Review of Mandragora: Further Explorations in Esoteric Poesis
Edited by Ruby Sara
When Gods & Radicals first asked for volunteers to review this book, I offered to do so with some reservations. I tend to be cranky about poetry. I like it so much that I don’t like most of it, but I do love the idea of “esoteric poesis.” Having read the book, and before I get into any specific comments, I’ll say this right at the start: if you find the idea of esoteric poesis at all intriguing, you won’t regret taking the time to read this book. Most of the poets and authors here seem to be more interested in the occult tradition than in pagan religion, but obviously there is no sharp dividing line between the two, and there is much here that a pagan or polytheist would find intriguing.
I can’t say I liked all the poetry in it equally. Still, you could easily hate the pieces I loved and love the pieces I didn’t love, so there’s not much point in talking about what didn’t work for me. Instead I want to talk about what did, because the sum total of what worked for me is certainly enough for me to recommend the book.
The concept of esoteric poesis is obviously going to mean different things to different people, but a number of the writers and poets in Mandragora seem to think of poetry itself as a magical practice.
For instance, Michael Routery’s essay “The Head of Orpheus” expresses the unorthodox view that the poet’s professional task is not to comment on the minutiae of daily life through finely-chiseled turns of phrase but to bring back the gnosis of the otherworld from the land of the dead.
I’ll take a wild guess and say that very few of those who get published in Poetry magazine every year would agree with this assertion, but their poetry would probably be more interesting to me if they did (and Routery’s own “Lava Flowers” on page 52 bears that out).
Erynn Rowan Laurie’s “Burying the Poet” is an essay about the Cauldron of Poesy text, the bard Amergin and the practice of Incubation among the Irish bards. Incubation is the activity of sequestering yourself in darkness and silence to induce a dream oracle from the gods or the otherworld. I’m the author of a book on these exact same topics, which is partly a response to Laurie’s own previous work on the same text. That makes it a bit odd for me to review the essay, but no matter.
The Incubation of visionary poetry in total darkness bears an obvious resemblance to Routery’s ideas about Orpheus and the otherworld. In both cases, the poet descends into darkness, learns something by occult means and brings it back to our world. The magic can be described in terms of Greek tradition or Irish tradition, but the method isn’t restricted to Greek or Irish themes. Laurie’s “Lost Text” on page 50 is a poem on Egyptian rather than Celtic mythology, but it could still be seen as an illustration of the method in action. The poem reads like ancient liturgy, almost as if it was channeled from the distant past.
In contrast, T. Thorn Coyle’s poem “After Amergin” on page 20 is inspired by the same mythic bard Laurie discusses in “Burying the Poet,” but Coyle takes Amergin’s “Song of Power” and updates it to the 21st century. Instead of “I am a wind on the sea, I am a wave on the ocean,” we have “I am the shine of neon on black leather./ I am the life that courses under concrete.” Coyle’s poem is an invocation of the magic inherent in our world rather than a trance journey to the underworld.
“The Poet As God-Seducer” by P. Sufenas Virius Lupus examines the role of the poet as a seer and mediator with the otherworld in different European traditions. PSVL suggests that the ecstatic furor of poetic trance has an erotic element, and presents quotes from the Greek Magical Papyri and other sources to support the assertion. The idea of writing erotically-charged poetry to deities is likely to seem strange to many people, including many pagans. However, the bhakti poets of India have been writing this sort of poetry to Vishnu and Shiva for a number of centuries now. The poem “Hadrianus Exclusus” by the same author (page 84) reminds me strongly of bhakti poetry. It’s not an imitation of the bhakti style, but it has a similar sense of immediacy, presence and highly personal yearning. That’s exactly what makes bhakti poetry so fresh and intense. No matter how long some poets have been doing it, sexuality remains a revolutionary way to approach the divine.
A brief word on the poems that worked less well for me. I feel there’s been a tendency in recent poetry to create long trains of images disconnected from any narrative known to anyone other than the poet. This approach seems to produce poems that leave no impression on the reader, and some of the poems in Mandragora have this flaw.
However, I wrote down the page numbers of the poems that interested me the most as I was reading the book, and it turned out to be far too many to mention more than a few of them here. So much for my crankiness. In any case, many of the poems that moved me in some way were written as magical workings rather than poems about magic, carrying on with the theme of the essays.
For example, “The Knot and the Bottle” by Craig Fraser is actually a knot charm. “To Take On Bestial Form” by Peter Dubé is a charm to take on bestial form. These poems have both powerful imagery and focused purpose.
There are more gods than radicals in Mandragora, but Peter Grey argues in “A Spell to Awaken England” that writing poetry-as-magic is a revolutionary act:
Our culture is hostile to the numinous, disenchanting nature that it might be destroyed, splitting man and woman into consumer slaves selling us the grave goods of industry. It is time that we make our spells potent in song and deed, make terror our ally.
That’s what many of the writers here at Gods & Radicals have been trying to do. Perhaps it’s an idea whose time has come!