Joan of the Arc of Oaks
I would rather my spirits
than any of these
effects. Look on surfaces,
sheen, how we dismiss
what’s within. please no royal
cloth for me. they have killed
the woman who gave birth to trees
and from her fingers grew green.
no place for such heresy
in our country, so modern.
I can only say that the oaks
in the middle of the way
as I walked along the lane
called to me and branches swayed
to tell me something of such import
I could hear them pressing
against my edges intent
to disturb with message
who am, would be, impertinent
to clamp over mouth of, to not transport—
to the populace, who reck not?
for a woman
even a maiden
knows how to birth what.
and wouldn’t any squire call it my duty
though with each syllable
my kinsmen declare
my speech a plague moon?
I could hear clear syllables
when so many scurried around
for merchant and shop, fastened
on shine of velvet, tule cloth.
the spirits they said
our age we had got it all wrong.
they bid me dance
with what I’d heard
of them and I did. I did
it for France,
for the embrace,
for the fate of the beyond.
In January 2014, I had just returned from a three-week trip in Brazil, and, transitioning back to my life in the Bay Area, I was experiencing acute culture shock. Simultaneously accosted by capitalist sales pitches and aggrieved at the suddenly isolated urban streets, my “I” suddenly seemed overlarge. Extremely grumpy about being back in the US, with elements rearranged in the ontological landscape, in a fit of pique, I thought, “I’d rather have my spirits/ than any of your surfaces!” This was the beginning launch, but I didn’t write it down yet, as it seemed more a tantrum than poetry. Since my starting sentiment was genuinely angry at the capitalist culture and urban disorientation from earth, which I and my readers share, I risked spitting in the eye of my readers—ouch, not what I’d prefer to do.
Pretending to be more polite than that, I cast about for a persona in which I might clothe this raw sentiment. Without thinking about it much, I reached out for an icon that would exist within our Western canon—perhaps a spokesperson from which readers might be more open to hearing critique. Years before having read (and adored) Marina Warner’s biography of Joan of Arc, I thought of this Joan.
Then I got curious—for wouldn’t Joan have existed in a premodern time when relationships between feminine, the divine, spirit, earth, would have been quite different from what came after—and what we’ve inherited? One of my favorite subjects to contemplate is the construction of self/ society, human/animal & plant, spirit/material, and how these unconsidered contours and distinctions lead us to disinherit the earth, and thus to be disinherited of spirit. I could well have reached for a Brazilian example based on my experiences and observations there, but I chose to stick with the European example, hoping the lineage would make the ideas more accessible to U.S. readers.
Persona chosen, I was off to the races. I composed the poem quickly, on the computer (unusual for me), as I was “supposed” to be polishing up syllabi and schedules for my Spring 2014 classes. I think composing on the computer makes the poem more a sketch, more skeletal, with more air in it, than my more elaborated poems begun in longhand in my journal.
I tried not to put in too many period details of medieval times, as I wanted the poem to exist in that holographic space between her time and our time, so that the time is both, and thus comments more readily on our own time. I did go back later and fact check a bit, confirmed tule as a cloth used in her time, but otherwise, I worked from memory of having read Warner’s biography.
I am of course reinterpreting Joan’s life here to suit my own purposes; though she’s seen more as speaking for God and France, here I focus more on her early years, where Warner contextualizes Joan within a tradition of sage elder women’s herbal folk wisdom, an indigenous feminine tradition before the Christian Church would redraw boundaries of who gets to speak for spirit, with heavy lines inked in dividing divine from animate trees and plants—our true Fall.
Tiffany Higgins is author of And Aeneas Stares into Her Helmet (Carolina Wren Press, 2009), selected by Evie Shockley as winner of the Carolina Wren Poetry Prize. She was artist-in-residence at Art Farm in Nebraska in August 2014. Her poems appear in Poetry, Kenyon Review, Taos Journal of Poetry & Art, From the Fishouse, and other journals, as well as in the forthcoming anthology Ghost Fishing (University of Georgia Press, 2015), on ecojustice poetry. She is working on place-based nonfiction, “Toward a Culturecology,” on redrawing boundaries between culture and ecology, and is a translator of the work of contemporary Brazilian poets, including Alex Simões and João Filho of Salvador, Bahia. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she teaches at several colleges. See more at her website: Poems, News and Other Stories