Divinatory Poetics: A Talk

Hoa Nguyen

Divinatory Poetics: A Talk

This essay was adapted from my portion of the presentation for the panel “Writing Under the Influence: Accessing the Unknown through Divination” given at the annual AWP Conference delivered on February 8, 2024 in Kansas City MO. Fellow presenters included Michele Battiste, Kristen Nelson, Megan Kaminski, and Teresa Carmody.

Speaking beyond the immediately known to the perceived elsewhere has been a constant preoccupation of mine and informs my poetics and relationship with the lyric poem. Sometimes this elsewhere speaks from ‘extra-human’ sources: messages from ancestors, animal communications, divination methods, and dream. I’ll be talking about these and modes of attention—an extension of what Robert Duncan spoke of, divination as a strategy for writing out of mysteries when he writes, "We do not understand all that we render up to understanding… I study what I write as I study out any mystery.”

Duncan's Tarot Decks

In March 2021 I went to the special collections at SUNY Buffalo with Damian Rogers and requested the box that contained Robert Duncan's tarot decks, with gratitude to Timothy Liu for tipping us off to this particular holding. The 1930 Grimaud edition (in its box!) was the one which appeared to be the most frequently used and held the most vibrational charge. Seen here between our decks, we stacked them into a 'charging' station with crystals and a ring my mother gave me that I call my full moon ring.

Tarot is a study and practice that I’ve had for nearly three decades, linked to time I spent in San Francisco earning an MFA in Poetics at New College of California. The legacies of Black Mountain College were drawn into relief for me there. Dale Smith, who was in the program and became and remains my lifelong partner and collaborator, bought me my first deck. It is now well worn.

7 of Swords

7 of Swords from the decks known as The Wild Unknown (illustrated by Kim Kranz), The Mythic Tarot (illustrated by Tricia Newell), and Rider-Waite-Smith (illustrated by Pamela Coleman Smith)

Above we see the Seven of Swords. Often, I see this card interpreted with words such as betrayal, deception, “getting away with something,” acting strategically, treachery or even self-betrayal. My interpretation looks further into the card and its correspondences that, over decades of practice, developed meaningful coherences, emblematic for the roles, acts, and ways of an artist.

They say the Seven of Swords is ruled by the moon in Aquarius. For me, this card asks that we seek with an investigative mind operating under the influence of reflective, intuitive consideration—the moon in Aquarius. When I read for tarot for myself or other artists, this card often appears. It’s an invitation and stance toward methods born of guile, wit, and with a kind of cloak and dagger diplomacy. Sometimes this means tricking oneself into writing: channeling a reflective mind, mirroring the great imagination, and picking up voices from elsewhere. It signals the importance of paying attention to dreams and other forms of communications, reflecting on signs, and following hunches. Other times it speaks to the way that artists are outsiders, making our way through the side door as “spies in the house of love.”

Olmec Fox

When the moon was new in Aquarius, right before Tet, a large box of my latest book A Thousand Times You Lose Your Treasure had arrived from the printer. I set the box aside and didn’t open it. I was feeling moody. It was 2021; in Toronto where I live, we were still deep into pandemic lock down. I was down about poetry, doubtful of my efforts towards a book that was personally important, wondering whether it added up to my ambition to honor my cultural diaspora and my mother Diệp, aka Linda, who had died in 2019 after a long decline. I deeply wished for a sign from her and looked for her in dreams, but she did not appear to me.

It was right at this new moon in Aquarius at the verge of the new year, a time traditionally linked to listening to sages and ancestors, when a sign of the artist, a trickster, and the spirit of my lineage and ancestors came to me by a three-hour visitation.

Fox VisitationFox Visitation

Image of Fox visitation, February 2021, Toronto, ON

Fox came to our backyard; the first ever such visit we experienced in the east-side of Toronto; it tracked through the yard and stayed for three hours, finding napping spots by two backyard sculptures that figure as subjects in my earlier poems in Red Juice: a replica of an Olmec head and a small stone Buddha, one that I had stolen decades earlier as a trickster act of cultural reclamation. The experience had the Noetic quality of mystical experience: an affective state that is primarily a state of knowledge, whereby one achieves insight into depths of truth unmeasurable by the discursive intellect.

Studying the emblem of fox, I immediately thought of the 7 of Swords. Fox are tender parents, gorgeous beings that resonate with balanced yang/yin energy, feminine and masculine at once, and an intermixed feline/canine energy. Like poets in that they are clever thieves, playful, agile, and unapologetically themselves. They also are unacceptable, enviable, and the scourge of landowners.

The communication made me think of my ancestors and my mother, how her quickness and canniness was a form of fugitive knowledge that allowed for our survival during a terrible war. Buoyed by this understanding, I opened a box of A Thousand Times You Lose Your Treasure, a book that features these aspects in my lineage, and celebrated the accomplishment at the lunar new year.

The discipline of the writer is to learn to be still and listen to what your subject has to tell you.

—Rachel Carson

I found it difficult to write—or even begin—A Thousand Times You Lose Your Treasure—a book I had imagined for my entire writing life. So, I turned my attention to the oracle that is I Ching and threw my coins. The hexagram I received was #51, Chen: Shock, Thunder.

Thunder over Thunder

Thunder over Thunder.

I said, when I saw the meaning of the hexagram: “NOT THIS.”

I threw my coins two more times, hoping for a different sign. Again, each time, it was hexagram 51. Thunder, shock. Unsettling events. Affliction.

I understood that the oracle was asking that I address “Thunder and Shock” and look at the calamitous change that comes in upheaval and around convulsive events. It was something that I didn’t want to address. I adamantly did not want to write “about” the wars in Vietnam—and yet the story I wanted to reference was imbedded during wartime upheaval: first a war against the French to gain independence from colonization and then an internal and geopolitical war that devasted the country, the land, and its citizens.

I was born at the height of this war and endured a fourth month siege when the northern army (called VC in the South) invaded and terrorized the southern Mekong to disastrous local effects. To secure the area, the southern Vietnamese army and US American forces bombarded the town where we lived in their efforts to root out the VC. Fifty percent of the buildings and homes in Vinh Long were destroyed as a result. Food was scarce, water tainted. I took ill and nearly died. Incredibly, we survived and left Vietnam five months after this ordeal. We had PTSD; I was two years old and would wake from sleep with night terrors nightly.

1968 Passport

Passport photo of me in the summer of 1968.

I did not want to tell a story of Thunder and Shock, of losing our treasures and yet this oracular source was asking me to look directly at how cataclysmic shock means change and loss but not necessarily complete devastation. The language of Hexagram for the changing lines I received read:

Shock comes bringing danger.
A hundred thousand times
You lose your treasures
And must climb the Change hills.
Do not go in pursuit of them.
After seven days you will get them back.

I recognized that my pursuit and investigation should be guided by something that fellow first decan Aquarius Jack Spicer said, “Words must be led across time, not preserved against it.” Also “A poet is a time mechanic, not an embalmer.” I was called to write poems as a complex system, a cartography of careful mapping, finding home from loss.


One of the treasures I lost was the Vietnamese language and it is a source of grief. Once, in a compelling dream, I dreamt of Sappho’s fragments and her text of papyrus shards. In the dream, her fragmented poems were mounted onto a long scroll of papyrus paper. I took this with great purpose, rolled it upon a cylinder, and placed it into a player piano located, tellingly, in the attic room of my childhood. The keys of the player piano played Sappho’s poems in that ghostly way that player pianos do. Or rather, the song was made by playing from the scroll and reading the gaps in the writing so as to make the song, a song of languagelessness and loss.

My dream told me that my powers of poetry and song gain footing despite what is missing, with what is missing.

The Tower

From the major arcana,
The Tower as illustrated in the
Aquarius deck.

Before I went to Vietnam for first return since leaving at the height of the war, the Tower card appeared in a significant tarot reading given by friend Damian. I saw it and said, “NOT THIS.”

I was afraid it was a bad omen for my trip to Vietnam; I was afraid it would mean emotional collapse and calamity. But instead, it was a different kind of shock and discovery, an impossible-seeming synchronicity.

The Tower, too, became an image pattern for the poems, a motif or form that called itself into the poems as I worked on manuscript for Treasure. I also realized it was another expression of hexagram 61: Chen shock, thunder over thunder.

Tower of Doom

“You lose your treasures
And must climb the Change hills.
Do not go in pursuit of them.
…you will get them back.”
Chen #51: Thunder, Shock

By chance, during my first visit to Vietnam, without looking for it, I found this circus performance act. Stunt motorbike riders that defy death on the Wall of Death. I was in Hanoi at Tet and these performers were in the park to perform for families who were on holiday during that special holiday period only. I had chanced upon it in the park I happened to visit, far from the hotel where I was staying. I happened to be visiting during the holiday and happened to hear the commotion coming from the performance venue. It was luck and chance that I was walking with a new writer friend who could tell me what the commotion, far to our left, was about. It was the motorbike performance, similar to the one my mother performed 45 years earlier. I never thought I would see one live, in Vietnam, in my life. I left the performance weeping, explaining my tears to the new associate, as surprise and shock: I wasn’t prepared. And from a short distance, I took this picture of the performance area and realize that it looked like a tower. I did not go in pursuit of this but I found it or it found me. That night, I called my mother to tell her about the encounter.

The venue...

The venue, of course, looks like a tower. My mother said that she and her fellow motorcycle stunt riders called it the barrel. But they also called it The Tower of Death.

My mother is the fourth from the left.

My mother is the fourth from the left. The flag flying on the top is the flag of South Vietnam, the flag of the country from 1948 to 1975. The design consists of a yellow background with three red horizontal stripes through the middle. It is used to represent the "Vietnamese Heritage and Freedom Flag"

Image reprinted from A Thousand Times You Lose Your Treasure, Wave Books, 2021

All content © 2020