Reviewer: David E. Poston
Antoine Court de Gebelin claimed the tarot was all that survived of the Egyptian Book of Thoth, though it more likely began as a curiously illustrated deck invented for the medieval Italian game of tarocchi. The dozens of different sets of tarot illustrations occupy a significant niche in art history, and recent years have seen something of a resurgence in interest among millennials seeking spiritual guidance outside traditional faith communities.
Alison Stone’s Ordinary Magic uses the tarot to explore the human condition in ways as fascinating as the paradox in the book’s title. Italo Calvino called the tarot “a machine for constructing stories,” as Rachel Pollack noted in the introduction to her story collection The Tarot of Perfection. Pollack, whom Stone credits as an essential source of insight, calls the cards “an engine of patternmaking.” Each of the seventy-eight poems in this collection is matched with a tarot card, allowing Stone to present her exploration of Pollack’s Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom.
The first section, the twenty-two poems of “The Major Arcana,” opens with the Fool urging, “Say yes. Don’t look. / Leap!” and asking, “If you won’t dance, / then who’s the fool?” The Empress counsels:
Do not lament
to the sky, seeking
distant heaven. This world
you drag your feet upon
The High Priestess and The Empress presage the figures of Lilith, Brigid, and other empowered and empowering females—mothers, grandmothers, and daughters—who inhabit later poems. The High Priestess speaks out against patriarchy for a young girl
…whose Father gloats,
Eve from Adam’s rib! waving
the Bible in triumph.
She is wan and bookless. Her bones
are not her own.
Strength, depicted as a female figure holding a lion by the jaws, asks
your secrets, animal—
the dreams you ate.
Release the worried bones.
“The Sun” describes Buddha in his mother’s translucent womb and offers, “Let me melt / your stubborn sorrows, leave you / innocent and lovely as an animal.” The ending of “The World” evokes imagery of our animal nature, circling back to the words of The Fool: “The eager dog of the heart / leaps in its fur of light.”
With few exceptions, these poems display energy and narrative fluidity. Stone’s attention to craft particularly shines in the pantoum “The Wheel of Fortune,” which perfectly matches form and meaning, and in the use of the low end of the vowel register in “Death”:
You know me when you clean
hairs from your comb,
when you lie down with your lover,
bone to bone.
The villanelle form is used to sinister advantage in “The Devil.” The palindromic “Rats Live on No Evil Star” neatly sums up why so many have left traditional faith communities: “we panic in a pew / but find no answer in the hymns’ soft lull.”
There are many other memorable images in the first section, but the poems of the second section, “The Minor Arcana,” are richer in emotional range and beautifully rendered narrative, addressing all the complications of the world—marital troubles, a mother’s illness, political schisms with in-laws, the fears of and for children—but always celebrating creative capacity and ultimately arcing toward hope and joy. There are poems that lovingly celebrate the inspiration of Lou Reed, heady days at Brandeis, becoming a power animal at a workshop. The power of sexuality is explored by Lilith and Lilith’s daughter, while poems such “First Pomegranate” and “Galatea to Pygmalion” explore the irresistible ironies of sexual desire.
Perhaps the key irony of the collection is the manner in which insight is gained from recollection. A couple in “10. Tenth Anniversary” views their wedding video: “Nestled together, legs entwined, / we’re wise now, understand / the deal we struck.” At the end of the poem, they watch and understand how
The pair onscreen
have no idea.
Rings are exchanged, the broom
placed on the ground.
Hands bound together by silk cord,
“6. Another Treatment” begins by defining the “difference between hopelessness and remission,” a husband’s comment taking the speaker back to the innocence of girlhood, swimming laps in the pool, a time when she was “[c]ertain my body could do anything.”
Many poems, notably “Tether” and “Festival,” trace the matrilineal cords, the hopes and fears of mothers and daughters across multiple generations. Many address the dangers facing daughters (and sons) from the perspective of a mother who can divine the danger, but cannot avert it. As the young girl jumps rope in “Page—Strawberry Shortcake,” the speaker watches as “[t]he boys laugh, slap hands.” She asks who will be the girl’s sweetheart—not her absent father for whom the daughter still watches. The poem ends: “She stumbles, starts over. / It’s getting late. The air darkens. / The boys watch her, wait.”
The poem “3. Independence Day” presents the now as being brief as fireworks. The speaker says of her daughter, “Soon she’ll disappear into music and boys.” The daughter may soon become Eurydice seduced by a cover band or Persephone seduced by “leather pants and rock star swagger” (“Amazon—Persephone After”), but for the moment she still leans back into her mother’s arms. “3. Found Art” is exquisitely poignant in its sweep of relationships: a father commanding “Draw me,” an art instructor saying “Paint like you mean it.” “I mean it now,” says the speaker—her mother now dead, her father leading her to see how “Forgiveness is an art.” As she is helping her daughters make a valentine for their grandfather,
My younger daughter bumps my arm,
and aqua splatters the card.
She ruined it! the older one wails.
No, my husband explains, Mistakes
can be part of the art. I wet
a clean brush, show her
how to change the blobs
and smudges into a blue
family dancing under stars.
Many poems strike world-weary notes. Yet ultimately hope is reborn, as in these last two examples. In “Memorial Park,” the speaker understands that “Like these trees, I should let go, / but my thick heart’s / stubborn as mud.” In contrast to that resignation, the poem ends with a child who “grubby-kneed and pigtailed, / tosses a ball toward the sun / and laughs whether she catches it or not.” The final poem, “Ace—Fa La La,” concludes with a mother allowing her daughter to pull her toward the light.
At work here are deeply-felt experiences, keen observation of the world, and a shrewd grasp of human nature. Yet, ask yourself, is that anything less than magical?