“I Call Upon the Witches” Chloe Hanks (Sunday Mornings at the River) – book review

Chloe Hanks I Call Upon the Witches book cover

“I Call Upon the Witches” was inspired by the study of the evolution of witches in literature and the archetypes they represent. Witches are no longer suspect or evil characters who dabble in herbs, fly on broomsticks and have an ability to shapeshift, but are beginning to be recognised as legitimate herbal practitioners, attempting to plug the often woman-shaped gaps in patriarchal medicine. It starts with “A Spell to Grow a Witch” with instructions the pumpkin seeds should be “deprived of sunlight for 24 hours or more”,

“When moonlight steals the sky so black
we grow witches from pumpkin seeds;
the devil takes his spirits back
when moonlight steals the sky so black.
A witch’s magic keeps on track,
with no refrain from wicked deeds—
when moonlight steals the sky so black
we grow witches from pumpkin seeds.”

A charming triolet. However, the message is that witches are grown from everyday objects (pumpkin seeds) and on the night when spirits roam, it is the witches’ magic that ensures the (bad) spirits return to the devil. The witches here are cast as protectors, grown from the society that needs to ward off evil spirits, yet not allowed to enter the society they protect, they are kept in and work in the dark.

“Blood Letting” is inspired by Elizabeth Southerns, known as Demdike, a key figure in the Pendle witch trials. Demdike confessed to witchcraft and was hanged,

“like an echo of what was
to come, what happenstance
would bring forth these
women to me like mothers.

These are not my women
pressed into their finery,
sugared lips and protestant
hips. No—

these are my women—
clawing back their femininity
with a clay doll, shaped to
an enemy.”

The poem’s speaker rejects the respectable woman in fine dresses, the “sugared lips” suggesting they sweetened their words, said the right thing to escape charges of witchcraft and may even have pointed at women like Demdike. Women who use piousness as proof of acceptable morals. The speaker sides with those facing charges of witchcraft, who lean into their knowledge passed down through a matriarchal line.

Albrecht Durer’s engraving of witches is examined in “The Four Witches”, where “his” refers to the devil,

“Familiars creep to the scene
as rose petals form fleeting ghosts—
the four witches stand hand in hand
to meet the one to be his host.

The witches suckle hungry imps –
they settle to a mortal frame,
while devils gift the magic to
both witches and puckles the same.

Black roses bloom to bring the thorn;
but only once the curse is sworn.”

Fairy tale elements creep in, some of which aren’t in the original engraving, rose petals turning to ghosts and it’s only when the curse is finalised that the roses bloom. The curse is not spelt out but the imagery is maternal.

There are few spells – they are alluded to or hinted at, but there is a “Love Potion”, a villanelle that ends,

“You sacrifice your bones to bake her bread
and let her leave your haven much too soon,
if only you could see inside her head.

She would prefer to love devils instead;
she may not always come back home to you.
Only a fool would take a witch to bed—
if only you could see inside her head.”

The man is infatuated but not in control. The witch uses him and comes and goes as she pleases. He believes himself to be in love with a woman he doesn’t know or bother to get to know, thinking his presence is enough. The refrain is framed as a warning against witches but it is also a warning against mistaking lust or romantic love for the enduring love which keeps a common law marriage together.

So far the poems have been timeless, aping a fairy tale quality that suggests these are old stories of historical times. “The Night Witches”, however has a Second World War setting, within living memory, and was the nickname given to a 588th Night Bomber Regiment, all female,

“The noise, the nightmarish gore
of a sky full of witches. Night witches;
bringers of fire and blood.

Gifts from the moon—
fear the night-time glow; for
it burns bright orange and screams.

Eclipsing the glow with a
jagged silhouette, they forge monsters
from their great iron broomsticks.”

These aren’t passive women waiting rescue, but warrior women entering battle. The “forge monsters/ from their great iron broomsticks” could be read two ways. The monsters could be the bombs dropped from their planes or could be read as the witches’ awareness that in dropping bombs they reinforce their enemy’s position and provoke further battles. Either way, the witches are in for the long haul. They know it takes more than one battle to win a war.

The final poem, “Oracle” stays with a witch the night before she is due to be hanged, “The witch is haunted by a peculiar ghost,/ lurking in shadows, reflecting in mirrors;” but she sees her mortal death as a moment of transition,

“There is a loneliness in mortality, in the knowing
that invisible strings can both draw us together
and pull us apart.

And as the sun is set to rise, the witch is void
of this devilish tie; she wears her necklace
of rope with pride. Such titles removed,
she begins a new life.”

Death here is a new chapter, not an end. Her faith allows her to approach her hanging with dignity and courage.

“I Call Upon the Witches” is an entertaining ride through tropes and literary archetypes. Chloe Hanks doesn’t let her desire to reclaim witches as powerful, independent, knowledgable women bury the negative aspects: the warriors of the Second World War or a woman ensnaring a man. That’s the point: these are women, not angels or devils, not two dimensional black-clad hags, but full-bodied, complex characters capable of fault and still worthy of investigation and celebration.

“I Call Upon the Witches” is available via Sunday Mornings at the River Press.

Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.

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