In his book Ways of Seeing, John Berger wrote, ‘Each evening we see the sun set. We know that the earth is turning away from it. Yet the knowledge, the explanation, never quite fits the sight.’ The evidence of our own eyes jars with physical proofs, and we must rely on language to bridge the gap. But before we are taught the explanation, the sight of the sun setting over the spinning world exists in a zone of slippage, where seeing something and knowing it to be true are different things.
This is the best figure I have to describe the kind of world in which an English medieval dream poem takes place. They are wonderful and strange environments, where what we read is not always easy or possible to visualise, and besides, everything means something else.
Piers Plowman, the 14th-century multi-dream epic, is particularly difficult to follow. It’s written in a tricky dialect of Middle English, and its unknown author tends to yank his ‘camera’ around wildly. The poem begins with its narrator falling asleep in the Malvern Hills (he ‘slombred into a slepyng’), before his dream begins. To the east, he sees a huge tower rising up to the sun, with a dungeon and deep ditches beneath it. But then he sees something more: ‘A fair feeld ful of folk fond I ther bitwene / Of alle manere of men, the meene and the riche’ (‘I found a fair field full of folk, there in between / Of all manner of men, the mean and the rich’). The ‘eye’ of the poem wanders, zooming in and out, from the sun to a huge tower to a close-up of an individual man using a plough to till the earth. If it were a movie, the reader would be seasick.
Instability, shameless inconsistency, subtle paradox, resistance to visualisation: these are very medieval literary flavours. The instability principle applies to medieval poetry but also, vector-like, to the way texts vary from manuscript to manuscript. The scholar Paul Zumthor called it mouvance, the way that medieval texts – especially those that don’t have a known author – tend to exist in multiple manuscripts, in multiple forms. ‘The work is fundamentally mobile,’ he wrote, because the unified medieval poem is only constituted by the collectivity of all its versions, and the text is always subject to synthesis or editorialising by whatever copyist or performer is passing it on.
Bizarre or uncanny as such literary conditions seem, the medieval dream poem form is one that modern readers tend to feel weirdly familiar with, as if it were the most natural thing in the world to hallucinate an allegory. I suppose that’s what a movie is. Mouvance just sort of fits in with our era of writing and reading, so full of fragmented texts, anonymous content, and disrespect for the sanctity of the published edition. Comparing the Canterbury Tales to LiveJournal is all very ‘Shakespeare was the first rapper’, but there’s a kernel of truth there.
It follows that contemporary writers would speak back this form, because it has a flavour of the twentieth- and twenty first-century psychoanalytic novel – something of The Tin Drum, or even the caustic novels of Rachel Cusk – in its meld of the dreamed and the political, and alienation from modern society. There’s a tension between medieval poetry and different meanings of the word ‘modern’: the rational, post-Enlightenment ideology of making sense would reject Piers Plowman, while the irrational, hallucinatory modern of the contemporary arts takes inspiration from it to reach around dominant modes of thought (the separation of arts and sciences, say) and indulge in different, older systems of knowledge. This second category includes the current recuperation of magic and witchcraft among young creative people, from occult circles discussing #MeToo in America to influential new novels like Akwaeke Emezi’s Freshwater, which investigates its young hero’s gender identity through Igbo spirits.
For filmmakers, poets, novelists and critical theorists of the post-Industrial, referencing the medieval has offered new ways to destabilise that first definition of modernity. Medieval content can act like a signpost, announcing that you intend to trouble the lines between man and beast, woman and man, thing and word, vision and knowledge. Our Beauty and the Beast story, from Jean Cocteau to Disney, is a movie with its roots twining upward from the lais (songs, but really poems) of the French medieval author Marie de France. Contemporary feminism’s interest in astrology and alternative forms of knowledge are good examples of medievalism’s intrinsic political resistance to, not denial of, contemporary regimes of power. In the sheer shape of their ideas, medieval tales of witchcraft and hallucination defy the scientific-modern theory of knowledge, which separates the possible from the impossible, the waking from the dreaming, the scientific from the creative, and the authority figure from the amateur – a newly important literary figure in our era of social media influence.
Jos Charles is a young American poet, and her new collection Feeld shares more with Piers Plowman than an interest in fields. She is a PhD candidate at the University of California, Irvine, where she studies medieval literature, and, in the US, her collection won the 2017 National Poetry Series and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry 2019. In interviews, she has described growing up in a ‘conservative, Evangelical Christian home’, where as a child she wrote a bloody poem about the crucifixion. The Piers-poet and Charles, who is trans, share a preoccupation with places, and the creatures who live in them, as well as anxious and transcendent experiences that take place in the body. Like some particularly difficult-to-follow medieval literature about visions, Charles does not always distinguish between the seen and the hallucinated, the figurative (or allegorical) and the literal, and those blurrings often occur where Charles is describing human flesh or its activities.
Charles writes poems in Middle English, or a stylistic approximation of Middle English which also collides with internet shorthand and super-contemporary flourishes. She is not English, so her choice doesn’t quite carry the sense of deep national reckoning that the translations of Seamus Heaney and Simon Armitage have had in recent years, but instead is soaked in American social politics. Transphobia, politicised bathroom space, the overdetermined biological body, the problem of expressing oneself in the oppressor’s speech: these are the auspices of Feeld.
Charles’s medievalism is not about history, but it is about time. Poem ‘XXIV’ is almost like a speech:
bieng tran is a unique kinde of organe / i am speeching
materialie / i am speeching abot hereditie / a tran
entres thru the hole / the hole gloms inn the linden / a
tran entres eather like a mothe / wile tran preseeds / esense
/ her forme is contingent on the feeld / the maner sits
cis with inn a feeld / wee speech inn 2 the eather / wile
the mothe bloomes / the mothe bloomes inn the yuca
To somebody who reads Middle English, these lines have an almost intuitive meaning, though the grammar isn’t traditional. The phrase ‘gloms inn the linden’ means something like a scowl moving through the woods. The poem speaks (speeches) about being a material body, but one which can change into other things, ‘eather’, and whose ‘forme is contingent’ on the world existing around her. It’s a language of fluidity and transformation, connecting Charles’s identity to the medieval vocabulary of the spirit.
It’s difficult to follow, for sure, the same way that Piers Plowman is difficult to follow as our dreaming protagonist ‘guides’ us through a series of almost unimaginable allegories. In an interview on Shondaland, Charles spoke about how her use of Middle English embodies ‘a kind of loss’. It evokes the absence of trans narratives in formal English poetics and in the teaching of poetry so that, as you grow up learning about poetry in school, you do not learn anything about anybody except cisgender people and what they’ve done with language. It also offers punning, and play. But Charles is also trying to force the reading process into a slowness. ‘It’s hard to find the right word oftentimes,’ she said. ‘I find saying things very hard, so it takes a lot of work. And coming to learn to read, to learn to speak, to learn to talk to others, [it’s] a challenging thing as a child. Part of that is queerness, right? Trying to find yourself in a language.’ Halting her language at this strange mid-place of legibility knocks you into that queer space of expression – the mismatch of thing and word and sight.
Among medieval literature’s most interesting disruptions to modern norms are those related to gender and sex. It is not uncommon, for example, for genitalia to be punned upon crudely or used as fairly sophisticated metaphors for philosophical ideas, or for these two things to happen at the same time. This happens in Le Roman de la Rose, where the poet Jean de Meun uses queer sex as a metaphor for an incorrectly-assembled logical prose statement, which has the byproduct of producing poetry, making the implicit and convincing argument that heterosexual sex makes for boring reading in comparison. In the academic and in the creative worlds, the medieval and the queer have long been forged together. In film, Pasolini again and again found inspiration in the lewd texts of Chaucer (The Canterbury Tales) and Boccaccio (The Decameron). David Wojnarowicz’s sewn lips recalls a medieval martyr, turning their silence into sign.
The Journal of Gay and Lesbian Studies was cofounded by a medievalist, Carolyn Dinshaw, in 1981. She went on to write extensively about queer erotics in Chaucer, and many other scholars have seized on the porous and ill-defined ways of being which medieval literature – filled with shapeshifting, cross-dressing, predestination, and romance – seem to offer.
Of course, this is not the only way to be medieval in the contemporary world. I don’t think much has changed in medieval academia lately, but plenty of previously-hushed bad behaviour and patterns of thought have come to light. Rachel Fulton Brown of the University of Chicago’s history department is a proud and public associate of that declining squib of the trans-Atlantic far-right, Milo Yiannopoulos. The medievalist Allen Frantzen, known for his shrewd and smart denunciations of conservative medieval scholarship, turned out to be the author of a nasty blog advising male readers on how to fight their way out of ‘feminist fog’.
But Charles’s medievalism is of a firmly central school in contemporary thought, which sees the Middle Ages as the antithesis of, not just the predecessor to, the Enlightenment. While the far right looks to the Middle Ages for a racist notion of lineage and an origin-story, the political medieval for an increasing number of modern citizens represents a time when creative human beings were not bound by the same rules we are. Our relationship to the earth, our idea of symbolism, our concept of industry, our socialisation by gender and sexuality – all of it was different, then, and yet we remain the same human beings. The medieval offers examples of other ways of being, and freedom to think outside the modern order of things. There is a strong though marginal branch of medievalism in the environmental movement, ranging from pagan symbolism to critiquing the assumption of global capitalism as a default economic model. And the reverse is true, too, with contemporary scholars bringing their own politics into their medievalism: many medievalists have engaged with the ‘posthuman turn’ in the humanities, finding rich material in medieval literature about hunting, magical beasts, and the otherwise nonhuman.
Charles’s poetics strikes at almost all of these notes. She offers puns recognisable from Middle English poetry, like plays on the words for gender, genre, and engender, or the cluster of words corpse/of course/copse. And her division of ideas is marked by forward slashes, as orthography dictates when you transcribe a medieval poem from a manuscript for a scholarly edition: the slashes mark the end of the original line. Those touches are almost like loving jokes, a fondness for the posthumous existence of the Middle Ages in our world, the curious shrapnel that has adhered to that era.
Each poem in Feeld is numbered by Roman numerals. The poem ‘XLV’, a little reverie of childhood, comes in the second half of the volume: ‘but wen i was a chylde’, it opens, ‘i was so old / inn my dreems’. Charles is muddling the position of her voice, sliding through the past and the ineffable knowledge of dreams, dividing up those disparate realms with mute slashes. In those dreams, Charles writes, ‘/ a grl /’: there’s no explanation of who this girl is, or whether she’s simply an idea – as the Piers-poet throws mysterious allegorical characters (like a woman called Lady Holy Church) into his plots. Her voice contains a dream, a girl, and a child, but no clarification of their relation to one another. It’s a medieval epistemology of emotion, where morality divides up into characters who can interact through allegory.
Feeld’s connection to contemporary feminist literature is harder to think about. There are rich social communities springing up around trans poetics these days, and really there always have been, only without any interest from the publishing industry. But Charles’s poetry has the almost inarticulate feel of subjective experience, rather than critique or well-argued rhetoric. The frisson of her writing lies in the extreme specificity of each word, the concentration of meaning in her coinages (‘i am off corse speeching off ivorie’; ‘r bodies goldenne inn vagynoplasticitie’). This is not the kind of poetry that you could fold into a larger argument about social change and trans activism and the feminist future. Critics always frame trans literature as an agent for social change, but this is not really social poetry. I read Charles more as an outcrop of the fourteenth century than a vanguard of the future; she is a resister of time, not an agitator of the present.
That’s a complex proposition in itself. Charles’ poetry is specific to her experience and to her training as a medievalist, which isn’t exactly universal to poets or trans people: she’s under no obligation to represent anybody but herself. And yet the material of her own experience touches on contemporary social politics, especially in mentions of bathrooms and transphobia. Her personal is political but very specific. Seeing nothing of herself in a poetic tradition dominated by cis-gendered practitioners and subjects, Charles provides contemporary material for study as well as making a through-line between past texts and her own, showing a poetics that has, in fact, always been there – as anybody interested in literary history could learn, if they wanted to.
‘Falsigraphy’ is the word twelfth-century French theologian and poet Alain de Lille used to describe both poetry-writing and perversion. ‘Orthography’ is when the pen leaves its deposit of common-sense meaning on the page or pagina, meaning the vagina. He means this in a very abstract but specific way, talking about writing out logical sense. But falsigraphy takes place when the pen does something enjoyable but unproductive, chaotic, queer – and generates certain types of rhetorical figures. It is sort of what we do with language, now, in our century, dealing with post-standardisation English. Charles has said that she was thinking about Edmund Spenser when writing Feeld, and the ‘beginning of the standardisation of spelling, and what that means, what that says about the world moving from the oral, the aural, from the public, to something that is meant to be read in private, in silence’. Feeld is a quiet book, in some ways, because it holds conversations inside its own poetry – Charles’s language undergoes another transformation when spoken silently in her readers’ heads. The deep creative past and the tightrope of contemporary existence coexist in her words, and Charles manages to find a vocabulary for her poems which reduces the language without making it backward-looking. Medieval language offers us moderns a side door into wild new slippages between word and thing and idea: what results is a little hard to read, but undeniable.