Ralph Semino Galán presents Preface to his FROM THE MAJOR ARCANA
(University of Santo Tomas Publishing House, Philippines, 2014)
From the Major Arcana is an intersemiotic translation of the 22 trump cards of the Tarot pack into a suite of poems, with opening and closing verses, titled “A Reading” and “The Last Card” respectively, which provide the entire collection with a narrative arc, as well as some sense of structural coherence and closure, albeit ironically an open-ended one.
My endeavor began in 2004 when I wrote my first Tarot card-inspired poem after a major traumatic experience that nearly pushed me over the edge. “Magician,” which I authored after my good friend and fellow poet Paolo Manalo gave me a Tarot card reading using his Rider-Waite pack, proved to be the breakthrough piece of my emotional puzzle, the poem that helped me to snap out of the devastating effects of my existential depression.
After composing “Magician” and regaining my composure, I wanted to transform into poetic form the rest of the cards of the Tarot’s Major Arcana, which Joseph Campbell describes in another context as the soul’s inner journey, the internalized version of the hero’s outward quest. But the vicissitudes of the real world turned out to be very demanding at that stage of my existence. I had to move out of the Malate apartment which I shared with some friends, though I was stone broke and could barely make ends meet. Moreover, I had to finish my M.A. in Creative Writing in UP Diliman, an imperative I had to fulfill if I were to keep my job as an instructor in UST.
Flash forward to the first semester of academic year 2012-2013 when I began to write creatively again with some semblance of sustainability and continuity. The previous semester (and the summer that followed it) had turned out to be very eventful for me, initially in terms of my academic career, as I got promoted to associate professor in the UST Faculty of Arts and Letters and de facto deputy director of the UST Center for Creative Writing and Literary Studies, and then eventually in terms of my writing career, as I experienced a creative spurt that would spur me to churn out an average of 5-6 poems and/or translations a month.
To achieve some sort of stylistic unity, I have decided more or less to follow the pattern of the first poem (“Magician”) for the rest of the series, which is to say that each piece of the lyric sequence must have 18 lines divided into six tercets or half a dozen stanzas of three lines each. My initial decision to choose the tercet over the more commonly deployed stanzaic divisions of the quatrain and the couplet is highly influenced by numerology and the Kabbalah, the number three being symbolic of the unity of mind, body and spirit, hence the Holy Trinity of Roman Catholicism, the stable structure of the pyramid, and in the Wiccan tradition the tripartite goddess of virgin, mother and crone.
Furthermore, there are other significant associations with the number three: we perceive the flow of time as past, present and future (the very essence of divination), physical space is three-dimensional (height, length and width), and there are three persons in English grammar, which I have somehow exploited in shifting the point of view and/or speaking voice (persona) from poem to poem. (In some of the poems, like “Hermit,” “Hanged Man” and “Devil,” it is the character depicted in the card himself who utters from a first person point of view. In others, like “High Priestess” and “Empress,” the poetic persona addresses the card’s iconic image.) Three can therefore be perceived as the number of progression, probabilities, and the proper order of things.
But the number three in other traditions does not necessarily denote balance or harmony. In the preface of her novel featuring a love triangle, Instances of the Number 3, British novelist Salley Vickers says: “It is said there were ancient schools of thought which held that the number 3 is unstable. If the reasons for this belief were ever known they are lost in time. A three-legged stool refutes the claim, as — less prosaically — we are told does the Christian trinity. Whatever the case, it is a fact that three is a protean number: under certain conditions it will tend to collapse into two or expand into four ...”
In terms of versification, however, the number three in the form of the tercet does not only embody the rigidity of Apollonian order or the cthonic chaos of the Dionysian, but paradoxically both flexibility and stricture in lineation. In utilizing the tercet, I have realized that I can contain/sustain a thought unit by making the third line of a stanza end-stopped; or I can let the idea meander by making it a run-on line that spills over to the next stanza. Moreover, the ebb and flow, push and pull of the lines create a poetic tension which appears to almost mimic the rhythm of nature: cyclical like the changing of the seasons, circular like the endless sequence of birth, death and rebirth.
Thematically, these 22 poems of the Major Arcana deal with innocence (“Fool”) and transformation (“Magician”), intuition (“High Priestess”) and plenitude (“Empress”), destruction (“Emperor”) and dogma (“Hierophant”), romance (“Lovers”) and control (“Chariot”), power (“Strength”) and reflection (“Hermit”), uncertainty (“Wheel of Fortune”) and truth (“Justice”), difference (“Hanged Man”) and renewal (“Death”), equilibrium (“Temperance”) and frustration (“Devil”), upheaval (“Tower”) and inspiration (“Star”), multiplicity (“Moon”) and constancy (“Sun”), and apprehension (“Judgement”) and success (“World”).
Ralph Semino Galán, poet, literary and cultural critic, translator and editor, is the Assistant Director of the Center for Creative Writing and Literary Studies of the University of Santo Tomas, where he is an Associate Professor of Literature, the Humanities and Creative Writing. He has a B.A. in English (Major in Literature), magna cum laude from the Mindanao State University-Iligan Institute of Technology and an M.A. in English Studies (Major in Creative Writing) from UP Diliman. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Literature in the UST Graduate School. His poems in English and Filipino have won prizes in national literary contests. He is the author of the following books: The Southern Cross and Other Poems (National Commission for Culture and the Arts, 2005), Discernments: Literary Essays, Cultural Critiques and Book Reviews (UST Publishing House, 2013), From the Major Arcana (UST Publishing House, 2014), and Sa mga Pagitan ng Buhay at Iba pang Salin (forthcoming, UST Publishing House, 2016).