Transformation & Divination: Maggie O’Sullivan’s In the House of the Shaman

‘To stress the idea of transformation and of substance. This is precisely what the shaman does in order to bring about change and development; his nature is therapeutic.’

Maggie O’Sullivan uses this quote from Joseph Beuys as an epigraph to the second section of her book In the House of the Shaman (1993).

The book is titled after an assemblage O’Sullivan made in 1987 and alludes to a series of Beuys’ works in the 1960s which also refer to ‘Houses of the Shaman’. Beuys often adopted the role of shaman in his works and O’Sullivan’s references to Beuys highlight the shamanic qualities of her poetry too. The shaman, through trance rituals, is able to practise divination and healing, both practices of change and transformation. Scott Thurston discusses O’Sullivan’s connections to shamanism in his essay ‘Maggie O’Sullivan: Transformation and Substance’.


Maggie O’Sullivan, In the House of the Shaman (1987)

In what ways might poetry and shamanism be connected as processes of transformation? I was interested in the way Dorian Greenbaum, in the essay ‘Arrows, Aiming and Divination: Astrology as a Stochastic Art’ (in Patrick Curry, ed., Divination: Perspectives for a New Millennium), links divination to poetry as a stochastic art, drawing on the Greek etymology of ‘stochastic’ meaning to aim at, conjecture or guess. Like an archer shooting an arrow, the astrologer aims for an accurate prediction but cannot know for certain if she will make a ‘hit’. In fact, Greenbaum suggests stochastic arts tend to be more successful if one ‘aims without aiming’, not trying to get a hit. She goes on to connect divination to poetry in the function of metaphor: the making contiguous of two things that are sequent but not consequent. Astrology, she says, makes contiguous celestial pattern and terrestrial occurrence, bringing them together in a way similar to a poet bringing together two things in a metaphor.

The therapeutic aspects of poetic transformation were highlighted by Tamara Dellutri and Nia Davies in their seminar ‘Forcing Change: Disruption, Transformation and the Poetic‘ at Glasfryn, Llangattock (12/11/16). Drawing on Lacanian psychoanalysis they discussed how transformation brings about a change in the analysand. Like the shaman, the analyst aims to bring about change and development; her nature is therapeutic. Homing in on language as the materiality of jouissance, she uses disruptive techniques to generate disorientation in the subject in order to effect some shift at the level of the body. This may be similar to the effect of a poet’s transformations through language, making it therapeutic like shamanism is said to be by Beuys.


In ‘Social Resonance through the work of Joseph Beuys’ (collected in Imperfect Fit), Allen Fisher makes clear the metaphoric nature of Beuys’ transformations: ‘Beuys’s worldview can be simplified as a concern to present transformations and begin the process of transforming those involved… In the first place, his materials are chosen with a view to metaphoric ramifications… In the second place, the arrangement of his material transforms his complex range of explorations… Yet, like the materials themselves, his displays also carry both metonymic and metaphoric resonances…’

Fisher highlights Beuys’ use of metaphor as his transformative method. Beuys takes materials and transforms them metaphorically and symbolically, so that they become or stand for something else. He made repeated use of certain materials, such as fat and felt, which had symbolic resonance for him.

Fisher stresses that the symbolic transformation often occurs through the arrangement and combination of the different materials in Beuys’ sculptures. He offers as one example the felt squares partly covering the ash tree in ‘Snowfall’. In this sense it is akin to astrology’s bringing together of two or more things that are sequent but not consequent.

Joseph Beuys, Snowfall (1965)

Fisher also points out that transformation takes place in the viewer. Shamanism, astrology and other forms of divination aim for some transformative change or healing and likewise an artwork can change the way we look at things and the way we live. ‘The interpretive component, and therefore the interpreter,’ Greenbaum states, ‘is essential’. She stresses the ‘unique interplay between astrologer and client which involves a dance between the needs of the client and the intuition and skill of the astrologer.’

Likewise Beuys’ artwork is produced partly through the interpretative participation of the viewer. As in Greenbaum’s account of astrological divination, Beuys’ approach could be called stochastic; in his art he shoots an arrow and he does not know if it will hit because, as in divination, it depends on its reception with the viewer.

For this reason it is never easy to isolate exactly what a single work by Beuys represents symbolically. ‘His use of fat, for instance,’ Fisher explains, ‘can mean warmth and healing power; it can mean softness and the mammalian; fat is chaotic and in flux as its grease penetrates a wall or a page.’ This seems indicative of the way in which metaphor functions in O’Sullivan’s poetry as well. She does not tend to be described as a typical metaphor poet and in reading her poems I don’t usually feel directed towards symbolic interpretations.

As an example, here is the poem ‘To Our Own Day’ from In the House of the Shaman:

Mean owl face to the bone of a blue winged
it made shine dully molten
Singz Iz Heard
Toyz Iz Uz magician
Uz lutely tongeth
breaks in rock,
Uz ill’s horn
paw mouthing
innards on stick
leathern stoop
in passage –
Prised linings, Great Milks occur/
Blood. Blizzard Multiples
Blazed, Blades (flown)
cloaka Bones,
a branding math-smudge,
a common stuff, big broke dialleries on

There are clearly metaphoric resonances at work here. The abstract noun ‘filth’ is metaphorically given bones and blue wings. ‘Shine’ also seems to be treated as a noun here rather than a verb and is described as being made ‘dully molten’. To describe a shine as ‘molten’ is also metaphoric, rendering light as liquid.

Yet it is difficult to determine exactly what comparison is made; it is difficult to pin down what is figure and what is ground. How then does metaphor operate in this poetry and what might it tell us about language and astrology?

Greenbaum provides a definition of metaphor as a specific form of analogy that melds two things together. She cites the literal meaning of metaphor: to carry across, transfer, translate. Metaphor is an image carried across from one thing to another.

She suggests that this is also how astrology and other forms of divination operate. The astrologer makes a connection between the physical configurations of the stars and human events, a metaphor between celestial pattern and terrestrial occurrence.

Metaphor works on the ability to see an image that makes contiguous two things that are not, two things that are sequent but not consequent. Because of her ability to move quickly, to be ‘metabletic’ (able to be transported) the poet/diviner is able to put contiguous and similar instantly together, no matter what their actual (chronological or spatial) distance. Ricoeur reminds us that ‘to transfer is to ap-proximate, to suppress distance’ (Rule of Metaphor).

This is the kind of metaphor described by Pierre Reverdy when he comments that ‘The image is a pure creation of the spirit. It cannot be born of a comparison but of the bringing together of two realities which are more or less remote. The more distant and just the relationship of these two realities, the stronger the image – the more emotive power and poetic reality it will have.’ (Nord-Sud, March 1918, quoted in Waldberg, Surrealism)

The strongest metaphors are the most distant, not comparisons but collisions of realities. O’Sullivan’s method is to magnetise semantically distant words together. Her taut, minimal lines draw words into each other to maximise resonances of shock and surprise between them. A kind of electricity sparks in such incongruous phrases as ‘paw mouthing’, ‘Great Milks occur/ing’, ‘Blizzard Multiples’, ‘trappings / strode’. Sometimes words collide in hyphenated compounds such as ‘math-smudge’ or decimalled together by full stops like ‘’; sometimes it’s phonemes that collide to form neologisms like ‘lutely’ and ‘cloaka’. The combination and arrangement of these disparate materials transforms them, as in a Beuys sculpture, and in a similar way the transformation takes place with the reader.

This is evident in Jackie Pigeaud’s observation that metaphor ‘actualises a landscape with two objects, and a spectator who […] may be the author of the metaphor himself, or the reader. We may even think that there are, so to speak, quiet metaphors, waiting eternally for somebody to wake them up, for his own pleasure’ (Pigeaud, ‘“To Shape into One”: Aristotle’s Poetics and the Poet as Melancholic’).

Greenbaum comments on the ‘quiet metaphor’ of the last sentence evoking the idea of astrological symbolism lying quiescent until the questions posed by the client or astrologer bring its metaphorical power into consciousness. It takes both the astrologer and the client (or the poet and the reader) to activate the metaphor. The same might be said of O’Sullivan’s poetry; how the gap between figure and ground is bridged depends on the interpretative input of the reader.


As well as transformation, the Beuys quote in In the House of the Shaman also stresses substance.

In his essay ‘The Two Poetries’, Ken Edwards quotes a voiceover comment in a Channel 4 documentary on Beuys stating that his ‘objects are material and metaphor’. That is, in their metaphoric, symbolic resonances his artworks transform the materials, while at the same time drawing attention to the very substance of the materials themselves.

Edwards comments that in most conventional use of metaphor in mainstream poetry ‘there is no sense of that unity of material and metaphor’, instead ‘the language merely carries the metaphors’. In Beuys’ use of metaphor by contrast, the materials ‘are palpable presences in themselves and as themselves’. It is this that makes it difficult to pin down his metaphors and which leaves a space open for the viewer to participate in their activation.

O’Sullivan’s poetry also stresses transformation and substance: the transformation of words through unusual semantic combinations and the substance of the word as a sonic cluster of phonemes and physical object on the page. The combinations of words generate multiple metaphoric possibilities of meaning, while the sonic materiality returns us to the indeterminacy of the word as irreducibly what it is. In an essay on her poetics, ‘riverrunning (realizations’ (Palace of Reptiles, 2003), O’Sullivan describes her poetry as ‘Materiality of language: its actual contractions and expansions… sculptural qualities within the physical.’ It is a physical, sculptural engagement with the rhythms and sounds of the phonemes.

In ‘To Our Own Day’, for example, the initial trochaic thump of ‘mean owl’ breaks into the skipping dactyls of ‘face to the bone of a’, continuing the trochaic (‘blue winged’) and dactylic (‘filth / it made’, ‘shine dully’) rhythm back to the trochee on ‘molten’. The pounding metre is augmented by frequent consonance, for example in these first lines of b’s (blue, bone) and l’s (owl, blue, filth), which are picked up later in ‘Blood’, ‘Blizzard’, ‘Blazed’ and ‘Blades’ (these latter also chiming on the z’s and d’s, as well as their assonant vowels), and again in ‘big broke’. There are also phonetic dialect spellings ‘Singz’, ‘Iz’, ‘Toyz’, ‘Uz’, as well as the archaism ‘tongeth’. The substance of the text homes in on the charged jouissance of particular words and phonemes with a disruptive syntax of severed noun phrases and single words.

The language is bodily. As Rimbaud said, ‘I meant what I said, literally and in every sense’ (quoted in Marjorie Perloff, Poetics of Indeterminacy). Like the objects in Beuys’ sculptures, the words in O’Sullivan’s poems are not merely vehicles to carry the metaphors; they are also highly material, irreducibly literal and physical substances in themselves.

This bodily substance of O’Sullivan’s writing brings us back to Dellutri and Davies’ comments on how Lacanian psychoanalysis seeks to bring about a shift at the level of the body. The analyst listens to the materiality of the language and how it links to the body – the fractures and slips of the tongue, the repetitions and circlings, which point to a morbid satisfaction that has a space in the body.

Structures imprinted in the phonemes are brought out in the musicality of the language – the materiality of jouissance. Some words are more charged than others, indicating where the jouissance is located. Jouissance guides where to disturb, to localise and disrupt these circular entropic movements around a hole in language, a traumatic hole in meaning, in order to effect an unconscious shift, to write something new or unknot something old, and open a new pathway.

The bodily materiality of O’Sullivan’s writing evidently plays on this connection of language to the body. This is highlighted in the visceral imagery of bones, blood, innards and milk, but is also enacted physiologically by the reader in mouthing, even silently, the rhythms and sound patterns of the language. The jouissance of the clashing phonemes, colliding in incongruous combinations, works to disrupt and disturb the syntactic structures embedded in our language routines.