Thursday, March 02, 2023

Margariti, The Saint of Witches (2022)

Avra Margariti, The Saint of Witches: A Horror Poetry Collection. Weasel Press, 2022. Pp. 92. ISBN 978-1-9487-1234-7. $12.00.

Reviewed by Jason Kahler

The witches depicted in Avra Margariti’s collection The Saint of Witches are cursed with the burden of knowing, the pressures of womanhood, and the threat that comes with being the other. Dangerous love waits on a blanket under a moonlit tree, and the penalty for being extraordinary is death. Taken as a whole collection, The Saint of Witches doesn’t have one specific narrative line to follow, at least I don’t think, but instead paints a general impression of the lives (and deaths) of witches and those around them. The poems’ speakers are consistent, but I don’t think we’re supposed to understand that voice as belonging to one specific person. If I’m wrong, I don’t think that changes my reading of the pieces, and if I’m right, it doesn’t do anything to diminish the impact with which each individual piece lands.

Individual pieces are very nice. Presented here in the context of the collection, however, I found the sum of all the poems’ charms does not add up to the whole. The poems often weave the grotesque with the erotic, as this piece from “Cherry Wine” illustrates:

Witches were hanged from this tree,
you tell me, feeding me an olive:
not the briny flesh, but the grooved stone.
Down in the river, girl-shaped beings drowned.
They say the silty banks still sing their
sultry, gurgling lullaby.

Most of Margariti’s pieces are wrapped in sadness. The women who populate these poems know their lives will be hard, and their ends horrible, but to avoid the inevitable would be to deny their nature. And nature will not be denied:

Though dressed in purest snow, the mountain
is far from innocent. She’s trapped intruders
between the stake-sharp points of wooden teeth,
sent avalanches after explorers,
iced endangered animals in glacious, glaucous ponds.
    (from “In the Ever-Night”)

Many of the pieces are written—and titled—like still-life paintings giving the reader a small peek into a rich and complex world that not even the witches themselves fully understand. But they do understand hunger, and appetites, and the revel in exploring unique ways to satiate all their desires. I suspect that readers interested in witches and the witching world will greatly enjoy The Saint of Witches. Each piece is rich with earth-worship and feminine power. I am not, I would say, any particular fan of witches, though I wouldn’t call myself witch-phobic, either, so I hesitate to give this collect a full recommendation for a couple reasons. If you’re looking for a scary read, this collection won’t scratch that itch. There are creepy sections and atmospheric jaunts to graveyards and slaughterhouses, but I never felt fright while reading. That’s okay, but with “horror” so prominent in the title, I expected something else.

I am moved by poems that celebrate their specifics, and The Saint of Witches disappoints on that front. For instance, I want to know the name of the graveyard. If you’re going to make out in a graveyard at night, I want to know who’s buried just around the corner. I don’t want the “long-lost battlefield” mentioned in “When They Come Back”; I want to know which battlefield, which war, and who manufactured the cannonball that took grandpa’s head. Obviously I exaggerate, but only a little. I am a sucker for those details, and I see leaving them out as a missed opportunity for Margariti to create some cohesion among these pieces and differentiate her work from anyone else’s. Without the specifics, we’re left with nice witch poems, but they rarely feel like her witch poems.

Consequently, the poems’ language slips into THE POETIC without grounding me in what I consider unique and tangible. I am weighed down with words like languid, monolithic, luminescent, and amputation dreams. That last phrase has promise, but it gets lost in a collection that somehow manages to invoke pomegranates three times. But maybe I’m reading this all wrong and we aren’t supposed to experience this collection cover-to-cover and straight through. Taken in small bites, the weight of the language isn’t as great or as obvious. I’d still crave the specific, but maybe “this wondrous corpus” wouldn’t feel so self-consciously deliberate.

The winning poem in this collection is “Red, Velvet,” a short erasure that is so short I can’t quote it here, but it’s a gut punch in all the right ways. It’s still haunting me, days later, and is a poem I greatly admire. The word velvet appears in this collection four more times, but never as powerfully or as memorably.

The book is professionally edited and looks good; the wonderful photograph on the cover is by Brazilian witch Lua Valentia, and sets the mood for these poems perfectly. The Saint of Witches will delight members of any coven, even if less committed blasphemers may not feel as enchanted.

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