July 11, 2023

The Unquenchable Fire of Rachel Pollack

Alice dos Reis

Rachel Pollack with her deck The Shining Tribe Tarot.

When science fiction authors first get their stories published, it is not uncommon for their lives to be occupied with things usually thought of as far removed from the realms of writing. As is fitting for the genre, some have extensive careers as biologists, technologists, and engineers. Others are sociologists and psychologists. Others yet, cooks, insurance dealers, and gardeners. Many do not have a degree in writing. For decades considered the bastard child of literature, science fiction has allowed people who might not normally get published in stricter literary circles an entryway into a career in writing.

It can happen, then, that when a writer wins a major science fiction award for one of her novels, she is already considered by many as one of the world’s foremost experts on the Tarot. Rachel Pollack was probably among the only people on earth who could successfully claim this biography. Pollack, a Leo born on August 17, 1945, passed on from our world this April, after a long struggle with cancer. She gifted us a prolific and multidimensional writing career consisting of about twenty-two nonfiction books, mostly on the Tarot, seven fantasy and science fiction novels, and four short-story collections. She was awarded an Arthur C. Clark Award and a World Fantasy Award and earned numerous nominations, including for a Nebula and a James Tiptree Jr. Award. She also authored five popular comic book runs for DC Comics.

Until her passing, Pollack continued to write, mostly from Rhinebeck in Upstate New York, between her house in the woods and the local library, which she half-jokingly called her second office. It was in Rhinebeck that I met her last year, for lunch on a warm June day at a intimate suburban Italian restaurant. Full of ideas, and contagiously energetic with her electric ginger hair, it would’ve been hard to think then, as we discussed new releases in fiction writing, that Pollack would be leaving us so soon. While processing this news from the other side of the Atlantic, in my apartment in Europe, I cherished the opportunity to have met her at a crucial time in my own life.

Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, I reread some of Pollack’s most influential work on the Tarot and marveled at the surprising realization that she was also a science fiction writer. As such, when my girlfriend and I took the train up the Hudson River from New York to visit her, the trip felt like a pilgrimage. Generously, there she was, the legend, waiting at the top of the stairs in the Rhinebeck train station, punctually ready to give us a ride to lunch. Pollack did not downplay her town’s charms. A proud Upstate New Yorker, she took us on a ride around Rhinebeck and introduced us to the local bookshop (which stocked all of her books in print), cinema, and historical inn. She even welcomed us briefly in her cozy home, immersed in the woods of Rhinebeck. We spoke at length about her work, her legacy, and other more personal matters that to us still echo in the form of private blessings. If you believe that you should never meet your heroes, then you’re just choosing the wrong ones.

Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom, Pollack’s first book on the Tarot and an instant bestseller, was published in 1980 and has never been out of print. Continuously loved to this day all over the world, it is often referred to as the “Bible for Tarot Readers.” Pollack subsequently wrote and lectured extensively on the Tarot, helped create new Tarot decks, and even drew her own, The Shining Tribe Tarot.

Many Tarot historians believe that the Tarot was meant as an accessible handbook on the path to spiritual wisdom rather than simply divination—knowledge as play, in a deck of playing cards with alluring iconography. In accordance with this tradition, Pollack’s first of many books on the Tarot is a deep yet practical guide to the seventy-eight arcanum, backed by the expertise and wit of a storyteller familiar with her characters, strikingly self-aware, and gifted with an impromptu humor I would later come to recognize in her fiction writing. The book made the Tarot easily accessible, without ever cheapening the complexity of its history or reducing it to matters of fortune-telling. It is no small undertaking to effortlessly make a centuries-old tradition feel contemporary and its complex fusion of hermetic traditions tangible. “Back then, books like this on the Tarot didn’t exist,” Pollack told me, while ordering lunch (angus beef if I remember correctly) to the sound of trucks passing on Rhinebeck’s main street outside. “I think that’s why it became such a success,” she declared, her long silver earrings dangling as she spoke.

Raised in a Jewish family in Brooklyn, Pollack moved abroad in the 1970s—first London then Amsterdam. A transgender woman and a feminist, she often hosted encounters for and between transgender women in her London home. It was when some activist spaces in London started to feel unbearably hostile to transgender women that Pollack moved to Amsterdam, where she wrote and continued reading the Tarot. There she remained actively involved in feminist and transgender movements, particularly the Goddess Movement.

Back in Amsterdam at the start of 2022, after living in the city for years myself, I was roaming the science fiction section of the American Book Center when it occurred to me that I should ask if they had anything by Pollack in stock. While browsing the bookstore’s catalog, the bookseller suddenly stopped and exclaimed, “Oh!” He then repeated the name: “Rachel Pollack, yes! She worked for this bookshop for a time, you know, while writing her novel Unquenchable Fire! I still have the first edition signed by her.” He kindly offered to pass on that copy to me. As I walked out of the bookshop, amazed by the prodigious syncronicities of life, I made a resolution to contact Rachel Pollack.

I first read her most celebrated novel, Unquenchable Fire—published in 1988 and currently available in a reprint edition as part of the S. F. Masterworks series from the Orion Publishing Group—in early 2020. Those were the days of an unprecedented global lockdown, but also, at a private level, of my own biological and emotional confrontation with the experience of unwanted gestation and abortion. Unquenchable Fire came to me exactly when I most needed it, and as I followed its main character through a strange, mystical future world, Pollack’s hard-to-define novel helped me through my process.

Densely layered with characters and symbology that transcend normal expectations of the science fiction genre, Unquenchable Fire is stimulatingly idiosyncratic and strikingly timely. It is set in a near-future New York City, after a feminist revolution has reoriented culture toward a reality where magical beings, rituals, and miracles have become an essential part of daily life. So essential, in fact, that people’s connection with the mystical seems to have become perhaps too commonplace, to the point of commodification: soulless charms are advertised everywhere; uninspired speeches are professed by bureaucratic spiritualists; people use spells to make their front lawns look better than their neighbors’. The main character, Jenni, a suburban New York woman whose fiancé has just left her, starts to see through the idleness of it all. She wishes only for the world to feel alive again, wondrous as it did in the wake of the revolution. At that moment, she becomes pregnant from a dream.

To read Unquenchable Fire as a contemporary retelling of the Immaculate Conception would be to minimize its complex universe, whose lore borrows from many religious and hermetic traditions. Still, to me, a faux agnostic raised in the Catholic tradition, the association is just too tempting: What would have happened to Mary if she did not wish to give birth to Jesus? Unquenchable Fire’s Jenni is adamant that she does not want a baby. In fact, she strives to terminate her unwanted pregnancy many times throughout the book, but Providence always manages to hinder her efforts in the most bizarre and frustrating ways, to the point of absurdity.

Coincidentally, and perhaps consequentially, the simultaneous experience of an unwanted gestation and the reading of Unquenchable Fire made me critically attuned to a particular canon in science fiction writing—what one might call it the miracle-pregnant-woman-in-a-post-gestational-society trope. (Children of Men, Alfonso Cuarón’s famous cinematic adaptation of P. D. James’s novel, is an example.) In most of these narratives there is rarely a space for doubt, insecurity, or rejection by the person who gestates. The process of pregnancy is accepted automatically and without question. The radicality of Pollack’s Jenni lies here: her “Mary” has no desire whatsoever to be a mother, especially of a child she did not consent to carrying. This is the story that Pollack tells us readily, while, more allegorically, gesturing towards something else: Jenni is experiencing an overwhelming state of creative infatuation. Jenni not only struggles with an unwanted pregnancy; she is also grappling with her own desires, from which she feels utterly disconnected. In other words, Jenni is not so much pregnant with a child but with her own unresolved potential. “It is not easy to be destined to great things,” as is often reiterated in the novel.

As a fiction writer, Pollack is a maximalist. Her worlds are populated by presences that immerse the reader in such a dense swarm of apparitions that it becomes impossible to do anything else but accept them as a given part of the world. In this realm of complexity, an unwanted pregnancy can figure as a mystical experience of both bodily and spiritual self-determination. Strange and symbolic like a dream, Unquenchable Fire, like several of Pollack’s writings, is a story that urges the world to burn with an insatiable desire for experience and creation—a fire that cannot be put out. The novel’s dense framework, couched in a profoundly imagined world, makes for a one-of-a-kind tale of defiance, emancipation, and spiritual coming of age (both personal and social—that is, of the world and of an age, as when one speaks of the Age of Aquarius). Unquenchable Fire is unquestionably one of the best science fiction novels of the late-twentieth century, as attested by its Arthur C. Clark Award. When I discussed the novel with Pollack, she shared that some people have told her they don’t like the book because the main character ends up having the baby in the end. But to Pollack it was even more significant that, although Jenni knew she didn’t have a choice, she still fought again divine intervention to terminate her pregnancy.

Given Pollack’s prolific writing career, one may wonder why it is virtually impossible to find her novels or short-story collections in bookshops. Due to various circumstances that mainly circle back to the fluctuating (economic) moods of the publishing industry, the majority of her novels, unlike her Tarot nonfiction, are currently out of print. Imbued with magic and a profound mystical knowledge, an ouroboros-like perspective on life and death, radical feminist spirituality, and explicit queer love (and sex), Pollack’s novels demand revisiting.

During our afternoon together in Rhinebeck, I would eventually, and finally, get my hands on Pollack’s hard-to-find sequel of sorts to Unquenchable Fire: Temporary Agency (1994). She kindly offered me a set of her books and signed them. Meanwhile, she entertained me and my partner with stories about how she got to write an entire run of DC Comics’ Doom Patrol back in 1993: her run was slowly announced through a series of fake fan-girl letters to the editor, published in each issue for months on end, begging the editor to let her write the book “or her mother would be terribly disappointed.” Her take on Doom Patrol, DC Comics’ ragtag team of misfits, made Pollack famous for introducing the first transgender lesbian superhero in American comics history. Pollack recounted to us how, at a recent comicon, she humbly received a standing ovation for her pioneering life and work. A much-anticipated omnibus of her Doom Patrol run was finally released last fall, to the delight of many comics fans. Taking over from the legendary Grant Morrison, who wrote Doom Patrol beginning in 1989, Pollack’s run is lauded as the weirdest phase of what was already the weirdest superhero team in DC Comics. In her hands, Doom Patrol did literally collapse realms into each other—of the subconscious and the mundane, the hilarious and the tragic, the ancestral and the contemporary. As her longtime friend and author Neil Gaiman said of her passing, “I think it’s only recently that Rachel’s work on Doom Patrol has been reassessed and seen as genuinely ahead of its time, and it’s about time too.”

Unlike magical beings such as, say, fairies, who busy themselves with their own matters, the mythology and tragedy of the superhero is constructed around the categories of humanness and alterity. Heroes are suprahuman, in that they have capabilities that most humans do not, but, as Doom Patrol or Marvel’s X-Men show us, this alterity, or just-like-but-not-quite, is also what conditions and marginalizes the superhero—or the mutant, in the X-Men’s case. Thus, to justify their place in the world, these “heroes” must employ their suprahuman capacity materially in society’s favor, or else risk being deemed villains. Unsurprisingly, given her knowledge of the mythological, Pollack understood this perfectly. If this tension was already central to Doom Patrol’s DNA, she pushed it to the forefront. Her Doom Patrol is the chaotic, lush, and disorienting result of an encounter between the human and the magical, as vibrant and fringy as its characters, and a feverish pleasure to read.

It is within those wild pages that Pollack gave us Coagula, or Kate Godwin—in a recent published interview, she reiterated that Doom Patrol superheroes do not have secret identities—the first transgender superheroine in American comics. Coagula can alchemically alter matter, but as Pollack put it to me—with the tenderness of an author who recalls her characters as one does an old friend—her real superpower is her sense of self-worth.

However, when my girlfriend, a comics-fan, probed Pollack about how difficult it must’ve been to write comics in the context of the early nineties, Pollack brushed off the drama. As proud as she appeared with the label of pioneer, she also related the story of how she navigated artistic milieus with a disarming relaxation.

It was already halfway through the nineties when Pollack published what she said might be her favorite fiction work, Godmother Night. By the time this novel won the World Fantasy Award it was already out of print. Like most of her science fiction and fantasy work, it is a novel that challenges definitions. A series of quasi-independent chapters tell the tale of two women, from the moment they first fall in love with each other at a college Halloween party to middle age. From their first kiss onward, however, Mother Night, a mysterious red-haired woman who is followed everywhere by a gang of lesbian “motomammies” (and who is, in fact, Death), becomes their protector and overseer, but just as often their challenger—in the style of an elder lesbian. The novel is episodic in form, like life itself. Laurie and Jaqe (who decides to choose her own name that fatidic Halloween night) struggle with their life ambitions, make love, go to graduate school, drop out, suffer family abuse, miss each other, have visions, get a coworker to donate sperm to them, have a child … And life goes on. Many beautiful and tragic events take place, but a constant is the dynamic between these three femmes: a couple and Death itself—the mutual care, fear, repulsion, and desire that make up this unlikely queer family, torn between two realms, forever entwined but never coexisting peacefully: life and death.

Among her several (currently out-of-print) fiction books, one finds A Secret Woman: A Mystery (2002), which repurposes the detective novel to explore the experience of gender transition; and The Tarot of Perfection: A Book of Tarot Tales (2008), a book of fairy tales based on the Tarot. Also of note are Pollack’s nonfiction books that explore themes related to her Tarot knowledge: The Body of the Goddess: Sacred Wisdom in Myth, Landscape and Culture (1997), which was sparked by her explorations into the Goddess movement; and The Kabbalah Tree: A Journey of Balance and Growth (2004), on the Tree of Life, Kabbalah’s most famous symbol.

When I first wrote to Pollack, I mentioned how surprised I was to find out that the same person who’d written one of the most influential works on Tarot also wrote science fiction. Pleased, she shared with me that, perhaps regretfully, most of her readers only engaged with one or the other—“regretfully” because these two aspects have always collided in her work. Her first novel, a science fiction space opera called Golden Vanity, originally appeared as Part 1 of Pollack’s first book on the Tarot, Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom. The cover art of the first edition of Unquenchable Fire depicts a version of the Tarot’s High Pristess speaking on the phone against the New York City skyline.

In the West, alchemy is often regarded as a premodern predecessor of scientific disciplines, notably natural philosophy and chemistry. In the worlds that Pollack invites us into, magic is lawful, in that it has rules, and it is causal, that is, observable. It would not be inaccurate to call Pollack’s work alchemical fiction. The universes of her novels are mutable and malleable, her characters continuously transcending the division between the spheres of consciousness and physicality. Here a woman impregnated by a dream; there a girl whose godmother, Death herself, takes her on a ride through realms veiled to the living. And isn’t science fiction precisely the exciting space where science and its epistemologies are made bendable?

That afternoon at the Italian restaurant, perhaps searching for a synthesis of Pollack’s lifelong, multifaceted investigations, I asked her: “Do you think of the Tarot as a tool that could’ve come from the realm of science fiction, since it allows one to tamper, for instance, with the linearities of time and space?” She didn’t seem to find my question very interesting. Alice B. Sheldon, the pioneering science fiction author who wrote under the name James Tiptree Jr., was known to keep three desks in her study, each with a distinct typewriter. At one of those desks she wrote exclusively science fiction, leaving other domains of her life to the remaining desks, so as not to mix up ideas. Pollack, however, would probably write at each desk according to her mood or to how the light might fall into the room at a given time of day. Rachel Pollack, the Tarot expert, the novelist, the activist, the poet, the comic book writer, the teacher, used just one typewriter, all of her facets existing in every single one of her words of magic. Like the world.

The research for this text was done while in residency at Wendy’s Subway with the support of FLAD. The author thanks them both.

Science Fiction, Queer Art & Theory, Transgender

Alice dos Reis is a visual artist and filmmaker.

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