The following long poem is based loosely on the letters of Abelard and Heloise as translated from the Latin by C.K. Scott Moncrieff. Published in 1925, his book is dedicated to George Moore, who himself wrote a novel about the fabled, medieval lovers and contributed his own epistolary forward to Moncrieff’s handsome folio. Harriet O’Donovan Sheehy gave this book to me long ago, a gift from the library of Frank O’Connor, her deceased, first husband.
Pierre Abelard was a twelfth-century philosopher and theologian originally from Brittany. As a young philosophy student in Paris at the Cathedral School of Notre Dame, he famously defeated his teacher by presenting a superior exegesis of “Ezekiel”. Abelard instantly became a celebrity. Subsequently, he took up lodging in the household of the uncle of a scholarly young woman named Heloise. Abelard tutored her and also made her pregnant. Heloise went to Brittany for her confinement with Abelard’s family. She gave birth to a son, Astrolabe, the boy’s name a tribute to his father’s rational mind.
Both to protect his career as a celibate scholar and maintain moral rectitude, Abelard proposed a secret marriage to Heloise. She at first vigorously resisted this expeditious solution. Eventually she relented. When her uncle, however, publicly disclosed the marriage, Abelard sent Heloise, who’d denied her uncle’s claim, to a convent to be cared for by nuns. Her uncle, suspecting an evasion of responsibility on Abelard’s part, arranged for his henchman to castrate the fornicator one night in his sleep. Abelard, abruptly neutered but still resourceful, insisted that he and Heloise both take religious vows. Again, Heloise resisted and again she relented. Meanwhile, Abelard had left Paris and lived in a series of monasteries, sowing discord in each one. He even set up his own monastic retreat, the Paraclete, named after the Holy Ghost. It too degenerated into turpitude and chaos.
Eventually, Heloise would restore order there, when she installed her own community of nuns. Abelard went on to greater and greater accomplishment and attendant infamy. His most dangerous writing proved to be a logical analysis of the Holy Trinity, arguing for the separateness of each spiritual entity. Anathema to the Church, this position nearly cost him his life by murder and his soul by excommunication. Ever resilient, he avoided both and at the end of this tumultuous life became reconnected with Heloise, who wrote to him and thus began the legendary exchange. Heloise was prompted to renew contact after reading the very long letter he had written to a fellow monk. In it Abelard related the trials of his life, including his brief but fraught relationship with Heloise. That extended letter, known as his Historia Calamitatum, is the background for the first half of this book. Their epistolary exchange, six additional, shorter letters in all, sets the stage for the second half….I have taken the entirely personal liberty, because Brittany is Celtic, of setting this poem largely in Ireland, where I spent my early, adult life.
Only a woman could conceive of such a plan,
Adamantine and then fleece, a perfect lamb,
Her gloating all the sweeter for the bitter
Dose I self-prescribed as divine justice.
I’m built like an ox, low to the ground, but my hide
Is skin and I’d been banging with all my weight
Against that stout oak door, studded with spikes,
Crucified, or so I made it sound to her,
When quick as my temper, click, no turned to yes,
That generous, three-lettered word not we two locked
But open. I cannon balled in, fell splat, flat
On my face, in a very strange place, indeed, married
With a kid on the way. The woman had to go.
She needed family, mine, not her crowing uncle,
Clucking hens, hormonal doting, the estuary,
And wait for the spring tide, when the full moon rises.
The minute the actress mouthed her consent, she ceased
Being she, as we both grew in her belly, one
Two, three, family, no further need for that pair
Of shriveled crabapples under a stunted tree.
As soft as pollen and quiet as sunset they dropped.
The lightness, the relief. I’d been delivered
Of a weight, straining the fragile web I’d spun.
I could begin now simply to die like other sinners.
Then she waddled back, wet and stained with milk,
Her buds bulbous pears bowing a laden tree.
Where had my virgin gone, where I? There,
In that grotto, the newly anointed, swaddled God.
And so, we shoved two beds together, twins,
And got on with our contractual, conjugal truce.
Two stained mattresses, adjacent padded cells,
Two matching coffins, corpses stiff and straight.
One morning I woke, looked toward the far horizon
Of her side. Sunrise soaked the sheet. Ready
Again, I sighed. It did not light a match in me.
I could hear her downstairs boiling and brewing the tea.
I was like Noah righting a Biblical wrong,
But crushed below deck between tits and nuts.
I’d landed on Ararat but didn’t speak the language.
The tongue I did would only dig me deeper.
I’ve the face of a cherub, hence wings as well as hooves.
I’m Michael. I sweep the floor of hell and raise it,
Wipe the smile, my brain, a step behind
My fist. And her going on pummeling dough.
The blood gushed fast and slow, frozen rose petals.
For years she’d finger that first scar over and over
In a mirror, swear at the ugly reversal of fate.
If you only knew the half, the glass gave back.
I would sit in a corner under a scrupulous lamp,
Inspect the half moons of my nails, and with thumb
And forefinger turn the Manichean pages,
Each one illegible as snow without shadows.
My head is a hammer and chisel. I carve hard truths.
My saint is Denis. I may have lost my manhood
To the sword, but that martyr lost his head,
Then picked it up and walked to preach the word.
Priapic fingers pointed, “The poor bollox”.
Didn’t Leviticus ban rotten figs from the temple,
Lethal as shellfish, but oh their ethereal, total
Loss. There is no man more potent than a eunuch.
I left as the soul leaves the body, there and not there.
We each embraced new vows. She took the veil
And I the cowl. I climbed back up into a shell
The jet of squid ink. I counted every step.
Who in God’s name do you think you are? Abelard?
With your head so far up the arse of the Middle Ages,
You’ll not have heard the letter you sent that wretch,
Who came to you for succor (the better to seek
Refreshment from a cesspool), has gone viral.
Even I, every inch the Victorian head mistress now,
And who well might be the abbess-scribe at the ruin
I pass each day on the boreen down to the shore,
Where I walk, weep, pick winkles for supper, have read it.
My novices too. I can tell by how they look at me.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m charmed by your allusion
To Xanthippe. What pissed me off was a sin
Of omission, no mention of Medea, epitome
Of downy femininity gone hard.
Under you I achieved the peak of notoriety.
I saw you on the telly once. You were walking
A cliff walk, talking the talk. You were asked had you any
Remorse, amends to make. You named your names
With the blurry deliberation you’d put into putting
Your jiggling key in the lock locked.* I listened hard
For sorry. Now I’ve choked on that anachronism
You put into my mouth in print. I never said
You’d end up in Bedlam, that medieval asylum.
If your aim was making me look bad, I’m flattered.
If you screwed up, we can’t have that now, Abelard.
*locked, Irish slang for “paralytic” drunk
In the beginning, he sang for me alone.
Preposterous, of course. Against all logic.
Standing room only. Legions of lip-synching fans,
And only I could hear him, his little Gnostic.
Caught in a downpour of sound, I was the rain.
One note and I was dew assumed by the sun.
But only if my eyes stayed unconstrained.
I’d be pinned to the ground by his, if mine were open.
We study the body. We listen to the soul.
Disciples radiate a certain faith, each ray
Of his gaze their star entire, mainlining the gospel
According to him, gored on the horns of cerulean eyes.
Astigmatic, I could see how he saw them,
Saw us, as a flash crowd of dithyrambic gnats
Obscuring his view of the luminous cloud where some
Reside, intoning, atoning for all that is not
Ultraviolet light. At that my scorched retina
Detached. I saw black, swam in a swarm of sperm,
Roman centurions sent to inflict the stigmata.
It took just one to nail him to the podium.
Yet again, crucifixion, resurrection. Tedious,
Rising and shining for yet another bash at it,
A twisted genius bearing the sign of the cross
On his blazing brow. Their kisses turned to ash.
What rose from that unholy mess was Judas.
I lost my soul to save it, tossed the last straw
On the pyre and lit it. No Phoenix, Jesus
Wept. Mea culpa, etcetera, mea maxima culpa.
Sobriety’s like light for the blind, who see
for the first time, say, those salt and pepper shakers,
the perfect couple, the too white cloth, the grey
off the sea and me down to take the air, recover,
adjust to the glare, how objects wear a halo,
those containers little lighthouses, the sea with its surface
tension. Our best behavior hides a reef below,
scorch marks on linen, your wine with its meniscus.
Convex? Concave? (I’d begged you to drink.) No or yes?
The roller coaster made me dizzy, all a blur.
I was trying to find my balance, a single focus
for two divergent eyes. One saw only inner
fact, a drought so severe my soul was cracked mud,
the other outer rapture. I’d get drunk on colour
or its purer lack. Your merlot was menstrual blood,
and me with my glass of intoxicating tap water.
I’d sworn not a word, a drop, would pass, let alone
a brotherly kiss, my lips. I was trying to heal
a festering wound, succubus fangs, being eaten
alive by some fiend, my nose poking out of hell
seeing double. On one side a filly, the other a gelding,
me with my stubs and you with your long, shapely hands,
the ring on your left still leading me on, your wedding
band, your right, moistened forefinger testing the wind.
Like a sissy, I’d taken to seaweed baths, all the help
I could get, an extra oleaginous film for a skin
too few, long soaks, then dripping in snaky kelp,
trusty trident in hand, I’d rise from my dour domain
to amusement arcades, bars, and dancehalls. Even that gull
in the greying white wedding dress, picking at refuse, ready
to swoop down the aisle again, go for the kill, blushing bridal.
You went back to your hotel, I could see, still hungry.
Your kiss on my cheek, as we parted, officious and tender
enough for me to hang on to see-sawing cliffs,
looking up at the jut of that jaw, then down at the floor,
never taking the measure before for measureless relief,
a steep price to pay, such release, to be beach glass, dull
in and out, for better or worse than divorce, I’d be damned
to repeating that hourglass vow forever, tidal
and true to the fact, each sinner a mere grain of sand
on the strand, where the nuns used to swim, still secluded, virgin,
after all the invasion, shrewd, uncouth, courting farmers,
stout, dowried daughters of farmers, sealed all but the banns,
holding on to that rope, their one hope, down to the shore.
Never lower, interred in myself like a clam, but I’d married
the sky as a shy altar boy. I could never hide
in a cave wet and fetid with sex. I prayed to the tide
to deliver me home, some dream long ago about suicide.
Harpoon riled as Leviathan, I dove lower
Than any sea monster ever. Not half far enough.
I came back from Tir na Nog both old and sober,
Knowing the hawk of justice is no flitting moth.
My body’s a timber ship, gold bullion my soul.
Too soon from the crow’s nest, the edge of this world hoves.
Is he in Hell, I ask, who rendered all touch foul?
He brushed some hair out of my eyes. It burned.
That smudge turned to ash, to soot inside my cowl.
I took my vows. Now, I’m judged for sins of omission,
Not those I chose to resist, to protect above
All others, my flesh resurrected, my self, my son,
To whom I’ve shown nothing, as I was shown, but love.
Peggy O’Brien is the author of four collections of poems: Sudden Thaw, Frog Spotting, Trusting Ice and the forthcoming Tongues. She is also the editor of the Wake Forest Book of Irish Women’s Poetry and the author of the critical study, Writing Lough Derg: from William Carleton to Seamus Heaney. She spent half her teaching career at Trinity College, Dublin and the other half at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.