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On Friday the 21st August, 1829, The Times reported on the case of Jean Sabathé. His child was gravely ill. Conventional medicine had failed and he engaged the services of Rose Péres, sorceress. Her rites were suitably theatrical: nine red-hot flints were plunged into a cauldron, filling the room with a mysterious vapour. Candles were lit. ‘There was, however, one thing wanting,’ The Times continues, ‘– it was a plate filled with water, in which must be laid a sum of 400 francs. Six livre crowns were immediately put into the water, when the woman exclaimed, “they must be five livre pieces,” which were accordingly supplied. Things being thus disposed, every body was sent out of the house, except the sorceress, who remained within for half an hour, when she re-opened the door, and admitted the people. She then announced the success of the process, – that the evil spirit had appeared, but in retiring had carried off the 400 francs. The sorceress soon followed the spirit, leaving the family of Sabathé a little astounded, and the patient in the same state as before.’ The article concludes that, ‘It must be remarked that the power of the law is not of itself sufficient to remove this superstition. The true remedy must be found in the better education of youth, and the diffusion of good example.’ The Times Digital Archive archive is searchable to 1785 and its few accounts of witchcraft are as cautionary this one. But, even with the Enlightenment in full swing, one can find chilling pointers to small town extrajudicial justice. In July 1825, the parson of Wickham Skeith had to step in after a 67 year old man, suspected of being a wizard, underwent ‘the good old-fashioned ordeal of “sink or swim.”‘

Woodcut, 1598, showing an exorcism performed on a woman by a priest and his assistant, with a demon emerging from her mouth (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Like The Times, Rebecca Tamás’ Witch takes a few glorious pops at credulity as it satirises the excesses of the arts faculty. In ‘The Witch and the Devil’, the witch enjoys ‘the ease / of directing first-year undergraduates in a department play’ and, in ‘Witch Wood’, ‘you forget the words for assessment criteria’, suggesting that the mandarin of arts assessment is our very own hocus pocus.

Assessment criteria: are structural and grammatical features used ‘cohesively and deliberately’, or do they ‘support coherence and cohesion’?

However, in Witch, Tamás invites her reader to step back and join the dots between narratives of female subjugation. In ‘Witch and the Suffragettes’ ‘again somehow the witch finds it is about eating and not eating / they don’t eat and so they are made to eat’ and the force-feeding tube ‘looks like a penis being forced down her throat’. By identifying the poem with the historically specific image of the suffragette, the reader can take some comfort and shelter in the century separating the atrocities of the 1910s from the 2010s. Tamás then strips this defence from us as the long probing lines of ‘Witch Government’ echo Japanese ‘tentacle erotica‘: ‘it could be one of the tentacles and you don’t have any way of knowing / there most be pornos a lot like this but with slightly less rare animals / unsurprisingly witch thinks it would not be nice in the traditional sense of nice / the pulsating tentacles or phallus or phalluses breaking into different sections of / your body’. Tamás’ witch is far from the powerful, demonised other of patriarchal culture. Her witch speaks a language of uncertainty: ‘perhaps’ and ‘could’. The demons are male and their unspeakable blood sacrifices are female: Andromeda, Hypatia, and Iphigenia.

A Suffragette on hunger strike being forcibly fed with a nasal tube (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The collection resists phallic linearity, adopting instead a more female, cyclic form. It is bookended by complementary, mirrored hexes and interrogations. These interrogations trace, once again, that unsettling line between scapegoating and martyrdom. In ‘Interrogation (1)’, the interrogatee is initially evasive and resistant: ‘Are you a witch? / Are you’ but, in ‘Interrogation (2)’, the witch offers a fuller account: ‘I found myself radicalised. I found the state I was in unbearable. I found that violence looked pure, all the clean edges’. Shamima Begum springs to mind and Tamás confronts us with awkward truths.

Witch holds a mirror to the ‘industrial skyline’ with its ‘phalluses hitting the air’ and suggests that, across cultures and through time, violence, subjugation and penetration form a locus. However, Tamás’ mirrored structure enables her to end with the penis’ inverse and ‘the cunt has its own pink-brown seashell-salted / brightening solution for all this’.

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