S Is For Snake – A Poem by Terry Ann Carter in the Voice of the Virtuoso Artist Nikki de Saint Phalle.

Franco-American  artist Niki de Saint Phalle (1930-2002) with one of her characteristic snake images.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Alphabet of Tarot

(from the Diary of Niki de Saint Phalle)

All day I have been in my body.
At night my skull. The architecture
of my mind is a building of letters.
Flying, lying low, on its side

A V represents a bird.
The tarot totems are pulsing
in my veins. I will slash them
to set them free.

A finch has landed on the feeder.
Please come and look. It is
the last rain of spring, and I desire
fire, earth, air and water.

Major and minor arcana.
When the apricots first bloom
on this Tuscan hillside, my thoughts
turn to kings, the letter F is a fool,

my prince of darkness. The sculptures
will glint golden in sunlight
reflect like pieces of mirror. I will bring
my coffee and converse with Jung.

The letter S is a snake.

Terry Ann Carter from First I Fold the Mountain – A Love Letter To Books,  Black Moss Press, 2022

I was astonished and delighted when I found the poem above in First I Fold The Mountain, the latest full-length poetry collection (2022) by Victoria-based poet Terry Ann Carter. (For a previous blog post on Terry Ann please click here.)

Terry Ann was part of the La Romita online retreat ( as participant and paper artist faciltator) I facilitated in 2020 (the planned in-country retreat at the La Romita School of Art was cancelled due to Covid-19) and one of our retreat adventures was based on the art, especially the celebrated Tarot Garden, of Niki de Saint Phalle. If we had made it to Italy in 2020 one of our likely destinations was that extraordinary garden! (For a summary of my La Romita 2017 retreat in Italy featuring a trip to the Tarot Garden please click here.)

A view of the High Priestess sculpure by Niki de Saint Phalle at the entrance to her Tarot Garden: Il Giardino dei Tarocchi, in Tuscany, Italy.

Oh my. Terry Ann’s poem above captures so much of the extraordinary heart and imagination of  norm-defying de Saint Phalle, who, early in her career was a model featured in Vogue (and on the cover) and in a cover for Life Magazine but most importantly became a ground-breaking artist and sculptor of the The Nouveaux Realistes Movement (founded in 1960) in Paris.

De Saint Phalle achieved celebrity staus with her her performance art especially her so called shootings! Also, from her ninety-foot long sculture installed in a museum in Stockhom of a reclining woman where the viewers entered between her legs and through the vagina. De Saint Phalle loved to stir things up especially when it came to celebrate women in her so-called exuberant full-bodied Nana sculptures, her way of liberating women and the feminine from societal constraints and expectations.

Here is a description of her so-called shootings from a 2014 article from Dazed:

Saint Phalle really made her name in 1961 with her shooting paintings. She would attach containers of coloured liquid paint into her sculptural paintings that would burst when hit by bullets. People would line up to shoot the art at openings, watching as blasts of colour splattered like blood over the work.

But perhaps her longest lasting legacy which infuses Terry Ann’s poem was her twenty-two year project in Garavicchio, Tuscany, Italy. It was there in collaboration with her long-time artistic partner and, for a while, her husband, Jean Tinguely, she built her famous Tarot Garden (Il Giardino dei Tarochi) made up of massive and monumental sculptures/constructions (some up to fifty feet high) based on the figures representing the Major Arcana of the Tarot. Many of her astonishing creations there can be walked through and one was large enough (the Empress) that de Saint Phalle lived in in it for a while.

Victoria-based poet and paper artist, Terry Ann Carter. Photo Credit: Rhonda Ganz

Terry Ann, who is also a wizard at making paper constructions and handmade books, has to be considered as one of our Canadian poetic treasures. Both in the lyric free verse form and in Haiku where she is a recognized international virtuoso as poet and teacher. Last year she and poet Lynn Jambor were the co-chairs for the Haiku North America virtual conference.

In her latest book  Terry Ann has a twenty-two page section titled The Unwritten Books. What a feat and feast of the imagination as she  imagines books or diaries that have yet to be written. These poems were inspired by  Jorge Louise Borges and his short story The Library of Babel. The Alphabet of Tarot above, which is an imagined excerpt from a diary by de Saint Phalle, is a fine example of the poems from this section of her book.

So many images in The Alphabet of Tarot that conjure the haunted and tortured pysche of de Saint Phalle who was sexually abused by her father as a girl. The barely contained sense of violence in some of de Saint Phalle’s works is suggested by “slashed”, that kind of wild energy but the last line in Terry Ann’s poem is the one that slays me.

S is for snake.

Niki de Saint Phalle, Le Serpent, 1987. Photo Credit: The Guardian

And in this image, Le Serpent, from a 2016 exhibition at the Omer Trioche Contemporary Art Gallery in London, you can see one of many of the snake images de Saint Phalle made during her career. And, as  described in a piece about the exhibition published in The Guardian in 2016 those snake images held a lot of meaning. For sure: S is for snake. From The Guardian:

“Snakes are a recurring image, borne out of what De Saint Phalle called the ‘summer of snakes’ – when she was assaulted by her father. ‘I would have probably been in prison,’ she said, ‘or still in a psychiatric hospital, if it hadn’t been that art helped me to get out all of my very deeply aggressive feeling toward my parents.’

The fact that Terry Ann captures this in her poem is a credit to her skill.  And even if a reader of her poem didn’t know de Saint Phalle’s troubled background, the snake image with its suggestion of a fallen word, is enough to add to the troubled atmosphere in Terry Ann’s portrait delivered in the first person voice of de Saint Phalle. And the almost explosive way the huge images from the Tarot appear from out of the Tarot Garden, is so wonderfully captured here:

The tarot totems are pulsing
in my veins. I will slash them
to set them free.

Sculpture by Niki de Saint Phalle representing the Fool from the Tarot

 

 

How Terry Ann takes us to the garden: my thoughts/turn to kings, the letter F is a fool,//my prince of darkness. The sculptures/will glint golden in sunlight/reflect like pieces of mirror. I will bring/my coffee and converse with Jung. Here she conjures the Emperor (the king) from the Tarot and the Fool, one of the simplest of the structures, sculptures, constructions in the garden. And how she brings in Jung, his connection to the Tarot and its deeper meanings.

I will have more to share in a follow-up blog post about Terry Ann’s collection, First I Fold The Mountain but for now a teaser: one of her small poems from Section V – Blue Moon which celebrate, in their echoes, the great Japanese female poet, Ono No Komachi:

    From my doorway
I see the seaweed gatherer
    doesn't he know
there is a harvest, here,
     in my arms?

Terry Ann Carter, ibid

2 Comments