Though this blog has only scratched the surface of the rich seam of poetic talent writing today, I hope it has helped promote some new writers that are worthy of readers’ attention. We have much to thank the editors of small poetry presses for. They work tirelessly and often with little reward to discover and promote such poets’ work. In a significant number of cases, these poets’ development has also been supported by Higher Education institutions, which have a proud record of helping both novice and more experienced writers to hone their skills. A number of poets I have already reviewed openly acknowledge the beneficial impact of university creative writing courses. Add to that list, Chloe Hanks, author of the pamphlet, I Call Upon the Witches (Sunday Mornings at the River, 2022).
The title with its reference to witches might suggest that this is a collection that looks backwards to the distant past. It is certainly true that the poems are based on meticulous research and refer to significant historical events, such as the burning of St Joan and the hanging of Elizabeth Southerns, but these are poems that are important and contemporary. For Hanks the notion of the ‘witch’ is a social construct: an idea about what a woman should not be that has over time been created and accepted by society, yet which has no objective reality. Her poems contest that construct and seek to replace it. Take for example, her poem, Blood Letting. It begins with the imperative to ‘Burn thee, this clay figure-clad/ with fingers that point./ Caricatures the witches shaped/ with their numbed fingerprints,/ pin-pricked; limbs distorted.’ The instruction is to destroy a poppet, a representation of a human being which she significantly calls a ‘caricature(s)’, yet one that is associated with pain and suffering (‘pin pricked’ and ‘limbs distorted’). Like the poppet, the term ‘witch’, is something created but lacks in value: it is mere clay, and what’s more, it is a distortion of reality, but, at the same time, has the power to cause great suffering. In the case of Old Demdike it led to her persecution and death, but more than that, this moment proved ‘an echo of what was/ to come’. Women today, Hanks suggests, still suffer from these damaging perceptions of womanhood. At the end of the poem, the poppet becomes something different, a symbol of women’s strength, a vehicle for fighting back: a means of ‘clawing back their femininity’ of constructing an alternative view of reality that defines womanhood in another way (‘a clay doll, shaped to/ an enemy’).
The destructive nature of the traditional construct is developed in a number of poems, none more powerfully than in “She Sounds Like a Bad Girlfriend”. This clever poem, written from the perspective of a disillusioned boyfriend, is full of anger, unpleasantness and bitterness, ending as it does in the repeated ‘bitch bitch bitch’. It places the construct in a contemporary setting and in a contemporary poetic form, to show how, despite its origins in the past, (felt in the echoes of traditional tales in phrases such as, ‘the boy kissed a witch ‘and ‘the witch took the biscuit?), it still has the power to influence perceptions of women today. The girlfriend’s behaviour is described in terms of the archetypal witch’s appearance and behaviour: she’s ugly (‘she so twisted’, ‘her eyebrows don’t match’); she can’t be trusted (‘the witch told a lie ‘and ‘the witch faked a smile’); she’s evil (‘a demon’s apprentice’) and she’s promiscuous (‘the witch loved another’, ‘the witch faked a lot of things’). Interestingly alongside this litany of criticisms and abuse are idioms, such as ‘drive her round the twist’, ‘have her cake and eat it’ and ‘witch took the biscuit’. The effect of this juxtaposition is to establish how endemic this destructive construct is: it has become part of our culture.
In Maleficium Hanks presents us with an alternative view. ‘Maleficium’ is an act of witchcraft that is intended to do harm. Yet this poem redefines the word. The tone is positive and optimistic, the spell cast constructive and not harmful at all. The speaker openly embraces the life and nature of the witch: she wishes to ‘discover solitude’; ‘find friends in the fires and comfort of the hearth’; ‘shed my skin like The Four Witches’; revel in/ my new found passion’. In doing so she finds strength: she is able to ‘lead the masses’. By embracing the notion of the witch, she is able to put behind her the conflicts of ‘mistaken identity’ when ‘she fled from view; cloaked in wickedness.’ In doing so she reconfigures the construct and offers the reader an alternative reality, one which celebrates a woman’s right to be powerful, different, and challenging. This is a reality in which women are accepted for themselves and not judged adversely for failing to conform to some idealised view. In the final stanza there is perhaps an acknowledgement that for this alternative construct of womanhood to be accepted, women need to come together: ‘Sleep with me and cast with me/ my witches – together strong.’ As she writes in Paddleboards ‘A single one may do no harm/ but in their hundreds, they pose a delicate threat./ Nothing makes the lions shudder quite like a murder/ of crows dancing the steps of their motherhood.’
Chloe Hanks was the winner of the V Press Prize for poetry in 2020. I can see why; she is a special, emerging talent who Sunday Mornings at the River (a small poetry press new to me) have had the prescience to recognise and to provide a well-deserved platform for her intelligent, self-assured poetry that illuminates both the past and the present.
Chloe Hanks is a poet from Worcestershire. With the desire to absolve female villains from the patriarchal lens, her writing seeks to destabilise stereotypes and in turn, reimagines what is familiar. Her debut publication, May We All Be Artefacts won the V Press Prize for Poetry in 2020 and also received special mention in the 2021 Saboteur Awards. I Call Upon the Witches is her second poetry publication. She graduated in 2020 from the University of Worcester with a First Class Ba Hons degree in English Literature and Creative and Professional Writing and has recently completed a Creative Writing MA with the University of Birmingham. In 2022, she will begin her PhD in York under the supervision of Dr Helen Pleasance with a poetic consideration of the legacy of Giulia Tofana and the concept of the Femme Fatale. For more details and to purchase a copy click here.
AVAILABLE NOW ‘UNMUTED‘ by Nigel Kent!
Nigel Kent’s collection of ekphrastic poems, Unmuted (Hedgehog Poetry Press), is inspired by a gallery of famous works by artists from the present and the past. Each artwork acts as a frame in a storyboard which he unfreezes and unmutes to reveal the narrative he imagines lies behind it. Even for those who have no interest in art these direct, accessible and moving poems will stand alone and promise to engage with issues that truly matter. For details regarding how to purchase a copy visit the signed copies/e-books page.
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