(Essay 2 Part 2) Poet as Initiate: A Rebirth of the Goddess & The Darkmother in Women’s Poetry in the 70’s by Louisa Calio


Ntozake Shange did the same work of redemption when she created her choreopoem in the San Francisco Bay area: For Colored Girls who have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf. Performing her sacred rite in bars, cafes, galleries, women’s studies departments and other spots, this modern-day ritual would eventually emerge on Broadway in 1976 at the Booth Theater produced by Joe Papp. Seven women dressed in rainbow colors shared their stories, their loves, music and some of the grief of black women in a wilderness of human relationships where friends are capable of rape and husbands of murdering their children. 

Perhaps the collective work had begun to stabilize our new vessel, because although there was great suffering, there was also great healing.  For Ntozake’s Lady in Brown, another Goddess of Egypt, Schetia, comes to heal the wounds of woman in the inner city during desperate hours of darkness and brutality, rape, cruelty and murder.  Lady in Red, whose children are murdered by their raging father is herself close to suicide when she says, “i sat up one nite…screamin/cryin/the ghost of another woman…i wanted to jump outta my bones/ & be done with myself.”[1]

But she, like each woman in the story rediscovers,
“I waz missin something/ somethin so important/ something promised

a layin on of hands/ fingers near my forehead…making me whole…pure…/

all the gods comin into me layin me open to myself…

not my mama/holding me tight…not a layin on of bosom & womb/

A holiness of myself released”[2] (emphasis mine).
Then before the world, Lady in Red once again utters what I still believe is the most revolutionary and blasphemous words of power I have heard to date:
“i found god in myself and I loved her

i loved her fiercely” [3]  (emphasis mine)
Those words of power at that moment in time, like the words Isis took from Ra, expressed woman’s most profound longing, as well as her greatest fear and ultimate realization. Cursed for ages as the cause of humanity’s fall, burdened by historical roles that undervalued and blamed, she was like Nature, deeply feared and mistrusted and abused until she claimed her truth and recognized her divine nature. Lady in Brown spoke for the dark mother within all of us when she invited us to, “sing a black girl’s song/to know herself/to know you/…sing her song of life/ she’s been dead so long/ closed in silence so long/she doesn’t know the sound/of her own voice/her infinite beauty.” [4] (emphasis mine)

At last the initiate need die only a psychic death and thus can be redeemed and live again. She need not be physically sacrificed to “Big Daddy” or suffer in silence ever again. Instead, life’s ordeals were a preparation and with the help of grace and spirit and the love of the dark Mother, she experiences divinity directly:
“the sun wrapped me up swingin rose light everywhere/

the sky laid over me like a million men/   I waz cole/ I was burin up/

a child & endlessly weavin garments for the moon wit my tears…

i found god in myself and I loved her.” [5]


Other women poets began speaking their truth, even when truth was “unsweet, unladylike, unpalatable;” in fact, truth called for a new clarity that took us to the highest while facing all that was unloved, disowned and in the dark within and outside.

A state away in Connecticut, while Shange was developing the final stages of her choreopoem, I was creating a ritual production that moved from south street in Philadelphia to Hartford and then the Educational Center for the Arts in New Haven Connecticut to make the words I had written live and become part of the life of our community. Symbols were no longer outside. They emerged spontaneously from an inner reality, a deep well spring that had always lived there and which I had just discovered or remembered. Owning the Goddess within was a giant step for those of us raised in traditional religion, where God often appeared cold, distant, and judgmental or at best in the hands of important male interlocutors. Like Normandi Ellis describes in her profound spiritual sojourn, Dreams of Isis, “To live within the myth consciously is already to live eternally, for in order to do so, one must recognize that the local self is temporal, impermanent and will die.” [6]

Like Shange, I found it necessary to create a stage production with music, art and dance and later would joyfully discover this too was part of my lost Sicilian/Neapolitan heritage. With the help of a forward-looking Connecticut Commission on the Arts and a grant we received, I joined with Yale art school graduate, Terry Lennox, whose magnificent 15 foot icons graced the stage with color and powerful imagery that evoked the primordial, jazz musician/composer Oliver Lake and guitarist, singer Michael Gregory whose angelic voice is renowned, dancer, actress Purity Smothers and Rachel Ellner to create a modern-day rite that expressed a soul hunger. Women and men of varied ages wept at times, when they heard their own longing echoed, “Waiting, waiting. I’ve been waiting, for you for ages, for millenniums, and still you haven’t gotten here.” [7]

Women sighed as we addressed our male counterpart who was “wounded, bleeding and scarred,” asking that he wear his wounds openly, not as “medals or emblems of war!” [8] The performances brought into our communal body and into our own physical body/mind, what we had all lost in lop-sided patriarchy as well as a new door to recovery:  co-operation and balanced androgyny:
“You can build me, / as I build you/ to make us whole again/

we who were torn to shreds by world machines

that break human beings into pieces…/

to turn the wheels, turn the cogs of whose machines/

not yours, not mine/ not for our life forces…

We can reshape humankind this time!”[9]
When I performed at Connecticut Hospice in Branford, whirling in the hope of a new millennium with the Tapestry Dance Co., people who were close to transition, the most sensitive audience I have ever experienced, helped me to better understand the primordial depths I was voicing.

As Diane di Prima, I discovered awakening was only the beginning, initiation a first step. We had envisioned a potential that still needed to be grounded in matter. The dark mother stays “close to the secrets of the earth”[10] to bring the divine into matter.  After the initial encounter, we needed time for reflection and integration, to make personal what is archetypal, and to live concretely what is an ideal.

In her powerful and enchanting Goddess song, Loba (1978), Diane di Prima uses an array of startling imagery and myth to awaken us to a cornucopia of images of the divine feminine. Her ancient ties to nature, expressions through history, well as simple everyday working girl aspects are expertly woven though each poem. The book is divided into VIII sections preceded by a quotation or meditative focus that introduces the grouping of poems. Opening with an Ave or invocation she calls us to gather not only of lost parts of the self, but all our sisters together.

“Oh, lost moon sisters/ crescent in hair, sea underfoot/ in tattered shawl/… in green leaf…do you wander…on Bleecker Street…Rampart Street, on Fillmore Street…jaywalking, spitting do you wander, mumbling and crying do you wander…”[11]

Loba, the Goddess of our lost or submerged wildness, is the primal parts of the Self connected with the earth and cycles of nature, which we long to be reunited with. Graced with evocative drawings by Josie Grant, we get to meet our instinctual, animal selves. The wolf is known for its strong ties to the pack and family; yet is also a wild, untamed creature.  In Di Prima’s collection, the Loba takes on mythic dimension, the shamanic quest in multi-dimensional aspects associated with ancient symbols of feminine wisdom: crystals, pyramids, moonstones, and pearls appear with other tools of the conjurer. When needed, Loba is also ferocious and murderous. She evokes the Kali imagery of India’s Goddess of destruction, “baring her wolf’s teeth” when she grins.

Loba is equally tied to Eve and Lilith, but as valued ancestors, and to countless other legendary figures, as well ordinary women in their mortal desires and suffering. Like the dark mother, wolf woman wears all guises from Guinevere and Miriam to a blood-sucking bat. She is the void, though not empty, ever full and replenishing and above all Named! Nothing is omitted, not a single aspect left out from the shocking to the mundane. She is the all-inclusive deity, who says, “Enter here, you are all my children.”[12] Di Prima’s endless “sketches” of the Loba by implication say that we are everything, and that everything is sacred and the sacred includes all, including the humble mother who serves:  “Is it not in yr service I wear myself out/ running ragged among these hills, driving children to forgotten movies? In yr service broom & pen.”[13] All work, whether art, the craft, or traditional woman’s work, is given renewed meaning, not perhaps by awards committees, the media, or financial giants, but what are these when compared to HER who knows all contributions are of equal value whether glamorous or simple?

Claiming the feminine in all guises, Diane di Prima’s long song for the dark mother profoundly and brilliantly names her in all her wetness, wildness, boldness and daring, as well as in her terrified, fearful, and victimized moments, as pagan, witch, crone or Christ like. She reminds us from the opening AVE, that the work of the initiate is never complete:

“I am you/ and I must become you/ I have been you and I must become you.

      I am always you/ and I must become you.” [14]

In those paradoxical lines, we understand the mystery of initiation, not a single moment of enlightenment, but an evolutionary process which unearths our essential nature, time and again; so we may continue to renew, reintegrate, regenerate, again and again, what we have learned from plunging into the depths of our soul, our psyche, for both the growth of the self and the larger community.

Like Di Prima and eventually many others who were initiated by powerful archetypal forces, we find a healing of the individual often takes place and when it does, she may return bearing a gift for the collective. Loba closes with a poem entitled, “Now born in uniqueness, join the Common Quest.” [15] What better call is there for the work?  We have many more voices to guide us today, wonderful, beautiful and powerful voices, like Lucia Chiavola Birnbaum, Normandi Ellis, Jean Houston, Alice Walker, Starhawk … and the paintings and sculptures like those of Terry Lennox, Susan Seddon Boulet and Susan Clare and men as well, like David Spangler and David Whyte who offer depth history, depth psychology, art and a poetry of initiation at a time when we so need it. But no matter the guides, the journey remains an individual effort. Goddess Bless all those who dare to discover the dark mother within and return to share her gifts with the collective.


The Rites of Isis

While oppression called society rules

And puts a clamp on every human with a soul

For the sake of appearances

While some men still speak of domestic tranquility

We witness the birth of the raging female soul.

Our once beloved Eve-returns to Isis to speak:

“Cannot I make myself mistress of the earth

And a goddess like Ra in heaven and on earth?”

Cannot I make myself, make myself ?

                                                     (Egyptian Book of the Dead)


Shedding the yoke of centuries

She begins anew

As the snake who sheds its skin

Close to the secrets of the earth she stays

Leaving behind the guilt

Leaving behind the myths

Leaving behind the lies

To rot and decay

As apples fallen

In the heat of day

From an old and dying tree.


Now, when danger lurks on every street

She dares to walk

This Isis dates to meet

What some would keep her hidden from

Unapproachable blaze

Purifying fire, searing the very dirt from concrete

She is feared by all

Save those who wear the red glow.


She is the woman who moves with speed and grace

She is You

She is me

She is our mothers, mothers, mothers’

Murmurings, chantings, hummings

All her days

Those long nurtured, long suppressed Poems

That now pour out as torrential rains

Through the spaces of her tightly clenched teeth,

She is Unsweet

She is unpalatable

She is unladylike

Yet, she is the seer

She is the soothsayer

Not quite masculine, not quite feminine

Not quite in between

Isis, Isis, Isis

Your time is here.[16]

Louisa Calio In The Eye of Balance, New York:  Paradiso Press, 1978.

(End of the Essay)
Meet Mago Contributor, Louisa Cailo.


End Notes

[1]Ntozake Shange, For Colored Girls who have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf, (New York: Macmillan, 1979) p. 63.

[2] Ibid, p.60-62

[3] Ibid, p.63.

[4] Ibid, p.4.

[5] Ibid, p.63.

[6]Ellis, Normandi. Dreams of Isis, a Woman’s Spiritual Sojourn( Illinois: Theosophical Publishing  House, 1995).p.20.

[7] Calio, p.20.

[8] Ibid, p22

[9] Ibid, p35-37.

[10] Ibid, p.5

[11] Diane Di Prima, Loba (Berkeley: Wingbow Press 1978) Ave preface unnumbered

[12] Birnbaum, p.353

[13]Di Prima, p. 168

[14] Ibid, Ave unnumbered

[15] Ibid, p. 187

[16] Calio, p.5-6