Ethel, Burgundy, and Angie
In the dream, the editors lead me away from business. We sit at the bar while the meeting takes place in the next room, dark, oak, Scottish. They buy me a celebratory whisky. We discuss my book. I ask if they want photographs and they respond, “Maybe just one.” I’m relieved. They lead me away on roller skates between blocks of marble and grass.
Someone in the house is being treated for possession—spiritual pain—by the physician inflicting even greater physical pain, diverting the attention of consciousness, a cyclical blade rolling back and forth along the same vein.
While the editors ready in the washroom, mother and I are good hosts, clear the tables and sofas in the living room for places to sleep—while we will sleep in the blue carpet
by the indented place where the German Shepherd
sleeps—white, enormous—the bundle of silk
poppies in the ovular mirror—blood
tied with silk, cropped sphere in the mirror
in the cluttermost
nest. We stuff the gifts into the kitchen cabinets, along with dolls, trinkets, silk flowers, pillows, the tablecloths rusted by stasis.
At some point I am embarrassed, introducing my father, gangly and distorted, to the editors—that I have forgotten their names, except for Ethel: a long pause in the living room as Angie (or Susan?) and my father clasp hands, waiting for me to name them.
With the patient now dead from bleeding-out, there are two children involved in the story, who are lying.
Last week a poet asked me what I was working on now. “Nothing!” I said, which is partly true. I’m not writing nor in a rush to produce the next book. I’m in the non-action phase of practice, the equal, neglected counterpose to creative production. It took a long time to write Witch, out from Alice James Books on April 21. While most of its poems were drafted by hand over the course of seven months—arriving on the tail ends of one another while on fellowship at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown—countless poems and a half-dozen manuscripts were drafted, realized, lived with, and ultimately discarded over a decade, before the creek-bed space that gave rise to Witch would appear. Petal, an archetypal persona I’ve called in through various rituals since 2012, says it this way:
“… A knife to pull from her throat, crisp against her teeth
A massive river behind that
A branch behind that
A chandelier behind that
A mind’s blades …”
Petal was a force for ferocity, wilderness, a new creative energy to escape the bounds of the poems I’d set down to write in graduate school, and found resistant to my strict kink for order. Named for the wifi-like capacity of the chakras’ petals to connect with our surroundings, radii extending from self, outward, Petal gave me a methodology to write differently, to follow language instead of set scricture for it. The first of her poems constitute Wig Heavier Than a Boot (Kris Graves Projects, 2019), a collaboration with David Johnson who tracked, through photography, the relationships between me, her, and him, the invited observer. But Petal moves in Witch. Not contained to the frame of a camera, or the frames of my plans, she treks across a forest, a seaside, a cow’s stomach according to her own logic. These are poems I followed, an act of cinematic faith. “Not my will, but thine.”
I come by the religiosity of Witch honestly. My mother is a Southern Baptist minister, in and of itself a paradox. A piece of Petal I call in/to. Situated within an institution that does not fully recognize women as leaders, my mother’s presence, to my mind, is an act of protest, resistance, a reminder to the congregants in her church that the system cannot hold and code God to its little, misogynist needs. Around 16, I left the church, had begun to feel a pressing choice between my life as a spiritual or sexual person: a wrong idea that, by hybridizing practices from Yoga, Buddhism, Wicca and Witchcraft into my Christian lineage throughout my adulthood, I continue to heal. To be fair, that I grew up closeted may have had more to do with my own insecurities and projections than it did with my family. In any case, Petal returned me to these territories a more realized individual, both spiritual and queer, body and divine, suturing wires that’d been severed into electricity. In Witch, personae from various traditions exist alongside Petal: Jesus, Aphrodite, an incestuous family of angels who, upon arriving October 2016 in Barn 1, my apartment at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, rushed down from the wooden rafters upon me.
I think I wrote Witch to reach back towards that 16-year-old, now half my age, and ask him to spit it out, what he has to say. The book has made clearer my roles as a queer, single individual in my family. Perhaps it’s fitting that the ritual garbs of Witch’s personae have dropped, revealing me underneath, as I begin to accept the ways the book has written back onto my life’s direction.
Following my grandmother’s stroke in November 2017, I returned home to Wilson, NC to support my mother in caring for her, and dehoarding my grandmother’s home. Phase One was completed in time for her 91st birthday, March 31, 2018, to my memory, the first time in a decade my family was able to gather there. I’ve since returned again to complete my portion of the work, helping my mother to stabilize and optimize the plan for my grandmother’s care, while continuing to identify trajectories for each remaining object, and restoring the home’s infrastructure.
I’ve organized hundreds of projects with as many collaborators, from intimate meditations and performances to multi-day festivals. But it’s this project I’ve taken to calling Family Death Work that feels most complex, touching every part of my practice: poetry, meditation, curatorial. Tendrilling from Witch, it feels like witchcraft in the deepest sense, breaking family curses and co-creating more holistic containers for us to be among one another. Tending the practical matters of living in a worthless, capitalist system, while also tending the debris and burdens that system leaves in its wake.
Put this way: accepting responsibility as a grand/son is affecting the kind of adult, and poet, I’m becoming: less interested in conventional markers of success, more keen to pare down, to restructure the ways we live to prioritize people and process, not product. Too, it’s healing rifts between me and my family that writing Witch brought to my attention, but offered little instruction or opportunity to resolve. Witch is ultimately a book about being or raising a queer child that roots down in its rage. A valid expression, but not one that I can continue to live with/in without poisoning myself and those closest to me. Family Death Work takes up where Witch left off: providing a real infrastructure to resolve more of the past, before continuing to produce further. There will be no next book until it’s possible to write with forgiveness.
For a long time I felt that proximity to my family and devotion to my practice precluded each other, but I’m beginning to understand how they draw from the same reservoir of power. Good timing as I become an uncle, the Petal / uncle relationship that concludes Witch suddenly recoded by the arrival of my niece who, though we haven’t met yet, I feel energetically protective over—naturally bolstering the imperative to continue healing my own presence. As much as it is for anyone, this Work is for her.
WOULDN’T IT BE TIDY
TO END THERE. TIDY, HEAD TO CROWN. THE POET BUT NOT PETAL IS TIDY.
HERE’S THE SHIT YOU’LL NEED
FROM NOW ON: In the Rose Garden
A COVEN Have not eaten for days
when she asks us HAIR HID to hold our tongues
BEHIND BOULDER AN ILL-LIT ALGAE inches away
from the flesh of this A WAGER IN THE WOODS
pear. AN OIL We do,
with eyes closed A DRESS , A CAKE barely sensing the others
and praying. Our faces arc,
6 LAVENDER excruciating, SQUARES
while she sits, solid, before us. A CUT SWAN
On the third day, we tear the spoiled
pear of our mouths. EACH PASSWORD,
HISTORICAL AND FORGED
GATHER / BREAK. GATHER
bleeding / BREAK. GATHER / BREAK
THE SICK BODY / CLOSED WAVE.
GOD-GIVEN CRAFT, I HAVE LEFT IT.
Advance praise for Witch:
“The curtain rises and the dream begins, starring Self, a troupe of characters. At center stage flourishes Petal, alter-ego/altar-ego, ‘self-formed being, ouroboric river,’ demi-god/dess reigning over Philip Matthews’ Witch. ‘We are trying/to scry out/a gender’ Matthews writes of the dynamic between Speaker and Petal, and indeed, “figuring out” drives both the structure and the drama of Witch, one of the most singular books I’ve read in a while. Its dream is wondrous, strange, unsettling, and deep.” —Dana Levin
“Suspended somewhere between hymnal and grimoire, this Sibylline book of pressed petals is ‘closer to the idea god has’ than a world having fallen from its filth. Demonic gristle. Spellbound repast. Matriarchal meat flung to every last pagan deacon ‘scrying a gender’ where the flesh of whales and the bones of crows preside—innocence drowned—schools of fossilized faggot angels washed ashore.” —Timothy Liu
“Poetry is always at the front of the conversation about the chaos and repercussions of empire. This generation has an engaging, brilliant champion in Philip Matthews, poems which will not compromise from looking into the violence monotheism has wielded, and continues to swing. The faggot and the witch are true friends, well known to their persecutors. ‘And a heat-seeking missile rushed down upon their heads.’ I love this book, and it is indispensable!” —CAConrad