Poet as Initiate: A Rebirth of the Goddess & The Darkmother in Women’s Poetry in the 70’s[i]
(for my mother Rosa)
“She is you, she is me, she is our mother’s murmurings, chantings, hummings all her days”[ii]
Rites of Isis
When I first wrote those lines in the early 1970’s, I hadn’t yet named the process going on within me, nor had I discovered the works of Lucia Chiavola Birnbaum, which would link the dark mother to my own Sicilian and Neapolitan heritage, as well as our collective African roots. I had seen my life undergoing major transitions, a divorce, job loss, a descent, as well as explorations into new and submerged territories of learning, a “remembering” of African culture and religion as well as a reconnection to people from Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia.
In the grips of powerful unconscious forces, I was called to renewal or Initiation. Turning inward for guidance, I felt drawn to a copy of E.A. Wallis Budge’s Osiris and the Egyptian Resurrection. There was the image of the great eye I had been drawing since I was a child. There was the name of the Goddess who was initiating me: Isis! Hers was the story of a feminine deity who was making herself; not a cursed and sinful female ancestor like Eve, but a powerful and inspired dark mother who dared to call upon the sun god, Ra, for her equal place in the universe, as well as for a healing of her beloved, Osiris, and their child, Horus. Here was an earlier trinity, with a powerful female deity that saw man as her brother and was putting the pieces of their broken soul back together for all humanity’s benefit.[iii]
These ideas were simultaneously emerging in other women poets, artists, writers, historians, dancers, and mothers as well in the late sixties and early seventies. This is well documented now, but was not so then. On reflection, this was a very lonely and perilous passage especially as evidenced in poets like Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. Initiation, even when guided by instinct and archetypal memory, challenges the stability of the ego and one’s sanity. Yet, it seemed as if a seed, planted by our ancestors and the dark mother a millennia ago was bursting forth and about to give birth.
Poetry is also a way of knowing, much like dreaming. The poet/artist lives at the borderlands where inner revelation meets outer experience. She values the inner and imaginary, because it is the source of creativity. Poetry explores the far reaches of the psyche and the depths of feeling in a heightened language carried by breath. At its best, we can call poetry a language of the soul. Many women were wrestling with issues of soul proportion and daring to express the most personal and intimate experiences of being human and female in our time. After two thousand years of patriarchy, a history marked with periods of persecution, witch burning, torture, severe punishment and repression of all dark others, especially women, the silence was about to be broken wide open.
While occasionally women writers of the past from Emily Dickinson to Virginia Woolf in her important essay, “A Room of One’s Own,” called out for soul space in our lives, room for the meditative, for process rather than product, as well as respect for the feminine voice, their calls were not widely heard; too many like Woolf were buried under severe depression and covered by a legacy of Victorian artifice and politeness. The accumulated pain of generations, once hidden by conformity, silence, and acquiescence to tribal order and false “codes of honor”(see Daniela Gioseffi’s poem “Bicentennial Anti-Poem for Italian-American Women”)[iv] that buried acts of violence against women in deep depression, mental illness and silent suffering, seemed to reach a critical mass in the late 1960’s, and as the work of Dr. Chiavola Birnbaum fully documents,[v] began to give voice to what eventually became a feminist spiritual movement and its poetry.
While initiation in ancient times took place in the temple after many years of preparation, modern women poets of the spirit often began their journeys unconsciously, the result of years of inner turmoil and outer situations with people who did not validate them. Whether their initial quest was for love, friendship, a mate, to understand oneself or simply bear one’s pain, these women journeyed into the caves of their unconscious rousing the sleeping demons of the soul. Often unprepared for a spiritual ordeal, the poet was driven inward by an energy larger than herself; if she survived the encounter, she could pull from the deep, the new image and energy from which to create, heal and continue. In the words of the Jungians, these writers were engaged in a “re-mythologizing of their lives,” a search for meaning that led to a rediscovery of our relationship to the Great Mother and the Greater Mysteries which address the larger purpose for which we are born.
Two pioneering poets who contributed to an earlier evolution of the feminine communal soul were Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton.[vi] Their works preceded the new wave by more than ten years and are discussed in an earlier essay, “Rebirth of the Goddess- Part I”. Daniela Gioseffi, Diane Di Prima, Ntozake Shange, Alice Walker, Starhawk and myself were some of the poets who found that protesting and rebelling, though important for exposing the evils of lopsided patriarchy, were not enough to heal them. To heal, one had to confront, time and again, the collective negative beliefs about the feminine and their brutal manifestations, and then transform them one by one within.
In the late 1950’s, the dark mother had not yet been renamed or celebrated. SHE was still locked in stone, a “Stasis in darkness/substanceless blue…”[vii] or a distant intellectual ideal of ancient history, or distorted into a literal Virgin or sinful Eve. While the new poets also experienced a deep despair over the old values of patriarchy and the abuses it spawned, they did so with one major and important difference- a conscious identification with the re-emergent Mother Goddess, and the values she stood for: justice, compassion, equality, peace, and love.[viii]
This recognition of our true godliness and beauty was as significant for women spiritually, as the large-scale movement of feminists and all it accomplished was for us secularly. With the re-emergence of the Dark Mother, we now had a legacy upon which to draw. We sought and found that she was there all along waiting to be re-discovered in pre-Christian forms. As we wrote, we gave HER voice and a contemporary language and SHE fed us more. She was indeed everywhere!
Being partially raised in a Catholic tradition gave me an appreciation of ritual and a respect for our need for collective expression, but I never imagined I would be creating my own rituals. It was when all the familiar doors seemed to shut and I found I couldn’t keep working or loving in the old ways I once had, try as I may to continue the old formulas that kept me exhausted with “saving” or mothering others, working like a slave for little in dangerous facilities at the expense of my health, I had to stop. At 27 year’s old, I took stock of my life and questioned my activities. I felt beaten and swallowed by a huge darkness in which I could only wait. I never expected a response after weeks of silence, but a friend came by and offered me a glimmer of my new direction, another book on the Egyptian Mysteries and the ancient rites of Isis and Osiris which contained a single phrase that haunted me, “Cannot I make myself, make myself, a goddess like Ra in heaven and on earth?” [ix]
Those words echoed and reechoed in my core. They told me the time had come to create my own life, and that it was good and worthy and worth living for itself, that living for others alone was not enough, was in fact wrong and would not bring about the change in the world as I wanted. I had nowhere to go and no one to turn to, but I had this great help from something ancient stirring within me which soon spoke from me and through my pen, and she named herself, mother- Isis. She called me to a lost tenderness and asked that I imbibe daily and,
“Come Eat My Roses/ Dive into the face of Love/
Touch the blood of passion/ As it drips from the cup…” [x]
With the words, sounds and movements coming through me, I began to repair my own body and soul, and look for a more humane way of serving in the world, a way that allowed for self-love while still learning how to love others and I’ve been working on that ever since.
We had discovered that we are the greater mystery of life ever becoming our potential, it’s potential, and like the initiates of the temple, we found in our being “the temple of our familiar” (Alice Walker’s empowering phrase) our very own soul, once veiled by the other names given to us by those who used and abused us. The initiate learned that these false gods were powerless before our essence and whoever begins reshaping her life will be supported by a new heritage, an invisible but powerful matriarchal force who gives to us, as we add to HER. All loving and compassionate, she gathers us to her to heal again and again, as often as we need in order to free ourselves from the desert of unconscious suffering.
As poets and writers of this spiritual renaissance awakened and grew in number, we witnessed the ever-fertile variety of her expressions. Margaret Honton writes in the preface of her 1981 anthology of poems of the spirit by feminists I Named Myself Daughter and it is Good, that when she asked for submissions, she had no idea what if anything would come, and was shocked to receive thousands of submissions from over thirty states in a few weeks. [xi]
Daniela Gioseffi’s compelling collection of poetry, Eggs in the Lake emerged around the same time in 1979, celebrating the feminine in all her bodies: physical, mental and emotional. She re-introduces us to Plath’s “Sad Hag” in her original form: “Sea Hag in the Cave of Sleep”. Here we witness the stages of initiation. Moving through the ravishing elements of descent, we are taken apart and released from all that we once were, shattered and broken by ego loss, she falls down into her core:
“Words whirl her round in pools. I cling by my teeth, grinding mountains…She drops through an eternity of light. I float again. I fall calling for animals to warm her, /pleading with trees to feed me.” [xii]
Initiated, woman is drawn to nature for healing and renewal until finally:
“I come from between my own legs/ into this world,” [xiii] to be reborn.
The powerful sacred imagery of woman’s recreation of Self is mirrored in Gioseffi’s other poems as well. After coming from traditions that claimed we came from Adam’s rib, were a “Vacant, faceless” or… “Guilty since Eve… not even My hair was not my own idea, it grew from his rays… and he was the sun and everyone…” [xiv] we had to re-discover the food our souls needed for growth: “The Great Mother” who “gave milk in the beginning/she arose as a dream…and from her comes food…breath, spirit, and worlds”. [xv] She is now named as the powerful inner soul process, the work and strength needed by anyone, everyone to build a new feminine in the world.
Ms. Gioseffi often performed her poetry while belly dancing, a ritual art the balances mind and body. In her poem “Belly Dancer” we witness this dance in its original art form, as a sacred dance. The dancer, who is also a mid-wife in service, “an Etruscan priestess through whom the earth speaks…”is also a mystery (that) moves toward the altar.” [xvi] In nearly every poem, Daniela renews and heals some aspect of the feminine by passionately loving and accepting her, including those parts that were formerly taboo like menstruation and childbirth. “Her navel winks in a quiver. Amazing belly that stretches large enough to let a life grow.”[xvii] She sings of women’s sensual pleasures with lust and love in her heart, dares to call attention to our curves of flesh, venus mound and breasts, not as objects, but as life expressing itself beautifully and abundantly like Mother Nature. As we witness the effects of women’s destructive body images that drive girls to bulimia or anorexia, or learn of imbedded cultural abuses like foot binding or tribal mutilation that cut off a woman’s joy, pleasure and freedom, we can resonate when we read, “For a long time, I’ve thought of this body of mine/with agony, with curiosity and dreams…”[xviii] This body of woman, so like the body of earth, has been and still is projected upon, used and abused. Yet, she is “Mother, pagan, witch of magic birth, from whom we all suck.”[xix] Her redemption is our redemption.
In Eggs in the Lake Gioseffi also claims her equal place as creator, alongside Dante and da Vinci, despite coming from a tradition that discouraged women from school, /told a woman meant for cooking and bearing children doesn’t need education. She is ready to break free and stand on her own, separate and apart from fathers and husbands, whom I worshipped all my years” and “let you commit crimes in my name.”
(To be continued)
[i] A version of this essay was first published in She is Everywhere! An anthology of Writing in Womanist/Feminist Spirituality gathered by Lucia Chiavola Birnbaum, PH.D. I Universe, Inc. 2005 under the title, “Poet as Initiate: Reemergence of the Darkmother in Women’s Poetry in the 1970’s.
[ii] Louisa Calio, In the Eye of Balance, (New York: Paradiso Press, 1978) p.6
[iii] E. A. Wallis Budge, Osiris and the Egyptian Resurrection Vol. II (New York: Dover Publishers, 1973) p.53
[iv] Daniela Gioseffi, Eggs in the Lake, (Brockport: Boa Editions, 1979) pp. 62-63
[v] Lucia Chiavola Birnbaum, darkmother: african origins and godmothers, (Nebraska: Author’s Choice Press, i Universe 2001) pp.303-327
[vi] For a detailed article on Plath and Sexton see Louisa Calio “Rebirth of the Goddess in Contemporary Women’s Poetry” Studia Mystica Vol. VII, no. 1 (Sacramento: University of California,) pp.50-60.
[vii] Sylvia Plath, Ariel, (New York: Harper and Row, 1965) p. 26
[viii] Birnbaum, darkmother: african origins and godmothers, pp. 353
[ix] Budge, Osiris and the Egyptian Resurrection, p.232
[x] Calio, In the Eye of Balance, p. 17
[xi] I name Myself Daughter and it is Good ed. by Margaret Honton
(Columbus: Sophia Books, 1981) p. unmarked preface.
[xii] Gioseffi, Eggs in the Lake, p 46.
[xiii] Ibid., p.50.
[xiv] Ibid., p.34.
[xv] Ibid., p.55.
[xvi] Ibid., p.51
[xvii] Ibid., p.51
[xviii] Ibid., p.52.
[xix] Ibid., p.35