Author Archives: Iain

22 Postcards for Utopias Bach: postcard twenty-two

Garden in a landscape

‘We consider ourselves to be developing a miniature culture as one of our attempts towards a Utopia Bach’.

                                                            UB

I was tempted to continue, to follow up on Filippa Dobson’s work on Skye around a woman buried with some ceremony along with willow catkins, water lilies, red campion and holly flowers. A woman who may have been a doorkeeper, guardian, or the last servant of the Goddess. Work that explores the cave’s closure and of the possible relationship between the woman and two infants buried there, all roughly contemporary. They lived around CE 28–230, and may have been implicated in the carrying of pneumonic plague to Skye. I told myself that to do so would close the circle on a world under threat from pandemic. But to continue would have been to fail to see that this hunting for traces in the past could become both academic and addictive, could undermine my ability to live the connections between hinterlands and what is present day-by-day. 

What changed everything was a chance event witnessed while waiting for N. in Alston. A sighting that answered my question about the “grounding” of all Artemis stands for. A willowy tomboy in cut-off jeans and sweatshirt, maybe eight or ten, appeared from the back of a beaten-up old Landrover. She radiated an absolute self-possession that seemed all of a piece with her make-shift bow – a flexed wand of wood bent taut by its string – that was slung across her shoulder. She then half strode, half danced towards the Co-Op, followed at a respectful distance by her father and younger brother. All three disappeared inside and I saw no more of them. 

I took her appearance as a sign from the Grey-eyed One that my work was done, that I should now start spending more time growing back down into the everyday world again. A signal that it was time to let go and move on. I almost wrote “to go home”. But as we prepare to return south again I am, as always, troubled about not knowing where, exactly, “home” is. Then I remembered two lines by Naomi Shihab Nye about her father:

            …in the huge air, your one real home

for all the days you walked among us. 

(2015) op. cit. p.170).

Lines that took me, in turn, back to David Abram’s words in The Spell of the Sensuous:

‘For the Navajo, then, the Air – particularly in its capacity to provide awareness, thought, and speech – has properties that European, alphabetic civilization has traditionally ascribed to an interior, individual human “mind” or “psyche”. Yet by attributing these powers to the Air, and by insisting that the “Winds within us” are thoroughly continuous with the wind at large – with the invisible medium in which we are immersed – the Navajo elders suggest that that which we call the “mind” is not ours, is not a human possession. Rather, mind as Wind [Naomi Shihab Nye’s ‘the huge air”] is a property of the encompassing world, in which humans – like all other beings – participate’. (1996) The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-than-Human World New York, Vintage Books p. 237).

22 Postcards for Utopias Bach: postcard twenty-one

The Cailleach and the cat

The mycelia that link Artemis and the Cailleach might suggest alternative ways of exploring what’s implicit in Genette Paris’ statement. 

Effie Ross gave the Skye folklorist Frances Tolmie material, including ‘the song of the grugach, the guardian spirit of the cattle, which killed a girl in Glen MacAskill after she insulted an intractable cow’. Tolmie, who also took down verses composed by Màiri nighean Alasdair Ruaidh from Skye singers, would write in 1911 describing Effie (long after she had died), as an elderly woman who had lived alone, as follows:

She was a kind creature, but wild-looking and apt to turn crazy if unduly provoked; she had immense front teeth, tawny locks of hair straying from beneath her cap over a high peaked forehead, and her old skirts hung in fringed tatters over her bare feet. Effie’s conversation usually turned on the ancient lore of the district, and to my extreme satisfaction she sang old waulking-songs as we went over the moor, carefully teaching me the refrains. She was elderly but could not tell her age. When talking about the beauty of the world one day, she confessed to having gone down on her knees to a magnificent cloud overhead, stating her conviction that in doing so she had not committed a sin’ [italics mine]. (Frances Tolnie (1911) ‘Notes and Reminiscences’ Journal of the Folk-Song Society , Dec. 1911, Vol. 4, No. 16 Dec. 1911 p. 144. Downloaded from: https://www.jstor.org/stable/4433967).   

I want to link Effie Ross’ ‘magnificent cloud’ to The Cloud of Unknowing, the anonymous medieval text that advises abandoning thoughts and desires, particular religious activities and attributes, and instead having the courage to surrender both mind and ego to the ultimate mystery (one that some people refer to as the Godhead).

22 Postcards for Utopias Bach: postcard twenty

Rain and forest tomb

The distinction between “Christian” and “pre-Christian” beliefs was very blurred in the early modern period, particularly on a popular level. Many common people … saw no inconsistency in juggling their fairy beliefs alongside their Christian beliefs.               

Emma Wilby (2005 op. cit. p. 97).

When MacKinlay was about eighty-eight he was sitting beside Loch Treig looking out of the window and sighed. His daughter was looking after him and asked what was wrong. He told her he saw as beautiful a stag as he’d ever seen and was troubled that he couldn’t shoot at it. She said to ignore it. But instead he asked her to prepare his bow and best arrow. Supporting himself on the window, he drew the bow and let the arrow fly, felling the deer. (The effort almost killed him too). Then he made his final request. Knowing that he’d killed his last stag, he asked his daughter to skin it and prepare the hide so that he could be buried in the deerskin in Cille Choirill. ( It is possible that this choice relates to an older magical practice. William of Malmesbury’s Gesta regum Anglorum, tells of a “witch” ‘known to practice divination, particularly “ancient augury” a form of divination involving birds’, asking that her children ‘sew her corpse into the skin of a stag’ as part of an elaborate attempt to protect it after her death. See Helen Parish (2019) ‘”Paltrie Vermin, Cats, Mise, Toads, and Weasils”: Witches, Familiars, and Human-Animal Interactions in the English Witch Trials’ in Religions 2019, 10/2 https://www.mdpi.com/2077-1444/10/2/134). He told her not to place him on his back, looking up towards the promise of heaven, but facing Loch Treig and the moors where his hope was that his mind would travel every day. A request for an unorthodox burial, made for love of a place with which a poet had a close, life-long relationship. Not the hero’s presumption of Actaeon but a desire to return as one of the deer so closely linked to the Cailleach in folklore, a love of being in the world that echoes the form of spirituality John Cage attributes to Morris Graves? 

22 Postcards for Utopias Bach: postcard nineteen

Other sun (for Denise Levertov)

Some say she was the moon, but this was before the dim days of the moon worshipers. (In Gaelic too, as with all the Celtic peoples, it is not the moon but the sun that is feminine). She may have been an ancestral Brighde, or that mysterious Anait whose Scythian name survives elsewhere in the Gaelic west, and nothing else of all her ancient glory but that shadowy word. 

                                                                                                         Fiona Macleod

The analytical psychologist Genette Paris writes: ‘Usually, when a woman withdraws into a territory closed to a male, she is perceived as a pariah, a sorceress, or a crazy woman’ (Pagan Meditations Dallas, Texas, Spring Publications Inc. p. 109). The second lecture reproduced in Paula Meehan’s Imaginary Bonnets With Real Bees In Them is named for her poem The Solace of Artemis. I now realise how much my hinterland wandering has been shadowed by that Great Lady, who is also named in The Forgetting, a “spell poem” in which Grace Wells asks for forgiveness from her sleeping daughter Holly for our culture’s “forgetting” of so many goddesses (2015) ‘The Forgetting’ in Fur Dublin, The Dedalus Press, pp. 54-55).

How, today, to acknowledge Meehan’s sense of Artemis? We have no ritual equivalent to the burial of the “young person” (the archaeologists won’t say more than “almost certainly female”), whose cremated remains were folded into the section of a bear pelt. A find in an early Bronze Age cist on Whitehorse Hill, some six hundred metres up on Dartmoor. An figure perhaps also wrapped in a sense of Meehan’s Mother-Bear and, as the archaeologists tell us, buried with the scent of the meadowsweet that returns in Kathleen Jamie’s poem. Was “she” somehow linked to  Artemis Bear-Mother, the Mistress of the Animals, the  Loathly Lady, the Cailleach, the Old Mother, the shape of the land itself as the Oldest “Mother” to us all? Whatever the case, it’s the Cailleach, divine hag and Ancestor, who offers a path to an historical grounding through the last request of the poet and hunter Dòmhnall mac Fhionnlaigh nan Dàn (Donald MacKinlay).

It all began when he meets the Cailleach of Ben Breck. In return for sparing one of her hinds, she ensured that the deer never caught wind of him when he was out hunting. She may have been part of an ancient deer cult overseen by women who ‘never appear in the tales as priestesses but as witches’, as ‘bean-sidhe or supernatural woman’ who give ‘hunters blessings and charms to procure them success in the chase’ (Quoted in Sorita d’Este & David Rankine Visions  of the Cailleach  London, BM Avalona p.81). The story proceeds as follows (In the next card I will paraphrasing the account given in Hunter-Bard: Donald MacKinlay of the LaysTuesday, 10 September 2013 at: https://calumimaclean.blogspot.com/2013/09/hunter-bard-donald-mackinlay-of-lays.html#).

22 Postcards for Utopias Bach: postcard eighteen

Old man and the duende

The duende is an enabling figure, like Freud’s idea of the uncanny or Proust’s perception of involuntary memory, because it makes something visible that might otherwise be invisible; that has been swimming under the surface all along.

                        Edward Hirsch (2002) The Demon And The Angel: Searching For The Source of Artistic Inspiration Orlando, Harcourt Inc. p. xiii.


Not all cunning folk were women. I think it’s relevant that Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill writes, remembering John Berryman, that a “female energy” is accessible to the male poet who never assumes the possession of a distinct and separate “self”. She also writes of being saved from madness through ‘transformation and release into a world of multiplicity as opposed to duality’; a release she attributes to living in the ‘completely different’ linguistic worlds of Irish and English. She links this in turn to the Irish language’s capacity for “falling out of historical time”, for facilitating moving freely in and out of the ”otherworld”’ that ‘exists beyond the ego-envelope’ (2005: op. cit. pp. 19-20). Observations that remind me of the role of ambiguity and context in Gaelic. I also see parallels with moving between written and other forms of artistic “language”. However, perhaps the central issue here is James Hillman’s insistence that ‘self is an internalization of community’, in which we must include the dead, if only genetically, and that we are ‘constituted of communal contingencies’ (1994 ‘”Man is by nature a political animal” or: patient as citizen’ in Sonu Shamdasani & Michael Munchow (eds) Speculations after Freud: Psychoanalysis, philosophy and culture London & New Yok, Routledge, pp. 34-35)? Poetry released Ní Dhomhnaill into a relational world of multiplicity through a process that Robert Bly sees as going ‘much deeper than the ego, and at the same time is aware of trees and angels’(Robert Bly quoted in Edward Hirsch (2002) op. cit. p. 210). Both poets seem attuned to the ancient notion of ‘daimones… associated with particular places’ (Edward Hirsch (2002) op. cit. pp. 61-62), liminal beings that Christian orthodoxy associated with paganism, demons and “black” magic rites, with Daumal’s “sub-human”. 

Dorothy Carrington encountered a world of multiplicity, of poetic expression and extraordinary psychic ability similar to prophesy, by meeting a Corsican mazzera (Dorothy Carrington 1995 op. cit. pp. 98-99). I marked a section of Carrington’s account of that meeting when I first read The Dream-Hunters of Corsica and wrote above it “KR?”(the initials of Kathleen Raine, to whom the book’s dedicated). My question to myself was prompted by Carrington’s description both of the mazzera’s exceptional personal qualities and the fact that she was ‘totally enslaved to her calling’ and an absolute belief in her own destiny (Ibid. pp. 99-100).  This raised a question about Raine’s “cursing” Gavin Maxwell which, he believed, resulted in his subsequent and considerable misfortunes. Raine states both that her words ‘came from beyond myself’ and a belief both in ‘the power of thought to accomplish events’ and that ‘a curse always recoils upon the person who utters it’, seeing hers as taking ‘full effect, both on Gavin and myself’ (Kathleen Raine 1991 op. cit. p.312). Thus a poet dedicated to “white” poetry also acknowledges the power to curse? In Yeats, The Tarot And The Golden Dawn she shows guarded approval of ‘an unbounded eclecticism’ which she accepts, while it may be ‘unscholarly’, often accompanies ‘vital movements of the arts’ (1976 Yeats, The Tarot And The Golden DawnDublin, Dolman Press p. 2). The Golden Dawn’s mystical philosophy and magic were, in Yeats’ words, ‘an enlargement of the folk-lore of the villages’, a recalling of: ‘certain forgotten methods’, concerned chiefly with ‘how to suspend the will that the mind become automatic and a possible vehicle for spiritual beings’ (Ibid. p. 7). Yeats himself identified with the Tarot Fool ‘who exchanges the illusion of permanence, security, and identity for the blind pilgrimage which is everyman’s destiny, and therefore in some sense sacred’ (Ibid. p. 33).Despite her desire to enrol  Yeats to her own position, Raine acknowledges his ultimate allegiance to the ambiguities of The Fool.  

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.

                                                                                                            UB

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’!

UB

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”.

                                            UB

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.