The Witch and the Poet: Part 2


First Person

The story so far: the author and a friend visit a local witch for an assignment and, unexpectedly, the witch informs Pamela that her destiny is to be a poet.

Things went downhill pretty quickly after our visit to the witch. I wrote the story for our college paper and naively sent it to the witch for verification. Trying to imitate the brutal truthiness of the New Journalists I was reading, I’d described her as “somewhere between middle aged plump and any age fat.” I didn’t expect she’d be pleased, but I did believe that Truth was inescapable and we all had to accept it, in print or in the mirror. The witch didn’t see it that way. Eschewing magic, she threatened to call down a different but equally powerful set of spells on me—the legal kind. She said she’d sue my ass if I ever printed a word of it.

I regret calling her fat. What a churlish thing to do. (How often does that word come up? It’s a good one, and a rare one, especially in memoir—especially if you use it about yourself.) I thought I needed to tell the truth as I saw it. It never occurred to me I could edit out the bits that might be hurtful.

I often wonder about the witch: what did she edit? Did she see the train wreck that would almost kill me seven years later, but think better of bringing it up and ruining my night? Maybe the cards aren’t that specific. Surely, though, a massive Amtrak wreck with sixteen dead and hundreds injured, a crushed jaw, broken ribs, and slashed lung and spleen would contribute to one of the “down” times ahead?

Did she see that I was gay? Again, alternative sexuality certainly brings its share of ups and downs, as she put it. But if that’s what she intuited, the witch didn’t call a spade a spade. Would she, like me, not have had the vocabulary to identify something she might have glimpsed in my future or in my soul? Or would she just call me a “poet,” in the way people used to say Oscar Wilde and his set were “artistic?” How far outside our own experience can we—dare we—tread when mapping the lives of others? Or did she exercise the judgment I lacked and edit out information that might have been too deterministic? Or too negative? Who can say how the witch’s socio-political belief system broke on the issue of homosexuality.

I don’t read tarot cards. So I can’t say from experience how much of a “reading” is based on the content and position of the cards and how much on the reader’s interpretation. From what I’ve witnessed, watching a tarot reader at work isn’t much different from watching a meteorologist interpret a Doppler weather map. Both are in the business of studying symbols and prognosticating the future. And they both begin with the same kind of raw material: a map of images that suggests certain outcomes and events. Yet the guy on Channel Four says the proto-hurricane will eventually become a Category Five and tear up the coast, while the woman on Channel Six says it will head out to sea and dwindle to a tropical storm.

I’d call that room for interpretation based on prior experience, current observation, and, perhaps, an unquantifiable emotional stake in the outcome. So if it’s fair to say that a weatherman’s meteorological IQ—the depth of his knowledge of storms—will determine his predictions for the low pressure system swirling in the mid Atlantic, then you can posit that a tarot reader’s experiential IQ—her ken, her opportunities, her predilections—will to some degree determine her readings of the cards. Is it fair to say that Tarot is really more about the reader than the person whose future is being read? Maybe not quite. But the reader is the joker in the deck.

Here’s all I know about the witch: she was a single mother living in a working class community on the New England coast. With the guts to call herself, out loud so the neighbors could hear, a witch. Was being a witch in Galilee in 1980 any worse than being a poet in Galilee—or a lesbian? Or a miracle-worker?

Witches and lesbians have a long association as partners on the margins of gender. Before women could affect change on the street and in the marketplace they attempted to do it with spells and potions.

“Witch” is what women who sought to claim agency in the world were called before “feminist” was invented.

But the witch was a witch in a world already familiar, if not comfortable, with terms like feminist and lesbian, though granted, they probably didn’t have much currency in Galilee or in Jerusalem, across the harbor. In her world—only thirty years ago but on that dark night, near the changeless sea, with the smell of fish on the wind, who can say it wasn’t two-thousand years ago?— did a woman still have to be a witch to be powerful in a small working class community? To shape her son’s future? To enact the miracle of self-determination? Was she ostracized? Feared? Respected? Ignored?

And what did those words, witch and poet, mean to her—and what might “lesbian” have meant? What impact did she wish the word “poet” to have on me? Did she have some unquantifiable emotional stake in naming my vocation?

The witch told Wendy things that would happen to her—she’d accumulate a husband, children, money—but she told me what I was. An inherent and determining quality of my nature to which she gave a name: she said I was a poet. It was a starting point, like being gay, or being a psychic—which she also claimed to be—not an accoutrement of living. Did she mean good or ill by verbally baptizing a nineteen-year-old girl with such a noun? Or did she not recognize the power of the word she wielded?

Scenario One: The witch’s reading is a gift of interpretation from one artist to another. Maybe the message is in the cards, or maybe she sees something like empathy in me, intuiting that I’m drawn to places where explanations are forged on instinct and intuition rather than received as empirical data. While she’s seen her own share of ups and downs —few people choose to winter in a summer community—she has a house and a son and is a witch of repute, well known enough to draw two Brown students down to Galilee to interview her on a freezing February night. She is an artist and she respects the arts—all of the arts. She wants me to know I am an artist too.

Scenario Two: She’s pissed at me already. Maybe her psychic ability shows her my keys pounding “any-age fat” onto a future sheet of white paper, scrolled into my electric typewriter. So when she tells me I’m a poet it’s the worst fate she can imagine. She’s an artist; she understands how the creative impulse can mess with creature comforts. But in this case her arts are dark ones. Because who needs to be condescended to by a pair of Ivy League brats? And don’t we think she’d turn the TV off if there were something better to do—someone better to talk to?

So she plants the idea and knows there’s no turning back, knows that however much I protest I am secretly proud and relieved to have been called a poet. She’s touched my vanity; she knows she just gave me permission to color outside the lines of the life others have drawn for me and I think I want, because I now understand it is no longer up to me. It’s my fate. It’s her curse. I’m a poet.

Both of these cases hinge on the witch chiming to the affinity between art and magic. To her, “witch” and “poet” spring from a twin impulse. (By the way, I see the latter as meaning the same as writer or artist—a catchall term for someone in the creative arts.) How much difference is there between dealing out cards on a table and using their notations to unspool a narrative about the future, and taking notes from life and rearranging them in a fictionalized narrative? In both cases you create a character with a set of traits—the future me, a poet!—relate a sequence of scenes, create a mood. Both writing and fortune telling require a creative leap into the unknown.

Magic has been defined as the art of producing a desired effect or result through the use of incantation, ceremony, ritual, the casting of spells or various other techniques that presumably assure human control of supernatural agencies or the forces of nature.

What isn’t stated here is the preliminary step that necessarily underpins magic: the creative act of imagining a world different from the one in which you find yourself. Magic—or call it witchcraft if you like—begins with fiction. It seeks to reorder the perceived world so as to infuse life with intent and meaning, the same the way art and poetry do. The same way stepping outside the sexual norm does: to live as a gay woman you first must imagine a world that the social norm has not imagined for you.

Say I’m a witch and a man walks by my house everyday. I don’t know where he’s going or why, but I put a spell on him so he’ll get a cramp and stop at my gate to massage his calf. Now I can talk to him. Once I’ve met the man and learned why he passes everyday, I’ve linked our lives and given meaning to a random occurrence. Now say I’m a poet and a man walks by my house everyday. I don’t put a spell on him; I write a poem about his passage, maybe creating for him a destination I wish to seek myself, but lack the means to reach. I’ve also linked our lives and given meaning to a random occurrence.

That’s the similarity between witchcraft and poetry. There are differences too. Witchcraft is to poetry as autocracy is to democracy. The former places power for change solely in the creator, in this case, of civic agency; the other locates power in the people. Likewise, in witchcraft power for change resides unilaterally in the witch; in art and poetry, it is a collaboration between creator and recipients, the readers or viewers, should they be moved or not by the artist’s work. I can imagine a different world, but I won’t force it on anyone.

Being a poet also requires a unique leap of faith. Writing—be it poetry, fiction, non-fiction—is an act of immense self-trust since most writers will never, or at least rarely, know if their work finds its mark: if it registers deeply enough on another person’s psyche to create change. Whereas the point of witchcraft is to achieve discernible results in the quotidian world. You can keep score if you’re a witch, but not if you’re a poet.

Whatever else she intended, I believe the witch understood this difference. She knew that even though it’s tough in all the creative trenches, witches have agency in the world and poets don’t. One is a practical art form, the other, well, a privilege practiced by those who don’t have to fish for a living. She made this clear when she extrapolated meaning from the noun she had just gifted to me: poet.

“You are a poet. You will have your share of ups and downs in life.” She didn’t say, “You are a poet. You will exercise creativity and derive satisfaction from disseminating your worldview.”

Life in Galilee probably hadn’t taught her much good comes from poetry. Poets! What a miserably unreliable, unsteady, impractical lot! In working-class Galilee, in February, 1980, when Reagan was not yet president but already promising a new America built on supply side economics (another kind of black magic), that net of adjectives was likely to have conditioned nouns like dreamer, loser, liberal, idealist, degenerate. How could she not tell me I’d have “ups and downs”? A different witch on another night might have conjured other words and a more upbeat future. But it was Galilee and Carter was president and there was a recession. Her account of my future was determined by the news on her TV. With nearly seven percent unemployment and hostages in Iran, anyone cut out to be a poet would be in for hard times. Better to be a fisherman.

How much difference, really, between being a witch, a lesbian, or a poet? In public, anyway.

Read Part 1 here.

Pamela Petro’s latest book is The Slow Breath of Stone: A Romanesque Love Story.