A moon-bird is a witch, and a witch is a moon-bird. A moon-bird and a witch is a “woman of the false beautiful moon.”
Poetical, no? I can’t take credit for crafting this notion. It’s a found notion.
Some of my favorite places to find books—as a compulsive book collector with limited funds—are thrift stores, rummage sales, and library giveaways. I also tend to leave those events with back-breaking “hauls.” So, I’m not sure exactly where—or when—I acquired my copy of The Complete Poetical Works of Amy Lowell (Houghton Mifflin, 1955), but it’s been banging around my stacks for a little while at least.
It’s an old library copy—that’s certainly a clue—but that’s not entirely conclusive. It also smells fantastic: that perfect old library book smell made of aging paper, book binding glue, and ink.
It was in this sizeable book of poetry that I stumbled across the poem “Witch-Woman”—276 pages deep—and it was from the poem “Witch-Woman” that we at Moon-Birds took our name.
Let me tell you a little about Amy Lowell, because she was an incredible badass.Born in 1874 to a well-to-do Massachusetts family, she wasn’t allowed a formal education (on account of: she was a girl); so she rolled up her sleeves and got her one for herself, becoming a ferocious reader and book collector. Amy grew up strong-willed and independent-minded; she flirted with the idea of a career on the stage (scandalous!), smoked cigars, went about with a pack of enormous and intimidating sheepdogs, lived nocturnally, travelled widely, was unfashionably unthin, feuded with Ezra Pound, and spoke her damn mind. In short, she was a scandal and a sensation. She was also, it is fairly certain, a lesbian who had a number of relationships with other women—including living with Ada Dwyer Russell for many years. Though, of course, she and Ada would be referred to as “close friends” and “companions” (the original “gal pals”).
Amy Lowell received a Pulitzer for her poetry after her death in 1925. In her lifetime she published at least 650 poems, and wrote an unknown number more. Sadly (but predictably), she and her work were largely forgotten after her death, and she is only recently being slowly, unevenly “rediscovered” in a process which began a little bit in the 1970s.
But back to Ms. Lowell’s Complete Poetical Works: it’s a weighty tome, and packed full of wonderful, complicated, and in many cases witchypoems: poems which offer a refreshingly female voice and perspective from a period that tends to be dominated in what is considered the “canon” by male voices.
If you’ve never read any of her poetry, start with “Witch-Woman” reproduced below (public domain, don’t @ me). And then track down some more (maybe we’ll even throw a couple more of hers up here!).
Cursed black heart,
Cursed gold heart striped with black;
Thighs and breasts I have loved;
Lips virgin to my thought,
Sweeter to me than red figs;
Lying tongue that I have cherished.
Is my heart wicked?
Are my eyes turned against too bright a
Do I dazzle, and fear what I cannot see?
It is grievous to lose the heart from the
Death which tears flesh from flesh is a
But death is cool and kind compared to
This horror which bleeds and kindles,
These kisses shot with poison,
These thoughts cutting me like red knives,
Swift rider on the clashing clouds,
Ruler over brass heavens,
Mighty ruler of the souls of men,
Be merciless to me if I mistake this
As I will be merciless if I learn a bitter
I burn green oil to you,
Fresh oil from fair young olives,
I pour it upon the ground;
As it drips I invoke your clemency
To send a sign.
Witches are moon-birds,
Witches are the women of the false,
To-night the sign
Maker of men and gods.
To-night when the full-bellied moon
swallows the stars.
Grant that I know.
Then will I offer you a beastly thing and
Or else the seed of both
To be your messengers and slaves forever,
My sons, and my sons’ sons, and their
And my daughters and theirs throughout
For your handmaidens and bedfellows as
How the white sword flickers!
How my body twists in the circle of my
Behold, I have loved this woman,
Even now I cry for her,
My arms weaken,
My legs shake and crumble.
Strengthen my thews,
Cord my sinews to withstand a testing.
Let me be as iron before this thing,
As flashing brass to see,
As lightning to fall;
As rain melting before sunshine it I have
wronged the woman.
The red flame takes the oil,
The blood of my trees is sucked into fire
As my blood is sucked into the fire of
your wrath and mercy,
O just and vengeful God.”
Body touches body. How sweet the
spread of loosened bodies in the coil
of sleep, but a gold-black thread is
between them. An owl calls deep
in the wood.
Can you see through the night, woman,
that you stare so upon it? Man,
what spark do your eyes follow in
the smouldering darkness?
She stirs. Again the owl calling. She
rises. Foot after foot as a panther
treads, through the door—a minute
more and the fringes of her goat-
skin are brushing the bushes. She
pushes past brambles, the briars
catch little claws in her goat-skin.
And he who watches? As the tent-
lap flaps back, he leaps. The bearer
of the white sword leaps, and follows
her. Blur of moonshine before—
behind. He walks by the light of a
green-oil oath, and the full moon
floats above them both.
Seeded grass is a pool of grey. Ice-white,
cloud-white, frosted with the spray
of the sharp-edged moon. Croon—
croon—the wind in the feathered
tops of the grass. They pass—the
witch-white woman with the gold-
black heart, the flower-white woman
—and his eyes startle, and answer
the bow curve of her going up the hill.
The night is still, with the wind, and the
moon, and an owl calling.
On the sea side of a hill where the grass
lies tilted to a sheer drop down,
with the sea splash under as the
waves are thrown upon a tooth of
rock. Shock and shatter of a golden
track, and the black sucking back.
The draw of his breath is hard and
cold, the draw of the sea is a rustle
Behind a curl of granite stone the man
lies prone. The woman stands like
an obelisk, and her blue-black hair
has a serpent whisk as the wind lifts
it up and scatters it apart. Witch-
heart, are you gold or black? The
woman stands like a marble tower,
and her loosened hair is a thunder-
shower twisted across with lightnings
of burnt gold.
Naked and white, the matron moon urges
the woman. The undulating sea
fingers the rocks and winds stealthily
over them. She opens the goat-skin
The walls of the world are crashing down,
she is naked before the naked moon,
the Mother Moon, who sits in a
courtyard of emerald with six black
slaves before her feet. Six—and a
white seventh who dances, turning
in the moonlight, flinging her arms
about the soft air, despairingly lift-
ing herself to her full height, strain-
ing tiptoe away from the slope of
Witch-breasts turn and turn, witch-
thighs burn, and the feet strike al-
ways faster upon the grass. Her
blue-black hair in the moon-haze
blazes like a fire of salt and myrrh.
Sweet as branches of cedar, her
arms; fairer than heaped grain, her
legs; as grape clusters, her knees and
ankles; her back as white grapes with
She runs through him with the whipping
of young fire. The desire of her is
thongs and weeping. She is the green
oil to his red flame. He peers from
the curl of granite stone. He hears
the moan of the crawling sea, and
sees—as the goat-skin falls so the
And the triple Heaven-wall falls down,
and the Mother Moon on a ruby
throne is near as a bow-shot above
Goat-skin, here, flesh-skin there, a skele-
ton dancing in the moon-green air,
with a white, white skull and no
hair. Lovely as ribs on a smooth sand
shore, bright as quartz-stones speck-
ling a moor, long and narrow as
Winter reeds, the bones of the skel-
eton. The wind in the rusty grass
hums a humeral-chant sat to a jig.
Dance, silver bones, dance a whirl-
igig in a crepitation of lust. The
waves are drums beating with
slacked guts. Inside the skeleton is
a gold heart striped with black, it
glitters through the clacking bones,
throwing an inverted halo round the
Scarlet is the ladder dropping from the
moon. Liquid is the ladder—like
water moving yet keeping its shape.
The skeleton mounts like a great grey ape,
and its bones rattle; the rattle of the
bones is the crack of dead trees
bitten by frost. The wind is desolate,
and the sea moans.
But the ruby chair of Mother Moon
shudders, and quickens with a hard
fire. The skeleton has reached the
last rung. It melts and is absorbed
in the burning moon. The moon?
No moon, but a crimson rose afloat
in the sky. A rose? No rose, but a
black-tongued lily. A lily? No lily,
but a pruple orchid with dark, writh-
Trumpets mingle with the sea-drums,
scalding trumpets of brass, the wind-
hum changes to a wail of many
voices, the owl has cased calling.
“White sword are you thirsty?
I give you the green blood of my heart.
I give you her white flesh cast from her
Vengeful and cruel Father,
God of Hate,
The skins of my eyes have dropped,
With fire you have consumed the oil of
Take my drunken sword,
Some other man may need it.
She was sweeter than red figs,
O cursed God!”
For further reading:
The Poetry Foundation: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/amy-lowell
Academy of American Poets: https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poet/amy-lowell
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