E. Martin Nolan
Rough Wilderness: The Imaginary Love Poems of the Abbess of Heloise
by Rosemary Aubert
Toronto, ON: Quattro Books, 2011
68 pp. $16.95
Rough Wilderness follows the story of Heloise, who you might say was ahead of her time (the twelfth century). Before she was “one of the most admired women of her time” due to her “efficient running” of the Paraclete monastery, Heloise was a bright and passionate spirit who was tutored by Abelard, a young but “renowned philosopher and teacher.” The two “fell passionately in love,” but their love was doomed by both social constrictions and Abelard’s refusal to challenge those constrictions. In the end, Abelard, an “arrogant and stubborn man,” decided it was best for the lovers, though they were married, to take the holy orders and live out their lives separated in theological loneliness.
“This suited Abelard,” Rosemary Aubert writes, but “Heliose never came to grips with it.” In fact, all the background information above comes from Aubert’s one-page summary of the lovers’ story, which appears before the poet dives into the mind of her heroine. Therein lies the problem with this collection, but as that problem is by no means overwhelming, allow me to point out what is working here before I delve into the deficiencies.
By speaking through the voice of Heliose, Aubert opens up a wide spectrum of poetic possibilities, and the poet takes good advantage of those. First of all, there is the imaginary play made possible by the near-millennial gap between poet and subject. Taking advantage of this, Aubert provides what feels like a realistic glimpse into Heliose’s narrow world while allowing just enough of her own twenty-first century perspective to leak through, creating a voice that is at once novel but vaguely familiar. Of course, much of this familiarity comes from the fact that Heliose’s oppression is not far different than that which was routinely forced upon women until fairly recently in “modern” societies (and which is still common in so much of the world). Aubert, after all, presents a young women who wishes “for books,” “to travel across the channel to England/and over the mountains to Rome,” and “for a man,” but who could have very little of what she wished for. This is the story of a woman seeking liberation, if only in private, and as such it is strange only in that it occurred so long ago and is yet so familiar.
But this familiarity is not total; Rough Wilderness also manages to reproduce a perspective of the world that is so limited that it produces the strangeness one might expect from a twelfth-century voice. All of these poems are lyrical and are written strictly from Heliose’s point of view. As would have been common in her day, Heliose is left mostly on her own when it comes to learning worldly ways, and the reader is allowed to listen in on her inquires into theology, family and, most importantly, sex. In this context, Aubert’s frequent use of formal structure is appropriate, even when—or maybe especially when—her use of form is rather stiff, like the rules governing Helios’ society and her place therein. Such is especially the case with the “As Sheba to Solomon” sequence near the middle of Rough Wilderness, in which repetition and rhyme feel more like the shackles on Heliose’s mind than they do like devices created to induce pleasure in the reader.
For the most, part, however, Aubert varies, plays with and abandons set forms well enough to keep the reader engaged. She is comfortable in a variety of forms, including the villanelle, sonnet and pantoum. And these forms generally arrive just at the right moment, with the form lining up nicely with the plot point covered by a given poem. For instance, when Abelard’s abandonment of Heliose begins to sink in, the poet engages with some particularly violent repetition—much sharper than those used earlier to mimic Heliose’s blissful fall for Abelard—in order to illicit the betrayal felt by her heroine. Here’s a taste of that, from “Arrogance:”
Arrogance is a small man in a large cloak.
Arrogance makes popes out of acolytes, saints out of
Arrogance is a loud bird in a vast wood.
Arrogance pays for mighty forgiveness.
Arrogance takes its own census and maps its own domain.
And here is the nice couplet that proceeds “Arrogance.” It’s neatness lends a depressing air of inevitability to Heloise’s despair:
In all of this no person stopped to ask
how I, who had so feasted, might learn to fast.
But while these poems nicely mimic the rigid order of Heloise’s world, Aubert also makes good use of free verse to break up the stiffness produced by the forms and to inject that bit of modern perspective mentioned above. Take these lines, from “His Eyes:”
If I confess, I must admit to
long corridors lit only by candles
of such arrogant purity
that bees would pray to be victim of
These lines could easily describe a failed love affair occurring 800 years after Heloise’s birth. Rough Wilderness is sprinkled with these modern insertions, which also remind us that even the more restricted formal poems here are being filtered through a modern voice. Perhaps the point, then, is not how love in the past and the present differs or aligns, but that there is no point in thinking about it, because it’s always the same. This fact is evident in “Sext,” which floats in the middle of the page and of the lover’s bed. It occurs, ostensibly, in the twelfth century, but you would be forgiven for thinking it from the present day:
Startled, he awakes.
“Why are we sleeping at noon?”
“I’ll love you always.”
The midday bell sounds again,
flushing ravens from their perch.
It would seem, between this collection’s formal achievements and its well handled subject matter, that Rough Wilderness is a great success. However, as I hinted at above, there is something missing here, and it has to do with narrative. Aubert’s take on the story is inventive and it comes off as authentic and believable, but this collection fails to produce the drama needed to really pull the reader through it with any force. This has much to do with the one-page historical summary Aubert inserts before the poems begin, which provides the reader with a complete account of the lives of Aubert’s subjects. With that accomplished, there is little in the way of plot or arc that the poems themselves can achieve. Implicit in that last statement is the fact that these poems, well good, are not good enough, in and of themselves, to carry the book; they need the book-as-a-whole structure to support them, and that structure fails to hold its weight.
Try as they might, these poems can only be a commentary on the story told in prose at the book’s start, and commentary alone is not enough to keep Rough Wilderness afloat. Certainly, there is much to commended in the collection, but one is left feeling let down by the lack of narrative punch, especially because there it is a narrative being told, and not badly, but for the fact that it is being retold to us. Aubert would have done better to let the narrative unfold through small clues in the voice of Heliose. We could have googled the tale if we really wanted to get it straight. As it is, Rough Wilderness holds the clothes of a classic tale, when it could have been that tale’s flesh and blood.