'A nose is an upturned chimney with an antiquarian living inside of it': Launching Tarot by Jake Arthur

'A nose is an upturned chimney with an antiquarian living inside of it': Launching Tarot by Jake Arthur

Posted by Ashleigh Young on 25th Jun 2024

On Thursday 20 June we launched Tarot, the new poetry collection by Jake Arthur, at Moon Bar in Newtown, Wellington. Thanks to everyone who came along, and thanks to Moon Bar and to Schrödinger's Books, who kindly sold Jake's book for us on the night.

We also appreciated the use of tarot cards throughout the evening, except for the bit where Jake's editor, Ashleigh Young, unfortunately drew the 5 of Cups.

But on to the speeches! Holly Hunter, friend of Jake's and a publisher at Harper Collins, launched Tarot for us. Her speech follows.

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Hi everyone, my name is Holly. I’m a close friend of Jake’s since university and honoured to be launching this playful, bewitching, bawdy, brilliant book. Tarot is a trip of the imagination and by god it is so much fun. I adored these poems.

At the launch of Jake’s first collection of poetry, which was published only last year, one of the speakers talked about how rare it was these days to come across an anthology style collection of poetry rather than the more popular concept album. This book blurs that distinction. As a concept album, the idea behind Tarot is so simple and yet genius: each poem inspired by a card or character from the 1909 Rider-Waite tarot deck. But, like an anthology collection, there is no single thematic arc or personal confession of the poet. As Catherine Chidgey says in her endorsement quote, this anthology is an ‘enchanted and enchanting clamour’ of voices from the deck.

In the early days as Jake wrote the first of these poems, he would email me a draft with an image attached so that I could see the card behind the words. I came to rely on the visual reference, thinking that it would help me ‘understand’ the poem, and if a draft arrived in my inbox without the image I would reply and ask to see it. But after reading this book without any illustrations, I see what a disservice that is, to try an understand the poem and the poet’s intent as if it’s a code to be unlocked or a likeness to be found. What is much more entertaining as a reading experience is what we have here – an invitation to create our own picture and story. As the opening and framing poem of the book says,

Switch off that brain of yours.
It’s very loud. It’s like a very white light.
This isn’t surgery; this is a reading.’

The poems that make up this tarot reading are voices that swim around us, influence us, affect us, tease and taunt us. They’re not chaotic but considered and self-aware. One of my favourite poems in the book reads,

All mornings I wake to a despotic myth called me.


I am not alone in here.
I’m a person peopled
By a booming mental population.
But of them all I’m my secret favourite,
I’m in love with my agency the most

And that’s the book in a nutshell – each poem rightly in love with its agency the most, its own secret favourite, and at the same time itself a despotic myth defined by its relationship to the booming population of the other characters in the collection.

So who are the characters? Like a medieval mystery play they dance across the pages. We meet shepherds whose staffs glint in the light as they cross a dusky meadow. We meet peasants, the Devil and the Sun, a lady of the lake, we see Alexander the Great gift a killing kiss to a fallen soldier. We’re transported to times of chariots, feasts and battles. But we’re not confined to those times – the book skips back and forth between a present densely textured with the past and vice versa. As the final framing poem in the book says, ‘You are now and you are then’. We learn not to blink an eye at a poem titled ‘What hast thou done?’ despite the poem being completely modern in language and style.

In the present day we meet a lifeguard quiet-quitting as swimmers sally out into the riptide; a heterosexual porn-star whose muscular shoulders distract the male speaker; an exhausted young mother setting fire to a wood pile with her eyes closed. Fiction writers say that good story starts with good character. Well for any writers in the audience, Tarot could become your new prompt book, the characters so rich you could shape whole stories around them.

Another prize you’ll take away from this collection is an expanded vocabulary. Wend, louche, moiety, leveret, rabbinical, hebdomadal. Just as the collection plays with characters, Jake plays with his niche and archaic vocabulary, which is the product of someone who’s spent years studying early modern literature, speaking Spanish and deciphering Latin, and reading the Bible for academic pleasure. It all builds towards an askance way of seeing the world that lights up the imagination – in one poem perfectly titled ’Schnozz’, a nose is an upturned chimney with an antiquarian living inside of it. The antiquarian is played by Academy Award-winning Spanish actor Javier Bardem. Well of course he is: this is Jake’s brain and we’re all just living in it.

You don’t just write such fantastical poems without there being something you’re running away from. At the time that Jake was writing these poems, he was living in Tūrangi during what he describes in the acknowledgements section as a horrible year. Jake’s fiancé Todd was recovering from severe long Covid, and Jake’s days were lonely and long. I think this book is a beautiful thing to come from the worst of times: it’s escapism, for writer and reader. If Jake had written this book in the more popular confessional style of the moment he would have written about afternoon naps and getting a pie from the local bakery. But in Tarot, we are whisked away to other worlds and other minds; we can forget ourselves for a brief moment in the stories of others. Perhaps it is only when life collapses around you that you start to suspect Fortuna holds all the cards. As the opening poem declares, ‘God isn’t physics, it’s Fortune.’

The fortune teller warns against fixed meaning in life: this eclectic, cosmic pageant of characters is contained within the tarot reading of a single person. Maybe this book – which appears to resist the personal confessional style – is a kind of confession all along. What Jake’s presented across this book is that within each of us is a deck of cards, a mix of voices, whichever we call on in each moment drawn by fate.

As the fortune teller concludes,

There is no single voice.
No fact is binding.
Watch me roll the dice again.

Tarot is a dynamic, unbridled, magical delight. My only tip is not to read it all at once. It’s such a treat that you’ll want this book to last.

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Tarot (paperback, $25) is out now, from all good bookshops (like Schrodinger's) and here on our website.