Made of Light: The Poetry and Prose of Jacqueline St. Joan
Jacqueline St. Joan has had a distinguished career as a lawyer, judge, and human rights activist. Her work in these capacities has demonstrated her passion for protecting women and children from violence and abuse. She has steadily advocated for social change in these areas. She has been a lecturer on Feminist Theory and Law at the University of Colorado Law School, and has spoken widely on feminism, law, and literature.
In 2010, St. Joan retired from the practice of law after publishing her acclaimed novel, My Sisters Made of Light (Press 53). Since that time, she has promoted the book through over 100 readings throughout the country including New York, Washington, D.C., Maryland, Georgia, and North Carolina (http://jacquelinestjoan.com).
The novel tells the story of three generations of a Pakistani family. We see them attempting to live in disturbingly complex conditions: especially social and religious ones. The narrative tells us of honor crimes against women in the life and family history of Ujala. Ujala is an amazing character—a young woman of great spirit determined to have the courage to deal with fears for her own safety to help other women. Who are the sisters? Three activist sisters who dedicate themselves to helping the women of Pakistan. And what does it mean to be made of light? It is a stunning metaphor for experiencing grace, and being graced when, as Allison says below, we don’t expect it.
Dorothy Allison (author Bastard out of Carolina) commends St. Joan’s novel: “Jacqueline St. Joan writes with the passion of a life-long feminist and the insight of wide experience. She brings to her story what she brought to the law, a conviction that life is full of both struggle and purpose and that grace comes to us when we have no reason to expect it.”
By her own account, St. Joan’s present passion is writing poetry. She has studied with eminent poets such as W.S. Merwin, Marilyn Krysl, Alicia Ostriker, and Billy Collins, and has had four residencies at the Vermont Studio Center. She has also had residences at Breadloaf, the David White Artists’ Colony (Costa Rica), and many other places. Among her awards are the Morrow Lectureship at Metropolitan State University, Finalist for the Colorado Book award in Literary Fiction, and the Solas Silver Award for Women’s Travel Writing.
I have had the opportunity to read a selection of her poems. The first I read was “Dead Baby,” published in The Denver Quarterly. The poem is a starkly imagined (or perhaps true) account of a thirteen-year old, who has given “birth all alone.” The sequence of events recounted is harrowing: “There’s a dead baby in your yard/ the newsboy said when he knocked on the door.” And even though the baby is imagined wearing a beautiful white christening gown and “a small bonnet crocheted/a pearl woven through.” The “perfect baby” is still a dead baby—a baby in the neighbor’s yard “gone over the fence. Other poems, such a “Restraining Order,” seem clearly to reflect St. Joan’s experience with abused women: “She says justice. She says/ justice. She says: He dragged me by my hair./My head broke the mirror/ Do you need to see the pictures?” (The Colorado Lawyer) Justice indeed.
A number of St. Joan’s poems deal with nature and place, such as “Ten Ways of Looking at the West” (The Colorado Lawyer). Here is the evocative fourth way to look at the west: “Was it in the West that I loved you?/Pre-Cambrian? Or before that?/Tonight I sleep at the edge of your canyon./I listen to your starry wind. And the eighth: “Sweetwater,/Deer Lodge./Steamboat Springs./My tongue plays/The words of the West.
“Choreography” even more clearly shows us the self-in-nature, dance being an important metaphor here: “Life is not a dance exactly; what I am trying to say that both are an/outside movement from and inside moment that will not stay put.” Several more poems in the selection I was able to read also invoke the natural world. Many have an engaging erotic subtext. St. Joan’s most recently published poem, “Letter to Muriel Rukeyser at the End of the Twentieth Century” (Chokecherries Anthology, SOMOS, Taos) is a blockbuster of a poem—about justice and peace and war, wealth and power, the class wars, “the sweating fragile planet.” I wish I could quote the whole of this poem, so readers might have a sense of its breadth, its richness, its cries for less violence and chaos, less “stone insanity.” And, finally, perhaps its implicit hope that we might all strive to be “made of light.” However, here is the final stanza:
A voice flew out of the river
smoke of the poems we still try to write.
We too are more or less insane
as even now through time
we witness the buried life.
At the end of the millennium,
we are still writing our poems,
born as we were
in the first century
of the aftermath
of world wars.
I will look forward to hearing more from Jacqueline St. Joan and reading more of her work.