Poetry & Ritual
An Essay in Verse by CAConrad, on Memory, Ritual, and Survival
“I wrestled with death as a
threshold, an aporia, a bandit,
a part of life”
“The poem is restorative, rather
for Anne Waldman
Creating a poem is more important
to me than having written poems.
The rituals where the writing
occurs are capable of connecting
us to all consciously enacted
ritualistic behavior from the
past and future.
To me it is the opposite of time
travel, it is the halting of
time, it is the collapsing of the
walls separating us from where we
have been, where we are going,
And this is in the best sense of
the word “ritual,” the ritual to
find the energy lines under our
feet and fire rituals to
acknowledge the mysterious and
fastened 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit
inside every human being no
matter where we live.
It is through our connection to
ritual where the experience is
horizontal, where we can imbibe
with everyone living and dead and
with people yet to be.
The poet Robert Desnos has a
line, “the living and the dead
give in and wave to me”
This is a place where poetry is
capable of taking us, a real
place where all of time is
“the living and the dead give in
and wave to me”
A line written by a man who wrote
poems as a prisoner in several of
Hitler’s concentration camps,
starving and sick, but with
poetry as his strength.
Please wave to Robert Desnos
right now, wherever you are wave
to him, he had a hard time
getting to know that line, far
harder than most poets ever will.
If you did not wave was it
because you thought it was stupid
to wave to a dead poet, or maybe
you are just shy?
If you waved did you see a hand
wave back to you?
In ancient goddess-centered
cultures there was a tremendous
amount of art being made and of
all those artifacts we cannot
find a single name of an artist.
That has always said to me that
they believed we are all artists,
contrary to our competitive
systems of art in the deeply
assimilated monotheistic male
power structure of today.
When God is male and He is all-
powerful, and He is too good for
a lower-case h, this sends an
indelible message to young minds
trying to understand how they fit
in the world as male and female.
One Sunday at church with my
grandmother when I was still a
boy the preacher’s sermon focused
on an environmental activist
group pressuring the county to
start a recycling program for our
plastic and glass bottles.
They came to our school to show
us pictures of landfills and told
us how the animals, soil, water
and air are being damaged by our
wastefulness and pollution.
But the preacher didn’t agree
with the activists and that
Sunday his refrain was, “DON’T
THEY KNOW JESUS IS COMING!?”
until everyone was laughing and
saying it with him.
“Why are they laughing?” I asked
myself, because endless garbage
landfills seemed terrifying,
nothing funny about it.
Heaven is all that matters he
told us, God gave us this planet
with its animals and resources to
use as we wished until we meet
Him in His glory of Heaven.
Later at home I told my mother
about the sermon and that
everyone laughed, why did they
laugh I wanted to know?
“Because they’re a bunch of
selfish pigs,” she told me.
A ruthless, racist, misogynistic,
homophobic, fearful, litterbug,
wasteful, ungrateful, stingy, war
hungry, bloodthirsty, terrified
male fist is upon our world.
Our society as we live it is
antipathetic to any form of
natural aging and death, yet we
build sophisticated weapons that
can kill millions of people in
Military and health are contrary
concerns, which seems obvious but
instead many are oblivious.
It is important for those of us
who are actively creative to
encourage others to find their
own creativity because our very
survival depends on it, maybe now
more than ever.
One day in the concentration camp
Robert Desnos and other prisoners
were loaded onto a flatbed truck
by the German guards, and then
the truck started to drive
through the camp.
At some point Desnos figured out
that they were on their way to
the gas chambers.
Because he was a poet, because he
was a person who was devoted to
his creative core, he was the one
on the truck who could figure
As the guards started to unload
the prisoners Desnos grabbed his
fellow inmates’ hands, loudly and
vivaciously reading their palms,
“YOU madam will have a VERY long
life with grandchildren, and YOU
sir will retire with long
BEAUTIFUL evenings watching
sunsets with your wife!”
I’m inventing what Desnos exactly
said, but you get the gist of it.
The guards became confused.
Then they were upset.
Then they felt remorse.
The poet had found a way past
their armor to force them to see
the prisoners as real live human
beings and the guards loaded
everyone back onto the truck and
sent them back to their barracks.
The survivors have talked about
the poet Desnos figuring out how
to keep them alive.
Tell THAT story at your local
school board meeting the next
time they try to cut art programs
from your children’s lives!
Poetry saved those people that
day there is no doubt about it.
It is poetry that kept Desnos
sharp and observant of
everything around him.
It is a heroic story.
But I also wonder about the rest
of the day and evening for those
Did Desnos’s message stick?
You are causing tremendous pain.
We are alive and can feel pain.
And now you are feeling pain too.
Is this what we are going to
always do with our lives?
Desnos is a startling example of
how crucial nurturing our
creativity can be.
Creative people are survivors.
And rituals can lead us to seeing
the creative viability in
everything around us.
I am American but my
family lineage is in Ireland and Denmark
and I was also raised in a
Pennsylvania Dutch community
where I was fortunate to have had
grandmothers who still spoke of
talismans and protections drawn
into magic squares with ink you
Rituals kept quietly intact
through centuries of raw
Christian brutality toward women
who knew they could bend energy.
Rituals like drawing a Sator
Formula and holding my
grandmother’s hand while
observing the work of our local
water diviner informed my poetry
from the beginning, but it is
only in the past ten years that I
have consciously returned to a
place of ritual for the poems.
(Soma)tic poetry rituals I call
them, rituals to be built
anywhere we stand, to be joyous,
to exalt love, or to invade the
most depressing, tedious parts of
our lives to expose the magic.
In Crete there is an ancient
hypogeum, an underground chamber
where the dead were buried and
where pregnant women conjured the
spirits of these dead so that
they could enter the bodies of
their unborn children.
I created a (Soma)tic poetry
ritual to honor my boyfriend
Tommy who died of AIDS and to
ease my melancholy.
In January I made two tiny
snowmen for each of us and kept
them in the freezer.
We used to time our lunch breaks
so we could meet in the park
halfway between our stupid jobs.
To eat food while holding
someone’s hand is a marvelous
experience, the molecules of the
food eventually becoming the
cells of the clasping fingers,
and becoming the brain tissue
holding the memory of the clasp.
I visited that park and the
bookstore where he used to work
and the grocery stores and his
clinic and his pharmacy and wrote
letters to him at each place,
then read the letters to our
snowmen back home.
We have experiences, but then we
also have the memories of those
experiences where thinking about
them becomes a new experience.
The experience of remembering
inside the ritual can fold a
crease in the pain; can loosen our
jaws for the poems.
After Tommy’s death I grew closer
to our mutual friend Earth until
he and I became lovers.
A few years later in 1998, just
days after we talked on the
phone, Earth was found murdered
in a cave near the rural
Tennessee queer community where
he tended the gardens.
His death tore a hole in me.
But then the police told everyone
his death was a suicide, and
nothing could prepare me for
these brutal men with their
threats, the sheriff calling me
Faggot like it was my name, “You
just stay in Philadelphia and
learn to keep your mouth shut,
you hear me Faggot?”
Yes, Faggot heard you, and still
hears your big stupid mouth.
Earth was bound, gagged,
tortured, covered in gasoline and
One of the paramedics said that
his pants were around his ankles.
This was left out of the initial
report because it clearly
indicates sexual assault.
The police were very busy ruling
his death a suicide and if you
are trying to cover up a homicide
it would probably be important to
leave out the rape.
For some reason, maybe to protect
my already overwhelmed mind, I
never imagined that his killers
had raped him, but now we know
that they did, only adding to the
horror playing out in our minds
of what he had endured.
Either the police knew who killed
him and they were protecting the
killers, or did not want to deal
with a Hate Crime in their
jurisdiction, or just hated
faggots and thought that he
deserved to die, and I am not
sure which of these fits but I
need to keep reminding myself
that this is a battle among the
living, as weird as it may sound
it is important to remind
ourselves we are the living.
Recently I was teaching (Soma)tic
poetry rituals at a university
and several of the students asked
me, “Do poets need to be
miserable to write?”
If misery was a motivating factor
there is no way I would be caught
writing poems for 36 years.
We can have poetry exactly the
way we want it, and it can do far
more than we allow ourselves to
believe it has the power to do.
Poetry saved my life and I do not
care how grand that sounds, it is
true, but in the case of Earth’s
murder it took three tries to
finally feel whole again.
The first of the three rituals
was a time machine titled
“DOUBLE-Shelter” that I enacted
while staying at my friend Joshua
Beckman’s apartment in Seattle.
The ritual was very intricate,
but the main maneuver involved
stretching my body on the floor
to listen to Philip Glass’s song
“Music In Contrary Motion.”
Glass was the perfect vehicle for
time travel, to meditate back to
My dream that night after the
ritual was of Earth in a
beautiful garden, but he could
not see me.
The flowers started to talk, not
with mouths, but their centers
mashed up and down as they told
me he could not see me because he
was busy repairing.
Life on the planet had been very
hard on him they explained,
especially at the end.
The resulting poem was quotes I
gave to the flowers, “crying in
private helps no one / touch a
gill of light down there / never
use ‘permanent’ in a sentence
containing a noun / if dancing is
prohibited LEAVE at once”
This ritual was a small window of
relief, but I was convinced the
depression could be driven further from me.
Poetry as exorcism, as purifier,
it felt possible.
The second ritual was titled, “I
Loved Earth Years Ago.”
In this one I visited the
locations of some of our rogue
gardens we had planted together
in Philadelphia’s vacant lots and
We used to throw flower, squash,
watermelon, string bean and
marijuana seeds among weeds then
make love, ejaculating on the
I found an enormous morning glory
vine on a fence that I am
convinced was from our seeds.
It was nice seeing those flowers
with their deep violet hue set
against an abandoned, boarded up
home in a yard filled with
garbage and broken glass.
In another part of this ritual I
meditated on the origins of every
ingredient I put into my mouth
for a week.
For instance when chewing
delicious raspberries I would
stare at a photo of a raspberry
shrub, and sometimes fields had
webcams so I could watch a sudden
gust of wind rub its hand along
the tops of wheat and corn.
I would chew while looking at the
magic of our world, all the
sunlight, rain, wind, all the
insect, bird and coyote songs
that enter the plants as they
grow, later to be chewed by us,
chewing all of this alchemy we
I felt much better after this
ritual but the third one was the
one that changed my life, titled
“Mount Monadnock Transmissions.”
The last time I saw Earth alive
he gave me a small clear quartz
crystal that he had been carrying
around for a year.
After his death I put it away, it
deeply pained me to see it.
Once in awhile I would find it by
accident and the rest of my day
would be consumed with thoughts
of Earth and anger at the police.
The MacDowell Artist Colony
accepted my application for a
residency and I brought the
crystal with me.
In my little studio in the woods
I put the crystal under my hair
wrap, pressed to my third eye.
I was also eating a smaller,
round clear quartz crystal each
day that I would later fish out
of the toilet and sterilize to be
For a decade and a half I had an
angry movie in my head.
The sheriff who called me Faggot
and threatened to arrest me was
always part of this.
My movie tortured me, playing on
a loop, complete with courtroom
drama where Earth’s killers were
finally captured and I could see
the backs of their heads and I
sat in the room trying hard to
not scream because in the movie
the judge is always threatening
to throw me out of the room for
screaming and throwing things at
After doing ritual with Earth’s
crystal for over a week the movie
disappeared, it went away and has
Poetry led me to this and I am
grateful, and relieved.
The serial poem from the ritual
is titled “Sharking Of The
Birdcage,” and it feels lucky to
have gotten to a place of solace.
Under the power of Earth’s
crystal came the lines, “nothing
now but a / medieval barking
gargoyle / whoever gave you the
tambourine shall / be sheriff of
my tender zoo / I am not here / I
am in the future / where I have
always been / please hurry back
and forth to / kiss me my ghost”
The power of poetry has not
failed me like it has failed some
poets in recent decades who hoist
philosophy to buttress the poem.
It is misogynistic to say poetry
is too feminine, too weak, needs
a man’s ideas to move forward.
Love philosophy, go ahead, I am
not the least bit anti-
intellectual I simply do not need
philosophy to make poetry appear
Sigmund Freud said, “Everywhere I
go I find a poet has been there
Not philosopher, but poet.
And you can have whatever
feelings you want about Freud but
no one can disagree that he
changed how we view the landscape
of human emotion and the origins
“Everywhere I go” is bold.
It is direct and from a man
who was as careful with his words as
Eileen Myles says “I pick up a
book and / another book and
memory / and separation seem to /
be all anyone writes / about.”
Rituals can reconnect us to one
another and the natural cycles of
life and help put an end to our
alienation from the planet.
I completely believe in the
strength of poetry.
And I have experienced how the
rituals for creating poems has
the power to change us in ways we
have yet to fully explore.
Headlands Center for the Arts