The American Poetry Review


Pre-Fix: A Porthole

Last year’s Tarot cards were the High Priestess and Justice.1 The world was full of sadness and sharp edges and it was time to own up to our truths, individually and collectively. This year’s cards are the Empress and the Hanged One—an odd pair and inauspicious, at least in terms of climate change.2 Together, they indicate that this is our last lifetime to be in incarnation with toxic familial/species patterns; this is a stressful transition/transmogrification but it will happen regardless of our participation so we may as well SHOW UP and STEP UP.

As queer feminist witches Sarah Faith Gottes-diener and Amanda Yates Garcia stress in their Strange Magic podcast, c the Major Arcana are what you make of them. They are keys, doors, portholes: into possibility and possible futures. On their own, they don’t make anything happen; we discover things about ourselves inside a Tarot card like we discover strength and flexibility inside a yoga pose. Tarot is about living: how that energy—the energy we find inside the cards, or inside a yoga pose—plays out in life, about meeting ourselves somewhere we didn’t intend or want to—or think we could—go. Tarot cards are not clear-cut but circular; they spiral and, as Jana Riley writes, “when we perceive them, if we perceive them at all, it is because we are recognizing in them one or more of our own personal angles on something.”3 The cards are thus handy resources for writers, who practice—or should be practicing—the fine art of self-interrogation whenever we engage with the page.

In the craft essay that follows, I’ll take an ultra-deep dive into this year’s cards, exploring their meanings in relation to storytelling, the imagination, and the creative psyche and ending with some prescriptions to inspire your own deep dive. With French artists Sophie Calle and Niki de Saint Phalle; mycologist, documentary poet, and composer John Cage; conceptual artist and musician Yoko Ono; authors Dorthe Nors, Mary Ruefle, Joy Williams, and Maggie Nelson; and poets Lucie Brock-Broido, Thomas James, and CAConrad as guides, we’ll examine each card philosophically—what should I do and here’s why—and then zoom in for some writing provocations—how can I get it done. Along the way, we’ll examine the role of age, chance, negative capability, fertility, breath, and silence in our work. Be forewarned: I am not going to tell you what to do with these cards or how to make the most of that uniquely human muscle that is the literary mind. The purpose of this essay is to explore the imagination at different scales, to offer a porthole here, there, so you can find your own way in.


Double your age and, if you die and it’s not a tragedy, you’re middle-aged.—Deanne Smith

Trying to write about my mother is like staring at the sun.—Leslie Jamison

In a world where women are almost always defined by their relationships (daughter, sister, lover, wife, mother, grandmother) it strikes me as important to shed a light on the woman herself. What is she without all these shoes she has to fill?—Dorthe Nors

The Empress is card #3 in Tarot’s Major Arcana. She’s all about CREATION and FERTILITY, and, as such, asks you to reevaluate your public persona as an artist and OWN IT. Compared to the High Priestess (card #2), she’s the other side of the pomegranate: she’s about pregnancy, success and harmony in interpersonal relationships, off-spring and innovation. The Empress is a card that’s thus most useful when you’re ready to bring your writing into the world. She indicates great fruition but is also a warning that there may be unintended or unanticipated consequences. (Because, for example, she is so remarkably feminine, and physical in her femininity, the Empress is always going to suffer from an invisibility problem. But that’s another story, and one we’ll get to later …)

The Empress is generally thought of as the queen of queens or the mother of mothers and you really can’t not talk about the archetype of mother when talking about this card. Two French artists come to mind, neither of them known as mothers, both of them, in fact, somewhat notorious in their relationship to motherhood, both of whom carefully cultivated and, ultimately, OWNED their public personas: first, the infamously intrusive conceptual artist Sophie Calle, who channeled her grief over her mother’s death into a controversial art installation, “Rachel, Monique,” and whose purse bears a badge that reads “I can’t believe it, I forgot to have children!” Second, “pioneering artist provocateur” and “extravagant nihilist” Niki de Saint Phalle, who was infamously accused of doing “the worst thing a woman could do”—abandoning her children for art—and who, before there was a women’s movement, was captivated by liberation. “Men’s roles seem to give them a great deal more freedom,” she wrote to a friend in the early fifties, “and I WAS RESOLVED THAT FREEDOM WOULD BE MINE.” [See John Cage.]4

Calle has said that she doesn’t desire to have children. She doesn’t desire, and she doesn’t regret. She is a woman who, in fact, claims to have no regrets. “Rachel, Monique,” an elegiac meditation on the life and death of Calle’s mother, features a film of Monique Sindler reclining in her deathbed projected onto a fleur-de-lis patterned paper; a large photograph depicting Sindler’s tombstone with the epitaph she chose, “Je m’ennuie deja,” or “I’m already bored”; letters made of real butterflies stenciled on a glass panel leaning on the chapel altar spelling “souci,” Sindler’s last word; and Kim Cattrall’s (Sindler’s favorite actress) mellifluous voice reading collaged excerpts from Sindler’s diaries in an English translation from the original French. The film shows Sindler in profile, lying with eyes closed. At some point, she dies, and the hands of unseen attendants touch her neck and chest.

Remarkably, interviewers rarely press Calle to unpack her motives when discussing what could be seen as the most intrusive and

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