Dorothea Lasky is writ­ing here as part of Jew­ish Book Coun­cil’s Vis­it­ing Scribe series.

When­ev­er I fin­ish a book of poems, I get a lit­tle wist­ful, a lit­tle roman­tic and sad. The book has become what it is, just like the way when some­thing or some­one dies, every­thing that they were becomes what it was. Books and their mean­ings are absolute­ly mal­leable to their future read­ers, but to their writ­ers, they become a lit­tle fixed, espe­cial­ly right after they’ve tak­en their place in the world. What they could have been, when there was still time to change them, is over. They are what they are. Right now Milk is what it is.

For me, poet­ry is always tied up with my spir­i­tu­al­i­ty, which is a rotat­ing sense of the world, the oth­er world, and my place with­in these things. I am Jew­ish, but not exact­ly prac­tic­ing. I was raised as a reform Jew (I was bat mitz­va­hed, con­firmed in Sun­day School, and even taught Sun­day School at my tem­ple for a while). For too many rea­sons to list here, I have become a bit estranged in my dai­ly life from this background.

My moth­er, a bril­liant and vibrant artist, was raised Jew­ish in Los Ange­les and has spent much of her life revis­it­ing her rela­tion­ship to her own sense of the spir­i­tu­al world. My father, a great man, was raised as an Ortho­dox Jew at the begin­ning of last cen­tu­ry in St. Louis, but became reform in his adult life. We nev­er talked too explic­it­ly about it, but he hint­ed at pre­fer­ring to come to his rela­tion­ship to Judaism in his own way.

In my dai­ly life now, I have come to Judaism in my own way. For me, my Judaism is so tied up with my poet­ry that they have become in many ways the same thing.

Peo­ple often want to know what books mean, but I don’t think a poet­ry book has to have one strand of mean­ing. I think that poet­ry books have themes they are work­ing with, and I think that Milks themes are moth­er­hood, cre­ativ­i­ty, and the occult. Orig­i­nal­ly, Milk was going to be an occult text — a book of spells — based on the moon. I think I will write that book one day, but I knew when I was work­ing on Milk that it wasn’t that book.

Still, in orig­i­nal ver­sions of the book, I had many poems that dealt explic­it­ly with spir­i­tu­al­i­ty. Here is one of them that didn’t make it in:

I used to be a witch

I used to light the can­dles in the hall­way and say your name

Say it was what it was sup­posed to be

Say love me love me I used to say love me

I used to wear a long black coat

And swab my staff at everything

I used to sing and sing and it was for nobody

Except the ghouls who peered at me from under the bed

I used to kill off the dead

Until they were my lovers

I used to pin the legs above the head

Until I could have my way with the dead

I used to take your spir­it out and put it my pocket

And ride a horse that did not exist

I used to go in, with a dark cat

And mix a thou­sand herbs together

But it was the new year

And the cats, instead of keep­ing still

Want­i­ng to cry into the morning

I used to sit alone, I used to be a witch

Then you came along

I used to be only what the night­time knew

But now you’re the witch, lit­tle thing

And on a gold­en broom, I’ve sent you flying

Through the stars

And the moon

The peo­ple will now look at you

And this time

The spell will only be

For liv­ing

This poem was writ­ten to my then-new­born daugh­ter (who was meant to be the new good witch” at the end of the poem). In my pre­vi­ous books, par­tic­u­lar­ly the one before Milk, I feel that I have tak­en up themes of spite, envy, and revenge. I want­ed Milk to be quite fright­en­ing, but basi­cal­ly about” love. I wrote this poem because after the birth of my daugh­ter, life became about love for me, and the real pow­er of it.

The poem didn’t make it in because it was explic­it in some ways that I didn’t like. Although some of my spir­i­tu­al prac­tices now resem­ble a type of witch­craft, I didn’t like the flat­ten­ing of the way I used the word in the poem. Espe­cial­ly because there are con­no­ta­tions now of the word witch” I don’t like, that pop­u­lar and inter­net cul­ture has tak­en up in some­times a flip­pant way.

As I grow old­er, I long for some rela­tion­ship to my Jew­ish ances­tors who I know did so much so that I could be here, writ­ing these books and writ­ing to you now. They were poets and witch­es, too. This poem is about being done with a soli­tary kind of spir­i­tu­al prac­tice and infus­ing my rela­tion­ship to the oth­er world with the idea of cre­ativ­i­ty and new life through the future iter­a­tions of the word.

These days once I have fin­ished some­thing, I just start think­ing of the next thing I need to do, rather than cel­e­brat­ing what I’ve done as I prob­a­bly should.

Maybe even writ­ing that I should is a kind of cel­e­bra­tion. Maybe it’s time now to celebrate.

So, let’s raise our glass­es of what­ev­er water now. To Poetry!