In literature, the Tarot as a narrative machine or as a plot device dates back to Pietro Aretino’s Pasquinate of 1521 at least, and has been put to work in all manner of ways, from formative and conceptual engine as in the work of Italo Calvino, explicit inspiration for William Lindsay Gresham’s Nightmare Alley, an aid to character development in the work of Paul Adam, and as cliché in all manner of recent horror or fantasy novels. Less obviously, it has been an inspiration for poetry, although Aretino’s verses mark the first recorded instance of this particular usage, and Gérard de Nerval’s poems have been thoroughly studied in this perspective (by Georges Le Breton and Jean Richer, notably).
One undeservedly neglected figure whose work makes use of cards as both subject and inspiration for a series of poems is that of André Salmon (1881-1969), a once well-known French poet, close to Picasso, Apollinaire, Max Jacob and modernist artists and authors, and whose work was also well known in English at one point.
Salmon’s series of 10 (or 12) brief poems inspired by the semi-historical, semi-legendary figures depicted on the court cards of the pack of ordinary playing cards is entitled Cartomancie, and was published in the ephemeral literary journal Action in 1921, illustrated with woodcuts. An offprint was also produced and one such copy appears in the collection of books, cards and papers donated to the Bibliothèque Nationale by Paul Marteau, director of Grimaud. These poems do not appear to have been republished since, nor compiled in Salmon’s other works, to the best of our knowledge. Moreover, the last stanza of the last poem, Valet of Heart, appears to be missing at least one line. The originals may be read here:
The engravings are also worthy of note in that they were produced by Lluís Bracons (1892-1961), an eminent engraver and lacquerer, founder of the Bracons-Duplessis engraving workshop. Further information on the characters depicted on the cards may be found here, and which are more comprehensively dealt with in chapter XII of W. Gurney Benham’s Playing cards : history of the pack and explanations of its many secrets.
Lest we conclude that cards and cartomancy were only a passing and wholly expedient interest, it should be noted that Salmon devoted a regular column in the newspaper Le Petit Parisien to recounting his investigative experiences among the soothsayers and fortune-tellers of Paris in the 1930s, which pieces were eventually compiled and published as Voyages au pays des voyantes (1932), a book which has been recently republished as Visites aux diseuses de bonne aventure, and which provides a unique insight into the world of early twentieth-century fortune-telling and cartomancy from the point of view of the interested but somewhat sceptical layman. In fact, credit for this type of investigative journalism and social history must go to Salmon, whose command of the French language, superior to the usual journalistic prose, coupled to an acute sense of observation, made him the perfect chronicler of this neglected but enduring aspect of human activity. Furthermore, his erudite historical and literary remarks complete the picture by connecting the divinatory practices and literature of the 18th and 19th centuries with those of his age, giving his work a certain documentary and anthropological value.
Further information on Salmon, his life and works, may be found on the following websites and blogs:
Nowhere is the Italian expression that to translate is to betray no more evident than when it comes to translating poetry, and as one renowned translator has said: to translate a poem, one must write a poem. Without in the slightest claiming to be a poet, nor even a poetaster, we here present fairly literal renditions of a few of these brief and charming pieces. The entire journal containing the pieces may be read here. Further examples of Salmon’s poetry, in both French and English, may be read here. Another English translation of Cartomancy, published by Olchar E. Lindsann, is available here.
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Queen of Diamonds
Fear the queen with the roses
Dragging you onto her square,
You’ll become her neuroses,
Which she will spread everywhere.
Queen of Clubs
Tobacconist or money exchange?
Gold and banknotes, wines and spirits?
The Queen of Clubs has got heart!
Argine appears if your good angel wills it,
Like a crossed cheque with but one payee.
Trifling temporary troubles —
Tears in the night — bereavement and prison
Delays at sea, O passenger
The dark star is above the house.
Plots in the town,
Formed against whom?
A closed circle
Wherein the Ace of Hearts shines.
Bothers, changes, disputes
— The cards never lie;
The black lily of uncertainty
Has corrupted my handsome valet.
Valet of Heart
Gentle, faithful, honest, timid
And among all, the most fatal!
What to do with this heart so candid
O La Hire, so sentimental!
Argine appears if your good angel wills it.
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