Heloise Speaks: A verse novel by Irina Kuzminsky – review by Diana Durham

Review of Heloise Speaks: A verse novel (Amethyst Press, 2022)

Deftly folding in scholarship, historical names and references without overloading the verse, Kuzminsky traces the 12th century story of Abelard and Heloise in a series of verse ‘letters’ based on existing letters that the two figures exchanged. Except Kuzminsky’s stanzas are from Heloise alone, we hear of Abelard through them, not from him. 

Heloise’s love, her insights, her ambitions, her entreaties and the events themselves are wrought skilfully into a language that is accessible to our modern minds, while imitating faintly a medieval style of expression, an effect which is sustained throughout the text without ever sounding forced:

       ‘He prophesied a future for me golden and bejewelled
        Like the fair heavenly Jerusalem
	But all I felt was the unused to warmth of his caress
	And when I kissed his ring
	I made a silent vow:
	I would not be a nun or learned Abbess
	I would be learned, of course,
	But, though a woman, I would find another way.’

Verse by verse, we are taken through the painful journey of love – body and soul – into the lovers’ separation, followed by disaster when Abelard is castrated by order of Heloise’s guardian as revenge for seducing and marrying her in secret. Early on in the collection Heloise describes the embodied experience of her love for Abelard:
       ‘I am adrift
	I am aflow
	I’m me – and more than me
	I’m matched and mated’

But all too soon, she feels alarm at Abelard’s subtle drawing back:

        ‘But I can’t reason with a razor’s edge
	Or have your categories plague
	The living touch out of my speech.’

And much of the power of these verse letters lies in the tension Kuzminsky’s sometimes blunt sometimes wistfully idealistic lines convey as Heloise oscillates between celebrating her love, and bemoaning the gradual betrayal of it:

        ‘I thought we were beyond misunderstandings
	That you should think I should need proof of you
	Of your fidelity
	(or maybe it is you who wanted proof of mine?)
	Means to me that we are no longer one’

Heloise fears the betrayal not of Abelard the man so much but of his conditioned mind, of the intellect’s ability to rationalise away the reality of physical and spiritual union. But after Abelard’s terrible maiming, Heloise wonders if she herself was not to blame:  

                                           ‘What prompted me
	To marry you and bring about your fall?
	Now claim your due, and see me gladly pay…’
So ends Part I, in which Heloise speaks as student and lover. In Part II she is scholar and abbess, and what she ‘pays' for Abelard’s ‘fall’ is to enter a convent where:
Years darken the threshold of my cell
      In a monotonous procession.’

The former lovers continue their correspondence, but Heloise’s oscillation from love to loss intensifies as present events give way to memories and hopeless longing for the past. These stunning lines convey her anguish: 
        ‘I’d swallow up the universe in that hole
	And crush all particles till they released their light-filled essence
	And then I’d swallow that light too
	And still it would not still nor sate me’

All the passion in the universe flows through her but she cannot reach back to what used to be, expressed again brilliantly in this stark, poignant counterpoint: 
       ‘You knew how to speak true
While in beautiful, swift imagery Irina evokes the barren convent and Heloise’s desolation:
       ‘Your words to me are colder than
	A bare stone floor
	And just as comfortless
	As sleet in winter’
Even as she achieves renown and status as Abbess, Heloise’s story of agony and ecstasy rolls on through her reflections. And perhaps Kuzminsky’s greatest achievement in this finely crafted retelling is to convince us – after so much turbulence – of the peace which the elderly Heloise, her hair now ‘pristine white’, finds as she contemplates her life and her love one final time: 
       ‘At last, now, I know better.
	I should have loved you even more,
	With more surrender, greater selflessness,
	For when I measure up my love to Christ our God
	And to Our Lady’s love for Him,
	Her Son, Whom She knew dying, broken,
	buried by Her hand
	I’m but a tiny midge
	Caught up in a huge swarm
	And all my suffering could never merit
	The joy of knowing that I knew a little
	What Love is
	Through this, my love for you.’
The skill and beauty of this telling is in itself a substantial accomplishment. But ‘Heloise Speaks’ also offers the modern psyche vital nourishment through the expression – and reminder – of the sacred power of feminine passion. 

Heloise was exceptional in her time for her achievements. Throughout these verse letters she ponders her roles of scholar, lover, wife, mother, abbess. While our own stories are not as dramatic –  usually nowhere near as tragic –  we also balance love, marriage, motherhood and career or artistic calling and find that we are not fully any one aspect. Gradually –  and often catalysed by passionate love for another – we free up from our roles and our heartbreaks, and embody the lightness of love:
       ‘For I am Woman
	Holy Spirit
	Mysterious Dove
	Wings strong enough to break through any cage’

Heloise Speaks: A Verse Novel at Amazon UK

Heloise Speaks: A Verse Novel at Amazon AU

Heloise Speaks: A Verse Novel at Amazon USA

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