Saint’s Day Procession, Conques, France

Roberta Feins

I march near the statue of Sainte Foy.
The old men struggle with her weight.
Weak sun warms us when bitter wind drops.
We are all poor, but march for our families.

Little Saint, still a girl when you were martyred,
why do you lure our husbands to war,
when they’d do much better to stay home
grow potatoes, prune the vines.

Too long have the men gone off to war,
to be killed for God or King
while we women grind chestnuts for flour
try to keep our children fed.

Your ears, covered with gold and pearls
don‘t hear our children crying.
You are our saint; we are your people
but, oh ma petite, must you be so deaf?

Perhaps we should carry you downhill
outside the gates, my girl, and see
how well a deaf saint made of wood
can swim in the flooded stream.

>Too long have the men gone off to war,
to be killed for God or King
while we women grind chestnuts for flour
try to keep our children fed.

Roberta Feins received her MFA in poetry from New England College, where she studied with Judith Hall, DA Powell, Carol Frost and Alicia Ostriker. Her poems have been published in Five AM, Antioch Review, The Cortland Review and The Gettysburg Review, among others. Her chapbook Something Like a River, was published by Moon Path Press in 2013, and Herald won the 2016 Coal Hill Review Chapbook Contest, and was published by Autumn House Press in 2017. Roberta edits the e-zine Switched On Gutenberg.

Before the Razor
A look inside the creative process of “Saint’s Day Procession, Conques, France”

“A mondegreen is a mishearing or misinterpretation of a phrase… Mondegreens are most often created by a person listening to a poem or a song; the listener, being unable to clearly hear a lyric, substitutes words that sound similar and make some kind of sense.” Wikipedia

In May of 2009, my husband and I took a 2 week trip to Southern France. We visited many traditional pilgrimage sites on the route to Santiago de Compestela, and admired the church and chapel architecture, the gold and gem-encrusted statues of saints, and the carvings and murals of the end of the earth.

While we were traveling I was writing constantly and obsessively in my poetry notebook. Something about the beauty of the landscape, its bloody history, and memories of my mother’s love of France (she had died in 2007). I wrote over 120 pages of material for poems.

When I returned home and started to work these writings into poems, I was challenged by how to structure the work. For a number of poems, I used poem or song patterns from folk traditions and from the Troubadours, male and female medieval court poets of Southern France.

One day I was listening to a song in French by Kate and Ann McGarrigle, “Complainte Pour Ste. Catherine”. My understanding of French is pretty limited; what I heard was a song sung by women who were marching under the statue of St Catherine. The song talked about how for too long people had been playing politics with other people’s lives.

I decided to borrow that idea, imagining a traditional Saint’s day procession in Southern Europe, where the statue of the Saint is taken from the church, dressed finely and paraded through the streets of the town. I decided to show women appealing to a virginal female saint for bread for their families and for peace. I tried to express the frustration that women would feel with their inability to control their lives, resulting in them threatening the Saint that they would throw her in the river if she did not help them.

Later, when I looked up a translation of the lyrics of “Complainte Pour Ste. Catherine”, I realized I had misheard the song’s subject. Instead of marching under a Saint’s statue, the singer was walking down St Catherine Street, a shopping street in Montreal, complaining about the winter cold and the summer mosquitoes.

Still, I am pleased with how the poem turned out!