The Saint of Witches by Avra Margariti fits an expansive imagining of power, its dangers and subversions, into its ninety pages. The collection makes the most of the darkness these subjects offer: it is rich, velvety, and full of gleaming teeth; its verse is incisive, reflecting and refracting through its many moments of horror to strike right at the reader’s heart. It is a horror-as-unease, the mounting fear that the world is something that cannot or will not be known and tamed—and how, in embracing that, we can give ourselves the tools not to tame it but to be a part.
These poems embrace the grotesque as an indictment of systems of bodily control—and as a source of power against them. Pieces like “My Anatomy III” and “Lessons in Autophagy” illustrate this double-sided approach. Where “Lessons in Autophagy” imagines the “clinging, starving octopus / plagued by amputation dreams” (p. 60), hiding within intergenerational lessons about abnegation and shrinking in gory detail, “My Anatomy III” takes that same bloody reduction of the body but instead of sadness reaches to bitter anger, as the speaker says they “throw my strip-teased skin into the audience / like a robe of flapping wings / and watch the rabid dogs tear it apart” (p. 58).
This moment condemns those “rabid dogs” who desire the speaker to perform this grotesque striptease, allowing the demand for access and visibility to be seen while also permitting the speaker to remain aloof on their stage: the speaker, flayed and skinless, is also “watching.” This final move is in response to the “hands reaching for their favorite freakshow attraction” (p. 58), a paired capitulation and escape. What seems like a concession to the harsh desires of the audience is also a preservation of the distance between the speaker and the ravenous beasts. The skin distracts from the whole body in a moment that reveals both the power of embracing horror and the horror of self-destruction to escape outside violence. There is, however, no mention of the pain of the removal, and instead, the “robe of flapping wings” seems like a transformation, a casting-off of skin that can be fed to beasts to become something new. Such a transformation is a chance to escape from the strictures that place the body on stage to be desired in the first place, to become a monster and leave the “rabid dogs” that watched behind.
By balancing these twin uses of the grotesque, The Saint of Witches can explore the ways that insight is built into and emerges from body horror as a way of knowing the body. The collection’s triumphs are not, though, limited to its use of blood and gore—or to its brief, image-driven poems. The Saint of Witches also makes excellent use of longer, more narrative verse. One particular favorite in this style is “The Thing About Stars,” which recounts a ritual response to a series of falling stars. As the poem continues, Margariti unfolds the horror slowly. They open with “Heady drums and bird-trill flutes” (p. 35), a joyful sound, echoed in the name “the Festival of Stars” (p. 35). As the poem continues, though, we get hints of terror: “A folk dance as much as a war song, / And I shiver in the honeyed night” (p. 35) summons fear and suppression, begins the slow, mounting realization that this Festival is felt differently by the speaker than they would like their neighbors to know. The poem builds to a searing depiction of what is hidden, the ways that safety can be dependent on hiding, even when remaining hidden comes at a cost to you and others. The slow development of the narrative allows it to draw the reader in, creating sympathy and complicity and allowing the horror of the scene—and a recognition of the times when we ourselves may have stayed safe and hidden, of the balance between guilt and necessary absolution—to sink in.
The language of these narrative poems is smooth and clear, leaning on highly effective images to generate its horror rather than on linguistic pyrotechnics. At the same time, the tools of verse are on full display, as in the beginning of the seventh verse paragraph in which Margariti puts their line breaks to work: “‘The dancers train all year,’ I tell the boy / By my side, his nails quarrying moons / And other celestial bodies into my skin” (p. 36). Look at that break after “boy,” the possibility hiding in the gaps—the enjambment (emphasized by the capital letters beginning the lines in this poem) allowing “by my side” be half-attached to “the boy” so that “the boy by my side” has “nails quarrying moons” and, “By my side, his nails [are] quarrying moons.” This balance over the break helps ramp up the tension through this segment of the poem. Similarly, the formal, even old-fashioned, capitalization scheme throughout the piece helps construct the ritual nature of the festival and the ensuing violence. These poetic devices allow the world of the falling stars to feel real and magical, to get under the skin and stick.
The technical success of this and other poems is always equally integral to the world-making and -thinking done in the collection. This becomes most visible in “Uzumaki” and “A Flame, Snuffed.” “Uzumaki,” bringing to mind Junji Ito’s manga of the same name, captures a slow unraveling during a storm, the speaker feeling as if caught in the curse of the poem’s namesake. It marks the opportunity that the page itself can offer to Margariti’s project, making striking use of space and visual structure. It ends on an image of a staircase:
Lightning and thunder fill the negative spaces of my lungs.
Foot after hoof, hand over claw—
I descend. (p. 27)
This use of space, indenting the line further each time—and this passage arrives immediately after a series of similar indents, though its indents are the deepest—visually replicates the descent along the spiral stairs, just as the shrinking line length replicates it aurally. This descent is physical, but also, traveling “foot after hoof, hand over claw,” it is a transformation into something monstrous, something that can never escape the stormy night, full of electricity and terror and danger. The force of the poem to imagine this descent, to imagine how this is simultaneously a curse and, perhaps, an opportunity (the realization that the monster descending, speaking to us, must have chosen something even as they are falling apart). This effect is bolstered by the poem’s visual and verbal structure. While the horror of the poem is effective enough on its own, as a reading experience the poem also primes us to imagine what it might mean to descend into such a labyrinth, to descend with the speaker, to consider them not only as a subject of the horrifying world of the poem but also as a potential ally or guide to navigating it as it encroaches on our own reality, at least by sharing it.
“A Flame, Snuffed” is the best example of Margariti’s use of verbal density and spectacle, and serves as the obverse of the clear narrative construction that characterizes many of the collection’s other long poems. A kaleidoscopic account of a silent horror flick/snuff film, the poem unfolds in a cavalcade of language. From the first verse paragraph it makes exquisite use of disjunction and consonance. Right before the film’s start comes
Drafty theater, lone spectator
on the edge of your vermillion velvet seat
eyes glued to the tattered screen—
countdown, granularity, it begins. (p. 47)
The ringing “v” sounds of “vermillion velvet” hum and buzz, a haunting punctuated by the solid break of “countdown, granularity.” This accumulation of detail works with the second-person voice to envelop and ground the reader in the isolated theater, composed of bits and fragments, the theater shrunk to a phrase while also surrounding the “lone spectator.” “You” are depersonalized, broken down as much as the starlet on the screen and reassembled in the building in as granular a rendering as the image on the screen. The density of the poem builds as it continues, taking advantage of repetition and the accumulation of images to construct its display. The unfinished movie echoes into the world of the poem, lodging in the body through linguistic display. Language itself comes to the forefront of the silent film, showing its world as a construction of language, material and real in its diction.
The sheer physicality of the language of this poem links the reader, the viewer, and the performer, is strangled like her aborted scream when the film reel stops. Such suffocation is vital to the poem working, allowing for the consideration of not only death, but also the construction of our world—a world which, like the potentially unreal theater, blurs the lines between performance and action, horror and desire … that asks all of us, all the time, to choose between “a brave girl or a dead girl? / A rescued girl or a martyred girl?” (p. 48), as if those distinctions are sufficient categories. And each is in turn itself categorized—by our ability to suddenly pass between them, by the predicates of their own uncertainty.
Ultimately, The Saint of Witches succeeds through its range. The collection is held together not by a tight thematic or topical commonality, but by its careful selection, organization, and creation of a shared framework. Margariti constructs an epistemology of darkness, exploring widely what can be known through it. At the heart of this structure of knowledge is a worldview that positions the underside of existence as something to know and guard against—and as a potential source of power. Our world, like the worlds of the poems, is suffused with language and with danger. The combination of a rich epistemology of horror (and its accompanying sense of being) with textured, elegant, remarkable language opens the book up to serve not as command or analysis, but as a guide. We too can learn to traverse the world under the guardianship of the saint of witches—without needing to insist on a one-to-one correspondence between our world and that guidance. This instructive disjoint is a key element in the potential that speculative genres offer. Here, this approach works because its framework is underpinned across tightly selected and widely varied poems, which explore and expand their thoughts without ever feeling repetitive. The Saint of Witches marks Margariti as a poet well worth watching, for both their craft and their ideas.