Spells, Riddles, Potions, and Curses
Joanna C. Valente
The Gods Are Dead
(Deadly Chaps Press, 2015)
It’s no secret that Joanna C. Valente is a visionary surrealist poet who has written a book about the twenty-two trump cards in a tarot pack, a.k.a. the major arcana. The Gods are Dead is a stunningly illustrated work of art that opens the veins of human mystery with satirical flicks of the pen. Valente’s voice is urbane and effortless. The same can be said of the book’s illustrations by Ted Chevalier; haunting pictures appear before each poem with the odd familiarity of dreams.
Valente’s first collection Sirs and Madams (Aldrich Press, 2014) established her Octavio Paz-esque style of phantasmagoric verse, where images burst from narrative with graphic immediacy. Everything physical in her poetry is symbolic, and nothing coincidental. The raw presentation of subject matter in her first book comes to full fruition in The Gods Are Dead. It’s a chance to read a poet entering her prime, to witness a fertile imagination conjure new reality:
A woman & man stand naked.
Above them, the devil sits, holds earth’s torch.
Around the necks of him & her, chains lay loose.
The chains can be slipped.
They are freely worn.
There is no water.
Only empty cups scattered at their feet.
The devil’s belly is ripped open.
When the sun escapes—daybreak.
So opens “At Midnight, the Devil Governs the Sun”. The poem goes on to show how “Her & him make a deal with the devil: sacrifice their bodies for heaven’s bed, fucked angels.” Valente creates bold and bizarre cosmologies. She posits rich versions of phenomena, fable-like myths, and plays with fates that correspond to tarot. Whether you’re familiar with the cards or not, archetypical characters from literature and everyday life are recognizable throughout the book. The occult may be freaky, but is basically a story about what’s happening in the universe.
The Fool, the Magician, the Empress are just a few of the characters in the book. Their poems tend to overlap, as Valente builds upon allegories that culminate in a grand theme. She specifies place with laconic lyrics that allow for contemplation between the lines, while letting characters enter and exit poems with a fine-tuned fluidity of phrase. Some of the settings are more metaphysical than others, but always grounded in visceral realities. Turning the pages is like watching a tarot deck get shuffled; the effect is one of kaleidoscopic possibility.
The grand theme of The Gods are Dead may be a theological argument about how indifferent divinities remain, while our experience of life continues to depend on concrete things. Our humanity relates so much to the forces of nature that we may as well get to know them better. There is an irrevocable sense of acceptance, and the old tautology; what is will be. It’s almost an injustice to make generalizations about a collection of poetry so deeply rooted in explosive particulars. Yet the astronomical, meteoric pulse of it all demands recognition.
There is no returning
to the garden where she & him grew
fled home to practice absence
unlearn a happy childhood
plucked from paradise’s soil
him & she take driving lessons
for a new country’s road
life will have to be sacrificed.
-“She & Him Learn How to be Human Outside Eden”
Now let’s leave behind the dreamy, romantic side of things, and go to the guts of this book: sex, death, and darkness. Valente is intrepid in terms of facing the powers that be, both beautiful and ugly. She’s unflinching about flesh, and its sundry fruit. Even in the grotesque, there is reverence for rebirth. Her poems contain phrases like “dismembering human turned divine” and “the Holy Ghost was never in that hole.” You simply cannot escape the carnal baptism in blood and gore. It’s part of the purification process in The Gods Are Dead.
Spells, incantations, riddles, questions, potions, curses, rituals; it’s a veritable witches brew of pagan insight. The variety and juxtaposition of living and dead things are disturbing. The rot, shit, and pus take you off guard. Yet somehow, Valente alchemically puts it all together. Her appreciation for nature and what it symbolizes is positively sophisticated. She weaves idiosyncratic and seemingly unrelated things together, and it works. The poems casually demystify the vulgar and profane, by presenting them just as they are, parts of life.
Lifting black gauze, she pours
a thick liquid from one receptacle
On her bed a man lays palms
open, asking how do you collect
She places her hands between
each thigh, lights a candle
-from “At Night, Temperance Works as a Dominatrix”
The collection depicts inner forces holding us back, and moments of violence that threaten to subsume consciousness for good. Yet Valente deals with the cards in whimsical turns of phrase, accepting the worst, while demurring to ultimately submit. Her poem about the Hanged Man card is entitled “The Hanged Man Will Ghostwrite Your Life.” It has him hanging upside-down, from one foot, accompanied by a Greek chorus of coyotes feasting on a lamb that is still alive. The lamb speaks for the Hanged Man: “I am dead as a forgotten man, no mind / I am a broken vessel.” Then the coyotes go with their dinner.
The poem titles tend to parody the traditional tarot cards: “The Fool Forgets Who He Is,” “The Magician’s Day Job as Paparazzi,” “The Empress Is the Main Attraction at Your Favorite Night Club,” and my favorite, “The Moon is Always Horny.”The ironic take on epistemology lends the collection a wry sense of humor, and complements the masterful artwork by Ted Chevalier. Each of his drawings represents one of the major arcana, and illustrates a poem. Whimsical and dark, they mirror tragicomic characters doomed to repeat themselves, with a sensitive intelligence reminiscent of Edward Gorey.
The Gods Are Dead is a strong collaboration between poet and artist. It is spare and whimsical, with black and white illustrations that portray stories about darkness and light in the universe. Valente’s psychic surrealism resonates throughout.
LUCAS HUNT was born in rural Iowa, and is the author of Lives, Light on the Concrete, and The Muse Demanded Lyrics (Pen & Anvil, 2016). He studied at the Iowa Writers Workshop, and the MFA program at Southampton College. Hunt has published in the New York Times, East Hampton Star, Clarion, Slice, and received a John Steinbeck Award for poetry. He is the director of Orchard Literary, founder of Hunt & Light, and a professional live auctioneer.