By Ian Haight
Magic, witches, and ancient beliefs associated with these and other traditions of the supernatural have an increased currency in the contemporary moment of culture in the United States. Popular movies and TV shows like The Vampire Diaries have spellcasting witches as main characters, and the shows have led to multiple series spin-offs that continue to this day. The idea of poetry as spell or an invocation of agency is not new to poetry, and remains actively practiced.
CA Conrad, for example, writes poetry to be treated as spell: sometimes prayer-like, usually ritualized, and with the intention of altering reality—however the relationship between spell caster-poet and “reality” is defined. Divining Bones, nominated for a Pushcart Prize by BJ Ward and the third full-length collection of poetry by Charlie Bondhus (and published by Sundress Publications), is less about poetry-as-spell and more about an exploration of the identities of witch and gay man; the book directly speaks to a larger cultural discourse on how to live in the world.
Whether archetype, individuated personality, or metaphor for self, the witch-goddess Baba Yaga from Russian folklore is a recurring figure in Divining Bones. The first poem, “This is Baba Yaga,” reads as a description of the goddess:
Dew soaks the fibular as it does
every morning, getting into the spaces
between bones, where she aches
the ache of peasant girls
and czarinas. Today a laboring
throb in her left foot;
yet she’s lived enough
to understand all pains
are bearable if one knows root
and herb, the ninety-nine uses
for deer urine, which of the mushroom’s
many ridges holds magic.
The poem’s last three stanzas of single sentences conclude, chant-like, “This is the Book of Baba Yaga. This is the Book of Baba Yaga. This is not the Book of Baba Yaga.” Ostensibly, Baba Yaga knows how to heal pain that every girl or woman feels, and the way to heal the pain is through the use of magic or herbs. The poem links the book to the idea of healing through the image of Baba Yaga by claiming to tell the witch’s story; however, the poem also makes it clear the book is a singular text not to be taken as the archetype in totality.
“Witchcraft and Demonology (I)” addresses the identity of the speaker, partly through the lens of family. For the speaker, after reading The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology, witchcraft and sexuality are intertwined by “Full-color photos of demons copulating with witches,” so that “Hell seemed a place where horned lovers with a thousand cocks would treat my soul as if it were a body.” The speaker’s mother appears to accept the speaker’s gay identity, while the speaker’s father is not present to participate in the conversation, and so practically is not of significant relevance. In this poem, the bigger issue is one of faith.
The speaker’s mother insists upon the speaker’s acceptance of Catholicism, not a religion that may utilize witchcraft. The poem concludes with a description of how witches work in daylight as dental assistants, healing the mouths of other witches whose mouths are hurt by the casting of spells. Is the speaker a dental assistant, working on the mouths of these witches? Is he one of the witches being healed by the dental assistants? Or none of the above? Perhaps all that matters in the poem’s noting is that witches—and only witches—heal each other in the openness of daylight.
“Witchcraft and Demonology (III)” emphasizes the relationship between the identities of gay man and witch by outlining how androgynous devils appear, and how a demon the speaker made incantations to has “female breasts, leathery testicles.” The poem offers a response to the mother’s entreaty to the speaker to be Catholic. The speaker realizes “it’s through degradation/that we raise ourselves,” making a comparison to the biblical humility and lowliness of Jesus for the sake of human redemption. Written on the devil’s arm gesturing upwards is the Latin word “SOLVE,” defined as “separate,” while on the arm gesturing downward is “COAGULA,” defined as “join together.” Under these terms, for the speaker, demonology joins together spiritual faith and sexual identity—something a religion looking upwards cannot do.
Bondhus has cited Galdorcraeft—an Anglo-Saxon/Norse Pagan tradition of witchcraft—for the idea of Baba Yaga as “devourer of childhood fears.” “Baba Yaga and the Child,” given this context, serves as a bridge poem in Divining Bones. The poem is devoted to her proclivity to devour children:
…Baba Yaga clutches her
gut, feeling (truth
the living and dead
like gastric juices,
from the neck up
Baba Yaga lives on childhood fears; they stew her—as if she too were something to consume and gain nourishment from. Fear, then, is something to grow from, something that nurtures—not only the human beings who birth the fears, but the gods who watch over and guide their human patrons. The fears at stake in Divining Bones are complex, but they are readily apparent: the fear of being a gay man and the fear of denying Catholicism for the sake of being a Pagan witch, stand out most. That Baba Yaga consumes these childhood fears in this poem suggests an opportunity for spiritual growth, empowerment, and self-awareness.
“Sunday in the Panopticon” explores with some lightness the social experience of gay identity as it relates to an individual life. The poem opens,
I was sitting in Old Town Square
with tourists and birds and I was reading
Foucault, how he who is subjected
to a field of visibility becomes
the principle of his own subjection
and all around me the beautiful
Slovakian boys moved through the first
day of spring like perennially
visible inmates in the opening credits
of a prison porno.
The boys observed by the speaker are not described as being self-conscious in any way, but the speaker frames himself in terms of an observed subjectivity. The depth of this subjectivity is reduced to desire. The speaker sees the boys, desires them, but as they are not aware of the speaker’s gaze or even the potential of the speaker’s gaze, there is no opportunity for any kind of social interaction. The speaker considers “moving to the outer edge of the circled tables so the boys/could see me as I could see them,” but instead imagines how clumsily he might move and create a “ruckus.” The poem ends somberly:
An errant ball
of sweat fell from my chin and onto the page. I looked
down to where it had landed on the word reciprocal
which made me think how looking is always reducible to twos—
two eyes, two parties, two possible outcomes, and how
those who watch from the panopticon’s black pupil may,
in any case, not even exist.
If the gaze of desire is not reciprocated subjectively, does the speaker even exist? It’s sobering to consider what this may imply about identity, sexuality, love, and existence; however, Divining Bones has more to say.
“I was born an old woman,” is how “Becoming Baba Yaga” begins, a poem about life as a witch and attending to the needs of others who desire change in their lives. The last stanza of the poem is all completion and self-knowing:
Sometimes when I’m finger-deep
in a body I think about the way beauty slithers
through the tunneled centuries,
collecting and sloughing trappings as it goes,
and I know my inherent self,
though not beautiful,
is timeless in the way of snakes,
storms, and ancient forests,
and if I were to turn scalpel and curette
on myself, out would pour a great and silent river
of clear water
from whose banks would emerge
unknown to beauty…here, here;
grip my hand and you’ll see it too—
a house that walks;
a male crone;
Baba Yaga birthing herself.
The lines establish a peacefulness of place and individuality, a location of reckoning and acceptance within that is fully human—both aesthetically beautiful and ancient. The poem realizes divinity that lives within an individual self.
In a time when swathes of the first world west are facing the consequences of systemic violence, socialized oppression, and the destruction of the natural world in a mindboggling array of forms—all for the sake of concentrated wealth to be had by a privileged few—Bondhus’ poems remind us that myths are still active and relevant, and the human mind has a legacy of survival and endurance. Divining Bones demonstrates that the beautiful remains and sustains.
Charlie Bondhus is the author of Divining Bones (Sundress, 2018) and All the Heat We Could Carry (Main Street Rag, 2013), winner of the Thom Gunn Award for Gay Poetry. He received his MFA in creative writing from Goddard College and his Ph.D. in literature from UMASS Amherst. His work has appeared in Poetry, The Missouri Review, Columbia Journal, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Bellevue Literary Review, Nimrod, and Copper Nickel. He is associate professor of English at Raritan Valley Community College (NJ). More at: http://charliebondhus.com.
Ian Haight’s book, Celadon, won the 2016 Unicorn Press First Book Prize for poetry and was published in the fall of 2017. He is the editor of Zen Questions and Answers from Korea, and with T’ae-yong Hŏ, he is the co-translator of Borderland Roads: Selected Poems of Kyun Hŏ and Magnolia and Lotus: Selected Poems of Hyesim—finalist for ALTA’s Stryk Prize. Other awards include Ninth Letter’s Literary Award in Translation, and grants from the Daesan Foundation, the Korea Literary Translation Institute, and the Baroboin Buddhist Foundation. For more information please visit ianhaight.com.