Poetry returns to me in small pieces. I miss it. My last good poem was dark with fury, so I’m not sure how many poetical words I have in me right now. In any case, my most recent poem is a short and simple and I thought I’d use it to point out something in poetry that is also simple, but very important. The key is a kind of “not-saying.” A silence with the purpose of saying something.
So then. Here’s the poem, a brief stanza:
I lay silently in the grass.
Arms stretched out.
All angled like a compass rose.
I closed my eyes.
The sun burned bright.
Hot all along my skin.
And I remembered another fire.
And Joan’s final word.
It’s neither the best nor the worst poem. I think it gets a bit choppy right about when the sun appears. Didn’t quite pull off the one sentence thing without sounding a bit like a robot. Simplicity is difficult, you know. Anyway: it’s a simple image. The speaker, or “me” – don’t confuse the actual me with the “I” in a poem (take that, Romanticism) – or whoever, lays down on the grass. It’s warm. Then the poet thinks about some Joan person who died saying something. End.
Nice, um… Well. Sorry about Grandma Joan who died in a fire? The sun sounds nice, at least.
What is all this?
If you’re familiar with any Joan associated a fire, it’s probably Joan of Arc (Jeanne d’Arc). A saint of the Catholic Church, Joan was a young French peasant who kicked the asses of English armies in the 15th century, driving them backward across France and dragging that lazy punk Charles to Reims so he could be crowned king. This was during the famous Hundred Years’ War. She was captured by the English and tried for a number of things, mainly heresy, and they were very upset about her cross-dressing too. She wore armor, after all. This was seen as evidence of her heterodoxy for…reasons. Point is: they wanted her dead, and they searched for ways to make that happen. Then they made it happen. Let’s keep in mind that everyone is Catholic at this point. So Catholic France rallied behind Catholic Joan of Arc, and Catholic England captured her and condemned her. She was burned at the stake.
Now she’s a saint.
As G.K. Chesterton says of Joan, “The Canonisation of St. Joan came very slowly and very late. But the Rehabilitation of St. Joan came very promptly and very early. It is a very exceptional example of rapid reparation for a judicial crime or a miscarriage of justice. … [I]f we take the tale of St. Joan as a test, the really remarkable thing is not so much the slowness of the Church to appreciate her, as the slowness of everybody else” (from “The Early Bird in History”).
In any case, this is the Joan of the fire in the poem. The poem simply expects us to know that, and good luck making sense of the thing without knowing it. And what was Joan’s last word? It is said – with a fair chance at historical accuracy – that Joan’s last words as she died were, “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus!” The poem elides this into one word, but all the same: it doesn’t say it. It expects us to supply the last word and, even, the real end of the poem itself. “Jesus.”
Fun fact: my own favorite words of Joan from her trial, other than these, involve her response to her captors as they continually pestered her about the saints she saw and spoke with. “Do they speak French?” they’d ask, mocking her. She’d never respond. Finally, they pushed her to the end of her patience. Again they asked of the saints, “Do they speak French?” Right there in the records of the trial, we can see her snap, “Better French than you!”
So then, I need to know something already before the poem can be a poem to me. Almost all poems do this – all words do it, too – reaching out to what we already know in order to offer us meaning. Words speak through a shared world of understanding or “text” (Ricoeur), taking advantage of an “echo” (Hollander, Vanden Eykel), since words have metaphorical ranges mapped neurally in the brain (Masson), and we arrive at the meaning in words through their approximation to other words (Derrida). To shove aside the philosophers and theologians, I mean this: nothing speaks to us unless we speak back. We actually have to offer ourselves to what we read.
You’ve got to know, or figure out, who Joan of Arc is and what her last word is to understand the poem. Not because the poem fails, but because the poem is being a poem. Just saying it is philosophy; not saying it is poetry. Both are meaningful, but they mean differently.
Now, if I’ve solved the simple puzzle of the poem – a simplicity that presumes Christianity in order for it to actually be simple, a presumption that fascinates me even though I’m the one who wrote the damn thing – I’ve got at the basic meaning of the poem. If I go back and read again, as poems always demand, some new details come forward. For example, if I don’t know what a compass rose is, I can guess a bit even without looking it up: something cross-like, probably, or in any case the speaker is splayed out lazily on the ground. The image is sharper if I look back and I am able to supply some of the last words of the poem to the first words: something cruciform or Jesus-shaped is there. The explicit comparison of fires (sunlight and burning execution) stands out more clearly, if not rather more strangely. Why in the hell would this person be at peace imagining being on fire? Well.
And to get that, the poem seems to beg for a specific way of thinking about him.
Not that it says what that is. No: that’s ours to give.
Oh, and, uh… *cough* I kind of have a book coming out about this stuff. In case you wondered why I could list a bunch of thinkers on the same thing. And please click on that photo above! Father Lawrence is a Dominican who takes the greatest religious photos ever.