A delicate madness: The Last Days of Jeanne d’Arc by Ali Alizadeh

Jeanne d’Arc has been the subject of countless historical, literary and dramatic accounts, and it is likely that, at least in the western world, everyone has some image they associate most readily with the famed young woman who donned men’s clothing and led the army of France to a series of decisive victories against the English during the Middle Ages. The rough outline of her story is so ubiquitous in our culture that it is likely difficult to recall one’s first encounter. But I certainly remember my most intense moment of identification with the Maid. It was late May, just over twenty years ago. I was, at the time, at the height of an episode of psychotic mania that would lead to a bipolar diagnosis and, ultimately, to an understanding of the deep gender discomfort I had felt for as long as I could remember. At the time however, I was a mess. Female-born and married with two children, my ex and I had endured a few years of destructive soul searching on my part. My madness, complete with visions, was just one more thing we tried to survive in the desperate hope that it would all pass. In my experience I’d seen drag queens and butch lesbians but no one I identified with. Until May 30, when I suddenly realized—and to this day I don’t remember how or why I knew it—that it was the feast day of Joan of Arc. In this convergence I saw a message. I saw myself. In the state I was in, the timing was fortuitous and seemingly miraculous. In the end, the ultimate moment of self-understanding was still a number of months ahead, but I will ever think of Jeanne’s appearance on my journey toward belated manhood with a mixture of embarrassment and wonder.

When I first heard of the premise around which The Last Days of Jeanne d’Arc , the recent novel from Australian author, Ali Alizadeh is constructed, I was skeptical. It triggered my frustration that, looking back in history, cross-dressing women are typically conflated with lesbians or “straight” transmale identities, in these days of heightened trans awareness. However, it’s not always accurate, historically or today. But that is another matter. My initial negative reaction quickly turned to curiosity the more I heard about the unusual, innovative approach taken in this account of a life that has been celebrated, and excoriated, in so many well-known renditions over the past six centuries.

For Alizadeh, who was born in Iran and emigrated to Australia in his teens, the fascination with Jeanne d’Arc is long standing. It goes back to his childhood years.  His enigmatic heroine was the subject of an epic poem he wrote for his PhD and it is this background—a comprehensive understanding of the historical material combined with the spare elegiac prose of a poet—that allows him to create a curious, sensitive, and deeply human portrait of a complex historical figure.

The Last Days of Jeanne d’Arc, as the title implies, is structured around the final days of Jeanne’s life. After months of brutal interrogation, she has renounced her Voices and her actions by signing a letter of abjuration. She has saved herself from a charge of heresy, torture and execution, but now she is imprisoned in a cold, damp cell beneath the Treasury Tower of Rouen Castle. Forced to remove her male attire and put on a white gown, she feels vulnerable and alone. However, it seems that there is something more weighing on her, a sense that her passion runs deeper than a divinely inspired drive to serve her King and country—something much too fragile and painful to remember.

As Jeanne’s story is fleshed out, the narrative will return repeatedly to this dim prison, and each time we will know her a little better. But, Alizadeh, a skillful storyteller, takes his time, inviting the reader to remain open to possibility. Effectively employing an inventive style that weaves together a chorus of voices and shifting perspectives, The Last Days avoids falling into the morass of detail that can drag down more conventional historical novels. Narrated primarily in the present tense, from a third person perspective, the historical context and military conflicts are presented in a spare, dated, often time-stamped, documentary style echoing nonfiction prose poetry. It is blunt and remarkably effective:

1413

In England, Henry V succeeds his father, the Lancastrian usurper of the English throne. Twenty-seven years old, a grotesquely scarred face. An extremely devout Christian, not at all the fun-loving, riotous youth of Shakespeare’s future play. Severe and frankly soulless. Muscular. Possibly a psychopath, probably a war criminal. Is never seen to smile. Must prove himself to the English nobility as their ruler, as a real, mighty man. Or else his dynasty may be toppled just like the dynasty his father toppled. Is keenly aware of the turmoils in France. Decides that the time has come to renew the claim to the throne of France…

Once Jeanne enters history and, in her first battles proves her value, the narrator gradually moves closer into her thoughts, letting the account slip back in time again, to meet our heroine as she hits adolescence. It is at this time that young Jeannette, as she is still called, has her first visionary encounters. It is also the when she begins to sense that the affection she has for her childhood girlfriend is of a somewhat different order. Before long she finds herself distanced from the other youth of her village. She is excessively pious and decidedly indifferent to the idea of dancing with boys, marrying and having babies—something her peers are well on their way toward achieving by their early teens. There is a soul wrenching loneliness in being set apart like this, by desire and, if her beloved Saint Catherine of Alexandria is to be believed, by divine destiny.

As the narrative turns to follow Jeanne’s life more directly, her Voices are allowed to speak, set apart in italics and indentation, appearing to float in the text. Jeanne’s own voice also enters, slipping in periodically either to comment on or clarify the account, or to address another, a “you” who remains, for a time, unnamed as in this passage, just prior to her first encounter with her Voices, where perspective and tense shifts several times:

She has never been caught in such a terrible storm and there is so much pain in her skinny body. I struggled to stand back up. The whole world flared up in the lashes of blinding lightning. The rain immersed my being. She is kneeling, paralysed by the mud. My tears merged with the rainfall. (Did I tell you, my love, how exactly it happened?) The thunder strikes harder and the rain is now a flood and it is in this cascade—why do historians insist it was a sunny day?—amid the fruits and plants being washed away by the storm that Jeanette clenches her fists. It is then that she howls back at the unforgiving sky. She rips off her scarf.

O God O angels O Saint Catherine.

Are you there?

Are you there?

 Allowing room for Jeanne’s voice to reflect back on her experience deepens the intimacy of the present tense narrative. This polyphonic quality will become more pronounced as other emphatic voices interrupt with curses and threats as the story progresses toward its inevitable and unfortunate end.

The portrait of Jeanne d’Arc that emerges over the course of this novel is one of a mix of vulnerability and determination. We see a young woman torn between her convictions and her doubts, conflicted by her desires, and isolated from others by gender, lack of education, and the unconventional role she plays. She is never entirely free from concern about the reality of her Voices and her own sanity, especially when her entreaties meet silence. And, while she becomes hardened to the violence and gore of the battlefield, she grows increasingly distracted by her love for another woman and all of the complex emotions that such a forbidden affection arouses. What comes across is a certain naivety. She is, after all, young (only nineteen at her death) and has, in a sense, been protected from the kind of demands of life that would have hardened and matured her peers who married early. So although she becomes an experienced soldier and commander of men, her romantic love affair has an idealized, almost adolescent intensity that betrays her youth.

Alizadeh does not offer this speculative image of Jeanne d’Arc as a lesbian woman lightly. He knows the relevant documentary material exceptionally well and is aware not only of the limitations but of the spaces where possibility resides. His narrator respects his heroine, balances the historical account with the personal, and situates his chronicle to the contemporary reader. His Jeanne is a medieval heroine for a modern imagination, his novel is an absorbing, lightly experimental, and human re-imagining of the life and death of a young woman who has never ceased to be the source of inspiration and intrigue.

As I can attest.

The Last Days of Jeanne d’Arc by Ali Alizadeh is published by Giramondo.

With a multitude of voices: Star Struck by David McCooey

There is a line from Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge that has haunted me since I first encountered it about a month ago. Quoted at the opening of Franz Fühmann’s At the Burning Abyss it reads: “For poems are not feelings, as people think (you have feelings early enough)—they are experiences.”

A simple statement, but one that instantly made sense. Poems are experiences. Rilke goes on to insist that everything the poet observes, everyone he or she encounters becomes part of the potential material for a poem. I have read a few highly praised poetry collections recently, typically by popular younger poets, that seemed to be exploiting emotional intensity without sufficient substance. By the end of a short book I tend to feel a little bludgeoned by the sameness and relentlessness of the imagery. I find myself wondering what the same poet might be like with just a little more life to draw from. Experience.

And so to my first review of the year, which happens to be the last book I finished in 2017. It is a collection of contemporary poetry and, once again, it’s Australian. David McCooey’s Star Struck is another book that came to my attention through a review and interview on Tony Messenger’s website. What initially drew my attention was a very immediate and personal connection. I was intrigued by the fact that one of the sections was inspired by his own encounter with a life-threatening medical event. Like McCooey, I have spent time on the cardiac ward and, whether the circumstances differ or not, there is nothing quite like heart trauma to upset your fragile equilibrium. To this date, I have not been able to write about my own experience, much of which is forever lost to my memory. And so I was curious to see where he would take his own explorations. Of course, I also found much more.

Star Struck is a lyrical collection, rich with musical and literary references, that relies on a wide range of voices and characters. Two poems, both titled “This Voice,” frame the work, reflecting the ambiguity and universality of speakers to be found within:

It goes without saying
that it sounds like your voice.
But is it yours? And if
not yours, then whose?

In his interview with Tony Messenger, McCooey admits that the second person “voice” here is intended “to be alienating, and to undermine simple ideas of my poems simply expressing ‘my voice’.” This is an awareness that continues, in varying forms throughout the main body of the text. Divided into four sections, the first part, “Documents,” traces his hospital adventure, from presentation at Accident and Emergency through surgery to rehabilitation. The experience is recounted with a level restraint that is mediated by the use of the second-person perspective. Addressing himself at a distance has several advantages—it allows the poet to ensure that it is not entirely about himself, accommodates exploration of some of the oddity of the hospital environment, and, as I read it, captures the strange surreality of the patient experience itself, the temporary suspension of control required:

There had been an earlier
waking,
in the ICU,

a time you have
deeply forgotten,
when you had the worst

of it—the pain, the detubation,
the harrowing scenes
of your return to life…

– from “Intensive Care (ii)”

Literary references appear throughout this work, his cardiac patient turns to Calvino, Muriel Spark and Tomas Tranströmer, while Georges Perec-style constraints shape a simple domestic scene; but since McCooey is also a musician, it is no surprise that he delights in incorporating characters and themes drawn from popular music into the eighteen dramatic monologues that comprise the third section of Star Struck, “Pastorals.” Here he takes on the voices of artists like Joni Mitchell and James Morrison, imagines scenes involving rock stars, music fans, and even peers out of the eyes of a caged primate watching a curious tailless creature  in a poem with the Peter Gabriel-inspired title “Shock the Monkey.” There is a restrained  confidence in these resulting mini-portraits that shift effortlessly between male and female speakers, taking their cues from music, musicians, movies, along with classic poetic sources, to give voice to those moments in life marked by association with an artist or piece of pop culture.

Poems as experience.

What marks the reading of this collection for me, moving in and out of it for several weeks as I have, is the way that the simplest observations can be spun into narratives that hint at a larger story. This is not say that there are not pieces that take on grander themes—“Election,” for example takes direct aim at the detention centre on Manus Island—but it is in the ordinary that we see ourselves. However, being drawn to this book for its hospital poetics, if you will, the poems that struck closest to home for me were those that revolved around the experience of illness and recovery. The final poem (before the closing version of “This Voice”) is one of my highlights. The narrator of “La Notte: A Tale of the Uncanny” is a widowed sixty-two-year-old who is recovering from a recent illness and surgery. It is a extended meditation on aging, loneliness, and the strangeness of post-illness existence, every other stanza an aside in parentheses:

I put off the performance of dinner, deciding
instead to have a lie down. Perhaps I had, after all,
overdone things a little by going out that afternoon.

(Time takes on a different quality when one lives alone;
the hours I sometimes longed for thirty years ago
can now feel like a ghostly presence in the house.)

I went to the bedroom, which used to be my son’s,
about to lie down, when something caught my eye.
The small glass owl on the windowsill had been moved.

(I do not say ‘had moved’, since such objects can’t move
by themselves. This goes without saying, I know, but I
want to make it clear this is not a supernatural story.)

Sometimes serious, sometimes satirical, Star Struck offers much to enjoy. Unsentimental, but attentive to the nuances of character, McCooey highlights the passions, regrets, and familiar associations that bind us in this accomplished collection.

Star Struck by David McCooey is published by UWAP, the poetry series of UWA Publishing of the University of Western Australia.

Idly tossing stones: Glasshouses by Stuart Barnes

Although I’ve never been a stranger to poetry, I have read (and acquired) more this year than ever before. I have even, cautiously, attempted to write about some of the shorter collections that have resonated with me most strongly. However, whereas the more I read, the easier it is to articulate why some books—even a couple of those by the celebrated young poetic stars of the day—fail to win me over, I am often at a loss to write with confidence about the collections that draw me in, hold my attention, and continue to call me back.

If there’s a moment when the proverb that likens offering unjustified criticism to throwing stones seems especially apt, I can’t think of a better one than this: my attempt to gather my thoughts about Glasshouses by Australian poet, Stuart Barnes. And yes, I know I am twisting the intent of the original wisdom, but I am slowly learning enough about poetry to be increasingly aware of what I don’t know.

I read this book through, listening to the rhythms, enjoying the wealth of rural and natural imagery, the sensitivity to the nuances of familial and intimate relationships, and the recognizable cultural references. And then I hit the detailed Notes at the end of the book and discovered what a cento is (a patchwork of lines taken from the work of other poets), and learned that some of the poems sample or rework other texts, or incorporate very specific structures and form. Tony Messenger’s interview with Barnes further confirmed my suspicion that I was missing entire levels of structural significance and poetic discipline; an awareness that is at once exciting and intimidating.

If one stops at superficial impact is that enough? What does it mean to enjoy a poem? If a line that catches me short in a cento actually originates from another work, who owns the power? The poet who crystalized the image, or the poet who re-envisions it, a jewel among other salvaged (and fully credited) jewels? Or—and I should hope this is correct—both but in different ways?

At the same time, returning to the closing poem in the collection, “Double Acrostic,” one of my favourites, after taking a moment to refresh my memory (again) about what an acrostic poem is (words or names are spelled out through the first—and if double, last—letters of each line), I found it thrilling to re-experience the poem on two levels, appreciating the beauty and the precision of the language anew.

For the novice poetry critic like myself, Glasshouses is a luminous example of what can be done within an array of poetic forms. Barnes openly takes rhythm and inspiration from his mentors, his favourite music, and from the application of specific limits. As he admits in the interview linked above:

I adore writing in form, be it fixed or one I’ve altered or one I’ve conceived; when writing in form I feel as if I’m at my most creative; I feel liberated, not constrained.

But, of course, the true test is, do his poems work for the casual reader? I would be inclined to think that form, if it is effective, should function beneath the surface—neither obvious nor necessary for the enjoyment of the piece. After all is there only one way to understand a poem? Poetry is, ideally, not written from the top down. A poem is not an intentional exercise to illustrate the universal by forcing specific images and allusions; the poet enters the process of writing to see where it takes him or her, and the reader has to feel comfortable to do the same.

Or perhaps I am tossing stones after all.

And so, to the reading. Glasshouses is a collection that feels intensely intimate and personal, in the sense that Barnes seems to be engaging directly with his reader, sharing his love of the poets who have guided him, directly or through his careful reading, drawing inspiration from his family and from his own experience as a gay man, and openly riffing on the influence of music and pop culture. The wide range of voices that emerge, together with the variety afforded by his delight in structure and form, allows for a reading experience that never falls into tired and predictable patterns. There are misted melancholic pieces, and poems that explode in loud, energetic bursts. In short, this collection is so much fun to read that I can easily imagine myself returning to its pages again and again.

Yet, within the limitations of this brief review/reflection, it’s impossible to offer more than a glance at a poem or two. Many cannot be reproduced because they are printed in landscape format, are shaped, or employ unusual fonts for emphasis and impact. Otherwise, it is difficult to zero in on any one representative example. For me, at this point in my life, I found the translucent beauty of a series of in memoriam poems to be especially powerful—“eggshells” and “colour wheel” in particular. The latter (i.m. Mervyn Barnes) begins:

The American-
barn-red-off-centre
timber shed

trumpeting
through blood &
bone the glasshouse’s
yellow stars

the front yard’s statue-
sque rooster
screaming blue
murder till blue

in the face
Bay of Fires’
orange lichen,
zinc-creamed lips…

However, since I began with an allusion to a proverb, it seems fitting to close with a taste of “Proverbs”—a playful literary take on proverbial witticisms:

A fish always stinks from the elegy down.
Hell hath no fury like a metaphor scorned.
The senryū does not change its spots.
You can’t get blood out of a trope.

Love of the couplet’s the root of all evil.
Procrastination’s the thief of metre.
Nothing is certain but stress and narrative.
The darkest stanza’s before the dawn.

Ah, yes, but fortunately I have a copy of Glasshouses to wake up to.

Glasshouses by Stuart Barnes is published by University of Queensland Press.