Fixed Stars Govern a Life Tarot Cards!

Over the last few years of teaching  my first book, Fixed Stars Govern a Life: Decoding Sylvia Plath (2014, Stephen F. Austin State University Press)  at Lindenwood University, I was able to provide my students with some amazing graphics, thanks in part to Tamara Robinson, an artist and reader of my work in New York City. Tamara painstakingly went through the entire FSGL book and created tarot card designs to match each of the first twenty-two poems, corresponding with the major arcana of the tarot. These are no ordinary tarot card designs, however. They are using Plath’s poetic imagery instead of the traditional Rider-Waite deck’s imagery. The idea that someone could take my work and conceive these beautiful pictures astounded me then and now.

Even more astounding was that fact that on a cold, gloomy day last month, when I went to my mailbox to get my mail, there was an interesting and unexpected package from Tamara: she had her designs printed up as tarot cards! Here is the full major arcana collection on a nice card stock (tarot enthusiasts know that many readers use only the major arcana cards, so this is a usable set).

I am sharing my poor photographs, taken from my phone, here. Please pardon the glare. I am also posting two cards to see close-up detail:

The Lovers card, which fits Plath’s poem “Lady Lazarus,” features the alchemical green lion swallowing the Sun, the goddess Venus is represented by both the Venus Fly Trap plant and the Statue of Liberty. Cupid’s arrow of Eros shoots man, and more.

Above is The Sun card, which corresponds to Plath’s poem “Stopped Dead.” It is a red and yellow Sun, surrounded by astrology signs; on the left is a Moorish wall and a naked child on a horse, as in the traditional design. In the center, however, is a Macaque monkey and a scarab; on the right is a Gibraltar rock and Hamlet’s head and half-skull .


It’s quite astounding work, and such a labor of love. If readers would like me to send a close-up of another card or two, just ask and I am happy to oblige. If you’d like to get a set of these cards for yourself, you may write Tamara Robinson at:

The price is $40 and payable through PayPal (shipping is included in the price). The PayPal address is Tamara Robinson or email


Gratitude for Goodreads Reviews

I found a good new book review of Decoding Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy” today on GoodReads.  I love any and all thoughtful book reviews, because they challenge me and show me where I need to clarify things.

This guy was terrific in specifics and clearly paid attention to what he was reading. I also love that he took the extra step and checked out some of these connections I made. Regarding the Scutum constellation, I should clarify two things: one, that I am using primarily the (outdated) books that Plath read and used for my resources. We since know a lot more about stars and planets today. The other thing is that Plath is doing a Joycean thing here with connections, puns, layers of meaning and such. She studied from the master of dimensionality (James Joyce in his Ulysses and Finnegans Wake), and she read about how he did it (A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake by Joseph Campbell) and other books. And there were of course, other masters who did similar things, such as Yeats, Blake, Chaucer and Shakespeare.

If you’ve written a review for one or some of my books on Amazon, would you be a love and copy it over to Goodreads too? One can’t have too much discussion! And wherever you’re reviewing, your reviews help me grow as a writer, and they tell potential readers if what I have written is right for them. Sometimes negative reviews are very helpful, because they show what the reader expected and that the book is not that. In this age of so many online purchases, all reviews count. And the thoughtful ones could not be more highly appreciated by yours truly.

I hope to have another Plath’s Library book review for you soon. It’s been a busy week with more traveling, and of course continuing to read through Finnegans Wake, which will take me a lifetime.

Happy New Year! Thanks for being here.



From Ritual to Romance: Plath’s Pagan Primer (w/Tarot too!)


Which book from Sylvia Plath’s library to review next? How about From Ritual to Romance, by Jessie L. Weston (thanks to Matthew Freeman for gifting this to me years ago). Notes on LibraryThing say Plath read this book 1954-55, wrote “Sylvia Plath 1958” inside of it, and that there is “much underlining” by Plath. I have yet to go to Emory University, where Plath’s copy is held, to see exactly what was underlined, but I’m excited to make that trip sometime soon.

The author of From Ritual to Romance, Jessie Weston, died in 1928 before Plath was born. Weston was a contemporary of the Cambridge Ritualists, a group of classical scholars influenced by myth and ritual. This movement carried on into Plath’s generation and greatly impressed her. In her first year at Cambridge, Plath wrote, “here all are mystics in various ways” (UJ, 221). As a woman in the man’s world of late 19th century Cambridge, Weston was judged by many to be a Theosophist, writing about mystical and occult philosophies. And of course, these philosophies were not taken seriously by Academia at large. The public charge of Theosophy (as a crime!) against Weston came after T.S. Eliot listed From Ritual to Romance as crucial to understanding The Waste Land.

A main point in From Ritual to Romance is that the Holy Grail is not a Christian symbol, but probably pre-Celtic/Pagan, and that the Grail is symbol of self-actualization (the alchemical journey, according to Jung, Campbell, and others). Weston’s academic reputation suffered because she didn’t espouse the traditional views of Arthurian legend. This was a fun book for me to read because, Lord, do I know the feeling of breaking from tradition! Nevertheless, Weston is considered a primary Arthurian scholar, and Plath loved this book, From Ritual to Romance. [Plath also read another book by Weston in her Medieval Literature class, 1952-53].

Like many of the books from Plath’s library which I’m reviewing here, From Ritual to Romance captures attention from the first unnumbered page before the Preface. On this page is a quote (from Cornford, Origins of Attic Comedy), which I’ll paraphrase, with my own Plath angle in brackets: We can demand more evidence to prove mysticism, or, we can see how mysticism does not conflict with known truths [about Plath], and how mysticism correlates and explains so much [of Plath’s work].

Ah, but today is an age of willful ignorance. There’s a delicious section where the author blasts scholars for their specifications, missing the bigger picture. Here’s a glimpse of the beginning of it (67):

On the next page, Weston goes on to say about most scholarship: “The result obtained is always quite satisfactory to the writer, often plausible, sometimes in a measure sound, but it would defy the skill of the most synthetic genius to co-ordinate the results obtained, and combine them in one harmonious whole. They are like pieces of a puzzle, each of which has been symmetrically cut and trimmed, till they lie side by side, un-fitting and un-related.” (68) I envision Sylvia reading this chapter, thinking of that whole, working her words always in ritual and in context to the larger picture of everything around her.

In the Preface, the author writes of owing a great debt to Sir James Frazer, who wrote The Golden Bough, also beloved to Plath. In From Ritual to Romance, Weston says she had the goal of writing about the “border-land between Christianity and Paganism.” She wrote:

“I found, not only the final link that completed the chain of evolution from Pagan Mystery to Christian Ceremonial, but also proof of that wider significance I was beginning to apprehend. The problem involved was not Folk-lore, not even one of Literature, but of Comparative Religion in the widest sense.”

We Plathians know how much religion interested Plath. She studied, practiced and used its philosophies, tools and rites without fully embracing any one.

From Ritual to Romance is not a long book, but its intimidating list of foreign topics in scholarly language is not light reading. This is, however, exciting, heady stuff for the introspective, mystically-inclined literary buff, such as Plath. Here are just a few of the subjects in From Ritual to Romance which I first found in Fixed Stars Govern A Life: Decoding Sylvia Plath: the Hindu Rig-Veda, the importance of Waste-Land motif from Arthurian legend, The Holy Grail as Aryan tradition (think of Plath’s poetic Nazism here), the festival of Soma, the symbol of the root, nature cults, creation stories, Greek mythology, Nature cults, Babylonians, Celts, modern parallels with myth, African tribes and culture, The Medicine Man, the elements, The Fisher King, Fish as a Life symbol across Asian religions, the Leviathan, Jewish and Christian symbolism, Irish Finn mythology, fish as the goddess Venus, the danger of speaking of mystical secrets, exoteric and esoteric elements, Neo-Platonism, Mithraism, Life Principle and the Logos, Vegetation cults as vehicles of high spiritual teaching, Christian legend, folk-tales, women not admitted to initiation, and The Templars (Freemasons).

I especially found the whole Aryan aspect fascinating. When Weston wrote of early Aryan literature and drama paving the way for western literature, she actually referred to a primitive Indo-Iranian culture, although this is never really explained in the book. In fact, the source of the word Aryan is probably a reference to Iran. Yet after some 19th century misinterpretations of the Hindu Rig Veda, and then the Nazis adopting the word as the name for a superior race, Plath (and millions of others) likely had the impression that Aryan referenced Germanic culture. No matter the origin, Pagan, Celtic, Norse, Ancient Greek or Babylonian, what Weston and other mythologists point out is that the legends and rituals are essentially the equivalent. Plath knew that much.

One chapter of From Ritual to Romance is entirely about Symbolism, including symbols of the Fertility cult (which happen to coincide with those of the tarot: Cup, Lance, Sword, Stone or Dish), the cauldron, the Four Suits of the Tarot, origin of the Tarot, and use of symbols in Magic. The Decoding work goes on to build the case that these symbols were purposefully embedded in Plath’s work, to activate upon the reader’s subconscious. It seems to have worked.

Weston suggests that strictly secret ritual was recorded and repackaged (my modern words) as myth. Her work was a complement to Frazer’s focus on magic, religion and science and how magic and science are used to control nature. The book’s Foreword, written by Robert A. Segal, says that religion, falling between magic and science, provides both myth and rituals. Magic, however, “involves no gods, it also involves no myths. There is ritual…” (xxiii). Plath, with her sort of atheistic spirituality, would have been tempted by that perspective.

Segal goes on to say that Weston contends that “literature comes from myth, not that it is myth. […] the keenest difference between literature and myth is that literature stands severed from ritual.” I think this is the problem with the masses’ perception of Plath. Plath’s work is literature. It comes from myth, and occultism, but it is not these things itself. Occultism and myth may even be used to construct a literary work, but a Plath poem is not going to be able to be used as an occult tool by anyone other than Plath. It was written by her to work on her audience. All magic stops there.

From Ritual to Romance, by Jessie L. Weston

1920, Princeton University Press



Know What Plath Read to Know Plath

In the previous blog I mention Literary Alchemy, and the conscious effort that some poets and writers have made throughout history to interweave mysticism into their art in order to make it into something larger than themselves. This is not a new idea, and I am not the first one to notice it. When Sylvia Plath was at Smith College, she spent a great deal of time working on a thesis on James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. Joyce was a big practitioner of literary alchemy, and the famous mythologist and author Joseph Campbell, along with Henry Morton Robinson, wrote a whole book as to how Joyce structured Finnegans Wake, which is called A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake. Campbell’s book is the principle text of Plath’s time (and maybe of ours too) to understanding Joyce’s work, and Plath mentioned several times in letters (LSP, 762-3, 780).

Joyce spent eighteen years writing his book, published in 1939, and he died a few months later. Campbell says in the Foreword, “The book is a kind of terminal moraine in which lie buried all the myths, programs, slogans, hopes, prayers, tools, educational theories, and theological bric-a-brac of the past millennium.” (ASK, xxiii)

James Joyce was seriously fascinated by mysticism. A quick search of his name and the word occult will yield hundreds of journal articles and papers on his esoteric pursuits. Oh yes, Sylvia Plath chose the greatest teachers to model her work after. Everything Campbell said here can also be said for Plath’s Ariel poems.

After the Foreword is the Preface, because these old books enjoyed a lot of such things, and also of course because the world continues to change and updates are needed. In this Preface, Campbell says Finnegans Wake is “the integration, total and complete, of Joyce’s personality and creative powers.” (ASK, xxv)

In Introduction to a Strange Subject (Yes, an Introduction, after a Preface, after a Foreword), Campbell says Finnegans Wake is “a mighty allegory of the fall and resurrection of mankind.” He calls it a “gigantic wheeling rebus” with “mythological heroes and events of the remotest antiquity occupying space with modern personages and contemporary happenings. All time occurs simultaneously […] Multiple meanings are present in every line; interlocking allusions to key words and phrases are woven like fugal themes into the pattern of the work. Finnegans Wake is a prodigious, multifaceted monomyth…” Sound familiar? If you have read my work, it does.

The bottom of page 191 from A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake

Campbell says, “Thus, throughout the work, there is a continual intermelting of the accused and his accusers. All these characters, moving around and against one another, are but facets of some prodigious unity and are at last profoundly identical—each, as it were, a figure in the dream complex of all the others.” (ASK, 9)

Campbell continues about Joyce’s repetitive death and resurrection themes. He describes Joyce’s Cosmic Egg (Plath played with this idea in “Morning Song”; you can see it explained in Fixed Stars Govern a Life), and how its fall is Lucifer’s fall, and Adam and Eve’s, and the sun, and the fall of Rome, and Wall Street, Humpty Dumpty, Newton’s Apple, spring rain on seeded fields, and every man’s daily fall from grace. Each fall implies a corresponding resurrection, both again seen all over Plath’s work. Joyce made sure everything had a historical allegory too, drawing both on things of the long past and also the contemporary politics and happenings of his time. It’s all just so Plathian.

These high-level overviews are key to understanding the multi-dimensionality of Joyce, and then understanding that this is what Plath did too, making a model of him, to steal from “Daddy.” And “Daddy” is so appropriate here, because Campbell explains the older man-girl/father-daughter impropriety through Finnegans Wake which Plath cast as an Electra complex with the father seen from the Freudian-Jungian point of view, and the children in Finnegans Wake of course address their father “Daddy” in God-like reverence. Finnegans Wake also explores King Brutus’ founding of Albion, as William Blake saw it and cast it against the new world of America. For more on how these themes fit with Plath’s “Daddy,” please see my book, nm Decoding Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy.”

In this Introduction, Campbell goes on to explain the parts of the story which we can actually identify as story (it gets tough sometimes): how twelve citizens of the jury represent the twelve signs of the zodiac; four senile judges are the four winds; the wife, “ALP” (which makes Plath’s “nine black Alps” from “The Couriers” have yet another meaning), Anna Livia Plurabelle. She is the “Bringer of Plurabilities” and all things possible with words. She is the letter writer in Finnegans Wake. She is Isis and Mother Earth with her 28 little companions (the days of the month); there is the battle between the sexes and the battle between brothers; good versus evil and magic versus ego—pretty much all of the polarities that make the world –and our heads–spin. Joyce even put autobiographical elements into Finnegans Wake, where his character Shem the Penman, the seer, poet, mother’s pet, and misunderstood artist, who writes “a phosphorescent book in a corrosive language which Shaun [who later becomes “Yawn,” his ego-focused brother] cannot understand.” (ASK, 11)

Campbell writes: “Shem’s business is not to create a higher life, but merely to find and utter the Word. Shaun, on the other hand, whose function is to make the Word become flesh, misreads it, fundamentally rejects it, limits himself to a kind of stupid concretism, and while winning all the skirmishes, loses the eternal city.” (ASK, 12) This, my friends, is the story of the majority of Plath scholarship today.

Chapter VII of A Skeleton Key is devoted to Shem the Penman. Shem’s section includes alchemical operations and Campbell explains how Book II is full of alchemy while also paralleling Christianity. Chapter II, Book II in A Skeleton’s Key, called The Study Period— Triv and Quad, explores what Campbell admits is the hardest part of Finnegans Wake: Kabbala (Campbell’s spelling). (ASK, 163-193) This chapter explores the creation of the universe, history, myth, playing with verse by other poets, letters and numerological correspondences, nine principles, polar [opposite] principles, more alchemy, Latin invitations to spirits of the ancients, mythology, double-meanings, Judaism, cosmology and constellations, Veda, Sanskrit, Celts and Druids, Tantric spellings, Bible stories, Freud, the Atlantic Ocean, syllables and the Kabbalistic Sephiroth, representations of the numbers one through ten in Kabbala, manifesting God through word construction, and of course, riddles and puns. Read this book and The Painted Caravan, and just try to tell me Plath didn’t know about Qabalah and Alchemy. She knew plenty.

A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake continues with a Synopsis and Demonstration (we still haven’t gotten to Chapter One yet!) where the author talks about word structure and sound, what happens in each part, and the children’s (and readers’) lessons in Kabbalistic Theology, Viconian Philosophy (a cyclical theory of history), the seven liberal arts and cosmogony (ASK, 19). A lot of British colonialism is built into this book, with “raped India and Ireland,” as well as gypsies, sprinklings of the German language—ideas that Plath also played with in her “Daddy” poem.

Campbell writes of how the author Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) appears often in Finnegans Wake, and interestingly, Plath played with ideas of Twain in “Lady Lazarus.” Campbell also mentions other symbols also seen in both “Lady Lazarus” and in Finnegans Wake: the goddess of fire, Brigit (the Gaelic Isis) who speaks, “I am, I am”; Venus; Helen of Troy (ASK, 156—not found in the Index); the Qabalistic importance of the decade, or ten years; a poem of Exiles (ASK, 108); The Egyptian Book of the Dead, Lilith (p. 79 of ASK, but not in the Index), Adam and Eve; the fallen angel Lucifer; the wreck of the Hesperus (ASK, 255—not found in the Index), the Tree of Life as Liberty (p. 309 of ASK—not found in the Index). See Decoding Sylvia Plath’s “Lady Lazarus” for more on how these themes fit with Plath’s “Lady Lazarus.”

We finally get to Chapter 1, Finnegan’s Fall. There is an apostrophe here because this speaks of a character named Finnegan who fell. The lack of apostrophe in the title leaves the title open to other meanings, Finnegans Wake might even being read as a directive to all Finnegans (every man) to awaken. Finnegan is Mr. Finn who will resurrect and be Finn-again. He is Ireland’s legendary giant, Finn MacCool. Campbell explains that in those first seventeen pages, Joyce wove in geography, pre-history, medieval history and Joyce’s history, fragments of folklore, and even a comical vaudeville song. (ASK, 39)

A part of Finnegans Wake I have not gotten to read yet, but read about first in A Skeleton Key, is the character Sylvia Silence, the girl detective (ASK, 70, 312-313), which must have given Plath a laugh. Suddenly now, I get the joke that was behind this short film series. Plath probably also enjoyed the character St. Sylvanus and the importance of the Elm tree.

I have owned A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake for years, and skimmed it, but until my recent trip to Ireland and newfound personal interest in Joyce’s book, I hadn’t looked at Campbell’s too closely. I knew Joyce was a model and influence for years, but I did not fully understand the extent until now. A part of me wishes that I had read these books first, before having written my first three books. But I am also delighted. “No man is an island,” as the great John Donne said, and Sylvia Plath did not create herself, but let her influences guide and create her. I always knew that A Painted Caravan first taught Plath the basics about tarot, alchemy and Qabalah. I knew also that Finnegan’s Wake was a model of Qabalah, but I didn’t have the specific details as to how. Now, I do. We all do. A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake was Plath’s instruction manual. It is such a huge and wonderful validation of my Fixed Stars Govern a Life: Decoding Sylvia Plath work. If only HCE and Shaun could realize.

A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake: Unlocking James Joyce’s Masterwork

by Joseph Campbell and Henry Morion Robinson

1944, New World Library

Portrait of the Artist as a Model for Sylvia Plath, or Waking Up to Finnegans Wake

This is part of a series of posts summarizing and quoting from books that were important to Plath, since I believe the majority of Plath fans today have not read them. If I get a lot of them down with good response, perhaps it’ll be another book.

James Joyce’s experimental novel, Finnegans Wake, is the last, most ambitious and most puzzling work of this author who wrote Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Dubliners and Ulysses. As author/lecturer Terence McKenna says, “If Ulysses is Algebra, then Finnegans Wake is Differential Equations. Most of us break down at Algebra. Few of us aspire to go on…”

Above: Planning pages from James Joyce’s sketchbook for Finnegans Wake

Finnegans Wake is linguistically dense, with over 63,000 words and has been called one of the most difficult books in the English language. McKenna explains that this book has a language all its own, and the reader must gain a facility for it. A few pages in, one knows whether they want to do the work or not.  Plath was certainly up for it, even without the technological advantage we have today of lots of great websites today to help one along (I recommend this one). Joyce makes up words and merges Gaelic and slang for the ride of one’s life, full of inside-jokes, political and social commentary, and, oh yeah, did I mention Qabalah?

Maybe you’ve seen this famous diagram of Finnegans Wake, diagrammed by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy in 1946, which positions the novel ( at first I wrote “story,” but one can’t really call it that), its characters, main events, and how it is cast upon Qabalah (See the word ‘Cabalistic’ six words down on the far left, between Mythological and Biblical):

Every word in Finnegans Wake is transparent, and we see through it to older meanings, other sounds, puns and feelings. The book has a great dependence on sound, and is actually easier to understand when it is heard rather than read. In a June 12, 1954 letter Plath wrote Gordon Lameyer, who according to Plath was “a joyce fanatic,” (LSP, 563)  she talks of listening to a record of its reading, but in a Joycean voice playing with the language (See my earlier blog on this record she listened to).

“hearing our father (allah, dada, etc.)…you know…lilt along aloud about anna livia and the hitherandthithering waters…”  Plath continued, “I begin to wonder whether I am admiring symbols of idols, or idylls of cymbals,…(oh, “gather behind me, satraps,”)…simply, I understand joyce better for the hearing of you…” (LSP, 762-3)

In my book, Decoding Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy,” I discuss “The Freudian Finnegans Wake” and how Plath riffed off of Joyce writing about her father in her journals (DSPD, 68-9), much of this to find its way into the “Daddy” poem. In Decoding Sylvia Plath’s “Lady Lazarus,” I explore the concept of family drama in Joyce’s military-historical terms (DSPLL, 98-100). In the great tradition of Literary Alchemy, James Joyce wanted to create a book that created “space-time in a nutshell.” It is all that was, is, and will be. If the universe were to be destroyed, Joyce said, he wanted Finnegans Wake to be the map to rebuild it. A lofty goal, to be sure.


Plath’s Study of Joyce

Plath started getting into reading Joyce in early 1953, just before her infamous Mademoiselle summer. She chose to audit a class on the author and considered him then as a topic for her thesis (LSP, 583). Perhaps James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, or Qabalah itself, was part to blame for putting Plath over the edge? Plath knew that she was biting off more than she could chew academically. In July 1953, she asked her then-boyfriend Gordon Lameyer about his reading technique and management of notes, and she questioned whether writing a thesis on Joyce was even plausible. “I thought so before I began outside reading—now I wonder.” (LSP, 645-6) By December of that year, she told friend Eddie Cohen that she’d given up as she “hadn’t even read Ulysses thru thoroughly once.” (LSP, 654-5)

The idea that Plath took Finnegans Wake on, much less that she would attempt a thesis on it, at twenty years old is rather unbelievable. The idea that she attempted this in less than a year after her first suicide attempt, her recovery with sickening insulin and brain-shaking electric convulsive therapy, and then months of having to relearn to read and write, is astounding.

Nevertheless, Plath didn’t give up on Joyce entirely, even if she did chuck the thesis. In March of 1954 she still referred to herself as a Joyce “devotee” (LSP, 709), among other writers.


Joyce as Plath’s Model

By January of 1956, Plath told her mother in a letter from Cambridge:

“The important thing is the aesthetic form given to my chaotic experience, which is, as it was for James Joyce, my kind of religion, and as necessary for me is [sic] the absolution of the printed word as the confession and absolution of a Catholic in church.” (LSP, 1090)

We know Plath consciously layered meaning in her work as Joyce did, at least since February 1954, when she explained to Gordon Lameyer her multiple meanings intended within her poem, “Dirge in Three Parts”:

“The first verse is supposed to derive from a small satire on Adam and Even [sic] in Eden combined with Alice-In-Wonderland and DP’s* in general. The second uses the fairytale Oz yellow-brick road to take the place of Dante’s road of life and the pilgrimage in Bunyan’s book. The third plays on the inexorable black magic of time passing, childhood dreams lost, and the final taste of inevitable death.” (LSP, 681)

*DP’s are displaced persons, or refugees.

Above, we have clear examples of myth, literature, history, and even a sense of alchemy. If you notice, referring back to the Qabalah diagram of the book, Joyce had his own autobiographical component too. I do not deny there is a confessional level to Plath–I never did. But how ridiculous to discount all other levels, which is what most of our leading scholars do. As I said at the Plath Symposium, I think of Plath’s poems like Wikipedia’s disambiguation, getting every possible reference out of a word. Only Plath’s brilliant mind did this without computers. Just as James Joyce did.

Plath’s annotations in the Portable James Joyce, held in the Lilly Library at Indiana University-Bloomington, are especially fascinating. In addition to comments about Carl Jung’s rational unconscious and collective myth, she underlined, “he evoked the past to illuminate the present,” in the editor’s introduction, as well as “Joyce has managed, by invoking an ancient myth, to conjure up a modern one.”

In another letter to Lameyer, Plath mused, “I sometimes wonder if it would be a human possibility to go beyond the ‘funferal’ with HCE [Joyce’s main character, Here Comes Everybody, among other names] and ALP [HCE’s wife, Anna Livia Plurabelle] as far as language is concerned, and the multifoliate meanings…” (LSP, 647) Without a doubt, Plath achieved this goal and went beyond. Her own multifoliate poems are evidence of this.

As I read through Finnegans Wake myself (and I am by no means finished yet), it enchanted me enough to cast it against and frame the notes of my trip to Ireland and the Plath Symposium with its style and structure. I found myself writing something far from a traditional conference recap. It will have to be considerably shorter, and at least slightly more readable. It is still in progress and may or may not see the light of day. We shall see what the Universe has in mind.

The next book I will review will be Joseph Campbell’s A Skeleton Key to Finnegan’s Wake. It was too much to put in here.


Proof Plath Knew Qabalah: The Painted Caravan

I thought I would do a series of book reviews on this blog on old books that Plath owned and read, as I’m becoming aware that few others have read them. I’m going to start with the one scholars know Ted Hughes bought Plath for her birthday in 1956, The Painted Caravan: a penetration into the secrets of the tarot cards, by Basil Ivan Rákóczi. “It is my favorite book,” Plath wrote to Ted Hughes on October 17, 1956. (The Letters of Sylvia Plath, p. 1306)

Let’s get a couple of things straight: Rákóczi is a self-proclaimed Romany Gypsy. The word “Gypsy” today has fallen out of favor as a racial slur, but I will use it here because it is such a major part of this book. As we first called Native-Americans “Indians,” they were never from India; and the dark-skinned Gypsies of Central Europe were never from Egypt, but they’ve carried the myth along for a long time. Rákóczi perpetuates this myth of Gypsies and tarot all through The Painted Caravan. It is not a book to be read for historical accuracy or political correctness. The Painted Caravan is a book to understand what Plath learned about tarot and Qabalah (there are a number of spellings–I use Q for mine and I’ll quote the author as he spells it).

Beginning at the page preceding the Table of Contents, Rákóczi writes of the color plates on the book jacket, including the Fool chasing the butterfly (“moth breath” in Plath’s “Morning Song”), Gypsy Initiation rites, and a card designed just for T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” Talk about speaking her language: beautiful art, occult mysteries, psychological symbolism, and literature all in one! There is the Tarot Key (which is Kabala for Rákóczi —the traditional K spelling) and the “secret name of God and the Cosmos, in Kabalistic letters…” Yeah, you don’t have to even get as far as the Table of Contents before you’re deep into Kabala.

Preface: Let’s look at the first paragraph together:

“Symbols are doors leading to the hidden chambers of the mind. The uninitiated are stirred by the symbol but cannot divine its meaning. A Gypsy versed in the secret lore of the Tarot Cards holds the key to their mysteries. The writer is a lover of the Gypsies and a student at the feet of these masters of the Oracular Arts…” (p. 7)

A writer’s ultimate temptation! Here was a book promising divine symbols to affect minds, knowing or unknowing, through the influence of words. Hermes himself could not have said it better.

Rákóczi goes on to say that the Master Gypsy is:

“generally a woman, in spite of her title. She is not easy to meet, many caravans must be entered before she is found. Yet it is said that once in every man’s life the Master Gypsy must cross his path. If recognized, the Master has to give the Wisdom and may not accept money for it. That is the law.” (p. 7)

Here is fuel for Plath’s burgeoning feminism. We also see now why Plath says, “Do not accept it” in the poem that matches the (Gypsy) Magician tarot card, “The Couriers.”

In the Preface, Rákóczi introduces the pompous egos of famous occult theosophists, Kabalists, Rosicrucians, and Freemasons. But “The Gypsy is bound by both an outer and an inner pledge of secrecy,” he says. Yet another reason Plath might not have spoken or written openly about this. He goes on to explain that violating this oath “shows itself as a terrible disruption of mental powers.” (p. 8)

The madness and depression concur with what happens when one violates rules of Qabalah (one of which is that women can’t practice; another is that all must be over the age of forty. Plath broke both rules). In the Preface, Rákóczi refers to the tarot as Tarot Kabals, again recognizing it is a part of Kabala, and he explores the legends around tarot and Kabala, from Ancient Greece and Egypt, connecting to the Masonic lodges of modern day.

Chapter One: Tarot history according to Gypsy lore.

Rákóczi explains the wandering Romany people, with black Indian hair and skin and a language rooted in Sanskrit. Plath’s part-time job in the Sanskrit and Indian Studies department at Harvard in 1959 no doubt furthered her education in this subject. Rákóczi continues with a discussion of dress, dialect, occupation, and stereotypical statements such as “All agree that Gypsies steal.” Rákóczi examines origins of tarot next, saying the word tarot was proven to be from “a Q-Celtic language,” which is Goidelic or Gaelic, from Ireland (This was news to me, by the way. In my almost 40 years of studying tarot, I’m not sure I’ve seen anything to back that up. But that’s what Plath read).

Rákóczi discusses tarot as an anagram of rota, Latin for wheel but also meaning circle and womb, thus giving it more feminine power. I discussed this for the poem matched to The High Priestess, “The Rabbit Catcher,” in my first book, Fixed Stars Govern a Life: Decoding Sylvia Plath. Rákóczi also speculates as to whether the Greek god Hermes or his Roman counterpart Mercury (mentioned in Plath’s “Thalidomide” and “Nick and the Candlestick” poems) was the “Genius” of the tarot cards.

The author speaks of Gypsy connections to the wisdom of Chaldea and Egypt, the northern Druids, the Yoga teachings of the East, the Gnostics, and many other peoples I’ve never heard of until we get to the Albigensians, who:

“by reason of their belief in dualism, utilised wisdom symbols, now found in the Tarot cards, to initiate their converts into the hidden secrets of their doctrines of Absolute Evil and Absolute Good – a heritage which the Gypsies, versed in Zoroastrianism, transmitted to them.” (p. 13)

Dualities! Absolute Evil and Good! This is up Plath’s alley once again with Dostoevsky-like dual symbolism and Nietzschean philosophy. Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra is about Zoroastrianism. It is a book important enough to Plath that she put its cover in her scrapbook and wrote of reading all Nietzsche’s work. FSGL shows that Plath’s “The Night Dances” nods to this novel/poem, Nietzsche’s most poetic work.

The Book of the Dead is discussed, and we know that Hughes studied this at Yaddo. Ultimately, Rákóczi calls the tarot “a portable library” for the eternally wandering Gypsy:

“to house and to transmit, the means for augury, a chart of the heavenly bodies and notes on their influence upon man, to say nothing of hints on how to find the philosopher’s stone and the distillation of the elixir of life. […] Into these cards the Gypsy’s whole stock of emblematic wisdom and his secret science of numbers were condensed. They held, under veils, astrological, alchemical and necromantic keys, which only he knew how to use.” (p. 14)

The author discusses sexism in the tarot and among the Romany (and society in general), with some decks leaving women out completely outside of the High Priestess. He talks about the oldest decks found and their variations, which came to include representation of the Liberal Arts and Sciences (what I call the “Arts and the Humanities” mirror in FSGL). He discusses the use of tarot in Masonic lodges:

“Did they want an Egyptian rite? The Tarot provided it. The Kabalistic lore of the Jews, methods of alchemical transmutation, the direction of one’s life according to the stars, Scottish rites, Hindu rites, those of the Aztecs – why, a Gypsy could produce any of them. Incredible as it may be, out of this Tarot wisdom, he could draw the whole gamut of occult lore and ceremonial magic.” (p. 18)

Rákóczi explains that psychologist “C. G. Jung’s theory of the universality of the archetypes is well supported by the Tarot symbols,” (p. 20) and goes on to discuss the collective unconscious and family imagery we all share, mother and father especially, which is so prevalent in Plath’s work. (p. 21) It’s a regular Plathapalooza of her interests! He discusses High Priestesses of the Tarot in history and witch covens, and closes the chapter with a few nice paragraphs of T.S. Eliot’s significant use of the tarot in the “prophetic work, ‘The Waste Land.”

Well, we’ve only gotten through Chapter One, but you get the idea. The Painted Caravan is enough all alone to say that Plath most certainly knew a great deal about Qabalah, alchemy, and all of the wonders of the tarot deck. Used copies of the book can still be found online for about a hundred dollars.

The Painted Caravan: a penetration into the secrets of the tarot cards

by Basil Ivan Rákóczi.

Hardcover: 121 pages

Publisher: L. J. C. Boucher; 1st edition (1954), The Hague. Holland

Language: English

What We Don’t Know

A reader saw Dr. Ann Skea’s 2012 posts about my first book, Fixed Stars Govern a Life: Decoding Sylvia Plath work and asked me some questions. I started to respond, and then decided to answer her here, to share with everyone, five years after the fact:

Earlier in that year, Dr. Skea emailed me, letting me know she was preparing to write her take on my work. I was pleased, as she writes on the spiritual side of Ted Hughes. I offered to send her the manuscript of my book to review in advance (it had not yet been released), but she declined. She said she preferred to do this on her own. It didn’t make a lot of sense that she’d consider a critical response without the information, or only partial bits. But… whatever. That’s how she did it.

Years have passed. Perhaps she’s read it now. Perhaps not.

In Skea’s essay, she made some good points and some bad assumptions, and I would have clarified it all long ago but Skea didn’t have a comments area. Skea suggested that Plath didn’t know enough mysticism to incorporate it into her work, as Plath wrote of still learning astrology and tarot in 1959. That’s a good observation. However, any practitioner will tell you that tarot is a lifelong learning. I have been learning tarot for 38 years, and I will continue to learn. It will never be finished. In my opinion, the first sign of a fake in mysticism is someone who proclaims to know all and be “enlightened.” The greatest gurus are still on the path, still becoming. We professors know how much we learn from our students, for instance. None of us are fully there until we’re dead and gone. But back to Plath: the fact is, a couple days of rudimentary tarot is all one needs to understand Plath’s system of ordering, as I spell it out in FSGL.

Skea wrote of Hughes’ first use of “Cabbala (but not Tarot)” and this statement right off demonstrates that Skea herself is not a practitioner. Tarot is a part of Cabbala (or Qabalah, as I use the more contemporary Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn’s spelling). This would be like me saying that Hughes used his body, but not his skin. Her next statement, “I have found no such structured use of Cabbala in Plath’s work, although there is plenty of evidence for her use of Tarot imagery in her late poetry,” is therefore absurd. Skea sees the skin, but not the body. I don’t mean to beat her up here. It’s clear that she just doesn’t know, and she doesn’t know that she doesn’t know.

At the Sylvia Plath Symposium this year, a fellow presenter, Peter Fydler, made the comment to me that the trouble with Ann Skea’s and my work is that no one knows enough about it to know if we are right or wrong. This is absolutely true, and has been my biggest struggle over the last several years. THAT is why I created the new Decoding series, to break that textbook tome down into short books with easy, real-world language so that all can understand without getting too lost in that godawful terrifying Q-word. And it really doesn’t matter if they understand the decoding system itself—they will still be rocked by the corresponding interpretations. “Morning Song” is Brave New World! “The Couriers” is Wuthering Heights! It makes so much sense. Plath was such a genius.

Dr. Skea is correct that many can use tarot with no knowledge of Qabalah. I personally didn’t even know what Qabalah was until I began this Plath work in 2007 (then, with 28 years of tarot behind me) and I fell into it headlong. Dr. Skea cites one of Plath’s most treasured books, The Painted Caravan: a penetration into the secrets of the Tarot cards, by Basil Ivan Rakoczi. Yet how could she have not seen numerous references to Kabbalah and Alchemy within the text, as well as that Mount Abiegnus, pictured in nine cards of the Major Arcana (Plath’s “nine black Alps”)? This is explained in this book to have been credited to the English Rosicrucian Master, A. E. Waite, designer of the modern tarot deck. Rosicrucians are alchemists, by the way. Please know I never took the credit for thinking this stuff up. The evidence is all over that Plath knew these facts long before I ever wrote about it. One just needs to read what she read (this is why I’m so damned busy and struggle keeping up with my social networks).

In Skea’s essay, she suggests I made an assumption that Plath used the Rider-Waite deck. Skea assumed that I assumed. In fact, I did check that fact with tarot expert and author Mary Greer on what decks were mass-published and available to purchase in England in 1956. This is noted in FSGL. Further down her essay, Skea goes on to match Plath’s poems against a deck that is based on illustrations of the Tarot de Marseille, and therefore is incorrect, as these cards don’t contain the same artwork/symbolism. Of course Skea couldn’t find the answer. She was decoding with the wrong cipher.

It is my personal belief that Dr. Skea does not understand enough about Qabalah to recognize its broad use across Hughes’ work. How can one recognize what they don’t know? How can one write about what they haven’t read? My Hughes books are full of notes on his Qabalah use, starting with his first collection written when he was with Plath, Hawk in the Rain. Think Hughes didn’t read The Painted Caravan, despite the occult being his number one interest? Doubt it. One day I’ll publish my work on Hughes. Meanwhile, Hughes scholars Ekbert Faas and Keith Sagar have done a fine job of recognizing the occult in all its forms within Hughes’ work, and Skea herself sees “Cabbala” in some of it.

I’m happy to say that since I got the rights back, and since my new Decoding series has begun, remaining copies of the old Fixed Stars Govern a Life are nearly gone. I will not be republishing it in this form, as it wasn’t the book I wanted it to be. This is an exciting time for me, and I want to grow forward, not back.

It is more important than ever, in these strange political and societal times, to learn to think for ourselves and not be programmed by others because we are too lazy to do the reading. I see it every day with news stories. If you have a question about my work, or if you want to challenge me on something, I am very accessible and I welcome all interaction. I want to always be getting better. I do not know it all. But if you’re just riffing off what you think you already know without doing the reading, well that, “is not mine. Do not accept it.”[1]

[1] Quote from “The Couriers” by Sylvia Plath.

And I Am The Arrow

I had the pleasure of speaking with Professor Robert Masterson from CUNY this past weekend, who will soon be acting as a visiting professor, distinguished scholar and lecturer at several universities across India. I’m delighted to learn that Professor Masterson is bringing Decoding Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy” into his 2018 curriculum (I think he liked the handy class plan at the back). I’m traveling the world! Considering himself “an investigative poet” in the tradition of the greats whom I so admire, Masterson had gotten the idea that I was actually laying out tarot cards, as I do when giving a reading, to come up with my work on Plath. I realized that as I am a tarot card reader, this could be a misconception others share too.

No, the Decoding process does not work this way. This is not a tarot reading. It’s reading poetry with the tarot. WTF does that mean? I thought I’d write a post to explain the system:

For those not familiar with the tarot, let’s get introduced. The tarot evolved from a medieval card game into a pack of 78 cards used for divination, as they contain a bounty of universal archetypes and symbolism delving into the subconscious—much in the way that dream interpretation does. Of these 78 cards, 22 are called the Major Arcana. These are the cards you know from Hollywood: Death, Lovers, The Hermit, The Wheel of Fortune. They represent the big life events and milestones. The remaining 56 cards in the Minor Arcana represent the more mundane aspects of life: work, earnings, chance meetings, struggles, communication, ideas, etc. The Minor Arcana is divided into ranks, like a deck of playing cards (ones, twos, threes, etc.) and the Court Cards (Pages, Knights, Queens, Kings). Additionally, also like a deck of playing cards, the Minor Arcana is divided into suits (Pentacles, Swords, Cups and Wands).

The way I decoded Sylvia Plath’s Ariel was to match her poems in the tarot’s order. Therefore her first poem, “Morning Song,” corresponds with The Fool card. The Fool is number zero, air and beginnings, and of course “Morning Song” is full of these things (see my post on “Morning Song” for the American Journal of Poetry here).

Next in Ariel is Plath’s poem, “The Couriers,” which corresponds to The Magician card. This is card number one. The Magician is a wandering trickster considered to be full of himself. “Do not accept it,” as Plath would say.

And so on…

Now, here’s where the heads start spinning. It’s not just that Plath matched her poems with tarot cards. Her powerful, multi-dimensional poems embody enough of the tarot meaning and symbolism that within each Plath poem, there are six levels of meaning: Tarot and Qabalah; Alchemy; Mythology; History and the World; Astrology and Astronomy; and the Arts and Humanities.

It’s common knowledge that Plath was well-read on the last four subjects. It’s my goal to educate the world to all that she knew about the first two, which is plenty.

Professor Masterson closed his call to me with what felt like the best compliment of all: “You’re like an outlaw literary scholar,” he said, “on the fringes of the establishment, shooting your fiery arrows without the sanction of the MLA.”

I like that. The sun is rising. It is the “cauldron of morning.”

Plath Poetica Obscura

I jetted off to Washington D.C. this past weekend to rendezvous with my son Sam and tour the museums, most especially to see the One Life: Sylvia Plath exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery. For the Plath fan who has not had the privilege already to work in archives, this is undoubtedly a thrilling exhibit, complete with her Girl Scout uniform, letters, drawings, and of course, the ultimate fetish… a long brown lock of her hair, which was not a Victorian-style post-mortem memento, but rather a ponytail cut off in her childhood. How surprising that the exhibit was in just one smallish room! We Plathians know her ephemera could take up the entire museum, or at least a great hall. It did give me a chance to see some of the archival pieces kept at Smith College that I had not yet seen, such as her typewriter, and some of the late letters. I saw the Bell Jar artwork, which has been widely photographed. It brought me joy to see the steady stream of people interested enough to stand and read the type on these pages and gaze at the drawings and annotations of my beloved literary hero and mentor.

Earlier that morning, Sam, who is an amateur art historian, walked me through the Johannes Vermeer exhibit over in the National Gallery of Art: Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting; Inspiration and Rivalry. At 31 years old today, my firstborn son has become a fine tour guide, giving me all the back stories on the 15th century Dutch Vermeer and other great artists. To truly understand the great accomplishments before me, Sam also had me watch the movie Tim’s Vermeer at the hotel.

Sam and Me, Washington DC, November 2017

Tim’s Vermeer is an astounding little documentary about Tim Jenison, a very successful contemporary inventor, who gets a notion of how Vermeer created his work and seeks to prove it: he believes Vermeer used more of a process than of what most might think of as “Art.” Jenison builds the case that Vermeer invented a gadget modifying the camera obscura. There is a ton of research and evidence to support this guy’s theory. To put it to the test, Jenison decided that although he had no art training or ability himself, he would attempt to create his own Vermeer painting, duplicating The Music Lesson, using this process. He had it evaluated by the experts (two of which, agree with him). It took a few painstaking, tedious, expensive years to create this start to finish, but he did it. He wept at the end over its beauty, and we all wept with him.

There’s a scene in this documentary where Jenison says something to the effect of, “The academics don’t like this, and won’t buy in. But the artists get it. Artists don’t have a problem with rules. Why does there have to be such a disconnect between Art and Science?”

That hit home with my Plath work. It took an inventor to see Vermeer’s invention. It has taken a tarot card reader to see Plath’s system. I share this struggle with the disconnect between Art and Spirituality. And actually, that disconnect with Art and Science too (and History, etc.).  This Tim Jenison is a kindred spirit. As I watched the film, I recalled at the Sylvia Plath Symposium (on which I’m still writing my review, doing bits of it as I can around an abundance of work, travel, and holidays), when a poet friend leaned over and whispered to me after a full day of academic lectures, “These people, they’re smart. But they don’t understand what poetry can do.”

Exactly. Poetry, like a Vermeer painting, can be analyzed to pieces. Those analyses are valuable and maybe even correct —to a point. But it’s a narrow view. Sometimes systems and formulas and gadgets make magic. Sadly, most people believe a poem or a painting must only happen one way to be called Art. Those people are usually not artists. And those people aren’t really capable of learning, having long ago decided that they know it all.

Is There a Difference Between the Occult and Mysticism?

Saying the word “Occult” sounds scarier than “Mysticism,” doesn’t it? That’s partly why I reference Mysticism often when referring to Sylvia Plath’s interests. The occult and mysticism are essentially the same thing, although mysticism, by definition, is becoming one with a higher power through occult means. Occult in fact, means nothing more than “hidden.” You’ve probably heard of occult phases of the moon, for example. In mysticism, occult subjects and secrets are hidden from the masses. But just because it’s not featured on TMZ (and really, is anything intelligent featured on TMZ?) doesn’t mean you can’t know about it. It just takes a little bit of digging.

A practitioner of mysticism does not have to believe in God as a man on a throne in the sky. A practitioner doesn’t have to believe in a God at all to respect spiritual energy. There are many Buddhists and Jews, for example, who consider themselves atheists but still keep a spiritual practice, thinking of spirit more as personal growth and self-actualization, as well as to gain some mental tools for managing a chaotic world. Plath called herself an atheist, and yet we know that she had a real fascination about religion and things of the spirit. In her youth, Plath and her family were members of the Unitarian Universalist Church, and Plath said this church was important to her until the end of her days. Practitioners of mysticism, which Plath and her husband Ted Hughes were, believe in a life energy or life force that connects all life. It’s a very Buddhist concept.

There is overwhelming evidence that Sylvia Plath and her husband Ted Hughes had an active, varied interest in the occult. In Plath’s letters, poems and journals, she wrote of tarot, Ouija board sessions, astrology, crystal ball gazing, tea leaves, chanting, bibliomancy, hypnosis, breathing techniques, premonitions, developing psychic abilities, and toward the end of her marriage, she even threw in a bit of voodoo and collected her husband’s fingernail clippings and dandruff for a witchy bonfire. Plath’s art projects often included aspects of mythology and alchemy. Plath’s personal library contained books describing Kabbalah, alchemy, and other occult practices in great detail, as well as many books on religion including Buddhism and Mormonism. Finally, the poets and writers she revered the most were the literary mystics: Shakespeare, Joyce, Yeats, Chaucer and others. It’s virtually impossible that her years of spiritual study would not embed these thoughts into her work. Think Plath had no spiritual life? Oh ye of little faith! You don’t have to believe anything at all to see it for yourself in the Decoding Sylvia Plath series, Magi Press.