Ariana Reines’s play Telephone was produced by the Foundry Theatre in 2009. She was Roberta C. Holloway Lecturer in Poetry at UC Berkeley in 2009 and has translated several books from the French for Mal-O-Mar and Semiotext(e).
“Lines that make me want to have sex on the moon.”
“Scathing and meek, furious and thoughtful, reckless and careful, brave and frightened, Coeur de Lion is something you’ve never seen before that you already know by heart.”
"Already I think of Reines’ work in art as dividing, like Picasso’s, into periods, and if this is the rose period it is also the time in which blood rained down on the peoples’ heads."
There is a fine line drawn between the intimate thoughts shared by a writer in their poetry and what the civil courts could determine to be “libel.” The balance between the type of raw, personal language that emotions like love and heartbreak demand and one that may effectuate a universal experience with which the reader can and will identify is intricate. If ever there were a book that teetered precariously (and perfectly) on that line, it would be Ariana Reines’ Coeur de Lion.
Coeur de Lion is a detailed account of the range of feelings involved in falling out of love. Composed of a series of segmented reflections written almost entirely in second person – addressed directly to Jake, the narrator’s former object of affection – Coeur de Lion weaves seamlessly between an utterly personal narration of this love and a more objective examination of the writing process itself.
At its most seemingly candid, it is the ramblings of a madwoman hacking into Gmail accounts, describing various sexual encounters with blunt force, recounting run-ins with mutual friends and whining about old habits that annoyed her; countering this are meditations on what the narrator desires, the nature of being a woman, the schism between “you” (her former lover) and “you” (the reader of the text – quite certainly a different person than the first “you”) and running allusions to famous works of literature and art, the motifs that grant Ariana an understanding of her own relationship.
Early in the book this delicate balance begins to display itself quite clearly. At one moment the narrator actively questions who the “you” she is addressing in her poems truly is:
I thought about you and how scary it is
The way you keep your distance
And I thought about the cherishing feeling
I sometimes have for you.
Thinking about a person. Surely
That act releases something
Into the atmosphere. A toxin?
Now that I am not addressing you
But the “you” of poetry
I am probably doing something horrible and destructive.
But this “I” is the I of poetry
And it should be able to do more than I can do.
In simple discourse like this, what was between Ariana and Jake instantly becomes a deeper reflection on the nature of the love poem and the disparity between the poetic “I” or “you” and the referents that these pronouns are supposed to be signifying. Moments later the text returns to a sexual encounter in Venice. Here the narration turns back to the intimate experiences unique to Ariana and Jake:
You fucked me
You came somewhere on me
I had a painful zit on my upper lip
And we were covered in dust
Constantly, Ariana speaks so bluntly about her relationship that she seems to trivialize it. The effect is that, at times, she is trivializing Jake as well. That is why, at its most malicious, people could interpret the collection as libelous, an ill-willed revelation of just how awful Jake is, or at the very least an attempt to perturb him over his shortcomings and warn other women. But I think the intellectuality and those moments of uncertain introspection lend themselves to a better understanding of Coeur de Lion as a poet’s catharsis, wherein the narrator was able to exorcise her feelings for this boy through writing about them. Furthermore, Ariana’s concern is not centered on destroying Jake, but lending a voice to those who cannot express so poignantly the wrongs they have suffered. That is, after all, the poet’s job.
This is why that poetic “I” could inflict much more pain and damage than the real “I,” for the narrator speaks not just for Ariana, but also for every wronged woman, mistreated and marginalized for love.
Any review of Coeur de Lion would not be complete without further mention of its unabashed contemporariness. The theme of love in modern society runs prevalent, as Gmail espionage plays a central role and we barely reach page three before we hear about jpeg’s of other women. Reines uses this unambiguously modern setting to examine the role of women in an era where they are supposedly equal to men. Early on Reines speaks of being the “Gallery Girl” and what that entails: being interested in proximity to rich artists and buyers, or “acting pretty and disdainful,” despite being neither of those things.
In another poem, she compares her own writing to that of the medieval chivalric genre:
All that medieval love poetry
With its military metaphors
The woman as the fortress
The errancies of gallant knights.
Maybe long ago things were too
Too solid, and now we live in an ether
Of ex-sentiments, impossible
To make sense of. . .
This scrutiny of what it means to be a woman today and how a woman may be strong without coming of as “petty” or a “bitch” is essential to legitimizing Ariana’s right to defiantly publicize her and Jake’s intimacies in the first place. After all, some readers might see her as a madwoman for hacking Gmail, or a slut for fucking on a sidewalk in Venice, but this realness makes the text unquestionably relatable to the contemporary reader. Poems about love and failed relationships are not a new thing, but there is something about Ariana’s syntax and word choice, her blend of metaphysical reflection and sex without condoms, of words that are Greek to the contemporary reader and everyday swear words (“perfidy” and “cocksucking” need no distance between them in this epic), that makes Coeur de Lion impossible to shake off.
Its unique exploration of writing, romance and gender roles make Coeur de Lion an essential read. While the original Mal-O-Mar edition was out of print for a while, Fence Book’s newly edited version is out now, so there is no excuse to not have this in your library.