Arses play a crucial role in Chaucer’s ‘The Miller’s Tale’. Or, to be more precise, the arse of Alisoun who is the tale’s unruly wench. Married to the ‘dotard’ carpenter but also having sex with the scholar Nicholas, Alisoun takes revenge upon the clerk Absolon’s amorous harassment by promising him a kiss out of her bedroom window. However, rather than puckering her lips, ‘she put her hole’ and Absolon snogs her ‘naked ers/ With great relish’. When he realises her prank he returns to her window with a poker, and after a kafuffle – including a very loud fart – Absolon smites Nicholas’s arse.
When I wrote the sequence ‘Alisoun’s’, which is at the centre of my new pamphlet, I had relentless morning sickness. I felt like I was bobbing up and down in one of the tale's tubs (the tubs are a ruse thought up by Nicholas to get Alisoun into bed). My body and its various hormonal goings-on had also usurped my mind and I felt in pretty abject state. I set myself the task of crafting a long poem, beginning and ending with the word arse, and starting each stanza with a letter from the title ‘Alisoun’s’ like a kind of acrostic. It was the only constraint which forced me get something on the page – that and chips.
I took Alisoun out of her love triangle and put her on the Via Francigena which is a medieval pilgrimage from Canterbury to Rome. She is still bawdy and visceral and rude (she is impregnated by a coquillard or pseudo-pilgrim) but she also ruminates about god, nature and ‘the newte that plip plops in the pond of my uterus’.
I was simultaneously reading some bonkers stuff about women and reproduction by medieval male writers, as well as by the philosophers who had influenced them. I say bonkers but their understandings of fertility, sex and the female body resonate today across literature, popular culture and the mainstream media. We can see them in the figures of the 'yummy mummy' or 'pramface', or in the many many acts of slut-shaming. The seeds of these popular narratives are sown in the writings of St Aquinas and Galen, and I’ve put excerpts of their work in the margins of the poem.
Alisoun speaks back to the misogyny of the present and the past. Not by being disciplined and good and therefore proving their caricature of women wrong, but by being wild and uncontained. Her fucking unruly body is at the centre of the poem and it rampages through any scrutiny or moral judgement.