Tarot for Nonbelievers: A Review of Joanna Valente’s The Gods Are Dead

Joanna Valente’s The Gods Are Dead (Deadly Chaps Press, 2015) casts the Tarot’s Major Arcana (as illustrated by Ted Chevalier) as characters in the modern world, complete with Internet access, day jobs, night clubs, existential terror, Brooklyn, and bands. The collection subverts what Tarot enthusiasts have come to know about these archetypes (The Magician, The Empress, and so on), but that doesn’t mean you have to know the Tarot to appreciate Valente’s work. This collection shines a light on our shadow selves through these reimagined symbols of self actualization.

Take the poem “She & Him Learn How to Be Human Outside Eden,” which corresponds with The Lovers. In this poem, Valente draws parallels between leaving home and its security with the story of Adam and Eve being cast from the Garden of Eden:

 There is no returning
 to the garden

where she & him grew

fled home to practice absence

unlearn a happy childhood

We tend to think of love as the pinnacle of being complete, but Valente wisely points out that loving someone is a step into the unknown. You must grow past yourself to truly share and build a life with someone else. There’s a loneliness to that – those who leave can never truly return from where they came.

Valente’s poem “The Sun Rises Over Manhattan & Sets in Brooklyn, explores a different kind of upheaval through The Sun. It begins with the discomfort following a memorial:

No one says anything even though

everyone is thinking please shut up

please stop stopcryingstoprightnow

someone pulls out a beer     starts

talking about Philly cheesesteaks.

And then we get to the heart of the poem: the missed connection between the poet who wrote words that she felt were important and the people who surround her. The poet yearns for validation, and her family and friends mean well, but may never really understand her:

For good luck she wore her grand

mother’s ruby ring   sometimes

drank too much at poetry readings

because saying words actually meant

something & all she wanted

were friends who thought her words

meant something      her apartment

is full of stuff             her parents find boxes

full of words don’t know what any

of it means but know it’s something.

That feeling of isolation continues in “At Midnight, the Devil Governs the Sun.” Here, lovers make a deal with the devil and “dream of a stable to birth the world.” But we all know how those deals turn out:

When the sun escapes—daybreak.

On his knees, eyes tangle a set of metal teeth.
Between lavender tongue.

Tongue lashes tree’s fruit—gurgles lye:

he calls them darling, sweetheart, my love, mine.

They feel even more alone.

The Gods Are Dead strips away the artifice of the world and uses poetry as Tarot to reveal hidden, unspoken truths. Valente brings new life to the Tarot and the written word, and it’s truly a feat.

Julianna DeMicco is a senior at Binghamton University. She is currently pursuing a double major in philosophy, politics and law, and English with a concentration in creative writing and global cultures. She is a student leader on her campus and has focused her experiences on a service-based learning mentality. As a vocalist, trumpeter, ukulele player, and poet, she is fascinated by the musicality of poetry and loves to experiment with different rhythms in her own work. In her spare time, she furthers her independent study of Italian, French, and Chinese. In addition, she is pursuing a study of poetry and literature from different eras, specifically the Medieval Era to the Early Renaissance.

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