Cœur de Lion is a lyric book, a book about being in love with someone you can’t have, and it unflinchingly acknowledges that the person she falls for is kind of awful.
Fence Books is rereleasing the previously out-of-print, book-length love poem, Cœur de Lion by Ariana Reines. (It was first printed by the small press Mal-O-Mar in 2007.) Reines selected the cover image, a lion, from a package of cheese. It is an angry, flailing lion, rendered in black lines with the only color in its red mouth and red crotch. The lion looks you in the eye and is a perfect mascot for this weird and weirdly moving book.
Reines’s first book, The Cow, came out in 2006, also from Fence Books. It is an explosive and confrontational text, both rude and beautiful, with giant stylistic leaps and risks. In contrast, Cœur de Lion is written in tight, conversational lines. It rarely alters form, instead flowing in relatively unbroken stanzas. The lines are so conversational they risk coming across as naïve. The book begins,
The other night
When I couldn’t sleep
Next to you and I
Said I wanted to cry
And you said I should
And I looked down and breathed
And then I did cry
These lines could be read as unfashionably confessional, plain in their emotions. And this is certainly one of the risks Reines takes, and also one of the reasons it is so engaging when she directs these exposed emotions into something so complicated, raw, and fucked up.
At the heart of the book is the story of an affair between Reines and a man named Jake. The poem directly addresses Jake, the “you” ubiquitous throughout. Reines fell in love with him even though he seems to be an emotional idiot (“It bothers me / That you cut out /American Apparel advertisements / And tape them to your bedroom wall”). It is a lyric book, a book about being in love with someone you can’t have, and it unflinchingly acknowledges that the person she falls for is kind of awful. Not that Reines lets herself off the hook easily—she is addressing him after breaking into his email and reading his correspondence with another woman, a woman to whom she later emails to share that Jake is a bad writer and that she enjoyed fucking him. Messy and risky, a lion with red in its mouth and its crotch, yet still a lyric of love.
While Reines cycles through her monologue to Jake, she manages to cover an amazing range of topics. She moves with the ease of conversation to new ideas, to Nabokov and Emma Bovary and to her and Jake’s mutual friends, their sex, and his pitiful novel Mein Cock. It is all tied together through the fact of its address to Jake, although that address itself isn’t simple or easy. As she says,
Should have to pass
Through everything in the world
In order to dare
To say You
It is not a simple task, poetic address, and Reines isn’t interested in letting herself off lightly. To love someone, to capture one in a lyric, is to take advantage of them, even if the speaker is being taken advantage of herself in the process.
Perhaps the most striking departure away from direct consideration of the affair comes in a long section toward the end when Reines speaks of her mother (who has appeared earlier, if only briefly). The language here is more fractured and weird than most other places, Reines in a frenzy. It is the section most reminiscent of The Cow in subject and in voice. After giving some narration of the mother’s life (once successful, now poor and alone, visually characterized by “the oblong flame of my mommy’s orange wig”), Reines considers her relation to her mother, giving some insight into the connecting thread of the book.
This is my poem. I wish I wasn’t so
Lonely in this capability of being devastated by
Her. I wish I wasn’t alone in this
Awe of her long errand, even now as it starts
To get dumb, and how unloved
She is, and how broke, opening onto an expanse
Of losses so diverse and endlessly amplifiable
That all narration just congeals.
In an interview with the blog Thomas Moronic Reines said she likes “bad writing,” that “sometimes the lurid or shitty means having a heart, which’s something you have to try to have. Excellence nowadays is too general and available to be worth prizing: I am interested in people who have to find strange and horrible ways to just get from point a to point b.” Cœur de Lion, beautiful and thrilling and wrenching, is filled with the best of this bad writing, the embarrassing confessions and grim details and unfortunate emotions of life. It lays all of this out in a love poem, lyric in every sense of the word, and in its bareness it is a total success. Toward the end of the book, attempting to make sense of her attraction to Jake despite everything, she notes that it is “rare, to undertake an act / That’s truly free, and not just a response / To a confused surge of drives and fears.” How exhaustingly wonderful to have Reines’s own confused surge spill forth in this unforgettable book.