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-a-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)