Like all visionary fiction, Women’s Visionary Fiction gives us visions, magic, prophecy, spiritual experiences, the ability to see the future, to walk through the past, to hear the dead speak, and see other worlds that exist behind the thin veil that separates us from them. But Women’s Visionary Fiction gives us something more. That something, simply stated, is women. Women write this fiction. In it, all the world, visible and invisible, mystical and real, is seen through female eyes.
In Part II of this series, I want to take you inside one novel written by a woman, and show you how the visionary aspects unfolded. The novel, which was only published a few weeks ago, is The Village of Bones: Sabalah’s Tale. I am the author, and I know it inside out, having researched it for three years and put it through at least twelve complete drafts.
As the subtitle suggests, The Village of Bones: Sabalah’s Tale is written from the viewpoint of a woman named Sabalah, a young priestess who lives six thousand years ago in a Europe inhabited by Goddess-worshiping people who are on the verge of being invaded by marauding nomads who are about to bring male gods, warfare, and genocide to lands that have known peace for thousands of years. It’s an epic adventure of magic, prophecy, and passion that involves a perilous journey, a deadly threat, and a lover who is more than human.
So what, you may ask, are the visionary elements that make The Village of Bones Women’s Visionary Fiction, as opposed to simply Visionary Fiction? Well, first, as you can probably guess from my name (Mary), I am a woman. But more to the point, I wrote the first draft in a trance that produced a novel deeply saturated with female consciousness.
I didn’t write all of The Village of Bones in a trance, of course. You need your entire mind and all your rational facilities to structure and polish a novel, not to mention that I can’t type on my computer with my eyes closed. But the visions I describe in The Village of Bones are visions I saw as clearly as if someone had been running a movie inside my head, and the director of that movie was definitely a woman.
Was She me? That’s a good question. I developed this creative trance technique several decades ago, and I still don’t know whether the someone who gives me visions is my Muse, a Goddess, a spirit, or simply my own imagination. All I know is that when I called up the story of The Village of Bones, I saw female things: A Sea Goddess, dressed in coral and foam, who told Sabalah she would give birth to a magical child. A Huge Snake Goddess floating in mid-air who warned Sabalah to take her newborn daughter Marrah and flee west to escape the nomads. A powerful Oracle, neither completely male nor completely female, who gave Sabalah a sacred text called the Mother Book, which contained all knowledge past and present, and which could destroy all humanity if it fell into the wrong hands.
As I entered this prehistoric world of visions and prophecies, I saw everything through Sabalah’s eyes. Dolphins that would let you ride on their backs. Great temples sacred to the Bird Goddess built in the shape of birds. Powerful beings with psychic powers who could shape-shift. And one of the most powerful of all these strange beings was a not-quite-human woman.
I tell you all this to let you know that Women’s Visionary Fiction is not simply a category or a sign in a bookstore that tells you what kind of books you can find on the shelves below. Women’s Visionary fiction, in my case and in the case of other women writers I have spoken to, is not only ecstatically visionary. It is crafted from women’s lives and emerges from the deepest recesses of their unconscious. It is, in short, the stuff women’s dreams are made of.
Read Part I of “What Is Women’s Visionary Fiction?”
• Syllabi for courses in Women’s Visionary Fiction, Women’s Visionary Poetry, and Women’s Visionary Film can be found on Mary Mackey’s Educators Page at http://marymackey.com
• To get the latest news about Mary Mackey, Women’s Visionary Fiction and The Village of Bones, click here.
• Mary Mackey, Ph.D. writes novels, poetry, and film scripts. A Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Sacramento, she is the author of thirteen novels and seven collections of poetry including Sugar Zone, winner of the 2012 PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Award. Garrison Keillor has featured her poetry four times on The Writer’s Almanac. Her novels have made The New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle Bestseller Lists and been translated into twelve languages. Her visionary novel The Village of Bones: Sabalah’s Tale is a prequel to the three novels in her best-selling Earthsong Series (The Year the Horses Came, The Horses at the Gate, and The Fires of Spring). Mary welcomes your questions and comments at marymackey.com where, you can sample her work, read her interview series People Who Make Books Happen, and sign up to get the latest news about her visionary fiction and poetry. You can also Like her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter @MMackeyAuthor. Mary’s literary papers are archived at the Sophia Smith Special Collections Library at Smith College in Northampton, MA.
“What Is Women’s Visionary Fiction (Part II)” originally appeared on the Visionary Fiction Alliance Blog as a guest post by Mary Mackey.
The air is full of drifting cottonwood seeds; the water is turning from translucent green to puddled copper; it is 105 degrees Fahrenheit; and once again I am about to sneak up on the ducks disguised as one of their own. Donning a blue baseball cap and a pair of sunglasses, I slip into the river, sink until my nose is just above the surface, and begin to do a slow, underwater breaststroke toward a flock of mallards.
The water comes from Sierra snowmelt that has been held behind Folsom dam like a cache of liquid ice. Even in mid-July, it is still so cold, it takes my breath away, but over the years I have learned that, if I grit my teeth and keep swimming, my body will gradually acclimatize.
The mallards do not notice my approach. They never do. Perhaps ducks are nearsighted, perhaps they have a limited ability to sort out foreground and background, perhaps they are too busy dunking under to grab a beak-full of duckweed, or perhaps they just don’t give a damn. I have never been sure why they always fail to notice the weird thing moving toward them, particularly on days like today when I approach against the current. Logically, I can not possibly be a log or even a lost beach ball.
I swim nearer. No one looks up. The mallards continue to quack and duck their heads under the water. Over to the left, a male is engaged in a display of splashing and wing beating aimed at impressing a female who appears to be more interested in grooming her tail feathers. I take a few more strokes and float silently into the middle of the flock. The water is so clear I can see tadpoles scattering beneath me in all directions. The shadow of a large fish, a carp perhaps, slides under my feet. I am now close enough that I could reach out and grab the legs of the nearest drake, but I am a duck-observer, not a duck-eater.
For a moment, I relish my presence among them. Again, I wonder why they are not seeing me. Does the bill on my baseball cap make me look like a large mallard? Does their universe include the possibility of a bright blue duck with no eyes or tail feathers?
Suddenly, a female with six tiny ducklings trailing behind her paddles toward me, freezes, and does a double-take. That THING is definitely not a duck! She gives a terrified squawk and my cover is blown. Instantly all hell breaks loose. Quacking in panic, the ducks scatter like swimmers who have just realized that the log floating toward them is actually a crocodile. Most of the flock takes to the air; the mothers lead their ducklings into the reeds and disappear.
Finding myself alone again with only a few floating feathers to keep me company, I turn and begin to swim back toward the island, still keeping a low profile. Sometimes on the return trip, I see other animals. I can not get anywhere near the four-foot tall blue herons who are too smart and much too wary to be taken in; but once a green heron actually perched on my cap for a moment, perhaps mistaking me for a small, blue island. On another occasion, near dusk, I looked up and there on the bank, staring at me with unguarded curiosity, was a large buck with a fine rack of antlers. Once, only once, I saw a coyote playing catch with a stick.
Only a week ago as I swam in a warmer backwater, something sneaked up on me. It was not, thank goodness, a rattlesnake. I have only seen one of those in the seventeen some years I have been coming here and one was enough to last a lifetime; but it gave me quite a start nevertheless. I was swimming under the cottonwoods toward a patch of ripe blackberries that can only be pillaged by water, when I heard a huge smack behind me. I did exactly what the ducks do under such circumstances: I squawked and began to paddle toward safety only to discover that I was sharing the lagoon with a large beaver.
I have no idea why she was out in mid-afternoon. As a rule, beavers are crepuscular creatures. When we paddle our canoe back to the boat launch after sunset, we often encounter as many as twenty of them: large, plump, shadowy balls that slap their tails on the water like a rhythm band as we float by. But this one was up early, and she did not enjoy sharing the lagoon. For a few minutes she swam circles around me, slapping and diving. Then, to my great relief, she slid under water and disappeared. I have never heard of anyone being attacked by a beaver, but I got a good look at her, and just for the record, beaver teeth, when seen up close, are formidable.
But today, I make it back to the island without encountering anything more than a small muskrat and a swarm of Bluetail flies. Stumbling out of the water across a spread of small, unreasonably sharp stones, I towel off, sit down in a lawn chair, pick up the thermos, and pour myself a cup of iced tea. In a few minutes my husband, who originally introduced me to this place, swims up and joins me. We sit, chatting, drinking tea, eating cold melons, and waiting for the sun to set; and in the distance, as always, we hear the sound of The Distant Cataract About Which We Do Not Speak.
Of course, it is not really the sound of a cataract. It is the roar of rush hour traffic, half of it crossing the Howe Avenue Bridge, half of it crossing the bridge at Watt. We are sitting on an island in the American River, right in the middle of Sacramento, the state capital, a metropolitan area of well over a million people, but my husband and I like to preserve our mutual delusion. We have agreed to imagine we are not a five- minute drive from our home and a twenty-minute walk from the university where we both teach, but instead in some remote part of California where just out of sight a magnificent waterfall foams down into a green pool.
The American River Parkway makes this fantasy amazingly easy. For over thirty miles, it runs through the heart of the city from Folsom Lake to the point where the American River joins the Sacramento. This is a town where if you float in a canoe or sit on an island below the levees you can not see houses (except in a few places where, alas, the zoning restrictions are being violated). This is a town where some state employees kayak to work; where, no matter how hot it gets, you can get goosebumps and blue lips just by going for a swim.
Over the years, we have seen Hmong families in brightly embroidered, traditional dress picnicking on the banks. We have come upon a circle of Somoans, up to their chests in water, drinking cold beers and singing “On The Boardwalk” in perfect harmony. When we launch our canoe, we often find ourselves having conversations in Spanish with recent immigrants from Mexico or Central America. About 75,000 Russians live in Sacramento county, many of them Baptists. We have watched them build huts of reeds and flowers and carry flowered crosses out into the water as part of their baptismal rituals. African-American congregations baptize here too, dressed in white robes. Like the Russians, they sing hymns and pray. I am always moved when I hear them. This, I think, is the spiritual heart of the river.
Once, during a January when it looked as if the levees might break, my husband and I came upon a pile of candy wrapped in gold foil, pineapples and oranges sliced in half, several beheaded guinea fowl, a pack of matches, and a handful of popcorn: traditional offerings made to the goddess Oxum by devotees of the African-Brazilian religion Candomblé. On another occasion, we went down to the river to launch our canoe and found the parking lot occupied by a Russian Orthodox priest and his congregation. The priest appeared to be blessing the river with incense. A procession made its way to the edge of the river bearing banners painted with holy icons. I believe their prayers were in Old Slavonic.
But nothing can compare to a night in early August when my husband and I came to the river and found it full of small, floating lanterns. A Japanese priest stood at the boat launch chanting as the lanterns drifted toward him and his congregation. We found out later that this is a traditional ceremony for souls lost at sea, but that now it is done to commemorate those who died at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of 1945. Above the lanterns, a full moon rose into the sky, bright and large as a second sun. The flames swirled in the current, the night primroses blossomed, the beavers were silent, and for a few moments the American was a river of light.
Note by Mary Mackey: This description of my swims in the American River was originally written for My California (Angel City Press), an anthology published to raise money for the California Arts Council and school writing programs statewide.
A few months ago, I packed up six drafts of my recently published novel The Village of Bones and sent them to Smith College along with thirty-eight boxes of other materials that span my writing career. I have been saving these materials for well over forty years; and after fifteen years of inventive procrastination, I finally gotten around to archiving them. The result is that I now have a clean basement (who knew the floor was made of concrete?) and the Sophia Smith Special Collections Library in Northampton, Massachusetts has my Literary Papers.
What are “Literary Papers?” Well, “The Mary Mackey Papers,” as Smith calls them, include among other things: copies of all the foreign and English language editions of my novels and collections of poetry; multiple handwritten drafts of my works; copies of every magazine with my written work; fliers for most of the readings and lectures I’ve done; photographs of me from age two to the present; literary correspondence from famous writers like Yevgeny Yevtushenko and Marge Piercy, and less well known writers who should be better known; posters almost too big to mail, and chapbooks so small that if you gasped, you might inhale them.
Smith even asked me to send them my juvenilia, a term for the things I wrote when I was a child; so I have had the fun of finding my first novel (a science fiction piece written when I was nine about a little girl who outwits alien robots) and my first collection of poetry (handwritten on lined paper when I was eleven).
As you can see, “archiving” your literary papers means much more than simply placing copies of your books in a library. A university archive is like a safe or a time capsule. Smith is going to put every scrap of my materials in a specially constructed part of the Special Collections Library where they will be preserved in a climate-controlled environment and protected from insects and mold, not to mention floods, fires, mudslides, and earthquakes. Thus, The Mary Mackey Papers will be available to the general public, students, and scholars of the future for all eternity, or at least until climate change makes the human race extinct.
I want to encourage every woman writer reading this to think about archiving her literary papers. (Actually every male writer should too, but that’s another issue.) Please don’t think: “There’s no use my trying to find a place to archive my work. I’m not important enough. No one will want my papers.” Almost every woman I’ve told about the archiving process has said this, including famous poets and best-selling novelists. On the other hand, when I mention archiving to male writers they tend to say: “That’s a great idea. Of course my work should be preserved for posterity.” Or sometimes: “I don’t think anyone will want my papers, but I’ll give it a try. All they can do is say ‘no.’”
The men are right. If you contact an institution about archiving your papers, the worst they can say is: “No, we can’t take them.” But if you don’t try, your work may end up in a dumpster. You need to archive your papers now, while you are alive and can made all the important decisions. Don’t leave archiving your papers to your heirs or they may dump your old love letters in with the rest, and you may end up being known to future generations as “Snookums.”
So how do you go about archiving your papers? Well, that depends. If you are younger, you probably don’t have much. In fact, everything you have may be in digital form, so you need to begin printing some of it out. Not all of it, but a few drafts, important emails, etc. You should also start saving fliers from the readings you do. And don’t throw away those poems you wrote when you were nine. Keats kept his early poems. Keep yours.
If you are over fifty (or already very well-known), you need to make a general list of what you have and estimate how much room it takes up. Then you need to find out which libraries, universities, or museums already collect the kinds of things you have.
Next, you need to send a brief email to places you think might be interested in archiving your papers. Introduce yourself, describe the highlights of your collection and its significance, attach a very brief bio, and ask them if they are interested in seeing more. My initial email was three paragraphs, sent out with the subject line “Interested in a literary collection?”
Archiving your papers is particularly important right now. Literary correspondences are occurring in emails; drafts of novels and poems are being stored in the Cloud; news of readings are coming via MailChimp. According to the archivists I have spoken to, the life of digital material is about five years. Then bit rot sets in, and the files are no longer readable.
In other words, the entire literary life of the twenty-first century is being written on water. Let’s see that it’s written in stone.
If you do archive your papers, that is to say if you place them in a climate-controlled environment in a university or museum archive, I have a present for you: I have created A Guide To Women Writers’ Archives on my website. Send me your information, and I will put you up there with Mary Shelley, Margaret Atwood, Jane Austen, and Maya Angelou.
Mary Mackey is a bestselling author who has written seven volumes of poetry including Sugar Zone winner of the 2012 PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Award for Literary Excellence. She is also the author of fourteen novels some of which have appeared on The New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle Bestseller Lists. For more information about Mary’s books, including her recently published novel, The Village of Bones, please visit her website.
This article was originally posted on the Women’s National Book Association, San Francisco Chapter, website. To see it in its original context CLICK HERE.
Lowenstein Associates has just published The Village of Bones, Sabalah’s Tale, the Prequel to my best-selling Earthsong Series. If you buy the novel before May 15th, you can get a FREE Kindle edition of The Year the Horses Came, which is the next novel in the Series.
“Mary Mackey’s The Village of Bones, gives us the vivid adventures of The Clan of the Cave Bear, the magic of The Mists of Avalon and Lord of the Rings, and the beauty of Avatar. Filled with the belief that love drives out fear, it contains stunning twists that will leave you wanting more.” –Dorothy Hearst, author of the Wolf Chronicles
A perilous journey, a stunning prophecy, a dangerous love that could destroy humankind: In 4386 B.C., a young priestess named Sabalah conceives a magical child with a mysterious stranger named Arash. Sabalah names the child Marrah. This child will save the Goddess-worshiping people of Europe from marauding nomad invaders called Beastmen, but only if her mother can keep her alive long enough to grow up. Warned by the Goddess in a vision of the coming invasion, Sabalah flees west with Arash to save her baby daughter, only to discover that she is running into the arms of her worst enemies. In the dark forests of northern Europe, other human-like species left over from the Ice Age still exist.
Mary: Welcome to People Who Make Books Happen, Starhawk. I’ve been wanting to talk to you for a long time about your work as a Witch, and am pleased to be able to help you celebrate the publication of your new novel City of Refuge.
A novel-writing Witch is not the kind of Witch you come across every day. In fact, people often have a stereotyped image of a Witch as an old woman in a pointed hat who flies around on a broomstick. What does it mean to call yourself a Witch in 2016? What does the title “Witch” mean to you and how does it differ from the stereotype?
Starhawk: For me, being a Witch means having a commitment to the ancient, earth-centered spiritual and healing traditions of Old Europe and the Middle East, and serving the well-being and development of the community that is practicing and regenerating this spiritual path. It is also a way of identifying with and reclaiming the heritage of the many, many women and men who have been persecuted down through the ages for holding to the old belief that the earth is sacred.
Mary: How did you become a Witch?
Starhawk: I first met Witches when I was researching an anthropology project in my Freshman year at UCLA back in 1968. I began studying with them—and when I became part of the second wave of the feminist movement in succeeding years, it seemed to that an ancient religious tradition with a focus on the Goddess, that offered roles of responsibility and leadership to women, was an important aspect of empowering women. When I moved to San Francisco in 1975, I began training with Victor Anderson of the Feri Tradition and was initiated—I went through a ritual of commitment and empowerment. In the early ‘80s, a group of us began what became the Reclaiming Tradition, bringing together deep magic, personal and collective healing, political action and practical earth healing.
Mary: Can you briefly tell us about the Wiccan Religion and Contemporary Paganism? For example, when did Wicca become an officially recognized religion in the United States?
Starhawk: The contemporary Pagan revival has many strands—the interest in occultism and Eastern spirituality going back to the 19th century in England and US, the writings and teaching of Gerald Gardner and his followers in England in the 50s, the interest in Eastern and indigenous spirituality in the ‘60s, and the feminist movement in the ‘70s and ‘80s where we began searching for alternatives to patriarchy.
The US doesn’t officially recognize religions—the body that does is simply the IRS, which awards the non-profit religious organization status. The Covenant of the Goddess received that status in 1975, and many other Wiccan and Pagan organizations have done so since, including various groups within Reclaming’s extended network. Many Wiccan and Pagan organizations have taken part in interfaith organizations—including the Parliament of The World’s Religions, and have also mounted successful campaigns to get Wicca recognized by the military. Ongoing campaigns include the efforts spearheaded by Patrick McCollum to get Wiccan and Pagan chaplains for prisoners in California and other states. Slowly, we are gathering more widespread recognition.
Mary: How has being a Witch influenced your life and your work?
Starhawk: My deepest spiritual experiences have always taken place in nature, and discovering that there was a spiritual tradition that honored nature as sacred, for me, was like coming home. Wicca teaches that the Goddess is immanent in the natural world and in human beings, and for me, this is the ground of my spiritual practice, my political work for social and environmental justice, and my creative work as a writer, film maker and permaculture teacher and designer.
Mary: Your new novel City of Refuge is a sequel to your earlier novel The Fifth Sacred Thing which is often assigned in courses on Woman’s Spirituality. Could you please briefly describe both novels? What is the most important thing you want your readers to take away from City of Refuge?
Starhawk: Both The Fifth Sacred Thing and City of Refuge are set in the mid-twenty-first century, when, after environmental and social meltdowns, Northern California has become a matrifocal, multi-cultural, ecological balanced society, devoted to peace, art, and connection. Southern California has become the opposite—militarist, racist, with huge divides between rich and poor. When the Southlands invade the north, the people of Califia struggle with the question of how to defend themselves without becoming what they are fighting against.
For me, The Fifth Sacred Thing came directly out of the research I had been doing on the period you yourself write about in your Earthsong Series novels about the Goddess-worshiping cultures of Neolithic Europe: the shift from the early matrifical cultures of the Goddess to patriarchal, warlike cultures. I was asking myself the question: Could it have been different? Could those peaceable early cultures have resisted the takeover without changing so drastically into something resembling the invaders? Or, even more crucial, could we do that now? Is it worth trying to develop a society rooted in peace and cooperation if it is doomed to be conquered?
City of Refuge begins where The Fifth Sacred Thing leaves off. The invaders have been ousted, and much of their army has defected and joined the Califians. The book centers around a different question: How can we build a new world when people are so deeply damaged by the old?
Mary: How, if at all, has your perspective on nature, society, and spirituality changed since you wrote The Fifth Sacred Thing in 1993?
Starhawk: I have a great deal more knowledge around practical earth healing, permaculture and ecological design, and much more experience in situations of intense conflict, such as the global justice mobilizations of the early part of this century, of supporting the nonviolent resistance in Palestine to the Occupation, of aiding relief efforts in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. I have a wider breadth of experience, and probably seen more nuances. For me, a novel centers around a question, not around answers, and I continue to hold these great questions. I don’t expect to find clear answers in my lifetime, but in wrestling with the questions, we may find a way forward.
Mary: Both The Fifth Sacred Thing and City of Refuge are post-apocalyptic novels. Do you think we are headed for a planetary apocalyptic melt-down?
Starhawk: There’s a proverb, reputed to be Native American, that says: “If we don’t change our direction, we’re going to wind up where we’re headed.” It doesn’t take a prophet to see where we’re headed toward destruction. We’re already past the tipping point on climate change. We’re experiencing a concentration of wealth and power and a militarization of everyday life on an unprecedented scale, and the two crises are really the same one—the ultimate end of a patriarchal war culture that places profit and weapons over caring and nurturing. But I also believe that we have the tools, insights, and technologies to turn it around, that we still have the potential to use the resources we still have now now to create the resources we need for a new world, one in balance with nature and where we prize interconnection over domination.
It’s a question of political will. I believe that making this transition is the biggest challenge we face in the coming years, and that all of us have come into life at this time to make our own unique contribution to the change.
Mary: What is the most important thing we can do to meet that challenge on both a personal and global level? Can we build a City of Refuge?
Starhawk: To meet that challenge, I encourage people to educate themselves, to become ecologically literate and socially adept, to learn about other cultures and explore multiple perspectives. I also encourage everyone to give yourself time to have your own connection to the natural world, to spend some time each day listening to nature and observing the plants, trees, animals, sky, water and soil. And then—take action. Ask yourself what you most deeply care about, and put yourself at its service. Organize, or join with others. Stand up against the destruction, but do it with an awareness of what we want to create. And don’t lose hope!
Mary: For many years you have taught classes in non-violence and earth-based spirituality. Could you briefly describe the classes you are currently offering and tell people how they can enroll?
Starhawk: I currently teach a lot of workshops, give many talks and discussions, and direct an organization called Earth Activist Training, where we teach permaculture—ecological design—with a grounding in spirit and a focus on organizing and activism. We also give courses in social permaculture—applying ecological and systems thinking to human relationships and group dynamics. People can find out more information on my website, starhawk.org, and on the Earth Activist Training site.
Mary: Will you be doing any public readings from City of Refuge this spring?
Starhawk: I’ll be doing lots of traveling, talks, and readings throughout this spring and next year as well. My full schedule can always be found at starhawk.org, and people can also sign onto my mailing list to get advance notice of events.
Mary: Thank you for taking the time to talk to us today.
Starhawk: It’s been a pleasure.
Starhawk is one of the most respected voices in modern earth-based spirituality. Besides being a practicing Witch, she is the author or co-author of twelve books, including The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess, long considered the essential text for the Neo-Pagan movement, and the now-classic ecotopian novel The Fifth Sacred Thing, now in development for film and television. Her most recent novel City of Refuge is the long-awaited sequel to The Fifth Sacred Thing. Starhawk’s papers are archived at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California.
For writing advice; a sneak peek at Mary’s new novel The Village of Bones; Mary’s latest news; course syllabi; resources for Women’s Studies, Women’s Visionary Fiction, Women’s Visionary Film, Women’s Visionary Poetry, and Advanced Composition and more information about writing and teaching, you are invited to visit my website homepage and click on the tabs.
Tuesday, April 19, 6 pm, Montclair Branch/Oakland Public Library, Mary will be reading from her new and collected poems to celebrate National Poetry Month. Reading with her will be poets Grace Marie Grafton; John Rowe; Sheryl J. Bize Boutte; Grace Morizawa; William Winston; and Carol Pingree. Linda Brown, Past President of the California Writers Club will MC. TIME: 6:00 to 8:00 pm. PLACE: Montclair Branch/Oakland Public Library, 1687 Mountain Boulevard, Oakland, CA 94611. Free and open to the public. Open mic after the reading.
Set in the Goddess-worshiping cultures of Neolithic Europe, The Village of Bones is a prequel to Mary’s best-selling Earthsong Series, which includes The Year the Horses Came, The Horses at the Gate, and The Fires of Spring.
“Mary Mackey’s The Village of Bones gives us the vivid adventures of The Clan of the Cave Bear, the magic of The Mists of Avalon and Lord of the Rings, and the beauty of Avatar. Filled with the belief that love drives out fear, it contains stunning twists that will leave you wanting more.”
—-Dorothy Hearst, author of the Wolf Chronicles
The Village of Bones will be available on May 10 from amazon.com as a Kindle e-book and trade paperback.
Poet Susan Kelly-Dewitt has written the following stunningly intelligent, powerful, beautifully crafted review of Travelers With No Ticket Home, my most recent collection of poems. Her review originally appeared in Poetry Now a few days ago. Kelly-DeWitt goes straight to the heart of my poetry, understanding not only its meaning but its more subtle intentions. She sees both the darkness and the light, the exotic and the familiar.
I am re-posting her review of Travelers With No Ticket Home here, because I think you will find it a pleasure to read.
Travelers With No Ticket Home
by Mary Mackey
Reviewed by Susan Kelly-DeWitt
Mary Mackey’s new book of poems, Travelers With No Ticket Home, is mystical, passionate and strange. It picks up where her previous collection, Sugar Zone, left off—continuing the journey through the ravaged jungles and rainforests of the 20th and 21st centuries, reminding us that, wherever we are, history insinuates itself into our lives, exiling us from ourselves, from the past and from each other—so that we are always “travelers with no ticket home.”
Here Mackey also continues, as she did in Sugar Zone, to weave the English and Portuguese languages together into a lyrical text that becomes, in its own way, a third language unto itself—as if to say that all language is finally one language if we can learn to speak as members of a global community.
The first section of the book begins with a poem called “Jacobs Ladder,” that sets the tone for what is to come. In it we get a portrait of the speaker’s great aunts, “hair done up in braids/ calico feedsack dresses aprons full of chicken feed”—turn-of-the-20th century Midwestern farm women for whom a Brazilian landscape, an Amazonian rainforest, or their great-niece speaking the Portuguese tongue to them, might have seemed incomprehensible:
“queridas tias / dearest aunts the jungle is thicker than corn
mais grosso do que o milho
greener than cucumbers/ mais verde do que pepinos
filled with black lagoons that shine like obsidian
In the Old Testament story, Jacob’s dream of an unbroken ladder to heaven, with angels ascending and descending on it, comes to him as he flees in exile toward an unknown future; the dream connects him to the promise of a homeland, a kind of earthly and spiritual ticket home. (Genesis 28:11-22) The great aunts might have grown up with that story, but the poems that follow catalogue a brokenness that dispels that myth.
The poem ends with two lines that set out the theme for the book: “we all stand at the foot of a ladder that’s missing rungs/ speaking in tongues no one can understand.” (Mackey’s endnotes also remind us that “Jacob’s Ladder” is a traditional block quilt pattern; one can think of Mackey’s book—six separate sections, each with its own design—as a kind of word-quilt.)
The second section of the book, called “The City of Apocalyptic Visions,” drops us into that very world so “foreign” to the great aunts:
“How you loved it in the beginning
the flashing sequins the bare thighs and breasts
the drumming that you said made you feel
as if you were being passed from hand to hand
over a crowd of 72,000 people
who loved you more than your own mother…
the samba whispers terrible secrets!
you cried but you would not tell me what they were
how easy to it is to give ourselves to the gods, o meu bem
how hard to take ourselves back
[from “After Carnival”]
And so it is with Mackey’s “travelers”—which is again to say all of us—who are “like souls trapped between two worlds.” (Mackey has traveled to Brazil regularly for twenty-five years and, as in Sugar Zone, the poems here are grounded in those years of exploration and travel.)
we walk on the bottom of an invisible ocean
under us the ground heaves in slow waves
look the masts of a thousand ten thousand a million
sunken ships surround us in a cage of pale flame
over our heads vast green clouds tremble in the dying light
the Waika have warned us to be silent
they say if we open our mouths here
we will drown
Much to the poetry’s advantage, Travelers also reintroduces the surrealistic shamanistic dream figure, Solange, who first appeared in Sugar Zone.
Tempting as it is to think of her (at least in part) as doppelganger or alter ego, Solange insists on being much more than that: She is soothsayer, truth-sayer, lover and doom-monger; materializing and vanishing again and again throughout the book. To my mind she is surely one of the most interesting characters ever to appear in a book of contemporary American poems.
Solange Taunts The Colonels of Para
She lifts the flowers to her lips and blows on them
until the petals flap like the wings of egrets
she disappears becomes invisible incorporeal immaterial/delusional
transforms herself into a snake stalks us like a jaguar
tears out our throats and heals us with a kiss
when the colonels and their jagunços come to kill her
she greets them by pulling up her skirt
which of you fat men with big guns and small pistolas
is brave enough to enter the door that leads nowhere she cries
which of you wants to die with the taste of cashews on your tongue?
after they run away she sleeps for forty days
when she wakes she tells us to place another row
of small black seeds on her tongue calls them
the bitter stones that pave the path to Paradise
Not surprisingly reviewers have compared Mackey to Elizabeth Bishop, who traveled to Brazil intending a brief visit and stayed on for the better part of two decades, living there during the Fifties and Sixties with her partner, Lota de Macedo Soares. (Soares committed suicide in 1967.) Bishop would surely have described herself as “a traveler with no ticket home,” and Mackey alludes to her Brazil-Bishop connection in the poem “View From The Balcony”:
View From The Balcony
Nine times the sun rose over the bay
nine times the sea looked as if some great
fish had been slaughtered between
the channel and the point
in the streets people dressed in strange
danced to songs of drought and starvation
each night the spirit of Elizabeth Bishop
walked in the park her lover had designed
where palm trees waved like human hands
the wind was a cough that stopped and started
and the heat burned like strong coffee
from our balcony high above it all
we could see long white ships taking people to kinder places
this is how we learned about despair
this is how we were schooled in it
“Bright-colored clothing; dancing to ”songs of drought and starvation; ships “taking people to kinder places”—these are things Mackey’s travelers see along the way—this is how they enter the land of Despair.
Travelers chronicles much about the Brazilian world—the favelas, the homeless street children, the military “fat men,” the polluted waters, the anacondas and bocarubus—the cruel and gorgeous set side by side or peeled away in layers.
The poems here seem to say: No matter how much good the travelers intend, no matter what beauty remains in the degraded land/human-scape, history has left things in ruins. We understand then why, when the travelers encounter “the last six speakers of Arikapu” (in the poem “Under the Bocarubu Trees”)
they did not turn to look at us standing there beside our canoes
we were the noise that had drowned their silence
the thieves who had cut out their tongues
pale ghosts in their green light
our words harsh and incomprehensible
as the ringing of axes
In the last three sections of the book, Mackey shifts her focus to include some intimate family poems that in some ways hearken back to “Jacob’s Ladder”—poems like “Language Lessons” and “To My Mother on her Second Non-Birthday”—among the most emotionally touching poems in the book.
These are followed by a penultimate section of poems called “The Kama Sutra of Kindness” (several poems reprinted from earlier books), which explores the place of kindness in erotic love (eros and agape).
Walking Toward the Largo do Machado
when the smell of jasmine
flows through the streets of Catete like a warm fog
when the scent is so liquid you can
breathe it in get drunk and stagger
I think of all the years I have loved you
and all the years I will go on loving you
I think of how we protect each other from pain and betrayal
how each night we wrap ourselves around each other
and peace floats above our bed like a canopy of white petals
The final section, “The Martyrdom of Carmen Miranda,” is composed of a single poem, an elegy for the Brazilian samba dancer and film actress who became one of Hollywood’s shooting stars but was, in the process, reduced to caricature—with “the fruit basket hats,” allowing herself to be “done up in pompoms like a pet poodle.”
Here is an excerpt from the closing stanza:
Carmen like you we are all travelers
who set out believing we can bring back
something to make it worth the trip…
something that will make us happy and whole…
It is a poem that brings us back to the central theme of the book, to exile and to those missing rungs in our own Jacob’s Ladder.
Susan Kelly-DeWitt is the author of The Fortunate Islands and ten previous print and online collections; a new book, Spider Season, is forthcoming in 2016. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and the Northern California Book Reviewers Association; her reviews have appeared in Library Journal, Small Press Review and Poetry Flash, among others.
Women’s Visionary Fiction is not a new type of Visionary Fiction. It has been around for decades if not centuries. In fact, for all of recorded history (and thousands of years before writing existed) women have been associated with visions, mystical experiences, spiritual powers, magic, the ability to bring new life into the world, heal the sick, and speak to the dead.
When women authors finally cracked the Paper Ceiling of Publishing in the early 1970’s, they began to draw on their visionary heritage as they struggled for cultural recognition and spiritual identity.
The best of Women’s Visionary Fiction is not preachy or didactic. Mystical, flowing, beautifully crafted, it draws on folk traditions and esoteric sources as it creates new worlds, explores the after-life, and evokes other states of consciousness and other realities. Yet many of the early examples, fine they are, still remain unknown except to a small audience of readers.
For example, in 1940, Native American author Ella Deloria wrote Waterlily, a visionary novel that takes as its subject Lakota (Sioux) culture before the Lakota had contact with Europeans. This fascinating recreation of Lakota rituals, culture, and spiritual life, was not published until 1988, nearly twenty years after Deloria’s death.
In the past half century, women have written visionary fiction about witches, midwives, herbal healers, priestesses, goddesses, fairies, oracles, and angels. In fact, sometimes the authors themselves have been witches, midwives, herbal healers, and priestesses. Take for example Starhawk, San Francisco’s most famous witch. Her novel The Fifth Sacred Thing (Bantam, 1993), is a post-apocalyptic vision of the San Francisco Bay Area as a newly created ecological paradise governed by a council of elderly women who are guided by their dreams.
Usually, as in The Fifth Sacred Thing, Women’s Visionary Fiction takes as its subject the path of peace rather than the path of war. But this is not universally true. Maxine Hong Kingston’s visionary autobiography The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts (Knopf, 1976), not only redefines what it means to be a Chinese American woman; it blends folk-tales, legends, and visions to create a fierce woman warrior with magical powers.
Since the 1990’s the growth of the Women’s Spirituality Movement has inspired women to write visionary fiction about the Earth as a living Goddess. Sometimes known as the Gaia Hypothesis, this idea that the Earth is not real estate to be developed, but a living being to be cared for is slowly making its way into popular culture.
Three of my novels, The Year the Horses Came, The Horses at the Gate, and The Fires of Spring, take the living Earth as their subject. Written for a popular audience, they recreate the religious rituals, visions, poetry, and mystical bonds between the Earth and the Goddess-worshiping cultures of Neolithic Europe.
My new novel The Village of Bones, which will be published in early 2016, continues my visionary exploration of the Gaia Hypothesis as it explores the possibility that small bands of human-like survivors (hominids) were the original inspiration for the stories of fairies, gnomes, elves, and other magical creatures, which appear so often in European folk tales.
In Part 2 of this series, I will discuss some of the major works of Women’s Visionary Fiction in more detail and answer the question: Can Men Write Women’s Visionary Fiction?
Find Syllabi for courses in Women’s Visionary Fiction, Women’s Visionary Poetry, and Women’s Visionary Film on my Educators Page.
Get the latest news about Women’s Visionary Fiction and my forthcoming novel The Village of Bones by clicking here.
This essay on Women’s Visionary Fiction originally appeared on the Visionary Fiction Alliance Blog, November 2, 2015.
Mary Mackey is a bestselling author who has written fourteen novels some of which have appeared on the New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle Bestseller Lists. She is also the author of seven volumes of poetry including Sugar Zone winner of the 2012 PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Award for Literary Excellence. Mackey’s novels have been translated into twelve languages including Japanese, Russian, Hebrew, Greek, and Finnish. Her poems have been praised by Wendell Berry, Jane Hirshfield, Marge Piercy, and Dennis Nurkse for their beauty, precision, originality, and extraordinary range. Garrison Keillor has featured her poetry four times on The Writer’s Almanac. Also a screenwriter, she has sold feature-length scripts to Warner Brothers as well as to independent film companies. Mackey sometimes writes comedy under her pen name “Kate Clemens.” She has a B.A. from Harvard College and a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from The University of Michigan and is related through her father’s family to Mark Twain. At present, she lives in northern California with her husband Angus Wright. ” Lowenstein Associates recently published her novel The Village of Bones, a prequel to her bestselling Earthsong Series.
photo credit: Irene Young
Wednesday September 6, 2017, Oakland CA: Mary reads poems from her forthcoming collection The Jaguars That Prowl Our Dreams:New and Selected Poems (coming from Marsh Hawk Press, Fall 2018) as part of the Pandemonium Press series, which has recently … see full schedule here...