Book review: “The Poets’ Jesus: Representations at the End of a Millennium” by Peggy Rosenthal

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Book review: “The Poets’ Jesus: Representations at the End of a Millennium” by Peggy Rosenthal

Peggy Rosenthal’s book-long meditation on how poets around the world and over the centuries have encountered Jesus — The Poets’ Jesus: Representations at the End of a Millennium — was published in 2000.

Yet, it shouldn’t be thought of as a retrospective. The attitudes toward Jesus, by believing and unbelieving poets, that Rosenthal carefully, lovingly set before the reader can be found today among humans, no matter their faith or lack of faith.

They don’t just exist in time. They exist, all of them, in the here and now.

As Rosenthal recounts, there have been waves of theological and poetic fashion that have heightened various images of Jesus down all the many years.

Still, I come away from this deeply spiritual work with the sense that, in some transcendent way, each Jesus identified by these poets does live, even those who contradict each other.

rosenthal-poetsjesus

When it comes to understanding God, there is no recourse but to acknowledge our blindness.

We make stabs in the dark at trying to put into words our ideas, feelings and experiences of God and know how feeble those words are. And know, on top of that, how feeble, weak and bumbling are those ideas, feelings and experiences that we are trying to communicate.

After reading Rosenthal’s beautiful The Poets’ Jesus, there is much I could write in an analytical vein. But I think it would be better for me to step away from the mike and let some of the poets quoted in the book’s pages have their say — reverent, caustic, ironic, agonized or however else they frame their look at Jesus.

Here are a few of the poets whom Rosenthal looks at in her book with a few lines of their lines about Jesus:

Jesus as a mother

Ephrem, a Syriac poet of the 4th century

 

As indeed He sucked Mary’s milk

He has given suck

— life to the universe.

As again He dwelt in His mother’s womb

in His womb dwells all creation.

Jesus as artist

William Blake, 18th-19th century British poet

 

Jesus & His Apostles and Disciples were all Artists….

The Eternal Body of Man is The Imagination, that is God himself.

The Divine body, Jesus: we are his Members.

It manifests itself in his Works of Art.

 

Jesus being helped in the Garden of Gethsemane by God through Nature

Annette Droste-Holhoff, a 19th century German poet

 

…While the dead in their graves their voices found

In love’s fulness Christ raised himself on high,

“Father,” he cried, “not my

Will but yours be done.”

 

The Moon swam out in quiet blue.

Before him, on the dewy green,

A stem of lily stretched up its length.

Then out of the calyx-cup

An angel stepped

And gave him strength.

Jesus as a wimp

Charles Baudelaire, a 19th century French poet

 

—Ah! Jesus mind the Garden and the Olive Tree!

In pure simplicity, upon your knees you prayed

To Him who in His heaven laughed while you were splayed

By hangmen pounding spikes into your live anatomy.

Jesus as a fish

Ole Wivel, a 20th century Danish poet

 

It feels at first

As if you were men’s enemy —

Your empty mouth

Will tell us only what is written

In the bubble’s shimmering roundness

One second — but to burst…

 

You lie there bloody

In foam and tang —

and are our Savior.

Jesus as unknowable, writing words in the dust

Tadeusz Rozewicz, a 20th century Polish poet

 

When

Matthew Mark Luke and John

approached him

 

he covered the letters

and erased them

forever.

Jesus as a white American bigot

Gwendolyn Brooks, a 20th century American poet

 

Lord!

Forgive these niggahs that know not what they do.

Jesus as the Arab people

Badr Shakit as-Sayyah, a 20th century Iraqi Muslim poet

 

When they brought me down I heard the winds

In long lamentation weaving the leaves of palm trees,

And footsteps receding far, far away. So the wounds

And the Cross to which I have been nailed all through the afternoon

Have not killed me.

Jesus as humanity

Nis Peterson, a 20th century Danish poet

 

…he stretched his hand toward me,

And lo! The nail-prints flowered red —

Up to the shoulders his naked arms

Were covered with black wounds of sin —And then smile:

          God so loved…!

Jesus as comedian

Kathleen Norris, a 20th-21st century American poet

 

He is there, like Clouseau,

at the odd moment,

just right, when he climbs

out of the fish pond

into which he has spectacularly

fallen, and says condescendingly

to his hosts, the owners

of the estate: “I fail

where others succeed.” You know

this is truth. You know

he’ll solve the mystery.

Jesus as fire

Annie Dillard, a 20th-21st century American poet

 

We keep our paper money shut

in a box, for fear of fire.

Once, we opened the box

and Christ the lamb stepped out

and left his track of flame across the floor.

 

Why are we shown these things?

Jesus as the gardener whom Mary Magdalene meets outside the tomb

Andrew Hudgins, a 20th-21st-century American poet

 

Before he can stop himself, he’s on his knees…

He laughs. He kicks his bright spade in the earth

and turns it over. Spring flashes by, then harvest.

Beneath his feet, seeds dance into the air.

They rise, and he, not noticing, ascends

on midair steppingstones of dandelion,

of milkweed, thistle, cattail, and goldenrod.

 

Jesus as teacher

Vassar Miller, a 20th century American poet

 

teach me…

But with an alphabet that has been burned

Into my bones, a book till now shut

And You unseal it, O Lamb only worthy

To read its alphabet scattered until

I offer it up, steel filings to smithy

Beaten out on the anvil, syllable

After slow syllable.

 

Patrick T. Reardon

12.7.16

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