Ordinary Magic by Alison Stone,
NYQ Books, 2016, 109 pp., $14.95.
Alison Stone is not the only contemporary poet inspired by the tarot (see Arcana: The Tarot Poetry Anthology, to which she is a contributor), but she may be the most dedicated. With Ordinary Magic, she has built a full-length poetry collection around the cards, one poem for each. Her 2011 chapbook, From the Fool to the World, provides the foundation. Those poems, named for the twenty-one Major Arcana, make up the first section of this book; new sections follow, one for each suit of the Minor Arcana: wands, swords, cups and pentacles. Although Stone’s work—brief, accessible, and nakedly human—can be understood and enjoyed without any knowledge of cartomancy, there’s a special pleasure in tracing the variety of ways in which the poems interact with the deck.
The Major Arcana poems at first seem to tend toward the ekphrastic, gesturing at traditional tarot iconography. (I found that the images from the famous Rider Waite-Smith deck worked quite well for reference, although it’s worth noting that Stone has created her own deck, paintings from which comprise her cover art.) Stone describes the Fool tempted by the cliff, the reclining Empress, Temperance with one foot in the water. Increasingly, however, the poems seem to have little to do with images, and much to do with the concepts underpinning civilization. The Chariot speaks to the self-defeating nature of self-aggrandizement: “My giant / jaws chew up the world / until there is no world” (22). Justice asks, “Which scares you more, / to believe that life is unfair / or to believe that life is fair?” (26). The High Priestess points to the venerable tradition of diminishing the feminine:
Cut like a foreskin from history,
I know the mind
is just a small thing, tight
as the throat of the child whose father gloats,
Eve from Adam’s rib! (17)
Stone makes a point of defying expectations, however. She imagines the Hermit as a therapist, weary of grand gestures and longing for tea. In “The Lovers,” the knowing serpent gives us a read on Adam and Eve. Stone’s playfulness extends to form as well. She creates the circling of the Wheel of Fortune with stanzas that borrow lines and phrases from the one that came before. Similarly, in “The Devil,” Stone uses a villanelle to indicate the repetitiousness of both life in hell and the choice of sin when one believes that there is nothing else.
Choice becomes a dominant theme throughout the collection, which shakes up tarot’s association with fortune and fate. In “Judgment,” there is no choice only insofar as a choice must be made. The Hanged Man, dangling upside down, suggests that even his position involves an act of will, one in which we can join him: “Surrender / will transform the rope around your leg / into a lover’s hand” (27). Still, Stone’s speaker often implies—and sometimes says outright—”I had no choice” (“Foolish Teenager Heart,” 86) and “I am stuck” (“Many Parties,” 84).
With the Minor Arcana poems, Stone brings us more into the realm of the modern and mundane, where trouble takes the form of a car accident, cancer, or marital discord, and the choices are about how much to help a child with her homework, and how to respond to a homophobic aunt. Stone’s connections to the cards feel more tenuous, but she often plays on the fine line between the positive aspect of a card and it’s “reversed” meaning; hope and despair are two readings of the same card. The menorah candles in “Festival of Light” are initially tied to a daughter’s dreidel, “a game of chance she can win” (65). But with the speaker’s mother in the hospital, last year’s cancer unsusceptible to miracles, fire no longer seems like a tool that can be guided or a cause for celebration. It seems more like a disease, on the verge of consuming hope itself. “As Though You Owned that Time,” by contrast, treats the death of a family member with more sneering than sympathy. Here, the Queen of Swords, usually a strong woman holding court, is a recently deceased grandmother, mocked for her confident provincialism, her controlling parenting, her self-published poetry, and her ninety-two years of twee clutter. Stone takes up the idea of reversal most cleverly in “Rats Live On No Evil Star”:
Palindromes show us the truth:
a thing turned backward
The weak wife and her domineering husband
with no word, no bond, row on
through years of mirrored marriage (72)
The cards, like palindromes, can reverse and change their meanings though they stay themselves. But the poem questions how much any of us ever really change when “reversals make a circle” (72).
The poems in Ordinary Magic often circle back to fear, but it’s a complicated fear, encompassing a recognition that sometimes, we are the threat—to ourselves or to others. One of my favorite poems, “Slowly, Dangerously,” asks, “Is one safe day possible?” (67) The speaker’s answer, as she struggles to avoid the worms that pattern the ground beneath her hiking boots, is an implicit “no.” “Magic,” in which a daughter is drawn into the fantasy world of the Harry Potter books, equates imagination with escapism—and with “sugar, sex, wine” (81). Even as the speaker understands the allure of the world where “venom’s / remedied by phoenix tears” (81), she is also aware of how the desire to escape is tied to and tainted by association with the responsibility and pain that engender that desire.
What, then, is the ordinary magic of the book’s title? Another of my favorites, “Why, Because,” hints at an answer in the speaker’s post-coital musings:
Why the body
so easily vanquished from inside?
Why the soul striving
to live somewhere more durable than this?
Why, always, the mind chopping wood? (91)
There is magic in the soul’s incongruous striving, that inner drive beyond the scope of our understanding, both awesome and fearsome. Knowing that it belongs to our children, too, can be as hopeful as it is frightening. Thus Stone ends her collection with some beautifully optimistic daughter poems (“Found Art” and “Fa La La”), which counter the deep cynicism that precedes them (“Galatea to Pygmalion,” “Blues Café”).
There is no one method for reading tarot—neither for laying out the cards nor for interpreting them. Fittingly, Stone is as much the seeker as the interpreter in the uncomfortably real world of these poems. Although choice often feels illusory and her choices often feel like mistakes, the book ends with a positive decision that is also an invitation to the reader. We can all choose to borrow some of her daughter’s contagious, holiday-fueled joy: “Though it’s cold / and dinner will be late, / I let her pull me toward the light” (109).
ALISON STONE is the author of Dangerous Enough (Presa Press 2014), Borrowed Logic (Dancing Girl Press 2014), From the Fool to the World (Parallel Press 2012), and They Sing at Midnight, which won the 2003 Many Mountains Moving Poetry Award and was published by Many Mountains Moving Press. Her poems have appeared in The Paris Review, Poetry, Ploughshares, Barrow Street, Poet Lore, and a variety of other journals and anthologies. She has been awarded Poetry’s Frederick Bock Prize and New York Quarterly’s Madeline Sadin Award. She is also a painter and the creator of The Stone Tarot. A licensed psychotherapist, she has private practices in New York City and Nyack, New York. She is currently editing an anthology of poems on the Persephone/Demeter myth.