I have been doing tarot readings for a long time, and the first book that I got was with my first deck of Rider Waite cards. I read it until the covers fell off (and were taped back on), and I used the cards until they were so worn the paper felt like cloth. Made it tricky to shuffle, but I was almost afraid to change decks. I’m not sure why. Maybe I thought that the magic was within in the cards instead of within me? Maybe I was like a baseball player who doesn’t change his socks when he’s on a winning streak, and didn’t want to change anything. Is that a thing, by the way? I don’t sports. Anyway, whatever the reason, I read that book and used those cards for ten years. After that, I got the Goddess Deck by Kris Waldherr, lots of books by Rachel Pollack, Mary K. Greer, Robert Place and other fantastic authors. More decks and books followed, and I’ve crafted a life out of the things that they’ve taught me.
For my new website, I wanted to take a look back on those authors and artists who have had a hand in shaping my life in tarot. I didn’t get here by myself by any means, and it feels like a good time to be grateful for those who were here before me, and those who I’m still learning from today. The first author is Josep Miquel Sobrer, author of “The Book of Oracles or A Poet’s Tarot”.
I came by this self-published, really damn hard to find book by way of my friend Brian. He was living in Indiana and is also a tarot nerd like me. He recommended it, and after I found it, I read it so quickly I had to read it again afterwards. Each card in this book is represented by a story. A poem. I’ve never encountered anything quite like it and I found that the impressions given by Mr. Sobrer about each card stays with me whenever I do a reading today. I can’t look at the Sun card without thinking “The clarity is absolute”, which is a line from this lovely little book.
Mr. Sobrer was kind enough to allow me to interview him through email. My first question was essentially, where did you write this? How was it born? Mr. Sobrer has translated several works into different languages, and I wondered if this ‘cards into poetry’ was an extension of that work to some degree.
MJS: My Book of Oracles was conceived in Bloomington, IN. I was going through a divorce and pretty murky times, psychologically, and I won a Tarot card reading at a talent auction I had attended. A young woman came to my apartment, we sat at the kitchen table, she unfolded a pack from a silk envelope and proceeded to read some cards. I found myself completely pictured—past and present—in her reading, and ran out to purchase a pack of Tarot cards, the Rider Waite, the same as my reader had used. I later gathered a small collection of sets, but the R-W is still my favorite.
Then I shuffled the deck and picked a card, which I left visible on my desk for a week. Each week, then, I wrote something about that card, avoiding repetition and adding the major arcana once in a while, so that in one year (52 weeks, 52 minor arcana cards) I had penned into a blank book my thoughts.
I wrote those in my native language, Catalan. During a long stay (18 months) in Barcelona, I typed a version and found a publisher for it. Again, this was the original Catalan. It was titled El llibre dels oracles and was published in Barcelona by La Magrana in 1998.
Back in the States, I attended an NEH translation seminar at the U of California Santa Cruz and translated, with many changes, my book into The Book of Oracles. This I published myself in 1994, with my own design, under a seal I created, "The Spitting Frog Press". A Catalan artist, Artur Duch, did the cover. I still keep a few copies.
I was interested in how a system like the Tarot could work, as it did for me. Inspired by another Catalan, the poet J. V. Foix, I wrote an essay trying to explain the Tarot's workings. Essentially, I believe that the human brain is designed to recognize. We recognize a human face in the most sketchy set of lines (such as emoticons) and we recognize psychological traits in writings (novels) and in paintings. Add to this everyone's innate narcissism—recognizing ourselves in our reflection—and you get the idea.
Yes, I tried to translate the cards into poetry, but writing is much too elaborate to be suggestive, I mean openly suggestive. A poem guides the reader in a fairly specific direction, as different from a painting. You might find, for example, Edvard Munch's famous "Scream" painting sad, alarming, disgusting, or downright silly and comic, depending on your mood. In other words, you bring much more to seeing a picture—such as a Tarot card—than to something, such as a poem, that spells things out. Still, as a translator, I was fascinated by the idea of rendering the visual into the verbal, translating from eyes to ears.
Where are the tens? I didn’t see a ten in the whole book and for years, thought I was crazy. (Turns out, NOT crazy.)
JMS: In my system there are no tens, just nine number cards and four face cards. You could think that the ten of each suit is the Jack, followed by the other three face cards. Each suit has 13 cards, then. 13 times 4 (for the four suits, or the four seasons) gives us the 52 cards corresponding to the 52 weeks of the year. This system is of course short one day (two on leap years) of 365. I see the system’s incompleteness as intentional, a way to emphasize the human nature of the whole system (such as in Islam the perfect number can be found only in Allah, never in a human endeavor—which is also a belief quite widespread in the European Middle Ages, and also reflected in the intentional «mistakes» in the woven oriental rugs). Or you could think that the missing day is the unnumbered major arcanum, The Fool (or the joker of regular decks).
You compared the Queen of Clubs/Wands to Kali, and also connected it with the number 14. Where did this come from?
JMS: There is a lot behind the Queen of Clubs. On a poetic level my piece echoes the ending of a poem by Paul Celan, “Todesfuge,” or “Death Fugue,” which has the recurring line "Der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland" [Death is a Master from Germany] and the characters of Margarete, the blond Arian, and Shulamit, the brunette Semite whom the holocaust has turned to ashes. Hence my reference to the "ashes of time" in my poem for the card.
The Black Rose, on the other hand, was a friend who, after an aborted relationship 14 years previous, came to see me and we finally consummated our brief, but intense, love. This woman, a brunette, is from Texas and she used to joke she was "the Black (not Yellow) Rose of Texas". She is also quite the gardener, particularly after she moved to France, where she and her husband— oh, adulterous poetry!—have a little property in Normandy, with an apple orchard attached and wonderful lilacs growing in front of their house. Her visit to me was transformative, and The Queen of Hearts pays homage to her. If we put together, then, the black of "Rose"'s (not her name) tresses and the ashes of Shulamit we get to Kali (if we are fond of gigantic, uncalled-for leaps), the goddess from Indian mythology. Kali is at once goddess of empowerment (sex is also empowerment) and of death (the ashes). It all makes sense, if sense is something you are prone to find as I am. The Queen of Clubs is perhaps my favorite poem of the lot. You know I wrote two poems for each of the minor arcana, trying to find opposition and balance. The reverse or downside of the Queen of Clubs card, naturally enough to me, is imbued by sadness, which I tried to exorcise with a call to acceptance (and you need acceptance when you've been hit —or hit on—by Kali.)
For the Nine of Swords reversed, you wrote “Undo your fists into receiving hands”, which comes to mind every time I see that card. Did you find it difficult to speak to the inverted meanings of the cards?
JMS: There is a kind of psychological entropy in human affairs. We obey the second law of psycho-thermo-dynamics. Our affairs evolve so that we find equilibrium in our contradictions. We all have contradictions and live contradictorily, even if we won't admit or realize it. So the suit I call swords signifies the malignancy of violence and the benignity of excision: the scalpel can kill and cure. The hand, likewise, can hurt and give, can refuse and receive. So every card invites its opposite. Having said this, however, I confess that finding the upside-down of the cards did not always come easy. Much as we are immersed in contradiction, in the play of opposites, we are also deeply unaware of our contradictions. Greek philosophers coined the word "aporia" [impasse] for the impossibility of solving problems with plausible yet inconsistent premises. Each card is an aporia, an unstable equilibrium—a condition easy to see in others and hard to see in oneself.
I always see the King of Swords as calculated and intellectual. How did you find the love in him?
JMS: I notice your interest in swords—you are a woman who cuts to the chase! (laugh).
A king is an imposition, and yet we cannot but associate kings with the positive. We talk of majesty as more than a virtue, a gift, something better than good. Kings knight with swords, and also judge and execute. There must be something behind such power, and I guessed love, also more than a virtue and not always benign or painless.
The Hierophant always comes up in readings for me for computer professionals. I find this weirdly in sync with your description of "He who shows the sacred". Weird?
JMS: Indeed it could be weird, meaning "a coincidence." Yet, I am sure you have heard from many that "there are no coincidences". This is another aporia, or so it seems to me. The human mind is programmed to see connection, not disconnection. When we encounter something coincidental our instinct is to apply some meaning to it. Our lives—I should say our words—are full of metaphors, puns, rhymes, alliterations—all forms of coincidence. Our language keeps taking us to pattern because so do our brains. For some reason, we tend to see coincidence as effect, as the result of a cause, but this might be a delusion, a fallacy. The old Romans had a saying to warn against this fallacy: post hoc, ergo propter hoc [after it, therefore because of it], which is not too far from Duke Ellington's "It don't mean a thing (if you ain't got that swing)". By the way, note the "you" and not "it" in the second clause of the Ellington’s title; this was so in the original rendition, and it fits what I am saying: your swing will give meaning to your thing.
My poem about the Hierophant is a play on etymologies and on numbers, beginning with the etymology of Hierophant, “one who shows the sacred.” Computing is done by machine calculations of a simple system (the combinations of ones, twos and zeroes), a system which can and does mount to infinite complexity. This, and the Hierophant's scepter, brought me to reflect on the number seven (1+2 and 2+2; that is, the addition of the sums of the unequal and the equal), and thus the seven days of the week and the gods they are named after. As opposed to years and months and days, there are no weeks in nature, and so the week is a calculation, a compute, an imposition of the human mind over nature. This seems to fit with the profession you mention. It usre is either weird or over-determined—has it got that swing?
You identify as a skeptic when it comes to tarot. How does your history with them and the book align with this?
I do not limit my skepticism to tarot, I am quite generous when it comes to applying it. Now, skepticism is freedom, perhaps one of the few freedoms we can have (can we choose to breathe but air?). But skepticism cuts both ways. Most people think of skepticism in the negative, as the refusal to believe something or in something. But there is also a positive skepticism: the openness to other truths, to truths we are not comfortable with, that is the skepticism about our own comfortable convictions. I am not prone to believing in closed systems (religions), particularly when they demand blind acceptance (just think of dogmas like transubstantiation). But the Tarot is an open system, at least as I understand it. The cards can be read upside down as much as right-side up. They make me aware of what I bring to my perception and in a way they turn everything into a mirror, thus flattering my incurable narcissism.
You wrote, “I have never seen anyone looking more tired than Death. She advances slowly on a horse that drags its feet. As she passes, all falls.” Death is tired. That almost got me weeping and seriously changed my view of the card. Can you expand?
We die. We all know that, yet we do our best in our daily pursuits to ignore it and we persist in an irrational subliminal belief in our immortality. So death scares us because it challenges our irrationality, a challenge that must be constantly renewed—and is thus tiresome for that reminder. Death is tired—my idea of Death is a nagging dog at the heels of our pretensions.
Yet I could not quite find the voice for Death. I made all the major arcana, but three, speak in their own voices, perhaps deluding myself that I could hear those voices. For the Wheel of Fortune, Death, and the Star, however, I resorted to quoting an imaginary "diary" that the Magician kept. I now wonder what's in common among these three cards.
Death is often related to transformation. This is one way of spinning away from a literal and scary interpretation of death. But transformation—change—is also tiring, although in American culture change is seen as positive, even virtuous. But one should wonder why this is so: wouldn't permanence be also positive? Here I would enter an economic reflection of cultural matters: since the capitalist economy we all share is predicated on growth and change—more building, more manufacturing goods, bigger corporations—we see growth and change as positive; pre-capitalist societies valued permanence and were wary of change (the Wheel of Fortune is fickle). I will not go into a critique of capitalism (in which I also see virtues), but if you just think of our enslavement to daily toil then you will see that transformation is also tired; we seemed condemned to constant change. The card Death reminds us of the impossibility of living without bonds, a scary thought if there is one. I don't know how coherent this is, but I do not think the reading of cards should be any more coherent than the cards themselves.
Thank you, Mr. Sobrer, for your time and for this lovely book. I carry it with me next to my cards so that I can be inspired as often as I choose. I often wish that this was the first tarot book that I’d found, but it will have to serve as the book that I read the most.