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JOAN, by         Recitation by Author     Poet Analysis     Poet's Biography

Eileen Myles' poem "Joan" explores the life and martyrdom of Joan of Arc, casting her not merely as a historical figure but as a complex symbol of faith, rebellion, and sacrifice. The poem is steeped in both historical references and mythic dimensions, seamlessly bridging the past with the present through its intimate storytelling style. Written in free verse with a conversational tone, the poem allows the reader to engage deeply with the story of Joan of Arc while pondering larger themes of gender, belief, and the cost of conviction.

Myles sets the tone from the opening line, immediately establishing the temporal context of Joan's death and the miraculous vision of "white doves" emerging from her mouth. This image serves as both a symbolic representation of her purity and a testimony to the awe she inspired-even in death.

Joan's historical context is further elaborated by referencing her upbringing between Lorraine and Champagne and her family dynamics. Contrary to popular depictions of Joan as a warrior, Myles emphasizes her "dreamy, good, stay-at-home" nature, painting a portrait of someone who was, essentially, an ordinary girl bestowed with an extraordinary vision. Myles notes that Joan "never got her period," a detail that stands as a biological, cultural, and historical marker, questioning traditional notions of womanhood and purity.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the poem is its exploration of belief systems. Joan, we are told, "believed the sun moved around the earth because that's what she saw." Her faith came from direct experience and personal revelation ("Michael, Catherine & Margaret told her when she listened to the bells"). It's a faith born of intimate, personal engagement with the world, yet it conflicts with the conventional wisdom of her society and even her family, as evidenced by her father's threat to "drown her" for her "nonsense."

The grim tragedy of her being "burned ... in the middle of town while she was still alive" contrasts sharply with the miraculous, reaffirming imagery of the dove at the end. Myles brings the reader full circle by revisiting this image, reminding us that Joan's legacy endures, undiminished by the suffering she faced.

The poem subtly comments on how women who defy societal norms often face dire consequences. Joan, "saved" by her visions, was also "lost" because of them-just as Merlin's prophecy foretold that "France would be lost by a woman and saved by a virgin." Through her, Myles interrogates the social and gender norms that both empower and constrain women who dare to follow their convictions.

Eileen Myles' "Joan" serves as a poetic biography, a reflection on faith, and a social critique. It challenges our perceptions of history, belief, and the role of women, urging us to reconsider the narratives that shape our understanding of the world and those who defy it to forge new paths. Joan of Arc comes alive not just as a historical figure but as a continual point of reference for questions about faith, defiance, and the complexities of female agency.

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