Poetry Review: Arcana (Minor Arcana Press, 2015)

arcana tarot
Image via Minor Arcana Press

The hoof rests on my neck,
like a sad lover’s caress.
I am restrained by a lack of restraint.
I am bound with possibilities.

– From “Revoke (The Devil)” by Lore Bernier, pg. 13

“Start the Tarot deck with me.” And so begins the opening line of the first poem of Arcana: The Tarot Poetry Anthology, now out from established creative publishing outfit Minor Arcana Press (of Seattle and beyond). The press has brought forth an international anthology on poetry related to tarot, a subject I must confess knowing very little about. Like “The Fool,” perhaps? Not knowing much didn’t deter me from being interested, intrigued, as I have had many friends in the past who have used various forms of cartomancy and “reading the cards” for varied purposes. From solving daily problems to working through major life crises to converting the everyday into the deeply poetic, tarot has found so many niches it’s hard to write about their representation in this one anthology, but Arcana is strongest when viewed from above, seeing the scope and scale of writing in this genre.

He is coming with quickness,
home-bound and spit-shined,
forested in the groundswell,
some people might call him
obsessive, but he knows
better than to dust off chivalry.

– From “Knight of Cups” by Tyler Vile, pg. 55

Divided into three sections, which best represent the faces of tarot, the anthology feels fairly tidy and organized: Majors, Minors, and Spreads. The sections are fairly self-explanatory. Poems in the “Majors” section are related to the 22 cards in the Majors suite (for example: The Fool; The World; The Lovers). Poems could be embodying one of the “characters” from this subset of cards, or could be channeling the any number of meanings of a card or card. The same methods (and more) go into the Minors section (which includes the famous Wands, Coins, Cups, and Swords + a number, or other variations depending on the tarot deck being used). Two things are clear about these major and minor arcana poems: a lot of writers are writing individual poems for each individual Tarot card, and a lot of writers are interpreting these individual cards in very interesting, surprising, and often-unusual ways. The Spreads section, which concludes the book, is kind of a grab-bag for anything less direct and more “messy” than what’s included in the former sections. Spreads, which you’ll have to Google on your own as there’s not just a Wikipedia page for lazy people like me, arguably offer the greatest level of interpretation of the tarot (as you’re dealing with multiple cards instead of a single card analysis) and thus the poems in this section of the anthology are incredibly challenging. I found myself, as a tarot noob, kind of glazed over half the time during the reading, trying to figure out what cards were being referenced and why. For people who know tarot, these poems are probably amazingly complex, and equally as probable is the reward for reading them. I’m reminded of James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound, who loaded their work up with incredibly specific references. Oh, and as Minor Arcana lets us know on a website for the book, Eliot was no stranger to tarot!

he refused to leave
the fertile garden
for the safety
of a castle’s wall

– From “Magic and Darkness” (“A micropoetry sequence”) by Frank Watson, pg. 104

There are over fifty readers in the anthology, some of which contribute to one particular section, others who have contributed to multiple. Despite the overall theme, which is intensely broad, the writers reveal an incredible collection of styles and forms. This quality of inclusion will most likely work for the readers who are interested in tarot, but I found myself often applying my own pre-conceived interests in general poetics onto the pieces inside, which felt at odds with the goal of the book. Still, there is strong work inside the anthology. The contributors have backgrounds as varied as professional writer to professional school janitor, roots from Denmark to Maine to Seattle to Wisconsin, and many, many other locales. I found the biographies alone, as diverse as the work within, to satisfy my journey through this conceptual anthology.

But he knows that he’ll never stop.
He doesn’t know how to.
Energies come into his hands
unasked; he follows through.
Spells form themselves in his mind;
there’s nothing he can do.

– From “The Magician” by Rozonda Salas, pg. 24

Unfortunately for me, not much on tarot itself is included in the volume. Sure, Wikipedia can provide (and did for some of my basic questions), all the answers a general reader or newcomer to tarot could afford, but what about specific symbolism and meaning? I kept asking myself for more direct explanations of some of these poems, because I (perhaps naively) entered into the realm of tarot as a realm of explanation, classification, description. The “reading” of this very old form of information, which has worked for so many and continues to do so, demanded more information within the anthology. The poems working best in the anthology actually had brief explanatory notes included as side-by-side content, and I wish there had been more—either from the contributing authors themselves, or from editor Marjorie Jensen, who already seemed to have done a great job in the poem selection process. Perhaps in the future an “expanded” or “for dummies” edition can be released, or a digital/website companion, which can lend a hand to the “lost soul” readers like myself who need some guidance.

“I’ll read your tarot”
he slobbers,
like the douchebag
he will never become
He lifts me to him
and smells metallic blue
like man and theater and heaven

– From “First Boykiss” by Ryan Crawford, pgs. 87-88

Regardless of my lazy, demanding side, I still found the sprawl of symbolic poems to be worth the read, and fairly exciting in the 120+ pages that compose this anthology. The poems ranged dynamically from page to page. Some poems described biographical (or fictional, perhaps!) experiences using tarot symbolism as metaphor to carry narrative. Some poems spoke the story of the tarot cards themselves. Some poems were more experiments, including constraint-based writing. For a novice or experience enthusiast of tarot, the anthology holds a lot of promise and, as Jensen describes in the introduction, serves as the first of its kind, a book Jensen created because she wanted it to exist. That’s a culturally insightful decision and I am glad the effort was put into collecting what are, at the heart, poems of passion and respect for not only the practice of tarot, but the world that surrounds it.

I said: So I want to kill this waitress.
In the end, our friendship added up to this:

Achilles’ heel, a shot of whiskey, zoo.
I’m gonna cut that baby right in two.

– From “Sonnet for The Queen of Swords” by Amy Schrader, pg. 50

One final note: the quotes I’ve included here in this response were some of the anthology’s pieces which particularly attracted me. I’ve purposely left out some of the writers I know and am friends with in person for the sake of objectivity. Also, despite enjoying my friends’ writing in this book, it was wonderful to discover some previously-unknown voices whose works, regardless of their tarot-ness, were operating on so many different levels. I suppose that multidimensional concept in itself is an appropriate quality for writing in such a book!

Check out the book further and/or order a copy here.

Greg Bem is the Gaming Editor and a contributing writer for Queen Mob's. He has written numerous reviews for the Queen as well as other entities, including Rain Taxi, Seattle Poetry Lab, and a previous iteration of his personal blog. To hear about his upcoming reviews, follow him on Twitter.

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