Irina Kuzminsky, Heloise Speaks: A Verse Novel – review by Charlotte Hussey
What a contrast!! After agreeing to write this blog entry on Irina Kuzminsky’s Heloise Speaks: A Verse Novel, I rushed to my bookshelves to retrieve a translation of The Letters of Abelard and Heloise. Alas, The Letters proved to be florid, circuitous, and unwieldy. What a joyful deliverance to then read Heloise Speaks!
Here Kuzminsky adopts Heloise’s persona and grants her a voice easy for a modern reader to grasp. Heloise du Paraclet begins telling us her story, that of an extraordinary 12th-century woman linguist, philosopher, and abbess who suffers a tragic liaison with the leading philosopher of her era, Pierre Abelard. Kuzminsky draws on the letters the two lovers penned each other after their tumultuous separation – the punitively castrated Abelard to the Abbey of St Denis and Heloise to the convent in Argenteuil.
Kuzminsky gives the young Heloise a delightfully musical voice. The feisty teenager gloats over the fact that Abelard has abandoned his scholarship to write her love songs, ones that rise to the top of the medieval Paris pop charts:
I am the envy of the girls I know
They giggle and cast knowing glances
While I sail past my cheeks aglow
My eyes undimmed by unslept nights and wakeful trances.
Meanwhile you sing and in your songs sing praises
of me, your Heloise,
You’ve put my name on all of Paris’ lips
Gay troubadours who give our love new lease.
I love to hear them sing
I love to see their envy
I love to be thus famed
But, most of all –
That Love has made you be so reckless
In your praise of me. (22)
This poem’s 15 lines suggest a loosened modern sonnet, but this is the 12th century, when the sonnet is but a whisper in the wind. Its opening four-line stanzas with their abab, cdcd rhyme patterns are more resonant with how troubadours were experimenting with the Arabic strophic zajal. Kuzminsky’s foreshortened closing lines also resemble the envoy of their cansos. Of greater interest is how the courtly love convention is subverted. The troubadour’s love object – a noble lady stationed on pedestal or parapet – transforms into the fun-loving young Heloise. Gliding along Parisian streets with a bevy of female students, she boldly sings back to Abelard, proclaiming her own love sickness as if she is his musical equal.
Kuzminsky also creates a scholarly persona for Heloise that does justice to the profound intelligence of the erudite abbess she will become. Often Heloise refers to the sombre theological and philosophical debates found in The Letters. Kuzminsky threads them with a light touch into her lyric poems. She never intimidates us – as when, for example, Heloise speaks of Abelard’s radical intentionalism, a philosophical theory influencing such modern thinkers as Martin Heidegger and Edmund Husserl, which argues that subjective intention determines how moral a person’s acts really are. Heloise explains her intent for their illicit love affair, one that cost her her freedom and Abelard his manhood. As she struggles not to blame herself for his horrific mutilation at the hands of her vengeful uncle, she tells Abelard her own intent was pure love, not mere lust:
I shall go further and I’ll say
That even now God will vouchsafe me Heaven
For is it not said that He weighs the heart’s intent
And that the pure in heart shall see God
And be blessed. (86)
Other things Kuzminsky deftly achieves in recreating Heloise’s voice for a modern audience are a medieval tone, and turns of phrase, and occasional interrupted syntax. Thankfully, though, she has sacrificed the 12th century’s overblown rhetoric. Heloise’s letter draft below complains of being married first to Abelard and then as a nun to God. The draft’s tone and vocabulary evoke a medieval discourse, as with ‘exalts’, ‘chattel’, ‘Bride of Christ’, ‘entreaties’, ‘exempted from redemption’.
Drafts for a letter
You say my change in status now exalts me –
From wife and chattel,
yours, a husband’s, to command
I’m raised to Bride of Christ
And now take precedence with such a Bridegroom
Thus may command in turn.
You’ve words aplenty here –
But you don’t listen to entreaties,
let alone commands!
For me, God is not second best
To turn to after human love has failed.
If love redeems in Christ
They why is human love exempted from redemption? (82)
Heloise goes on to say she had hoped the relationship between a male and a female scholar could be one of free love, friendship, and equality. With the astounding directness of a modern women who is far from a nun, she ends her draft with a pithy Ovidian-like epigram stating she would have preferred to be Abelard’s sexy mistress rather than his wifely subordinate:
My love, through Love I was already high exalted
as your friend.
To be your whore gave me more standing
Than an Empress, were my Emperor unloved. (83)
This is but one example of how controversial Heloise’s double-facing views were, ones harkening back to looser, pre-Christian sexual mores and forward to those of today. Not only does Kuzminsky’s Heloise defend sex work and free love, she is torn between career vs. marriage, motherhood vs. scholarship, and body vs. mind.
Central, though, to this vivid reimagining of Heloise’s voice is the all too familiar struggle for a women to have a voice at all. The teenaged prodigy urgently proclaims, ‘I have to find my voice’ (27). But after putting out their newborn son to be fostered, Abelard forces the reluctant Heloise into a secret marriage and then into a nunnery to save his reputation. This forced confinement causes her voice to grow inarticulately self-destructive like
Reason unreasoned. Unseated.
By an animal clawing inside me.
Few plans. Fewer words.
When [Abelard] will you come again? (46)
Years later, after achieving career success as a famous abbess, Heloise continues to question how the languages she has mastered cannot express a woman’s bodily desires, or even ‘outline’ their aspirations:
I have grown famed for turns of phrase,
And for my skill with languages and words
French. Latin, Hebrew, Greek is not a mean achievement –
Why is it then that I can find no words
To speak of this – my woman’s body?
Is there a hole in every language then
Which traces with exactitude my female outline? (78)
The Letters show us how Abelard and Heloise struggled to conquer their tempestuous and warring passions in order to give themselves to God. Ever the logician, Abelard seems better at it. Heloise hopes they can remain religious friends, advisors, and equals. In Letter V, she chastises Abelard for his coldness, and by Letter VI, the last, he is telling her to stop their correspondence. Kuzminsky, in a brilliantly surprising turn, transforms Abelard’s physical castration into an equally troubling metaphor to describe his castration of Heloise’s voice and spirit:
Silencing my desire (on reading your letter):
But you won’t listen to my speech
You’d rather silence Heloise’s pen
You’d rather silence if you could my thoughts
Castrate my spirit and my own desires
So as not to hear me speak of who we were
So as not to show your cowardice to me. (84)
I’ll end with one last poem that sums up Kuzminsky’s eloquently achieved aim to don Heloise’s mask and ‘amplify’ a voice coloured by erotic desire and shaded by suffering and despair:
Is it in my belly
Does it ride my breath?
Is it on my tongue?
Is it in my throat?
Or is it in the ebb and flow of thoughts
born in my brain?
I must locate this voice
which seems to travel through my body
like the wandering womb
when my lips part –
I know that I must find it in a tone
which will be audible to you
For voices should communicate
– that’s their intent –
So I shall have to take on a persona –
The actor’s mask to signal who I play
and which will amplify my voice …
All these things I must do
If I am ever to heave hope of my voice
reaching you (95)
As the stage curtains begin to close, one can only stand to applaud Kuzminsky’s remarkably relevant performance as Heloise du Paraclet. Bravo! Bravo!