You begin a spell with an invocation like Hear me or I beseech you or Oh friend or Listen.

One of the things that can make a spell work is a description of a previous time the spell worked. The Anglo-Saxon spell æcerbot to heal barren land, for example, begins by gathering parts of every kind of tree growing there except the hardwoods and parts of every known herb except the burrs, packing them with milk and honey into four blessed clods, and burying those clods at the corners of your acreage. A spell is most effective when you want something and can remember a time it already existed.

When you hear someone say Medusa was hideous with hair full of snakes, that is some xenophobic assholery by people who lived on the other shore of the Mediterranean Sea. When you hear she was a dangerous and vengeful witch, that means she was as measured in the congressional hearings on the subject of known-rapist Poseidon as any woman so subpoenaed always is. When you hear the corals of the Red Sea formed after Perseus set Medusa’s head down for a moment on a bed of seaweed that had washed ashore, there were years I thought all the world was a Gorgon cave and I was already made of stone.

In a way that felt like corals being born into the sea, a person who loved me reached across to touch my wrist.

Though anthropological linguists caution against calling everything you don’t understand magic, what doesn’t feel possible when reading the Babylonian spells carved out of the oldest written language? Whether thou art a ghost that hath come from the earth, or a phantom of night that hath no couch…or a ghost unburied, or a hag-demon, or a ghoul…or a weeping woman that hath died with a babe at the breast….There is so little of what the people who invented writing wrote that every fragmented word of a busted stone tablet seems to be a spell. Whatever thou be until thou art removed, until thou departest from the body of the man, thou shalt have no water to drink. Thou shalt not stretch forth thy hand.

I was trying to understand the space between what seems possible and what can happen, when I read The Prose of the World, in which the phenomenological linguist Maurice Merleau-Ponty points out that language itself is the spell. “There is no inner life,” he wrote, “that is not a first attempt to relate to another person. In this ambiguous position, which has been forced on us because we have a body and history (both personally and collectively), we can never know complete rest.”

Another word for the space between us is chiasm; neurobiologists use it to describe the anatomical region in the brain between the left and right hemispheres where neural fibers from the eyes interweave to form a single vision.

Medusa was brought into being by two chthonic monsters of the archaic world. Phorcys was the first merman and father of crabs. Ceto is the mother of whales.

I thought I was falling in love, but really I was so full of fury I didn’t even know the half of it. My friend who believes in love and wants me to keep believing too read me HD’s “Notes on Thoughts and Vision” over the phone: “It is a closed sea-plant, jelly-fish or anemone. Into that over-mind thoughts pass and are like fish swimming under clear water….There is, then, a set of super-feelings. These feelings extend out and about us; as the long floating tentacles of the jelly-fish reach out and about him.” Her voice crossed a thousand miles to reach me in the cave at the bottom of my ear.

Maybe jellyfish were the spell I was looking for, she said, and that seemed possible too, because of how my mind and my body felt like tentacles longing to really be tentacles. Loricas, like caims, runes, and incantations, are litanies that make a circle. The word lorica, like the word caim, can be translated as shield or armor. I was such a lorica of busted coral reef.

Eventually the goddess Athena took possession of Medusa’s head, which could still turn you to stone with nothing more than a glance across the chiasm, and she placed it on her shield.

“Whether speaking or listening, I project myself into the other person, I introduce him into my own self. Our conversation resembles a struggle between two athletes in a tug-of-war. The speaking ‘I’ abides in its body. Rather than imprisoning it, language is like a magic machine for transporting the ‘I’ into the other person’s perspective,” writes Merleau-Ponty.

In runes, the letters are words but also the letters control the tenor of the spell, as in you must sing them, perhaps in a falsetto. Such a spell is about speaking out loud what was written in silence. The German root for rune means whisper. Derivatives appear in other languages as secret, mystery, speech, to speak, to cut with a knife, poem.

I speak to the gulls every morning when I pass them on my circle over the cliffs because I know I’m not going to leave my mind to live like a jellyfish in some starry pelagic zone where you can’t find the beginning or end of your body. Except when I have and except when I do.

Merleau-Ponty urges us to keep trying to listen and trying to say what we mean. Stay with it long enough, he reassures, and you will come to understand “human languages are informed not only by the structure of the human body and the human community, but by the evocative shapes and patterns of the more-than-human terrain.”

When Perseus beheaded Medusa, the Pegasus she had been carrying flew forth from her body and passed through the whole sky in orbiting astonishment at how far this blue world goes. Her offspring, winged and airy and free, gazed upon weary and trembling Atlas, then, in Pegasus’s only recorded act of magic, turned the giant to stone. Which is one way to explain how it is I am still here, trying to understand the meanings and the possibilities inherent in every word that passes between us.

Kathryn Nuernberger

Kathryn Nuernberger is the author of three collections of poetry, most recently RUE (BOA, 2020), as well as the essay collections, Brief Interviews with the Romantic Past (Ohio State University Press, 2017) and The Witch of Eye (Sarabande Books, forthcoming in 2021). A recipient of fellowships from the NEA, American Antiquarian Society, Bakken Museum of Electricity in Life, H. J. Andrews Research Forest, she teaches in the creative writing program at University of Minnesota.

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