The Witch and the Poet: Part 3


First Person


The story so far: the author visits a fortune-teller whose prediction that she will become a poet changes the course of her destiny.

In the U.S. there are two groups concerned with the conduct of tarot readers. The Tarot Certification Board of America, which posts a Client Bill of Rights, and the American Tarot Association, which promotes a Code of Ethics. The TCBA’s Bill of Rights states, among other things, that as a client you are entitled to confidentiality; that readers are not qualified to give medical, financial, or legal advice (except if they’re doctors, financial advisors, or attorneys); that readers are not qualified to predict the future; and that they’re not qualified to make decisions for you.

The ATA believes that “Ethical Tarot readers are people who help others better hear their own inner guides.” And they reiterate the TCBA’s Bill of Rights, making the additional point that if readers happen to be doctors, financial advisors, or attorneys, they will “clearly differentiate between the tarot reading and any professional advice additionally provided.”

While there was an extant Association of Tarot Readers in 1964, the TCBA wasn’t formed until 2002. In any case, I doubt the witch in Galilee was a member of any professional group. She was probably a rogue reader, in that she didn’t charge for her services and only read for friends and guests in her home. I’m not sure if she offered our futures as a politeness, the way you’d offer an extra piece of coffee cake, or if she wanted to mess with us. Clearly she overstepped her bounds with Wendy on the “predicting the future” issue. If I were Wendy, I’d start watching for falling pianos on my 84th birthday.

The witch was on target with me in the “helping others better hear their own inner guides” category. But what are the repercussions of telling a 19 year-old she is one thing or another? Most tarot sessions start with a question: the seeker, or client, winnows away her world until the yearning is laid bare. Will I be happy in romance? Is my career on the right track? Should I get a puppy?

I don’t remember the witch asking us for any specific questions at all. It probably didn’t matter: Wendy and I hadn’t formulated any yet beyond, “What will happen to us?” We were too young to wade into specificity.

When the witch told me I was a poet I said I didn’t believe her. I imagine Wendy had even less use for poets than the witch, and I was already pushing her good graces by keeping a ferret in our dorm room. I doubted she would have thought too highly of having a poet for a roommate.

But secretly I believed the witch. I secretly hoped to God she was right.

Her announcement gave voice to a disorganized storm of unspoken and utterly untested suspicions in my head, and it had the effect of a stealth hurricane on my life. The word “poet,” I now see, means different things to a nineteen- year-old than to a fifty-two- year-old. When I was nineteen I took its meaning at once more literally and more impressionistically than I do now. I didn’t write or want to write poetry, so on a public level I was scornful and announced she was wrong. Yet I, too, extrapolated associations from the word “poet”—creative, independent, possessing a license to live life slant—and accepted the implication that I could embrace difference, even if I didn’t have belief enough in myself, or sufficient talent, to embrace the hard work of art.

Instead of making art I wanted art made of me. I wanted Fate in the guise of the witch’s tarot cards to be Henry James and me to be Isabel Archer—up to the point she marries Osmond. I’d be too damn smart to do that.

“If she would not do this, then she must do great things, she must do something greater.” James makes these words ring in Isabel’s head after she refuses Lord Warburton’s proposal of marriage. I read The Portrait of a Lady shortly after meeting the witch, and her “You’re a poet” declaration blended with Isabel’s challenge. I wanted above all, at 19, to create by living, by refusing choices others made and making art of doing something different. Ever the good girl, I felt it was all right to be different because I’d been given permission by Fate, thanks to the intersession of a middle-aged witch in Galilee. She said I was a poet, but instead she’d given me license to turn away from late night picnics with men.

This is not to say I’m not also a poet. I have, however, taken a more circuitous route to that identity. Which again calls down the question: what happens when we’re given validation before we have the self-awareness or self-identity or even the bloody wit to ask for it? The witch handed me the title of poet before I’d earned it with hard, creative work.

I can’t say for sure what actual impact her words have had on my life. Doubtless I would have followed the same paths had I never met her. But no matter what career phase I’ve lived through—graphic arts assistant-grad student-editor-freelance travel writer—I’ve always had a sense of biding my time. I lived through my twenties and thirties and half of my forties as a lady-in-waiting, not upon a queen, but upon a poet. Meanwhile the witch’s words brewed in the back of my brain, bubbling and squeaking, occasionally rising to the surface to pop in my consciousness, splattering Ambition and Conscience with slimy green guilt.

I felt like an apprentice to myself. All because the witch had said I was a poet. I was writing books about traveling the world learning Welsh, or listening to oral storytellers in the South, or about how geology makes first cousins of the carved limestone and produce—walnuts, truffles, grapes, peaches, and beautiful, round melons—of Southwest France. But still. Place was soul once removed.

And then a curious thing happened. It turns out the witch got the prediction right, but the order wrong. (Really, who could have known?) It wasn’t that I was a poet, and therefore would suffer ups and downs in life. Switch that. I suffered a series of ups and downs that gave me the opportunity to become a poet. No one said tarot was a science.

In the mid 2000s the bottom fell out of the publishing world. If the magazines and newspapers I worked for didn’t fold outright, the editors I knew took early retirement and beat the hell out of Dodge. The imprint of HarperCollins that was bringing out my French book was axed while the book was in production; another imprint shepherded it through the system but didn’t have the wherewithal to publicize it. My agent left the field because he couldn’t support his family. Just about the time Lehman Brothers collapsed publishers were refusing to take a chance on my new book about Mount Vesuvius. Not unless the freaking volcano blew first.

Just when my writing career should have been flourishing it ground to a halt. Doubt and unhappiness rushed right in. I remember sitting on the edge of my bed one day in 2006 thinking how hard it was to breath—each breath, literally, a struggle—through such dead weight of disappointment.

But then I started messing around with photography. In my book on France I’d written about a photographer named Lucy Porter from the 1920s, who’d taken luminous black and white portraits of Romanesque sculpture. I’d written about the buzzing juxtaposition that occurs when the snapshot moment meets the near-eternity of stone. So I began printing photographic portraits on rocks from riverbeds and the sea, then putting them back where I found them, literally restoring us to our environment and recording what happened as our images weathered away. One year I was a travel writer; the next I was creating environmental installations and writing about them instead.

I also began teaching creative writing and found that reading my students’ work, thinking hard about it, helped make me a better writer. I found a community of writers who took the ‘creative’ label in our job title seriously. I started writing from the inside out, rather than the outside in (though I still do that too; my favorite place in the world, Wales, is me and I am Wales). I regularly began to stretch my imagination beyond its daily rounds. Which will do, I think, as an expansive working definition of ‘poetry’ in the large sense. I don’t write poems, but I do attempt to remake the world in a way that the personal meanings I impose on it, or discover within it, are discernable to others.

I started writing about the witch.

It only took me thirty years.

Still the question nagged: Am I really a poet? I never became an International Relations major or filed a story from the Middle East—surely that counts for something? I wondered what the cards would say. So for the first time since 1980, when the witch laid them out for me in her dining room, I had my tarot cards read.

This time I paid thirty dollars and the sun shone. We didn’t drink port and the sea was at least ninety miles away; demons stayed inside their mirrors.

The reader—a brisk and pleasant tarot professional—asked me what question I’d like to ask. I was ready for this. I addressed the deck: “Was the witch right?” No further explanation. My reader asked me to cut the cards three times with my left hand, and then she laid out 10 cards in a Celtic cross pattern. I cringed. The Death card was smack in the middle.

She smiled. “I know what you’re thinking. Never fear. It doesn’t represent actual death. It suggests that some phase of life has recently come to an end, or is coming to an end. It means the end of a period or a mindset or an era.”

I frowned.

She smiled again. “You’re moving from one stage into another as some aspect of your old life falls away. Don’t worry, it’s a good thing. And here, look at this.” She pointed at a card she’d lain down crossing the Death card horizontally, and I instinctively leaned in closer. “This is the Swords card. It indicates that you’re entering a more spiritual, more creative or intuitive stage of life. I’d say that whatever is falling away did not represent the real you, but now you’re embarking on a more authentic expression of the self. Does that make sense?”

I nodded pensively. I didn’t want to give too much away, but my foot started tapping under the table.

She studied the cards a moment in silence. Then she suddenly exclaimed, “Oh my goodness. Five major arcane! That’s very unusual. That represents a strong creative drive. These cards”—she indicated a colorful group including The Wheel of Fortune, The World, The Hierophant (I looked it up; it means a priest in ancient Greece), The Star, and of course Death—“add depth to what I’ve just said about your new creative phase.”

And then for emphasis she sat back and looked at me. “That’s true, isn’t it—about the creative phase?”

“Yes,” I said sheepishly. If I’d already written most of this essay I’d have been wondering by now if she’d nicked a copy. But she didn’t even know my last name.

The reader continued. She pointed to a Page card in the suit of wands and then to a King in the same suit, and told me this suggested the maturation of the creative project I was currently working on. “You’re finally finishing it, aren’t you?”

Again I nodded, thinking of an immense word-and-image series I was just finishing from an artist’s residency at the Grand Canyon in 2011.

She elaborated for another fifteen minutes or so, spending a fair amount of time on the Wheel of Fortune. “This suggests things have been easier for you in the past. The work you were doing was fun but not sufficiently challenging. You were in a rhythm then—everything fell into place. And then it all got tossed in the air, and you struggled. You’re still struggling, but you’re beginning to find your rhythm again. A more challenging, but also more satisfying rhythm.”

This was gobsmacking news. Well, it wasn’t the news that was gobsmacking—it was hardly news at all—it was the source. Really, the cards knew all this? After she’d finished we stood and hugged. As I was turning to leave she called after me, “So, was the witch right?”

I laughed—smiled—shrugged. Then I went home to start this essay.


See parts 1 and 2 here.

Pamela Petro’s latest book is The Slow Breath of Stone: A Romanesque Love Story.