For Hallowe’en, a guest blog from poet Jennifer A McGowan, whose latest collection How to be a Tarot Card (or a Teenager) we published last week. The London launch (shared with Anna Fodorova and In the Blood) is at Keats House 18:30 tomorrow, 1st November. free tickets
In the 1980s, faced with a rebellious body, I stole my mother’s tarot deck and asked it about my health prognosis. Three times in a row, the outcome card was the tower, which is the second-worst card in the deck. Throughout my 20s and from then on I struggled with disability. On 16 March 2020 I contracted Covid, and I’ve had daily symptoms since then.
Twice I nearly died. I couldn’t breathe. Just standing up left me doubled over, gasping for air. I’m an expert patient and there are 6 doctors in my family, and I am no medical layperson, and I thought, at best, I had a 50/50 chance of getting through April 2020 and 2021.
I chose to write, obsessively. That and bloody-mindedness got me through. Somehow. The result is this book. I don’t really remember last April, except that I wrote over 55 poems. If I were a pop psychoanalyst I’d say that hovering on the threshold of death rendered me liminal, and made mythic themes easier to access. But I’m not.
These poems are based on the 22 major arcana in the tarot deck, an extra or trump suit, which starts with the fool: number zero, generally portrayed as carefree, their possessions in a small bag, stepping off a cliff. They journey through the themes of the other 21 arcana. The magician, trump 1, is the occult guide, wielding four elements. In French the magician is called the juggler, Le Bateleur—I took that word and wrote about a bateleur eagle, a bird of prey that constantly adjusts its wings in flight, like a juggler.
Arcanum 2 is the high priestess. She’s on the cover of the book, twinned on a playing card with the teenager. The high priestess symbolises, among other things, maidenhood. She progresses to the empress, full womanhood or motherhood. Some decks change the hermit to the crone, the third moon phase, post-menopausal, of women. The crone shows up in this book as the lamplighter, and also as a really quite delightful, feminist snake. The high priestess has long been the card used to stand in for me in tarot readings, too. (As a teen, readers used the empress. I grew into the priestess. Yes, this is the wrong way around.)
Other poems are taken more literally from tarot pictures. Strength is often portrayed as a woman besting a lion—and I used lion as metaphor in “There May Have Been Lions” and “Life in Captivity”. “The Girl in the Raven Mask”, a Petrarchan sonnet which was published in Acumen, is ekphrasis on the temperance trump in the Hush tarot. “Broken Tower” was also inspired by that deck.
Still other poems riff on the meaning of the cards. There are three poems about hope, which is what the star connotes. Two of the hope poems were written for Turtle Mountain Animal Rescue, the only animal shelter in a 2000 square mile area so far north in North Dakota it’s nearly Canada. There is a semi-feral dog at the shelter named Hope, who runs wild in the summer, but always returns when faced with bitter northern winters. She simultaneously herself and a metaphor in “Hope”.
I’m at my best as a poet when I’m storytelling, as in “Why Snakes are Always Female” and “A Little Space” or, more mischievously, in “Devilskin”. Modern tarot decks, whether they’re standard Rider-Waite-Smith decks; something themed, like the dragon tarot; or based on pop culture, like the Disney villains tarot, are tools to tell stories, whether personal or universal. Many of these poems, like “Hagged”, which is about my Long Covid, and “Dr. Wick”, about the struggle to get a diagnosis for my disability, are very personal for me. Of course, a deck of 78 playing cards isn’t responsible for anything in my life, apart from this book and a few medieval card games I play, but, still, the odds of the same card in the same spot three times in a row is pretty slender…
Jennifer A. McGowan
Oxford, October 2022