Some time ago I wrote this short essay explicating what must be one of the most incisive critiques of patriarchal power ever offered in a single poem, Linda McCarriston’s “Le Coursier de Jeanne D’Arc,” from her second book, EVA-MARY, nominated for the National Book Award in 1993. I reprint the poem here, followed by my commentary.

La Coursier De Jeanne d’Arc

You know that they burned her horse
before her. Though it is not recorded,
you know that they burned her Percheron
first, before her eyes, because you

know that story, so old that story,
the routine story, carried to its
extreme, of the cruelty that can make
of what a woman hears a silence,

that can make of what a woman sees
a lie. She had no son for them to burn,
for them to take from her in the world
not of her making and put to its pyre,

so they layered a greater one in front of
where she was staked to her own–
as you have seen her pictured sometimes,
her eyes raised to the sky. But they were

not raised. This is yet one of their lies.
They were not closed. Though her hands
were bound behind her, and her feet were
bound deep in what would become fire,

she watched. Of greenwood stakes
head-high and thicker than a man’s waist
they laced the narrow corral that would not
burn until flesh had burned, until

bone was burning, and laid it thick
with tinder–fatted wicks and sulphur,
kindling and logs–and ran a ramp
up to its height from where the gray horse

waited, his dapples making of his flesh
a living metal, layers of life
through which the light shone out
in places as it seems to through the flesh

of certain fish, a light she knew
as purest, coming, like that, from within.
Not flinching, not praying, she looked
the last time on the body she knew

better than the flesh of any man, or child,
or woman, having long since left the lap
of her mother–the chest with its
perfect plates of muscle, the neck

with its perfect, prow-like curve,
the hindquarters’–pistons–powerful cleft
pennoned with the silk of his tail.
Having ridden as they did together

–those places, that hard, that long–
their eyes found easiest that day
the way to each other, their bodies
wedded in a sacrament unmediated

by man. With fire they drove him
up the ramp and off into the pyre
and tossed the flame in with him.
This was the last chance they gave her

to recant her world, in which their power
came not from God. Unmoved, the Men
of God began watching him burn, and better,
watching her watch him burn, hearing

the long mad godlike trumpet of his terror,
his crashing in the wood, the groan
of stakes that held, the silverblack hide,
the pricked ears catching first

like driest bark, and the eyes.
and she knew, by this agony, that she
might choose to live still, if she would
but make her sign on the parchment

they would lay before her, which now
would include this new truth: that it
did not happen, this death in the circle,
the rearing, plunging, raging, the splendid

armour-colored head raised one last time
above the flames before they took him
–like any game untended on the spit–into
their yellow-green, their blackening red.

KNOWING WHAT WE KNOW
Richard Hoffman

“Le Coursier de Jeanne D’Arc” by Linda McCarriston is a poem that asks where the truth lies, whether it lies in what we can trust ourselves to know or in the lies that abusive power foists on us to obfuscate, distract and reassure.

It is a poem of direct address. It implicitly asks the reader to recall what he or she knows of cruelty and tyranny, of the behavior of what Carol Bly has called “The Bully Who Rules the World,” thus it begins,

You know that they burned her horse
before her. Though it is not recorded,
you know

already opposing real knowledge, shared between speaker and reader and based on experience, with the official record. As the poem proceeds, McCarriston continues to assay the story, biting down on the shiny hard coin of the historical record and finding a suspicious absence of teethmarks:

But they were

not raised. This is yet one of their lies.

To picture her lifting her eyes to heaven is to, after the fact, conscript her into an allegiance with the god these tyrants call their own. Jeanne D’Arc watches instead, meeting the eyes of her horse, creature to creature, suffused with the earthly glory of strength and beauty:

the gray horse

waited, his dapples making of his flesh
a living metal, layers of life
through which the light shone out
in places as it seems to through the flesh

of certain fish, a light she knew
as purest, coming, like that, from within.

The cruelty in this poem does not take place off-stage. It is meant to awaken outrage. We are meant to see this event, to “picture” it in all its horror. While the poem is a poem of ideas, asking us to question a history written by torturers, that history must be truly grasped first before its significance can be understood.

To the men who have built such an ingenious and literally infernal machine of greenwood and ramps and brands, the horse is not a creature at all merely a kind of leverage they have, or hope they have, over Jeanne D’Arc. We know, again because we are experienced in a world in which religion is sanction for cruel tyranny, that had she had a son,

She had no son for them to burn,
for them to take from her in the world
not of her making and put to its pyre

he would not be seen as human either, merely as similar leverage. Think of Abraham and Isaac, Agamemnon and Iphigenia.

Where does such sadistic power come from? How does it legitimize itself? How does it provide for its own continuance? These are questions the poem takes up and asks us to answer as it describes

the routine story, carried to its
extreme, of the cruelty that can make
of what a woman hears a silence,

that can make of what a woman sees
a lie.

The ultimate legitimacy, the sanction of the Almighty, is claimed (as always) by sadists called “Men/ of God”, but refused to them by Jeanne D’Arc. This is ultimately, her crime — that she does not acknowledge their ideology as sacred. She knows power, real power, and its beauty and integrity, in the person of her beloved Percheron, sounding in the flames “the long mad godlike trumpet of his terror,” and she can never consent to define power as merely the power to coerce. Nor can she assent to a demeaned definition of goodness that is mere obedience.

Finally, we see (though once again if we stop and consider we already know) that any recantation now must deny the heinous and barbaric act we are witnessing in the poem, because truly understanding it — “state sponsored terrorism” if you will — undermines their false claim of legitimacy. Jeanne D’Arc’s recanting would gainsay what the poem depicts so clearly: that this power derives from neither nature nor justice nor deity but from cowardice, sadism and evil.

So this is a poem about Jeanne D’Arc. Or about Antigone before Creon. Or perhaps about a Chinese student standing before a tank in Tiananmen Square. Or about Nelson Mandela choosing to remain in prison rather than cave in. Or about Nathan Hale, or Martin Luther King, or Muhammad Ali, or Mahatma Gandhi refusing to obey despotic power.

But it is not only about standing fast. It is about seeing clearly and knowing fully “the routine story” of repression, of tyranny and the cowardly manner with which it wields power. It involves us, our individual experiences of cruelty and injustice, in that seeing and knowing. It asks us to refuse the lies that tyrants everywhere set down and call history.

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  1. Anonymous

    Thanks for posting this on the internet–I jsut discovered this poem in the anthology “Story Hour: Contemporary Narratives by AMerican Poets” and I think it's wonderful–so moving and demanding.