A Sibilla Madrigal

sibilla madrigal title photo

Sibille del Originale 1890, Il Meneghello

I’ve been writing lately about a cartomantic deck I like a lot, the Italian Sibilla. Meanwhile, this month of April is National Poetry Month. So I had the bright idea of combining two loves, by sculpting a Sibilla reading into a poetic form.

I’ve done this sort of thing previously, expressing three-card draws of the Tarot de Marseilles as haiku. It’s a great practice. The confines of a strict poetic form, whether to express a card reading or any other idea, create a discipline in economy and precision. I’m forced to find, and then confront, the essence of the message. Each card has a laundry list of related cartomantic meanings. Being forced to choose just the right nuance brings me a clarity that a tumble of words fails to yield.

However, the Sibilla is, as they say, chatty. The dramatic, floridly illustrated cards read like a friend telling you about last night’s dream–vivid details of tantalizing, often unfathomable import, with a decidedly nonlinear story line.  Haiku–three lines, 17 syllables–seemed a bit too draconican, especially since I was interested in a 9-card reading. And anyway, a reading with the Italian Sibilla ought to be rendered in an Italian form, non credi?

The Poetic Form

First I considered terza rima.  This form consists of three-line verses, or tercets, whose first and third lines rhyme. These lines also rhyme with the middle line of the previous tercet. Thus, the middle line of each tercet introduces the rhyme for the next, so it can go on indefinitely. That’s the verse structure Dante used for The Divine Comedy, a long poem by any standards. Perhaps I was a bit intimidated by following in Dante’s footsteps–he’s a tough act to follow, after all–or maybe it was the open-ended nature of terza rima that gave me pause. After all, I was looking for a structure to keep myself within bounds. I passed on terza rima.

Then there’s the sonnet–another form with a pretty dauntingly august company of users. Traditionally, a key feature of a sonnet is its turning point, or volta–a shift in the perspective or the action. I wasn’t sure that shift would fit the type of reading I wanted to do, so I kept looking.

I settled on the Italian madrigal*–of which there are two forms, from the 14th and 16th centuries, respectively.  Despite the fact that the Sibilla arrived long after both these eras, I went with the earlier of the two. Historically, the 14th century madrigal had a pastoral quality.  I thought that fit the folksy nature of the deck.

Like terza rima, the 14th century madrigal is based on tercets. It consists of two or three tercets, with two rhyming lines in each. The poem concludes with a ritornello, a couplet that serves as a kind of summation or final comment.  The ritornello hails from the call-and-response tradition of religious rite.

“Italianate” lines are those having either 7 or 11 syllables. They tend to scan with lilting feminine rhymes (like the sound of Italian) rather than the heavier masculine rhymes that English seems to favor. Once the pattern of syllables is established in the first tercet, it is repeated in the others.

The 3×3 Reading

I’m planning to attend an out-of-state meeting soon, for a group I’ve had a long and rich association with. Lately I’ve felt myself shifting. I’ve done some soul-searching about my continued relationship with this group, though I count many of them as good friends. What really clinched my decision to go ahead with this trip was the thought of seeing a very dear mentor there. It will perhaps be our last time together, as he is now quite elderly and with health problems. I laid a square of nine cards for this question:

What is the benefit to me in attending this upcoming meeting?

9 cards how will NY trip benefit me 4.14.17

Sibille Originale del 1890, Il Meneghello

The 3×3 can be read positionally (e.g., columns represent past, present, and future), or it can be read holistically (my preference). There are a lot of ways to look at the 3×3 square, reading lines across, vertically, and diagonally. You can read the corners and the diamond formed around the central card, not to mention knighting (relating cards linked by an L-shape). The central card is the central theme. The diagonal from upper left to lower right is made up of the first, central, and last cards laid, which I regard as a succinct form of the overall message.

While I noted all of these, you’ll see them only indirectly in the poem/reading.  I had to choose my words and thoughts carefully.

Here is my madrigal reading:

Your great friend’s fragility leaves you dismayed.

Circling, desperate thoughts

Bring you up short. Happiness once more delayed.

Your innocence meets with cold calculation.

And though you seek constancy,

You’ve come to an earth-quaking destination.

In efforts repeated, long labors and grief,

A true friend is always near,

Though all is in question, your quest for belief.

So, is this the reason I must make the trip?

Yes, to weather this crisis. Take care! Don’t slip.

Although it was a challenge to stay within my precious allotment of syllables, I think I found the main message of the cards.  While the reading doesn’t make the trip look especially fun, “benefits” aren’t always jolly things. Looks like a time of soul-searching, and a bittersweet meeting with my dear mentor. Sometimes the best way to confront crisis is to walk right in.

It helps to have a friend.

Happy National Poetry Month.

* The madrigal, as a poem, predates the musical form; setting the poems to music led to the creation of the polyphonic vocal pieces also called madrigals.

Reference: New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, 3rd edition.

Blog contents © 2016-17, the author.

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