Figs & Honey by Ruby Sara
Spoken Word in the Season of Fire
nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals the power of your intense fragility: whose texture compels me with the color of countries, rendering death and forever with each breathing
— e.e. cummings1
Sing praise to the Mama, Pagani! The delicious season of “intense fragility” carpets the grass with blue scilla and tulips, the ground is rich with rain and our tongues are rich with verse…yes, summer is a season of poetry.
Now, never let it be said that there exists a season without poetry! But for me, at least, it is first spring and then summer that seem to be most suited to the unique rapture of poetry in its ecstatic and vocal forms. In spring, the new shoots of bulb flowers dazzle moss-green and emerald above the black earth, and the robin makes its entrance. Hyacinths and crocus flowers unfurl their creamy petals, and the world opens. Yes! Then Beltane comes, and the Wheel turns inexorably on towards the great Summer Solstice. Fires leap high in the night, and Jack in the Green haunts the woods and thickets.
The Aztec word for poetry has been translated as “flower-songs,” and on a sweetly incandescent night, what part of me cannot agree? What better occasion for dancing than flowers? What better occasion for the revelation of the poetic word, through the medium of the human voice, vibrating in response to the great bell of the season?
The Voice as Magical Instrument
The human voice is an exquisite, magical vehicle. Singing, talking, shouting, laughing, and speaking, the human voice is one of a million unique sound-makers in the Mama’s vast repertoire, and as such, a sacred and immensely powerful thing. Words have their mystical enchantment on paper (the legacy of writing as magical act cannot be understated), but on the tongue they take on a different kind of depth and life entirely. In The Spell of the Sensuous, ecologist and magician David Abram says that we “learn our native language not mentally but bodily,” feeling out our communications with our tongues and feeling the resonance of our voices in our chests, and that “to neglect this dimension — to overlook the power that words or spoken phrases have to influence the body…is to render even the most mundane, communicative capacity of language incomprehensible.”2 The voice is able to be honed and shaped, to make a range of sounds and vibrations, to wrap around another and another in head-buzzing harmonics; to intone and incant and enchant, to utter the names of god, to cut a heart in half, to make another feel as though they are on fire, on wing, full of joy, full of sorrow. The voice is a marriage of wind and matter — the breath moving through the throat, creating vibrations that float invisibly through the spaces between us — and can be felt as well as heard. In the body, of the body, to the body.
The Romans spoke of the magician’s glossolalia (speaking in tongues) as voces magicae because it “disengages the intellect, eliciting an altered state of awareness, more potent than…the hypnotic effect of ordinary chanting and singing.”3 Much attention has been paid to sound and music therapy, but the speaking voice contains the same power — vibration, rhythm, tone. Pythagoras was known for curing his friends via the power of song and incantation.4 Words eddy out into the air to be heard and felt by human beings, yes, but perhaps also to be heard by Other than human beings, seen and unseen.
Straight to the Mind of the Holy
This vibrational gift, the human voice, when wed to the rhythm and the music of word-choice, backed by intention and meaning, can become a channel straight to the heart of Things Ineffable, to the secret that lives in the heart of old trees, the terrifying grace of the panther, the revelation of thunderclouds over summer fields, the flight of doves. The Holy. Poetry, on paper or aloud, already lives in that precious place — in the pearl and wine-dark halls of the burning ground, where the feet of our gods, limned with stardust, dance out the songs of our living. It is the language of the heart — the language of each burning candle in every mote and cell of the interior. All things raw, and deep. Indeed, philosopher Gaston Bachelard has said that “poetry comes before thought,” and that “rather than being a phenomenology of the mind, [poetry] is a phenomenology of the soul.”5 And while poetry can indeed perform its miracles on the page and in the silent mind reading it, there is also something intrinsically visceral about poetry — tapping into emotional spaces and spiritual movements that may not be reachable via prose — and so it makes sense that a people pursuing a spirituality rooted in muscle, rock, skin, rook, fish, water, wind, and sky would take that language and ply it via the potent, embodied medium of air rushing through the incredible mechanism of the voice, rattling the rib cage and radiating out through our bone and muscle. The act of speaking manifests that which is spoken.
The word “poem” comes from the Greek poein meaning “to make.” As the gods speak or sing the world into existence, might we do the same for Them? After all, the word “invocation” comes from the same root as the word “voice.” To call, to summon, to invoke. To make. Theologian and poet Callid Keefe-Perry, writing in the academic discipline of theopoetics, has conjectured that one possible interpretation of theopoetics is the idea that when we make poetry, we literally make god.6 Could it be the same with invocation — the verbal spelling of the divine into our sphere — making the gods real and present, forming them with our breath, enshrining them bodily in our own bodies…drawing them down?
I am a writer of poetry, and the act of reading my own work out loud is a deeply critical step in my creative process I have previously written about the need for the writer to read their own work aloud. But I am further convinced that the reading of poetry, and more importantly, the speaking of poetry aloud, is a practice that can be spiritually profound for many, whether they write poetry themselves or not. In March of this year, during a time of personal emotional and spiritual upheaval, I committed myself to learning by heart the poem “Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver and reciting it out loud on a daily basis.
I spoke its exquisite phrases over and over to myself — under my breath on the train, walking down the street (an unforeseen side effect of the hands-free cell-phone: talking to oneself while walking down the street seems a lot less socially odd nowadays)… upon waking and before going to sleep. In sunlight and at dusk, in the small hours of the night, I allowed its rhythms to sink into my skin, until I could truly believe, with my breath and my hands, that
the world offers itself to your imagination calls out to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting over and over announcing your place in the family of things.7
As I did this, I could feel something unclench in my heart. A little forgiveness, the timelessness of the Mama as she moves in her seamless seasons from spring to summer to fall to winter. The morning I saw a new clutch of dwarf irises standing defiant and sure in the corner of an otherwise bare patch of early spring earth, I felt as though I had something to do with their coming-into-being…a participant in the movement of the seasons. Poetry making spring making poetry.
Saved by a Poem
Kim Rosen has gone so far as to say that poetry saved her life. In her book Saved by a Poem, she writes about how in a time of deep depression and the pain of losing her own writer’s voice, she found expression and depth once again in listening to, reading, and living poetry.
Rosen goes on to discuss the difference between memorizing a poem and “learning it by heart.” The former is mechanical, the latter a spiritual discipline.
Rosen writes that:
more impactful than having the poems in my memory was the experience of living them: inviting them into my voice, body, feelings, and thoughts, where they were causing profound shifts in my energy and consciousness.8
This is similar to my experience with Mary Oliver’s poem — that it had settled into the very material of my body and made a home there. In this way, the spoken word becomes both medicine and prayer. And isn’t that something we need right now as politics and world events come in with blinding speed and the world seems to spin ever faster?
Find a poem. Ask a friend about their favorite poem, seek out books of new poetry or older verse — the internet is alive with poetry, new and old. Find a poem that speaks to that smallest part of you in the tiny, quiet, windowed room of the heart-within-the-heart. Find a poem and read it. Read it aloud. Let the words roll over your tongue. Place a hand over your chest and feel it resonate there. Play with rhythm and sound. If you choose to do so, memorize it. Or write it out and carry it with you, but read it every day. The sorcery within the words will move out and take up residence in your bones. Poetry…making wholeness… making prayer…making poetry.
And though the discipline of the spoken word is an incredible practice for the individual, it is also deeply communal. For if ritual is theatre (as I believe), and theater is “poetry that rises from the book and becomes human enough to talk and shout, weep and despair,”9 as Federico Garcia Lorca said, then poetry cannot help but be a vital and critical element of ritual, and good poetry, spoken with attention in the midst of a worshiping body of people, is not only ecstatic but galvanizing. Anyone who has stood on the balls of their feet at a poetry slam or who has seen a truly uplifting speech knows that the spoken word is a catalyst for ecstasy and inspiration. The electricity that seems to surge up from the ground, the pulse of yes, the pulse of right now, the rhythm that urges the feet to move, to dance…that calls the hands to work, to pray, to make offering.
So here we find ourselves. Standing in a matchless season, the Mama humming on her heels, the fire burning high and hot and quick, the Children of Earth are speaking. Speaking rain, speaking grass. Speaking wholeness, speaking worship. Speaking joy. Flower-songs in a season of fire.
Grok Earth, friends Pagani. Pray without ceasing.
1From “somewhere i have never travelled.”
2David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous, Random House, 1996.
3Philip and Carol Zaleski, Prayer: A History, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005.
4Porphyry, Life of Pythagoras.
5Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space Beacon Press, 1994.
7Mary Oliver, “Wild Geese,” in New and Selected Poems, Beacon Press, 1992.
8 Kim Rosen, Saved by a Poem: The Transformative Power of Words, Hay House, 2009.
9Federico Garcia Lorca, Selected Poems, Penguin, 1997.
Poet and essayist RUBY SARA is currently a member of the performance collective Terra Mysterium (http://terramysterium.com/), and the author of the blog Pagan Godspell (http:// gospelpagan.wordpress.com/). She lives in Chicago.
This article first appeared in Witches&Pagans #23
Support Your Path — download the complete PDF edition (96-pages) just $5.95.