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