Incantations and Craft: Robin Skelton's Magical Artistry

By: Yvonne Owens

(Previously published in Malahat Review, Fall, 2007)

Robin always maintained he couldn't sing. Yet the first time I heard him read his poetry it was apparent that he was wrong. Cool, understated, gentlemanly -- a model of refinement and restraint -- he did sing. Like a jazz saxophonist blowing a mellow, honeyed riff -- or a crooner wooing the sounds and spaces between the words -- Robin rode time and held the long vowels. It was hypnotic to hear him read his lyrical, lightly lilting, musical poems. For Robin, as I was to discover, reading them aloud was also the purest magic.

I first met him in 1988 through the Canada Council-funded reading series I used to host at the Fran Willis Gallery on Store Street in Victoria. I'd invited him, as one of Victoria's most loved and renowned poets, to inaugurate the series with what would be his first local reading in five years. It took place on Samhain. We used one of his collages for the poster, a particularly shamanic image of a stone tool and bone wand flying through tumultuous clouds, and a very successful arts event (and, indeed, an illustrious, well-attended poetry venue) commenced. As Robin read that night, I came to appreciate the magic summoned by a true lover of words. Courting delicate concepts, teasing them into full, imagistic blossoming, he caressed the flow of syllables in a manner utterly smooth, utterly gracious. In all his public readings I subsequently attended, it was ever thus. My "poetry ear" became tuned to his quiet, genteel, suave, and deliberate renderings of perfectly chosen sounds.

Robin's delivery of poetic incantations for magical ritual, on the other hand, was another matter. Appropriately enough, his practice of witchcraft was also largely based upon the conception, shaping, composition, conduction and delivery of words, but, in ritual, Robin tended to declaim them like an orator addressing the Roman Senate or like a Druidic bard commanding the elements. His craft was mantic -- incantatory. Issuing imperatives to the Fates and the Furies, orchestrating the recalcitrant Muses, Robin owned the circular stage. No elemental, fairy, sylph or ethereal entity, no matter how fey, could evade his oracular reach. In circle, there was never any doubt; the meister was "in the house," and destiny would do well to simply deliver of its burden along the prescribed lines. The subtlety and reticence of the suave, polished courtier was nowhere to be found; confident extravagance and theatrical drama at Robin's command had taken its place.

Though staying well this side of bombast (or, horrors, of his most dire judgement of being "prolix"), Robin's magical summons had the authoritative wallop of a subpoena. You got the definite feeling that you should, like the elemental spirits, "behave" and comply. Here was the drama and tempest he kept under such refined restraint at the public podium when he read his poems. Here was a heroic, Faustian yearning for the overwhelming experience, the willingness to surrender separation and control to a worthy and passionate manifestation of the world's numinous soul. Without question, Robin was a Romantic in his pursuit of magic. More than anything else, in ritual Robin sought the "sublime" -- that ineffable overtaking of the senses, spirit, and mind. He chased the elusive, transformative moment.

This "moment" was probably obtained more often than not, as Robin repeatedly courted it with his mantic castings. Certainly, and increasingly toward the end of his life, he was rewarded in his poetry with verse that brought both poet and reader to portals and thresholds -- those liminal zones that are the stuff of magic. Often functioning as gateways to memory, these timeless "places" are the fulcra of past, present, and future realities, the points of departure for visionary excursions and shamanic journeys. Whatever his imagistic objectives with words, his destination was assured; heart and soul, Robin belonged to the Goddess. He venerated Her, challenged Her, incited Her to take him, to banish restraint, to usher him into an unreserved gnosis of the world soul. She of the many names, whether called Gaia, Sophia, or Rhiannon, was his anima, goad, and muse. His instrument and offering was poetry. The success of his long courtship can clearly be seen, and heard, in the musicality and incandescent clarity of his posthumous book, Facing the Light (Ekstasis, 2006)

It must be acknowledged that it's hard to know whether Robin's poetry issued from his magic or if his magic sprang from the invocations of his poetry. In any case, the two arts were hatched in the same nest, just as Eastern European folklorists proclaim shamans and blacksmiths to have been. These two practices were always intimately linked for Robin; his books of spells consist, for the most part, of poetic incantations and verbal summonings. His poetry books, on the other hand, very frequently addressed magical themes. His Words For Witches (Reference West, 1990) is a case in point. This small collection of charged incantations was sometimes capable of working actual devotional magic in their own right, as did A Further Spring: Love Poems (Pharos, 1996). Some volumes functioned like the laudatory monuments of Bards; the small chapbook of 1995, Three for Nick (Reference West, 1995), for example, erected the stones and spires of Robin's deceased son's crypt with a mourner's cadences.

Like the magician-poets portrayed in Arabic tradition or the poet/shamans of Siberian lore, Robin was a kind of birdman. Ebbing and flowing, describing loops and stalls, ascents and descents, he rode the aural space as cunningly as any swallow or hawk rides the air currents. But then shamans, witches, and magicians have always been likened to birds. The outlaw Robin (the "Hooded Man") and the Merlin figure represent but two of a venerable many. Though seldom compared to Robin Hood, Robin was repeatedly compared to Merlin. An instance that comes to mind is Linda Rogers' elegiac lament that was published in the newspaper after his death, where she described the sudden, gaping lack of Robin's Merlin-like presence in the Victoria streets. This, too, is a trait of magical people; their very presence is somehow numinous. Alternately, they are conspicuous by their absence. Somehow, Robin just being around promised legendary wonders from "The Witch Next Door."

People were continually showing up at the Skelton house on Victoria Street, asking for magical help for any number of spiritual or energetic ailments. Robin, more likely than not, would consult with them, then send them away with a spell that was really an incantation (which is to say, a poem), usually with some small, additional office to perform in the way of a ritual. They might also have been given a rock or bit of shell or wood to serve as a talisman. They could as easily find themselves in possession of some small trophy from Robin's inexhaustible trove of treasures scavenged from the weekly flea market hunting he undertook with his long-time collaborator and co-scavenger, Charles Lillard. (They scavenged me once, to perform this or that magical writing duty.) Like a bit of string, stone, trinket, magical personnel, or book, once scavenged there was nothing you could do; conscripted into Robin's literary, magical family, you just had to make yourself available and do your part.

Doing your part at the monthly spiritual "Gatherings" meant coming up with a presentation, from your own magical repertoire, for the group. I broke my teeth on a lecture and demonstration of the magical and healing properties of stones, getting myself into hot water with a witch who thought the vegetative realm, and not the mineral kingdom, offered the only kind of real magical effect. Such keen debate was the stuff of these gatherings; witches are apparently no less partisan about their craft than any other kind of artist. Robin simply watched it all from his deep armchair at the head of the table (if a round coffee table can be said to have a "head"). He declined to become embroiled in any verbal fisticuffs yet seemed to observe the performance of the contestants quite closely. What he was looking for, seeing, or perceiving I never knew; he remained close-mouthed on most debates, seldom rendering an opinion on the warring points of view and revealing his feelings only later in separate discussions within the family. There came a time, however, when Robin, after a particularly contentious episode perhaps, would call later in the evening when everyone had returned home, and deliver one brief rendition of his thoughts and feelings on the matter at hand. Simply and succinctly into my ear words of clarity would pour in his deadly serious, quiet, sober, and reflective "declaiming voice." His words seemed designed to head off self-doubt should I need support in what were sometimes lonely, needless battles in our contentious little community.

Magical personnel are traditionally figured as entering the world with some kind of "divine flaw" -- an "original wound" that provides the key to the nature of pain or injury he or she will have the gift to heal in others. Robin was born with a broken leg, and his gift, to countless others in all walks of life, was that of support -- whether moral, spiritual, magical, artistic, or practical. In my case, Robin's moral support was like a flying buttress to a solitary spire, providing foundational struts for aspirations, vaults for far-reaching goals. This "you're-not-alone" kind of reassurance and encouragement was a major aspect of his magical mission. To a very great degree, Robin's practice of the Craft consisted in healing spiritual and/or artistic initiative -- the will to go on with what, on occasion, could feel like a particularly thankless task. The recipients of this brand of Skelton magic were often professionally exiled or alienated writers, poets, or artists. Wiccan priests or priestesses unsure of their vocations also benefited from Robin hitting their "Reset" buttons. Brought back into the fold, they could then thrive as the artists or shamans they were meant to be.

He wouldn't refrain from disagreeing with your approach either -- for example, if he were to feel you were off base, too strident, or too shrill with your assertions. With Robin and Sylvia acting as editors for Hecate's Loom (the Pagan magazine founded by Horned Owl Publishers' Rob Von Rudloff and Briony Lake in the 1980s), I was the recipient of many a terse instruction penned in the margins of our draft copies during my stint as senior editor. Often these would suggest that I should "chill out," in so many words -- or would attempt to show me that if I really wanted to censure the work of a particularly misogynistic author, then no review at all of his book was the best revenge -- that was just too discreet for me, of course. But even with my headstrong ways, I would never buck Robin and Sylvia's mentorship. From their informal positions of "Craft Elders," their direction was constant and caring. Articles or reviews they deemed unprintable were consigned to heaps of paper hidden in the basement but not quite banished.

Anyone who ever saw Robin's lair in that basement knows the extent of his magical collections. His magpie ways resulted in towering stockpiles of fey objects and art works. He also collected magical poetries -- magically evocative verse metres, tropes, poetic traditions, and forms. His book, Earth, Air, Fire, Water: Pre-Christian and Pagan Elements in British Songs, Rhymes and Ballads (Arkana, 1990) with Margaret Blackwood, is just such a collection, as is Samhain and Other Poems in Irish Metres of the Eighth to the Sixteenth Centuries (Salmon, 1994). In the foreword to Spell Craft: A handbook of invocations, blessings, protections, healing spells, love spells, binding and bidding (McClelland & Stewart, 1978), Robin had, early on, proclaimed his conviction that, " is high time we paid more attention to the skill of spell-making and began to understand a little better the nature and use of the psychic energies we all possess." To that end, Spell Craft contained countless historic and traditional spell poems culled from across European cultures and centuries.

Jerome Rothenberg had, similarly, collected an enormous range of poetic magical forms from world culture. Called Technicians of the Sacred (Doubleday, 1969), after Mircea Eliade's earlier volume about the role of shamans, Rothenberg's book tackled the issue of the shaman as a scholarly observer, as prototypical artist from the outside. Eliade had also made his observations from the margins, and not from within the "sacred space" of ritual participation. Nor did either author necessarily share the alternative, pantheistic perception of the world as "ensouled," imbued with conscious power, or fundamentally magical. With Robin it was different: he was a witch. His loyalty to his perception and reception of magic was unswerving. His Craft was never separate from his poetry, and his poetry never strayed far from his Craft. Robin had a vocation in the "compleat" sense, an exemplar of Eliade's shamanic, a priori artist par excellence. Both letters and the Craft are better to have had him on our side.

We all tend to lose our bearings when faced with Robin's prolific creation. Trying to quantify, or to qualify, his contributions take us immediately to that liminal territory of the Witches' magical journeying. Teetering upon the threshold of "a time that is not a time, a place that is not a place," once again we contemplate the ineffable. Robin would have known a way to net that elusive quality, to compass that boundless terrain. He'd have known just what to say, what to leave unsaid.