-Reviewed by Isabelle Kenyon-
The representation of witches and the struggle to define the ‘otherworldly’ have played a part in important pieces of literature, Miller’s The Crucible and Shakespeare’s Macbeth springing first in my mind, but how do we view the concept of a ‘witch’ today? Rebecca Tamás’ weird and wonderful collection with Penned in the Margins is here to fill that gap. Rebecca is a lecturer at York St John University and is an established poet, having published three poetry pamphlets (I previously read her micro chapbook, ‘Tiger’ with Bad Betty Press), but this is her first full collection.
Tamás intersperses old-fashioned interrogations of witches into her poetry, bringing to the forefront our fears of the supernatural. If we acknowledge the ‘otherworldly’ as a real presence, what does this mean to our everyday life? Tamás explores the disruption that a witch may cause:
Have you profaned the holy scripture?
The biggest fear is that reality itself starts to curdle,
stiffens into waxy stops.
This image of our rigid human life structures crumbling feels relevant to today in a society increasingly intolerant to change and difference – Tamás looks at where this fear emerges impartially.
Tamás paints a relationship between the devil and her main character, the witch. The witch and the devil’s travels are spread out throughout the book in a series of long-form poems. Here, I felt that the book was designed to be read out loud and some of the repetition difficult to read:
the devil had long eyelashes and a body that was hard and soft
at the same time so that you wanted to hold him
The presentation of these narrative poems with the abundance of conjunctives seems to be a rejection of stylistic choice during the editing process. While these prose-like passages may work well for the stage, I found the simple language underwhelming at times and questioned why some of the line breaks were used:
and the devil loved putting his tongue between her and
also turning into other animals whilst he was
Obviously, a large part of this collection’s message is to shock or challenge the reader but because of the crude presentation of these line breaks, disrupting my reading of the sentence, I didn’t focus on the imagery. In some places the lack of punctuation began to cloud the meaning behind the poem:
the sails were white so she knew pain
because of course standing there the tongue
death was white and not black death had always
There was through-line for me to track here and I found myself lost, gathering the threads of description which Tamás leaves hanging. However, I did enjoy the humour in Tamás’ characterisation:
and the devil said something in her ear but it
so I can’t transcribe it
Tamás’ refusal to use language and imagery here to describe the supernatural is a quirky way of leaving the imagery to the reader and maintaining some mystery surrounding her characters.
It struck me that one of the vehicles of Tamás’ witch, is to disrupt the norm or ridicule it:
the witch thinks about what it would be like to fuck the government…
there must be pornos a lot like this but with slightly less rare animals
The witch is against authority and centralised power and is therefore a powerful image for a dissenting society. I did find however that expletives were overused in the collection and lost their meaning slightly:
she impersonates a tree and fuck
she’s thinking like a tree
her mind gets green and grows and grows
This stream of consciousness imagining what it is like to be a witch sometimes verges on simplistic.
The other main stylistic choice which Tamás experiments with is disjointed spell poems for specific occasions. For example, in the poem, ‘spell for logic’:
you will menstruate exactly when the packet
tells you to
cut off all the dead parts in your chest
a cheap Andromeda
Who knows if this spell spoken out loud will make its reader a logical creature, but the idea is inviting!
These spell poems begin to showcase Tamás’ unique talent for imagery-in ‘spell for women’s books’: ‘the poet moves their hips like someone on a tram about to vomit’, a vivid and comical image which instantly places you on the same wavelength as the writer.
Tamás touches on Greek mythology, the following passage painting an aspect of morality and the consequences of actions into the collection,
When Iphigenia died all her friends were outside
sniffing and rubbing their faces
the slugs inking a black message in the grass
the impossible religion is always to forgive
I had to look up the mythology surrounding Iphigenia, who was the daughter of King Agamemnon, sacrificed by her own father after he offends a powerful goddess. I found the conversation which Tamás starts surrounding forgiveness very interesting – perhaps we are not so very different from the violence of Greek mythology and I would have liked Tamás to explore this in more depth. She suggests that we learn nothing as a society and have grown stagnant:
history is so old and gross
wake me up when
wake me up when it really gets started
This is a complete rejection of society as a whole and summarises the viewpoint of her main character, the witch, who craves an upheaval ,the beginnings of total anarchy.
In summary, it was the detail such as, ‘the devil pushed his hair up into a butterfly clip’, which endeared me towards the collection but the stylistic choices of the narrative poems and a lack of form for the page, which disengaged me as a reader. I can picture these poems perfectly for the stage and I can imagine the chilling atmosphere which these Gothic spells would cast over an audience – now that is something I would like to watch but not read.