Published last year by New Orleans’ small but feisty Trembling Pillow Press, Tracey McTague’s Super Natural is a cheeky and tongue-twisting phrasebook for the postmodern alchemist.
Drawing from multiple languages, cultures, and folkloric traditions, McTague casts her poems against a shadowy backdrop of blurring mythologies, and even frequently intersperses her incantatory verse with prose passages detailing various cultural beliefs, mystical doctrines, and superstitions. However, like any true occultist, McTague focuses not on the lofty ideals and abstractions of a discrete “spirit realm,” but rather on the reactive mixtures and metamorphoses that enrich the concrete particulars all around us.
In fact, each of the book’s three sections can be seen as underscoring the visceral physicality of magic, though through differing folkloric symbols and disciplinary lenses. The first section, “Thirst,” centers around the notion of the “evil eye,” which McTague explicitly associates with both “female genitalia” and “the social flow of sexual rights”—simultaneously grounding her occult terminology in political reality and imbuing that political reality with new occult significance (15). Yet the poems of this section (like all that appear in the book) are far from dry or humorless in their social commentary: among the jokiest lines concerning sex and gender are “Antigone brand condoms,” “palpate your god particles,” and “I’ve killed better men with much smaller guns” (19, 22, 26).
The next section, “Ancestor Midden,” turns from politics to ancient history, explaining “midden deposits” as “archeological material including animal bone, shell, botanical material, vermin, and other artifacts and eco-facts associated with past human occupation” (49). Here, McTague explores mystical beliefs and customs surrounding death and veneration—from “bird-heralds” to hallucinations, “transmutations” to shrines built from saints’ body parts (54-55, 58, 73). But again, given her subject matter, McTague’s language remains remarkably concrete and earthy, insisting in poems like “Tenebrosi” that “divinity” can fuse with “whisky breath,” a “miracle” can hide “under…aprons,” and even “revelation[’s]” “transmission [is] corporeal” (57).
The third and final section, however, is perhaps the most explicit of all about McTague’s commitment to “science” over “religion” even in her sonic brand of sorcery. Entitled “Contagion,” this section openly defines “magic” in terms of physical “control” over “impersonal forces,” to be contrasted with the personal “conciliations” of religion. Citing James Frazer’s The Golden Bough to explain the “Law of Contagion,” McTague investigates the various “frantic,” “smitten,” and “vehement” ways in which “things [that] have once been in contact with each other continue to act on each other at a distance,” using such grounded biological examples as “dinosaur…/ scales sprout[ing] feathers” and “expired breast milk” (89, 107, 113).
Depending on their attitude toward softer sciences like linguistics and etymology, however, readers may find themselves either enchanted or stumped by Super Natural’s swift transitions from English into Latin, French, Italian, or German. Not surprisingly, McTague conjures her witchy middle ground between “science” and “religion” by invoking Modern English’s wealth of Latinate terminology on both sides of the divide, using titles like “mors osculi” (“death by kiss”) and “melancholia fumosa” (“smoky sadness”) to accentuate the ancient kinship between chemist and alchemist (30, 58).
Yet of course, for McTague, who insists so vividly on the rich materiality of magic, this kinship is not only conceptual but also linguistic and gendered—i.e., historically embodied. Spring-boarding from Frazer’s description of magic as modern science’s “bastard sister,” Super Natural targets the “fluid” mutabilities of language and of the female body to demonstrate the grotesque gyrations of its paranormal universe (Russo 8; Bakhtin 339). For example, in “Thirst,” McTague parses the idea of the “evil eye” at one point through the Latin etymology of “envy” (“invidere: to see”), at another through its association with “drying out” life’s necessary “liquids”—especially breast milk (15, 24, 63). By narrowing in on such linguistic and corporeal metamorphoses throughout her book, McTague points to the secret-making slippages in both words and bodies that ultimately grant them their transformative social power.