration, “muses” and familiars?

22 Postcards for Utopias Bach: postcard fifteen.

Journeying (for Naomi Shihab Nye)

If our objectives had to be SMART, they’d be seeking experiments that are: Small, Magical, Attentive, Radical and Terrestrial.


Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill writes: 

‘The way so-called depth-psychologists go on about the subconscious you’d swear they had invented it, or at the very least stumbled on a ghostly and ghastly continent where mankind had never previously set foot. Even the dogs in the street in West Kerry know the ’otherworld’ exists, and that to be in and out of it constantly is the most natural thing in the world’. (Selected essays p. 19) 

Sometime before 1692, the Reverent Robert Kirk discovered that ‘a very young maid’ who lived near him had learned, in a single night, ‘a large piece of poesy … from one of our nimble and courteous spirits … and no other person was ever heard to repeat it before, nor was the maid capable to compose it of herself’ . (The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies p. 76). What is unusual about this is not the event itself – the poet John Milton regularly woke with a large number of original verses in his head ready to dictate to his amanuensis  – but that the gift brought by the ‘nimble and courteous spirit’ was given to ‘a very young maid’ and not to an established poet. 

The literature on inspiration is vast and now incorporates neuroscience, yet a 2009 paper chosen at random is still based on binary thinking justified in terms of left- and right- brain activity. (David Whish-Wilson ‘Trance, Text and the Creative State’ in Creative Writing: Teaching Theory and Practice Vol. 1 No. 1 March 2009, p. 93). But as Robert Duncan’s: ‘I write with my hands… I write with a pen and am amazed when the lines I write are in front of me’ (‘Wind and Sea, Fire and Night’ pp.55-56). reminds us, a binary view of the brain ignores the hindbrain that helps maintain balance and equilibrium, movement coordination, and the conducting of sensory information (whether that’s Duncan’s hand that writes or a dancer’s or painter’s creation of rhythm through the body). It also ignores the hindbrain’s responsibility for breathing, a process central to the work of poets like Charles Olson and Gary Snyder.

22 Postcards for Utopias Bach: postcard fourteen.

Stone: goddess listening

‘A questioning approach to quality, as something to strive towards. Developing a culture of noticing, especially questioning and noticing where the art is taking place or becoming. The whole thing is art’!


This morning the cat woke me at quarter past six when the world was still largely quiet and, looking towards a tree on the distant horizon, for a moment I experienced a real sense of wonder. Almost at once I lost it again, at sea in the demands and self-inflicted humiliations of the day and the familiar sense of pointlessness that all-too-easily follows. Then, later again and listening to music on the exercise bikeRobert Hunter’s words from Truckin’ ‘… I guess they can’t revoke your soul for trying…’ (In See Alan Trist & David Dodd The Complete Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics p. 132).

Tom Cheetham sees a necessary exchange between a “vertical” spirituality, with its ‘relentless upward flight towards transcendence’, (Imaginal Love: The Meaning of Imagination in Henry Corbin and James Hillman p. 29). and ‘the truth of collective life’. (Adam Zagajewski In Defence of Ardour p. 24). A conversation I’ve embodied in the Scremby cunning woman, healer, poet, and more. Why separate the desire for spiritual transcendence from ‘incarnate life’ evoked by being ‘in love with the world’? As Cheetham points out any absolute distinction between “vertical” and “horizonal” runs into the simple fact that neither ‘makes any sense without the other’ (pp. 28 & 73), an insight also encapsulated in Denise Levertov’s poem The Wings, where one is white, the other ‘feathered in soot’, and both are needed to fly (Denise Levertov New Selected Poems pp. 44-45).

Cheetham also reminds us that totemic animals and plants are “good to think with”; that all creative work “thinks with things”, whether paint, wood, stone, bodies, or the “thingness” of language. That the arts remind us that ideas don’t simply exist in our heads but, with our emotions, extend outwards and exist in the world. He quotes Walt Whitman’s “I contain multitudes” and adds: ‘These multitudes are in perfect accord with the multitudes who inhabit the world known to naturalists and why we must speak of a natural history of the psyche’, concluding that all this breaks down dualisms, including ‘that between the demons and the angels’, and so releases: ‘the wild variety of life’. He goes on to quote Rilke and argue for ‘an intermediate, imaginal world flooded with the plenitude of presences and energies that fill the space between the angelic and the demonic’ (pp. 122-123). 

22 Postcards for Utopias Bach: postcard thirteen.

In the ground (cunning woman)

“Challenging prevailing orthodoxies and ways of working. Embracing the power of polarities, generating a space where radical change can happen. Encourage discussion and debate on difficult issues. Sometimes a tiny change is as important as a big one”.


Robert Duncan writes that groups of poets fiercely defend their particular idea of what a poem is (and I know the same holds for other kinds of artist). He adds: ‘My own poetry from its earliest stages, or my own mind and my own world, belongs to a tradition in which we inhabit a creation and are creatures’. (Robert Duncan ‘Wind and Sea, Fire and Night’ in Spring 59 p. 55).

I once attended a conference at Dartington Hall with a colleague, an ardent feminist, at which Kathleen Raine spoke on poetry. After the talk my colleague asked me to introduce her as I knew Raine slightly through my mother. My colleague asked Raine how what she’d just said applied to Sylvia Plath. Without a moment’s hesitation Raine replied: ‘Sylvia Plath is not a poet’. That dismissal is linked for me with René Daumal’s claim that poetry, like magic, ‘is black or white, depending on whether it serves the sub-human or the superhuman’, a view certain traditionalist thinkers would extend to all the arts. (René Daumal trans. Mark Polizzotti The Powers of the Word: Selected Essays and Notes 1927-1943 San Francisco, City Lights Books).

How does that kind of judgement relate to the sixth-century Anglo-Saxon “cunning woman” – “cunning” from cunnon, ‘to know’ – found in Scremby in the Lincolnshire Wolds, whose grave goods included a Scandinavian beaver tooth pendant and a large number of rock-crystal beads. A cunning-woman who, in all probability, worked with the Old English metrical charms that show that ‘the early English used shamanic techniques in their medical practice’ and, if that’s so, was a healer, a poet, and more – her beaver tooth pendant may have been a link to the Finns, at that time viewed as the greatest magicians in the human race. (Kathleen Herbert Lost Gods of Old England p. 9). I think they’d have sided with Archbishop Wulfstan, who condemned such cunning-women as witches, helrune (‘women who sought knowledge from the dead’), even as wælcyrian. 

At that time there were two distinctive attitudes to wælcyrian, a war-woman originally seen as a goddess and a malevolent (“black”?) divinity. Wulfstan dismissed her as ‘a woman who walks the streets of England and incurs the very real-world wrath of God in the form of Danish-Viking invasions’. But the cunning woman, imperfectly Christian and a healer with a knowledge of rūncræft, would have seen her as a more-than-human force to be defeated, if possible, through charms that evoked her name. While the Archbishop condemned her out-of-hand, the cunning folk, who also saw her as an enemy, acknowledged her as a supernatural being of real power and, using traditional lore, attempted to conciliate or mollify her by using ‘heroic, epithetical language so as to banish her’. (Philip A. Purser (2013) “Her Syndan Wælcyrian: Illuminating the Form and Function of the Valkyrie-Figure in the Literature, Mythology, and Social Consciousness of Anglo-Saxon England.” Dissertation, Georgia State University). Rather than an outright dismissal, an respectful acknowledgement expressed poetically.  

22 Postcards for Utopias Bach: postcard twelve.

A young poet

‘Like a strawberry plant, spreading and nurturing little seeds and offshoots: capacity building through sharing skills, ideas, events and resources’.


Kathleen Jamie’s poem Meadowsweet proposes an alternative interpretation of the traditional claim that ‘certain of the Gaelic poets were buried face down’. (See ‘Meadowsweet’ in Waterlight: Selected Poems p. 79). In the poem the body of the unnamed woman carries with it both liquids and flower seeds, generating the vegetative life that shows her how to return to the surface and there greet those who buried her: 

mouth young, and full again

of dirt and spit and poetry.

An interpretation I’d want to link to John Cage’s concern with transcendent experience where attention to the world dissolves the ego, where the world itself is the goal, this moment eternal.

22 Postcards for Utopias Bach: card nine.

Slow crafting of a self

The self is also a creation, the principle work of your life, the crafting of which makes everyone an artist. This unfinished work of becoming ends only when you do, if then, and the consequences live on.

                                                                        Rebecca Solnit (The Faraway Nearby p. 53).

In a short chapter called ‘Caves’, in Thin Paths: Journeys In and Around an Italian Mountain Village, Julia Blackburn writes:

The skeleton of a young woman lies on her back and her body is covered by a blanket of thousands of little trochus shells. A pebble painted red is under her head and the jawbones of two very young children are there with her, also covered in shells. (p. 27).   

Why the young woman was buried like this is uncertain, but I’m struck by the care involved. Care signalled both by the placement of objects and the blanketing of the body with shells. Was this inspired by love and/or respect for the dead woman or by fear? If the “self” is an interiorization of some sense of community, one constituted in and by relationships, connections and attachments, then what’s the relationship between selves-in-community and care in relation to the dead? 

We’re in the kitchen finishing breakfast and suddenly my childhood friend Tim comes to mind. Tim, trainee poet and naturalist, who took N. and me into the radio-mast wood one afternoon to listen to its space, mapping it for us aurally by identifying each of the different birds singing around us, from the blackbird in the leaf-litter to the distant pigeons in the canopy. Tim who killed himself when the anti-depressants he’d been given have voluntarily had himself sectioned for depression had destroyed his kidneys, refusing to live tied to a dialysis machine. Tim whose father insisted he follow a path that made no sense to him; who gave me a copy of Anthony Hecht’s The Hard Hours, which I still have.     

22 Postcards for Utopias Bach: card eleven.

Sun, moon, old woman and parrot

 ‘How does just being here, asking questions, make a difference’?


Màiri nighean Alasdair Ruaidh (Mary Macleod) lived on Skye for much of her life. We know little about her beyond that she was a nurse in the household of the Macleod chief and started creating her songs of‘vignettes of the material world of the late-seventeenth-century Highlands as markers of her people’s prowess’ fairly late in life. (Information on Màiri in this section is from Colm Ó Baoill (ed) Màiri nighean Alasdair Ruaidh Song-maker of Skye and Berneray Glasgow, Scottish Gaelic Texts Society). However, MacLeod clan history records that a fairy sang a lullaby over a MacLeod heir and that for generations the qualification for any nursemaid to the chiefs was that they could sing what had now become an apotropaic spell, something between a wish and a charm for good fortune. 

We also know Màiri was exiled from Skye for a while but not why. It’s been speculated that she displeased her patron by over-praising one of his relatives, composed satirical or obscene songs, used poetic modes that were the preserve of male bards or, given her “croon” Hill iù-an hill eò-an, expressed in song her love for the chief’s children, some of whom subsequently sickened and died. She was forbidden to compose songs at some point, something she ignored. Perhaps her songs were believed to have affected the children’s health, as evoking the evil eye. “Oral tradition” presents Màiri as uncanny. It claims she was banned from singing outdoors and, later, indoors, so sang standing across thresholds, something that: 

refers to a specific method of dèanamh na frìthe, a process of divination in which the diviner walks in a circle about the fire reciting a rhyme, goes to the threshold, opens his or her eyes, and then interprets the future according to the first living creatures seen. Màiri nighean Alasdair Ruaidh’s position in tradition is thus emphatically liminal, not just between male and female, but between this world and what was to come.(Domhnall Uilleam Stiùbhart ‘Highland Rogues and the Roots of Highland Romanticism’ see https://www.academia.edu/18538963/_Highland_Rogues_and_the_Roots_of_Highland_Romanticism_)

“Oral tradition” also reports that ‘Màiri directed that she herself should be placed face down in her grave in St Clement’s church in Rondel, Harris, that “the lying mouth should be beneath her”’. A form of burial seen as a community’s judgement on an individual regarded as “immoral” or a “witch”. That judgement was also applied to the bard Mairghread nighean Lachlainn, supposedly buried in Mull face down and under a heap of stones. 

Maybe “oral tradition” should have another name? Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill reminds us that in the Gaelic poetic tradition shared between Ireland and Scotland, ‘bardic poets were rigidly mindful of maintaining the status quo of their own position’. Poets like Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill were “disappeared”, just as ‘the mná luibheanna (herb women) and the mná cabhartha (midwives)’ were “disappeared” by ‘physicians and obstetricians’. (Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill (2005) op. cit. pp. 51-52). Perhaps the judgement of “oral tradition” on Màiri was a response to her “feminising” of the formal song tradition through simple, natural rhythms so as to express love for children she cared for? 

22 Postcards for Utopias Bach: postcard ten.

Calling to the dead

‘How can we work with, and accept, the dystopic element – that bit of ugliness that’s needed to make something beautiful? Do we need to keep it always in process, rather than something to arrive at’?


The poet Kathleen Raine’s mother lovingly wrote down her childhood poems and, in doing so, confirmed her daughter’s sense of specialness. My mother returned my letters home from boarding school with my terrible spelling corrected. We each make what we can of our inheritances. I count myself deeply fortunate to have escaped the horrors my mother witnessed working as a front-line interpreter between the Red Cross and the allied army at the end of the war. The horrors Hecht faces down, poem by poem, in The Hard Hours. Horror always hovers around us, but I try to keep my thoughts from dwelling on it. From a young African girl’s account of her older sister being gang-raped until she died. From the screen image of a distraught Ukrainian woman desperate not to leave the body of her husband, killed by a Russian missile. And from the creeping fear of the loss of my loved ones, and of our daughter’s future after our deaths.      

Those of us who work with images in whatever way seem to live between multiple worlds and need to keep them all close. Robert Duncan writes: ‘So while you are imagining, you can’t believe or disbelieve. They aren’t in the same system at all…’, (Opening the Dreamway in the Psyche of Robert Duncan  Spring 59, 1996 p. 4),while Naomi Shihab Nye says of a “big” life, that it could be wide or deep, hold endless possibilities but be unconcerned with “better”, be interested and wears ‘questions easily’, never thinking ‘for one second it was the only life’. (Tender Spot: Selected Poems p. 11). The sociologist John Law says of the “one-world world” that it gives itself the right to ingest all other understandings of the world and, in doing so, make its own understanding absolute, exclusive, without any possibility of an alternative. Is any mindset that’s wholly convinced of its own “truth” a one-world world?The painter Morris Graves and the composer John Cage saw a convergence between the worlds of Dada and Zen Buddhism. Graves’ “mystical” art was informed by the Zen teachings he studied and have been described as a vehicle in his quest for spiritual enlightenment and desire to reach higher stages of consciousness. John Cage, however, qualified this by relating Graves’ attitude to that of the Northwest Indians. People for whom transcendent experience is given to those who identify with the “outside, where the world itself is the goal, this moment eternal.  

22 Postcards for Utopias Bach: card eight.

Imagining Kirstie

‘We seek questions rather than answers, or at least we will avoid rigid conclusions’.


The last story of my father’s four stories involved Kirstie, my grandfather, and one of his friends. The two men went to collect oysters from a bed near Carbost that Kirstie regarded as her own. Discovering them there, she began to curse them roundly in Gaelic. His grandfather’s friend, a Professor of Ancient Middle Eastern Languages at Glasgow University, responded by cursing Kirstie back in some ancient tongue. The strange language and the solemn delivery disconcerted Kirstie so much she retreated, leaving the two men free to continue their task.

These four stories gave me a sense that places could be deeply uncanny. Perhaps they reflected my father’s sense of social tensions between the Elders of the Free Church of Scotland and the traditional beliefs and practices embodied in the figure of Kirstie, or perhaps a fascination with the uncanniness of hinterlands.

On Skye in 1945 “witch” would be “bana-bhuidseach” – literally bana: “female”, bhuidseach: “wizard, sorcerer, witch, sorceress”. In 1970 a man looked at the anthropologist Susan Parman and muttered “buidseachd (witchcraft) when a truck got bogged down while moving peat since ‘woman did not usually go out to bring home peats’. (Susan Parman Scottish Crofters: A Historical Ethnography of a Celtc Village p. 125).  English-language accounts of Skye’s folklore regularly refer to “witches” but there’s only one known legal allegation of witchcraft in the island’s history. There are, however, lots of formal letters from the Church Elders to the authorities asking them to take action against local woman identified as “witches”. Action not taken, perhaps because of the ambiguity inherent in “bana-bhuidseach”, which can also mean “wretch”, “scullery maid” or “temptress”. When one such letter was mentioned to a trusted local man, he replied that he had just recently employed a “wise woman” (in Gaelic boireannach glic), to “unwitch” his cow. It seems the authorities preferred not to attempt to disentangle one man’s bana-bhuidseach and another’s boireannach glic