The Flowering Wand

I’ve always been an admir­er of Pamela Col­man Smith’s tarot deck, the so-called Rid­er-Waite deck, and in par­tic­u­lar the Minor Arcana, where it is said that she worked most­ly free of A.E. Wait­e’s direc­tion. With­out pri­or visu­al tem­plates, the non-trump cards up to this point hav­ing only shown the pips, and with­out Wait­e’s bric-à-brac of Anu­bis heads and Hebrew let­ters, Smith’s Minor Arcana becomes a com­pendi­um of human sit­u­a­tions. Sus­pend­ing judg­ment for the moment on the abil­i­ty of the tarot or its read­er to actu­al­ly divine any­thing, its util­i­ty as a means of depict­ing what will occur, is occur­ring, and has occurred depends upon it show­ing a full (but not too full) series of rec­og­niz­able char­ac­ters with rec­og­niz­able rela­tion­ships between them. These scenes can then be flex­i­bly com­bined into sequences, or con­tem­plat­ed one at a time.

Land­scape being my dis­ci­pline and all, I’ve always been struck by how Smith’s lit­tle arche­typ­al scenes are made to play out against arche­typ­al land­scapes. Some of them are pret­ty expres­sive in of them­selves (the loopy sea behind the Two of Pen­ta­cles, the pic­turesque camp of the Sev­en of Swords), oth­ers pret­ty well stock (the pyra­mids behind the Knight of Wands). To me her work seems the most dead when her fig­ures sit immo­bile with the land sketched away deep behind them, as in most of the court cards, and most alive when her sit­u­a­tions rely on rela­tion­ships with the land. The dis­sat­is­fac­tion of the Four of Cups, faced away from the beau­ty of the hills and toward the line of cups, rotates in the Five to being caught side­ways between spilled cups and pic­turesque ruins, and then again in the Eight to face away from a cup stack and toward the sub­lime mountains.

I get espe­cial­ly hung up on her wands, odd sprout­ing sticks that form space between them — pal­isades, bow­ers, a prosce­ni­um, a don­ny­brook. Here and there grasped by peo­ple, they seem to act as well their own voli­tion, rock­et­ing through the air on the Eight, and, I like to think, assail­ing the young man in the Sev­en. They are the best sym­bol I know for the veg­etable world, how it unac­count­ably moves about and then per­sists stock-still, how it once seems pro­found­ly dead and pro­found­ly vital.

Com­pare this to the cot­tage gar­dens that pop­u­late the pen­ta­cle suit. After years of look­ing at these things, what creeps me out the most in the deck is not the Death, or any of the visions of despair and griev­ous bod­i­ly harm in the sword suit, but the domes­tic scene in the Ten of Pen­ta­cles with the patri­arch in his walled gar­den; a tow­er ris­ing behind him that con­jures the Torre dei Con­ti and the bad old days of gang ter­ri­to­ry in Rome; the coins hov­er­ing as an array in front of the scene instead of in it. What counts as a suc­cess in the world of div­ina­tion seems a dread­ful clos­ing-in; and, in my cur­rent state of nerves, a pre­sen­ti­ment of an urban world that increas­ing­ly pens its wealth into tiny enclo­sures, enclo­sures that can­not even be hon­est to them­selves about what sus­tains them.

I am work­ing on a long piece on the recur­rent nature of urban land­scapes, how they arise from cir­cum­stances and recur as they become arche­typ­al, as peo­ple con­strue the mess around them and act in it to make it fol­low a rec­og­niz­able sce­nario. This is a lit­tle piece to acknowl­edge that the whole thought derives, or at least a cor­ner of it does, from Smith’s inter­pre­ta­tion of the world; or, to put it anoth­er way, as I work I can hard­ly free myself from think­ing of the sit­u­a­tion as her Two of Swords, of try­ing to inter­pret the land­scape at my back with a blind­fold on and a set of very ill-suit­ed instru­ments to work with.

(August 2019)