Winner of the Graybeal-Gowen Prize

Self-Portrait as Water Witcher

I can find ground water, gemstones, buried metals, and ores.
Witch branch in hand—hazel, willow, or peach—I wander

the property as my ancestors did. People walk in straight lines,
some in curving lines. Some stand still in one spot

and occasionally move. Some do not enter the field at all.
The act of paying attention can cause the fork to dip,

the rods to cross. It’s at forks in the road that you’re expected
to make a deal with any devil that lives there. Are you able

to find disturbances? To roll yourself under the ground?
My brother can’t witch; he doesn’t have the eyes. I walk

behind his powerless arms and hold his ears so he can see.
Seems like some people can’t do a thing. I try to place myself

back when there weren’t other ways to find what’s buried.
But I can see the raven at the boundary flapping

like a black sock stuck on the line. The power line bent
and there’s still no water. I can feel the water watching me.

When I dowse for bodies they look right up through my spine.
There are more on this land than I’d accounted for.

Martin Luther said that to witch is to violate
the first commandment; it’s the dark’s work—

what isn’t. The Y of the rod is graven on the ground.
With my divining branch I make a map of burial,

plots sown like spring wheats over the field, and I can tell
who was a woman, who was a child. No other gods

before me.




    Note: This poem uses information and some found text from Gerald Milnes’s Signs, Cures, and Witchery: German Appalachian Folklore (University of Tennessee Press, 2007), Lauren Stepp’s “Dowsers seeking recognition for practice” (Blue Ridge Now, 2015), “The Ancient Mountain Practice of ‘Water Witching’” (Appalachian Magazine, 2019), and William E. Whittaker’s “Grave Dowsing Reconsidered” (Office of the State Archaeologist, University of Iowa).

Emma Aylor is a poet whose work appears or is forthcoming in Pleiades, Sixth Finch, Barrow Street, Yemassee, and Salt Hill, among other journals. She holds an MFA in poetry from the University of Washington. Raised in Bedford County, Virginia, she currently lives in Seattle.