Secrets, Secretions, and Sorcery in Tracey McTague’s Super Natural

supernatural_front-202x300Super Natural
by Tracey McTague
Trembling Pillow Press, Jan 2013
116 pages / $15  Buy from Amazon or SPD

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Continue reading “Secrets, Secretions, and Sorcery in Tracey McTague’s Super Natural”

Super Natural by Tracey McTague

supernatural_front-202x300Super Natural
by Tracey McTague
Trembling Pillow Press, Jan 2013
116 pages / $15  Buy from Amazon or SPD

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Composed in three sections – “Thirst,” “Ancestor Midden,” and “Contagion” —Tracey McTague’s new volume of poems hinges on an exploration of prophecy and vision, and the correlations of these with history, science, magic, and (mis-)fortune.  This playful, satiric collection explicitly samples its sources in folklore, myth, and history, even as its subjects are the quotidian world of war, environmental collapse, sex, and children, “replete with nudie magazines / tarot cards, and dirty jokes.”  McTague, riffing on language’s cadences and sounds, plumbs both the longing for divine sight and the absurd state of the human-wrought world in the early 21st century, wielding parody and satire with a language tempered by music and a rich reading of the human past.

Super Natural opens with a quote from Chogyam Trungpa articulating the Buddhist notion of Drala: “the unconditioned wisdom and power of the world that are beyond any dualism….There is no fundamental separation or duality between you and your world.” This explicit rejection of the Western separation of humankind from the rest of the world serves as the fundamental premise of the collection. The poisoning of the oceans, mass extinctions, “this age / of fever and ague / veiled black smoke / bottled for poison,” these are the fuel for the fire burning at the heart of these poems – the human socio-religio separation from the world we inhabit and the chaos which has ensued. Of our carbon- and consumption-fueled “bender,” McTague invokes a crow song—bird of death and prophecy—for us, trapped in a “straight-jacket  [nightmare] of our own making.”

wild eyes ache
as black ink shines
in green sea’s
swirling debris
below bright undertow
of invasive nest’s
wing-tossed sky

the largesse of multitudes
get the shakes on
for a real bender
naming the night
unbridled and rising
spell of corvid’s skull
ascent with song

Reading the present as much as the future, McTague’s poems serially invoke the raven/crow, as the poet charts the “super” natural catastrophes spiraling around us. “Above” and “beyond” nature, humankind is the super in the title of McTague’s book, our blind destruction of the one reality, this world.  Invoking vision—“macula witness”—she parodies both the human impulse for redemption and its blind traveling companion the capacity for contagion and destruction, even as she riffs on the Bard: “too hot the eye shines / but too numb to worry / as well-washed nun whispers / ‘Get thee to a summary of want.’” What we think we want and how we end up wanting—for a world.

“Thirst”, the book’s first section, plays on the correspondences between envy and sight and the evil eye, and the interwoven associations of tip/tipple, toasting and drinking as antidotes to ill omens: “The evil eye is thought to cause a withering sickness.” In this section, the crow/raven figures as both a harbinger of what we have wrought and a means of access to knowing/vision: “swig Burton’s bourbon / to speak bird / light foretold in future.” Just as thirst is her theme, the pollution of the oceans, the monstrous debris-tangles caught in its eddies, and the collapse of its fisheries figure centrally. Invoking Aquinas’ assertion that “…a song is the exultation of the mind dwelling on eternal things, bursting forth as voice,” McTague takes up her charge with withering satire and jubilant word play, strewing as she goes images of our strange, lovely, disintegrating world.

Poughkepsie keepsakes
& forgotten namesakes
pulled loose loop by loop
woof cup’s bottom’s up
threadbare shadows
for tomb vandals tag up
sfumato provenance
ignites weave while out
invisible scenes seen in web

nymph detainment center
call Minoan hotline
a tryst wrist kiss
on the pulse

Continue reading “Super Natural by Tracey McTague”