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“Overheard on a Salt Marsh”* – Magic Words

I’ve forgotten about it completely. Yet the moment I see the words on the page I remember it – all of it. I am eight years old, alone in my room bent over a yellowing book. Like many children that age I read a lot of verse, nonsense mostly, some of it beautiful - but this poem is different. It is strange in a way that the other rhymes are not, and it lodges in my brain like a fly in amber.

Decades later it is strange to me still, and despite a powerful, academic urge toward deconstruction, I leave it alone. Real magic is rare – and these words work on me like an incantation.

I have a friend who is a poetry editor.  We spend one rainy afternoon discussing a much-lauded and famously unstable contemporary poet, whose work we both find arid. The poet in question is very popular, and I wonder aloud if his style is dictated by public taste. “No,” my editor friend says, “he writes that way because he is terrified of lyricism. He thinks it’s the devil’s tongue.” I laugh, until I realized that he is serious.

The relationship between poetry and the occult goes deep – deeper than symbolism, deeper than myth. It is a foundational relationship between thought and thing. The world is spoken into being. Language structures our thought and defines our environment even in the absence of  traditional experience. If you doubt this, read The Autobiography of Helen Keller (really you should – it’s astonishing). When minds are open to suggestion, either because of youth, fear, or faith - a word can take root and define the indefinable. Like magic, something that didn’t exist (or was not recognized) finds expression and form. Wonderful and dangerous.

So I am curious, readers. What words have worked magic on you?

*In case youl were wondering about the poem that haunted Ankhie’s childhood – here it is “Overheard on a Salt Marsh” by Harold Monro

Nymph, nymph, what are your beads?

Green glass, goblin. Why do you stare at them?

Give them me.

No.

Give them me. Give them me.

No.

Then I will howl all night in the reeds,
Lie in the mud and howl for them.

Goblin, why do you love them so?

They are better than stars or water,
Better than voices of winds that sing,
Better than any man’s fair daughter,
Your green glass beads on a silver ring.

Hush, I stole them out of the moon.

Give me your beads, I want them.

No.

I will howl in the deep lagoon
For your green glass beads, I love them so.

Give them me. Give them.

No.

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6 thoughts on ““Overheard on a Salt Marsh”* – Magic Words

  1. Ahhh… I remember that poem, too! Thank you for bringing back that same shivery thrill I felt when I was little.

    Words that worked magic on me… a few years ago, I had an accident that shattered my hip.. needed a replacement, and there was a pretty long painful recovery. My chant during that whole thing was “Earth my Body, Fire my Will, Water my Heart, Air my Voice, the Goddess and I are One and we are Whole.” I can’t say exactly why that helped so much, but it kept me trying when I really wanted to just give up.

  2. What a lovely and haunting post… I just love your blog!

  3. This is one I don’t remember ever seeing before; I love it, though. Thanks for posting!

  4. What a haunting and beautiful poem. Thank you for sharing this…

  5. Ellen Martin on said:

    Ah, yes. My second-grade teacher, the finest teacher I ever had, read this with us c. 1958-9, and it stayed with me ever since, for both its music, and the marked sensation I had that I was hearing a grown-up secret language for the first time. Tho’ of course it is more than merely grown-up. It calls up something else altogether, and I suspect the poem would stand up to all kinds of deconstruction or psychoanalysis and retain its allure: for its very matter is symbolic and ambivalently held objects of desire. You can analyze them without explaining them away! The poem keeps them away from us, but gives us the precious glimpse, and the reminder of secret possessions held or yet to be held by each reader differently. If only more teachers had the confidence in their taste and in the children’s imaginations to make such fine things available to them.

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