“Here is the man with three staves, and here the Wheel,
And here is the one-eyed merchant, and this card,
Which is blank, is something he carries on his back,
Which I am forbidden to see.” – The Wasteland, T.S. Eliot
Tarot lends itself to literature, from the poetry of T.S. Eliot to the novellas of Italo Calvino. In The Castle of Crossed Destinies, Calvino jumps from story to story, laying them out with a shuffle of the cards: Romeo and Juliet; Jupiter’s transformations in Ovid’s Metamorphoses; the Grail Quest.
We can play the same game. Watch:
The Fool? A man in tattered clothing. He isn’t leaving, but returning. The tatters are not from wear, rather the disguise of a goddess. The dog at his heels? Argus. We turn over another card: the Ten of Cups, a banquet, a celebration. Everything is well, or so it seems until we turn over another card and find the Page of Swords skulking behind: young Telemachus planning the doom of the suitors.
The Chariot in a blink of an eye becomes Achilles, riding towards Troy.
The game can continue on for as long as you like. It’s good practise to play dot-to-dot with images, but this isn’t telling us anything we don’t already know. Tarot is generative: it tells stories. Images speak, particularly when those images are as evocative as those of the Tarot de Marseilles. This isn’t news, instead, let’s ask what this means for us:
Mostly, it means that it’s very easy to be a witch and a poet when you’ve got the TdM in your pocket.
The Tarot is an essential part of both my magical and creative practice, and increasingly I’m trying to see them as the same thing. I’m very much convinced that the only difference between fortune telling and writing is that I get more raised eyebrows from one to the other.
To explore the connection between storytelling, poetry and Tarot it’s probably best to establish what the act of card reading is. (Or to be truthful, what the act of card reading is for me, at the moment I’m writing this.)
To what extent is something the image of what it is? Can we read the world through symbol? Is story a symbol? Tarot is things that mean other things that mean other things, so can we ever peel back towards the objective truth?
What’s Tarot if not definition?
“I think you recognise cities better on the atlas than when you visit them in person,” the emperor says to Marco, snapping the volume shut.
And Polo answers, “Traveling, you realise that all differences are lost: each city takes to resembling all cities, places change their form, order, distances, a shapeless dust cloud invades the continents. Your atlas preserves the differences instact: that assortment of qualities which are like the letters in a name.” – Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities.
Imagine a city. Imagine it’s streets, the way it’s names tell us something: North Street, Bywater. The way deep indents on the stairs up to the castle tell us about its age, the signs above the doorways point us towards a pub or corner shop. We make inferences about the kind of place it is. If you asked a friend about the very same city, they’d almost certainly come away with another kind of story, another kind of city. Sometimes a story tells us more about the author than it does anything else.
Tarot is a map; an image of an image. An image of an image can be a mirror. A mirror may be angled forwards or backwards.
Tarot is a magical tool for telling and questioning stories. Sometimes it’s easier to see patterns when they’re repeated on a smaller scale; it puts things into perspective. Ironically for a poet, in my card reading my job is to make sense. We formulate a question, past, present or future and I lay out the cards. I try to see where the images logically lead, and ask what kind of story I’m telling: a baton may become a walking stick, or a penis, or a pen. A lion may become a small dog or the emblem on a shield.
I do believe that Tarot can be used to tell the future, I don’t mind being called a fortune teller. I know some card readers feel it implies a falsehood. I don’t care, particularly. I’m concerned with stories anyway, and how true any story is– even the ones that run close to life– is just asking how long a piece of string is.
I’ve heard card readers call Tarot poetry, for various things that often seem to me to not really be poetic at all. The neat folding of one image into another, the simplicity, the exploration of a single moment, all of those things, I grant you, have poetry in them.
And speaking of simplicity, I thought it might be nice to just ask.
Tell me about poetry.
[The Hermit] [Strength] [The Devil]
The Hermit looks into the past, holding up his lantern to illuminate the way. The poet’s job is one of excavation: finding your way through memory, or feeling. He is always seeking, learning, unfolding.
Strength tries to pull something of value out of the lion’s mouth. Retrieving the right word, or anecdote. Her task requires complete focus. Words, like wild animals, do not always behave themselves.
The Devil finds the image of himself in his creations. There’s always distance between the poem and reality, like being unable to touch your reflection in a mirror. I try to write to the “truth of the poem”, although that’s often nebulous. His two minions are reflections of him. Has he gotten the balance right? Should he have used one of his many different faces? Maybe we’re being warned to not sell our souls. Maybe we’ve done so already.
These are also the jobs of the fortune teller: to go looking for answers, to dig them out, and to decide what kind of story it is that we’re telling.