Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Tina's Review of Maleficae by Emma Bolden

It’s a title that reeks of infamy — the Malleus Maleficarum, Hammer of the Witches, a fifteenth-century guide to the persecution of witches written under the cloak of religious piety. I cannot hear or see those Latin words without recalling my knowledge of the historical Burning Times, without tasting ashes in my mouth. Unfortunately, the persecution still exists — there are still fires aplenty in this world for those deemed different, subversive, dangerous, and demonic. Now, as then, most of the victims are still women.
            I knew these things when I first learned about Maleficae, Emma Bolden’s collection of poems relating this inhumanity by telling the story of one witch. I knew there would be torture, flames and death, and I wasn’t sure I could bear to open such a book. However, I am grateful that I did, grateful that my first introduction to the poems came on a stage here in South Georgia, when I heard Bolden read from Maleficae. These intensely personal, painfully lyrical poems shattered the distance between me and the anonymous witch whose voice is heard throughout. They sing and sting, indict and provoke. They are woven with the threads of life and death and rebirth, power in all its manifestations, survival in the face of extinction. Together, they create a human story made intimate through the voices and visions contained within, especially the narrative of the witch herself.
            The words are evocative and often beautiful, the imagery visceral, precise, wrenching, vivid. Bolden’s carefully spaced words and phrases feel organic. They deliver so much gratification on first read that one can’t help returning to the lines again and again. It’s only on that second or third pass that the deeper meanings bloom, as in this, the beginning of “The Witch Remembers Her Early Learnings”:

When I learned     to speak     I learned
to speak in     rushes     entwining
their arms     to wind     down the river     which always wanted
to escape its stays

Bolden respects the powers of visualization. She provides the necessary sensory details, the one-two-punches of metaphor and description, and the reader constructs the whole of the scene — the low-lit barn, the lovers in bed, the circle cast in the oaks. Or here, from “The Witch Remembers Her Body as Holding,” the transformational agony of childbirth:

I became
animal     pressure     pain     howl
of wolf packs     and     women split
by the same     shriek    the same muscles
snapped     we are all     unmade     by making

Though the rhythm feels easy, these are finely wrought, carefully honed pieces. Their seamlessness is seductive, and treacherous.  When I followed their heartbeat cadences, they led me straight into the noose. Watch what Bolden does in this stanza, from “The Liturgy of the Word”:

she who with hair sun-slick even in moonfall     a woman
of ribbons     who glistens     sent by God
and His Good Grace     to punish     to warn the other good
women of what good     can do

The repetition of the word “good” at first feels beneficent, coming as it does after the description of the glory of a beautiful, nature-graced woman, a woman of God. Then that sharp infinitive — “to punish” — and the trap is set and sprung.
            The witch of these poems is an herbalist and midwife, healer and medicine worker. In her everyday labors, she makes the hard choices for the village, and they let her.  Her hands bring both life and death, sometimes intertwined so tightly that they cannot be separated. In one poem, the villagers express how they see her, what they think she can bring them — “tables stacked high with fattened fowl and flock” —  but on a deeper level, the most important thing she delivers is a sense of control to their lives, which are often harsh and filled with arbitrary tragedy.
            This power she possesses is dangerous, but in the eyes of her eventual accusers, the first and most damning of the evidence against her is her gender. Women were considered the inferior sex, and as such, more susceptible to Satan’s wiles. In the textual notes, Bolden quotes from Malleus Maleficarum: “And it should be noted that there was a defect in the formation of the 1st woman, since she was formed from a bent rib . . . . And since through this defect she is an imperfect animal, she always deceives.”
            Bolden echoes this belief in several of the poems, with lines such as “An unwatched woman is a waiting calamity,” and “Adam’s rib bent eternal/struck straight only by a man’s guidance.” Most powerful to me is this stanza, at the end of “The Witch’s Apprenticeship,” a poem detailing the witch’s delivery of an out-of-wedlock baby, an event that ends with the death of the mother:

this is the hemorrhage     that can’t
be contained     this is the woman     now a body
unholy     by priest forbidden     from churchyard     this is the salt
you’ll let fall     in blessing     her new-mounded grave

The poems are rich with the tangible details of this nameless witch’s ancient craft— the herbs with their powers both mundane and magical, the charms and candles, the spells and petitions — and with the spiritual vocabulary that the witch uses to describe her God. She uses the word in its masculine sense, but her God is very different from the God of the Christian priests. In the poem, “The Witch’s Testimony Hour Seventy-Two: In Which the Witch Describeth Her God,” she gives voice to her understanding of the Divine in a fevered spill of torture-induced words that are nonetheless an evocation of the Sacred Masculine:

the wolf ’s hair standing guard against rain the rain
that slides from the wolf ’s slate coat the forest marten furred
in darkness the darkness itself and the light lying within its
sealed lips

In response to the accusations against her, the witch says, “yes I understand the severity of charges, I understand of all things severity.” My heart cracked at those words. I had heard this woman’s stories, glimpsed her life. The connection between us had been forged, an impossible connection that was nonetheless true and real.
            Even though I am quoting from these poems, I am leaving some of the more breathtaking phrases between the pages of the book, to be discovered there. The experience of seeing the poems on the page invites new meaning with each reading — the spaces and pauses open up new interpretations, sometimes twisting the reader around mid-line. We know how this story will end, for we know our history; we know the hundreds of thousands of endings recorded throughout Western Europe for centuries. Despite our knowing, the poems still startle. Consider, for example, “The Witch’s Daughter Still Lives,” narrated by the witch’s young child, a witness to her mother’s execution, which becomes in her eyes an alchemical transformation:

that morning
with my new mother
I said the fire
was an angel     I said
it was the story of burning
straw into gold and the sparks
were spirits   I said someone

was making gold

One thing I especially appreciate about this collection is that Bolden included explanatory textual notes, as well as a listing of her resources (which included everything from the Malleus Maleficarium itself to Stephen Wilson’s Magical Universe: Everyday Ritual and Magic in Pre-Modern Europe). While I recognized many of the herbal and magical items, there were many references unfamiliar to me, especially in this historical context. I learned a great deal, but because Bolden saved these explanations for the end instead of using footnotes, the poems themselves weren’t interrupted by pieces of documentation.
            Bolden ends the collection with a simple dedication: “Finally, for the witches Requiem √¶ternam dona eis, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat eis.” From Mozart’s Requiem, the words can be translated as, “Grant them eternal rest, O Lord, and may everlasting light shine upon them.” Bolden’s poems illuminate too. They cast light on a terrible subject, creating new shapes, new shadows. While the darkness she conjures may be deep and painful, readers should not fear these poems, heartbreaking and soul-rending though they may be. Come to Maleficae as you would to the point of the sword, with perfect love and perfect trust in your heart. You will be rewarded.
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You can get a copy of  Maleficae straight from the publisher GenPop Books or find it on Amazon.com or -- and you should do this if you possibly can -- from Emma Bolden herself.  Learn more about Emma at her website: http://emmabolden.com/