On Thursday 20 March I will read at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, near the Magic and Ritual displays, as part of Resonant Voices.
The way I’ve been working with my readings for some time: led by each given theme/prompt/question/title, I collect clusters of thoughts, I write fragments, gather words from books, and I use time.
I use the time of my thinking and reading toward ‘the event’, I bring everything I’ve collected toward it up to that point, then I respond to whatever circumstances arise in the given place and time of my reading, and more or less improvise a new construction.
Here is a chart of texts, notes and prompts gathered so far – some as yet unwritten, some hidden, some to be completed in the next few days.
I give you an ear because you saved my ear.
I give you an eye because you saved my eye.
I give you a leg because you saved my leg.
And my foot.
And my torso.
And my heart.
But what would I give you if you saved my voice?
Magic and trial by ordeal
A hand. Cast brass amulet, against the evil eye. From Naples.
[written to be read aloud, to become breathless in reading]
The dim here always struck me. It’s dark, the dim hear as I tentatively tune in voices and whispers from the past. The dim light in the museum, the amulets against the evil eye, the empty drawers under the glass cabinets prompt me to linger in the voids and in the gaps, to imagine and recollect gestures and rituals around them: they set up a scenario and make me step into a past, in the Seventies in Southern Italy, when in dimness of memory I hear, out of the hazy layers of my recollections I hear a grainy persistent breath, a fatigued whistlebreath emitted not as a sign of life, but as the last aural sign of a life about to expire, it is my great-grandmother in her bed, not because she is ill but because she is very old, slow, at the border of life yet clings to life, poisonous and persistent like ivy my grandmother would say, lying, breathing in a dark grey room at the end of a long Sunday afternoon, when dusk comes in, in my recollections I hear the dim, recall a persistent broken sigh in the shape of a breath and then a stop, a convulsive breath and a stop, as if a rusty hook had caught that breath to prevent it from expiring, and she lies in a tall bed, maybe tall because I was little, although I later learned that bed at the time were in fact taller (to prevent mice from climbing up, or so my grandmother would say) I hear that convulsive breath as coming from an underworld of hidden whispering galleries, it is my great-grandmother’s but to my hearing it sounds as if it is the whole room breathing, and I’m left there, I can barely see her but I hear my larvae-great-grandmother disappear into her broken sigh, sighing herself into the room. Other voices are plotting next door. For some days I have been weighed down with a persistent headache and sickness. They bring her a small bowl full of water and a bottle of olive oil. She pours some drops of olive oil in the water and begins to hum, hums, a circling incantatory spell begins to coil around my hearing, then out of that bundle a tiny hand appears, withered and wiry, shadowed by wrinkles and by time, as she repeats small circular motions on my forehead with the tip of her thumb mumbles mumbles, I’m unsure if she really means anything or if she is just repeating a gesture passed on to her, soiled and half-broken, across who knows how many generations, I’m unsure whether to laugh at all this or be very serious and solemn, I am here little I listen but I don’t know what’s going on and maybe I’m not supposed to. Why is everyone suddenly so serious and solemn. Many years later I learned, in a car at night, speeding past the streetlamps at the edge of town where rubbish heaps, half-built tower blocks, concrete walls taken over by ivy and nettle bushes hide another past and another layer underground, past one of the few surviving mythraeums that nobody ever stops to visit, the light and speed and summer air taking my breath and absorbing me in that uneven mix of ritual and disillusion, of life expiring and ritual dying, of spells persisting yet changing, it all came back to me in a flash, ferocious like the heads of pigs hanging in the windows of a butcher shop to point at its deathly sales, a glimpse of something recalled in a splinter of a moment in transit, ferocious because it was her last spell before her death, later I learned I’d been subjected to a spell against the evil eye.
Three Women. A tale of magic, deterioration, listening and transmission
A skull carved on lava. Southern Italy, 1917. / The Count of Sansevero, Raimondo di Sangro. Magic underground in Naples. Gesualdo da Venosa.
On 23 September 1889 in a wing of Palazzo Sansevero in Naples, a small bridge connecting the palazzo with the family chapel collapses. The accident reawakens interest in one of the palazzo’s accursed inhabitants, Raimondo di Sangro, prince of Sansevero (1710-1771). The cause of the collapse is a water leak, but soon the rumour spreads that the night before the accident, strange noises rising from the underground vaults of the palace and sinister omens had announced the imminent ruin. The palazzo had once belonged to magus, prince and scientist, alchemist and scholar Raimondo de Sangro. A legend swarming with ghosts and a building full of voices.
A magic cord, Malta 1907 black and white tapes. Found in a mattress. / Chord or cord. Listening, reading, writing, spinning.
The empty drawers.
‘To communicate something in order to let it circulate, so that once it has been cast out to others it will come back to him/her a little more magical, like the shields of the Northwest American Indians, which are endowed with greater and greater value the more often they have been the object of ceremonial exchanges.’
Michel Leiris, Scratches.
Of objects removed.