'I Call Upon the Witches' a poetry collection by Chloe Hanks

One of my most anticipated poetry chapbook releases was Hanks’ I Call Upon the Witches published by small press Sunday Mornings at the River in 2022. I have avidly researched the concept of the witch and its historical interpretations when I was an undergrad so thinking that a poet has managed to debunk this myth and offer a new place for the thousands of women wronged and executed under patriarchal influence, stirred my heart. And for good reason. What you get from Hanks’ chapbook is a feminist manifesto, a reappropriation of the myth, only to peel it back, inch by inch, and giving it back to the rightful owners: the historical witches that were burnt, drowned or suffocated.

Reading the ‘Foreword,’ I understand that the chapbook is the poet’s dissertation project, something that sets the tone for a more academic investigation of the archetype of the witch. Chloe doesn’t only refer to the female victims of the historical craze; she explicitly states that the project is also about “the estimated of 50,000 people who have been executed under the weaponized label of the witch” and this inspires me to look forward to poems that will do justice to those victims, will reinstate their voice and agency against a backdrop that has perpetually stigmatized them. Thus, the journey to I Call Upon the Witches begins—we’re academics looking for rightful answers, historians looking for lost testimonies, and fellow witches looking for our stolen history.

The chapbook features a series of verse that rhymes and reads like songs—there’s standard imagery you’ll find in literature about witches (‘when moonlight steals the sky so black’, ‘you’ve been hexing the men like a queen’, ‘I have peered into forest fairy gatherings,’ ‘familiar, you speak to her through me,’ ‘with a serpent’s tongue,’) and historically standard proof that witches were real (‘it’s time to swim the witch,’ ‘don’t ever forget that witches were red’) Each poem connects to the previous one not only in terms of form (rhyming verses) but also of theme. There’s one narrator that uses the subjects I and you, as if one person is witnessing not only the horrors of the witch trials, but the way witches thrived and survived collectively, and this person uses the poems as an invocation. They call upon the witches of the past literally to shed light into their lives by using the cliched reactions and stock behaviour of what a witch was like in the Middle Ages, and turning it into a vibrant and multidimensional myth that makes the witches unforgettable.

Ultimately, the persona calls upon them, like a witch calls upon the Devil, a fortune-teller calls upon death, a psychic calls upon ghosts of the old, to reverse the effects of stereotyping, marginalizing, and isolating based on random and utterly arbitrary observations.

There’s poetry dedicated to figures that stood out during the witch trials; Joan d’Arc, Tituba of Salem, and Petronella while there’s a complete poem entitled ‘Maleficium’ clearly inspired by the Malleus Malleficarum or the Hammer of Witches which was published in 1487 and is considered to be the most well-known treatise on witchcraft, one that would inspired many male judges and priests of evil works among the female population.

In one of my favourite poems of the collection ‘Call on Twilight,’ the persona peers into a sacrifice by a witch’s hand. We read “your blood stains the incantation bowl/ she lapped each drop with a serpent’s tongue/ she traced your body with your own/ superficial wand, spread her poison through/ your lust, you never should have pinned/ her down, you belong to the witches now.” There’s an evident connection between bloodlust, raw passion and sexual desire, and a need for the persona to get back at male gaze, to get back at the victimizers by using the same means they used to kill innocent witches—blood will be shed because witch hunters first draw it.

Even if there’s a sort of Old Testament ethics in the whole chapbook, the ‘eye for an eye’ idea permeates emotionally charged poems like the previous one (I believe this is a subtle attempt of the poet to comment against the pretentiousness of Christian ethics at the time) we still experience how the many and different witches take back what has been stolen from them; their name, dignity and pride. In ‘The Witches Wear Red’ we read “I call upon the witches/ to see through the night/ I call upon the devils/ to set us alight/ to glow like the embers/ such hungry men fed/ and don’t ever forget/ that the witches wear red,” we understand that there’s a choice in death that the victims of these poems actively seek to repurpose their tragic life stories. And, the almost comical punch lines of poetry that wrenches your gut, like this one, make each line more memorable, and worthy of further consideration.

The persona ends with a rather tearful poem that’s called ‘Oracle,’ as if their job isn’t done yet, as if history needs more of poetry that sets new lines where old ones were drawn. We read, “and as the sun is set to rise/ the witch is void/ of this devilish tie/ she wears her necklace/ of rope with pride/ such titles removed/ she begins a new life” which invites the reader to accept the poet’s imagination of the myth of the witch as rebellious, defiant and active—at the end of the day, let the witches take their labels and dismantle them. Let them take what is theirs, own it, and break it down. Let them write their own story, their mouths longing to speak, their words in need to be passed down from generation to generation.

I want to personally ask Chloe to continue writing about witches and their stories, and to include many more witches across the world; victims of the patriarchy across South America and Asia, too. Their stories are worthy of being known and Chloe Hanks’ exquisite talent in letting them shine is unique—such an ambitious project will enhance the existing collection by paving the way for further exploration of the myth, and by inviting other poets to engage in Hanks’ poetry. What she has truly managed to create is a safe space for more work like this, more socially informed and daring poetry like her own.