I’ve never been much into The Tarot. A lifetime of magical thinking makes me suspicious of anything I can’t explain with my five senses. So it was with some hesitation that I approached Joanna C. Valente’s new chapbook, The Gods Are Dead (Deadly Chaps Press 2015). The Gods Are Dead consists of 22 poems, all corresponding to a figure in the Tarot’s Major Arcana. But my hesitation proved to be unnecessary; one does not need to be a believer in the Tarot to appreciate these dense, image-rich, sonically powerful poems.
Valente makes the Tarot—playing cards invented in the 15th century, first used oracularly in the late 18th-century—both contemporary and corporeal. A quick glance at the titles of the poems gives one a sense of this modern blush: “The Magician’s Day Job As Paparazzi,” “The Hermit Used to Be the Guitarist in Your Favorite Band,” “Judgment Promises Life After the Internet.” Each figure’s poem contains a narrative—associative, rarely linear—that is at once surprising and, often, violent. The Tarot figures do not exist in some mystical land of prophecy, but in the very real, flesh-and-blood soaked present. This is a book teeming with bodies, bones and sex.
But amid the landscape created by Valente is a wealth of fierce, beautiful poetry. I particularly love the assonance and imagery in this passage from “The Empress Is the Main Attraction at Your Favorite Night Club,” which begins:
Pomegranate seeds scatter
to feed part of the year dead
—she wears a crown
of stars as grievance, her son hung
& hanged. Dogs run up & down her
thighs biting at loose skin
The menace of the repeated long ‘e’ sound: seeds, feed, year, grievance; the subtle crown/down rhyme. Similarly, in “The Gods Make Love in The Tower”:
Upon entrance, the shells of crabs scream
steam splinters open
their mouths ajar—
Everyone smells him
when he comes
—old apricots, milky tea, &tobacco
rank as fingers boiling in a pot
of chicken broth, teeth
in a watered cup
I can hear the sizzle of the crabs splitting open, smell the old god approaching.
Sometimes the violence extends into the sexual. Here is “Strength Feels Her Body Burst in Flame,” in its entirety:
He tells her to shut
her mouth while they
is resting / Rain sticks
to glass like Velcro
He pushes her head
a question mark
Throat hesitates /
She wants to marry
in a ragged hem
like clouds / She knows
she must gulp / wipes
her mouth in glass
a word for this kind
It is a poignant choice by Valente to have Strength, the one card in the Tarot deck one would associate with solidity, experience sexual violence and its resulting emotional trauma. The images—stuck Velcro, ragged hem, wiping her mouth in glass—make her suffering palpable to the reader.
The Gods Are Dead is full of moments that make a reader’s heart sink in sympathy with Valente’s characters. For instance, in “The Hierophant Builds A Bridge Between Deity and Humanity”:
He has never made
Instead, he cuts up
to orgasm. There is
never a morning
where his heart
is not a coal bucket.
Similarly, “The Fool Forgets Who He Is” ends:
He is sorry, not sorry
Sleeping alone at night
a frosted bliss pushes away ruin
everything forgotten: now zero
dog days dwarf
to an end.
How many of us, not just the Fool, create our own version of “frosted bliss” to push away ruin, i.e. the everyday, onrushing world?
And sometimes the work is leavened with humor. In “Death Rides a Pale Horse,” Death is doing what is expected of him, but in a decidedly contemporary locale:
He measures his life by expiration
Dates / Milk in the fridge has two
Weeks til death / bananas grow
black as the inside of a coffin
Outside Death & Co. / he digs
His foot into a guy’s rib
Even in fancy Manhattan bars, Death is up to his usual thuggery.
In addition to the poetry, this volume is enhanced by illustrations by Ted Chevalier for all the poems. These skillful illustrations track the action in the poems and are at once whimsical, beautiful, and haunting. I enjoyed going back to the illustration after reading each poem to see what choices Chevalier had made in “capturing” the poem. My favorites: the goth “Empress,” the spectral “Moon,” the doomed “Hanged Man,” the wailing “Hierophant.”
The penultimate poem in the collection, “The Sun Rises Over Manhattan & Sets in Brooklyn,” could be subtitled Portrait of the Artist As A Young Woman. It ends:
For good luck she wore her grand
mother’s ruby ring sometimes
drank too much at poetry readings
because saying words actually meant
something & all she wanted
were friends who thought her words
meant something her apartment
is full of stuff her parents find boxes
full of words don’t know what any
of it means but know it’s something.
If there is any trace of autobiography in the woman in this poem, Valente has certainly arrived at a place where her friends—and anyone else who cares about poetry—know her words mean something. In this impressive collection, and in her already burgeoning body of work, they mean a great deal.
Valente, only in her mid 20s, has already had a full-length poetry collection published (Sirs & Madams, Aldrich Press, 2014), in addition to this chapbook. In 2016, she has another full-length and another chapbook scheduled for release. She is a poet blooming before our eyes.