Once, I took a group of my poetry students on a field trip to the Iowa City Museum of Art. I remember loitering in front of a feminist painting called The Creation of Eve, when one of the weaker writers in the class looked up at the picture and said very quietly to herself, walking past me, “How did the artist know where to start it?” The ramifications of her question–aesthetic, theological, and practical–amazed me. She had just responded to the very notion of creation with ingenious originality, seeking to reconcile herself, however accidentally and momentarily, with the very fact that something came from nothing, with the forces governing both art and the human condition as a whole.
In Heaven, Jill Alexander Essbaum’s first collection, which received the 1999 Katherine Bakeless Nason Poetry Prize, the writer embarks on a similar path of inquiry. Bringing to mind two much-lauded poetry anthologies of the ’90s–Jane Hirshfield’s Women in Praise of the Sacred: 43 Centuries of Spiritual Poetry by Women and Robert Atwan’s Chapters Into Verse: A Selection of Poetry in English Inspired by the Bible from Genesis through Revelation–Essbaum’s Heaven is a cycle of lyrical meditations occasioned by Biblical narratives and Christian liturgical holidays, as well as by the spiritual and physical quandaries of love, desire, death, and loss. “That I am not sunken is a miracle,” she says to Noah in the poem “Ararat,” “for ours is a teeming, a heavy vessel, / called frigate of folly, or ferry of debacle.”
Essbaum, a recent James Michener Poetry Fellow at the University of Texas and graduate of the Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest, travels with us through a re-imagined and updated, carefully structured scriptural narrative. Through the eyes of a sassy and savvy, sexual and vulnerable Eve–”warm as flesh and bedstead-soft”–and other archetypal female protagonists, Essbaum revisits the Garden of Eden, the Fall, the Flood, the birth of Isaac, the Ark of the Covenant, Salome’s dance for John the Baptist’s head, the Last Supper, and the Stations of the Cross. Then, after having repeatedly asserted and lamented the impossibility of a life after death–”And the dead stay dead,” (“God”); “Some things I knew well enough: / first you love and then you lose. / I had no idea there was nothing more” (“Calvary”)–Essbaum concludes the collection with poems envisioning a Second Coming and a Paradise. Heaven is an ambitious attempt to come to terms with the oft-unsympathetic God of both testaments, with Essbaum’s desperate longing for faith, and her crippling doubt.
Essbaum’s rhetoric is one of paradox and pun, slant rhyme and reiteration, dichotomy and juxtaposition (often of the vulgar with the divine), recurrent image motifs (most noticeably apples, figs, blood, bed, sky, serpents, fire, hands) and lyrical abstractions (body, coldness, grief, desire, belonging, etc.). The best poems seem suffused with a grace akin to Dickinson’s or Louise Gluck’s. In the book’s first poem, the Creation parody “In the Beginning,” God, “one evening sitting deep in the sky,” in an “October… fragile as / all autumn falling out,”–a fall fragile as all fall falling out–carves stigmata in his hands and has the world bleed out from them:
God carved into the palms of God, and rivers bled from that magnificent wound. They clotted into continents, and it was good. But only for a little while. You see, the twins, they came out crooked. The first was king of shivering, and the second, brilliant as madness, but far too comfortable at the hip and thigh.
The stratification of gender roles and Eve’s responsibility for deceiving Adam out of Eden concern Essbaum throughout. In “Apple Magic,” she describes Adam as “the unperfected dumb and bumbling.” Noah, in “Ararat,” “loves no one / but himself, and even then, only some / of the time.” In “Evening,” she describes Eve’s breasts as “two lovely dangling cherubs” and tells us to “picture her / luscious and sly.” The apple that started it all is “the sweetest apple ever.” Sex has to do with Adam’s need to be reunited with his missing rib, but also with its ability to generate hope:
Let the apple trees keep their uneven, sympathetic rows, and draw me to your lap. The days ahead will wait as we return to the bounty of unkempt sheets, a warm and reverent orchard we shall raise. (“Apple Magic”)
At the same time, the copulating lovers in her poem, “The Furnace,” seem like copulating burn victims:
Uncomfortably, we slip off the undershirts and socks, and if I let you lay on top of me, it is only sex which touches sex.
With playfulness and daring, Essbaum ends “The Furnace”:
all vows are terminable, even these; yet is this all we promised?– Well, no. But in the end, every saint will have to die, and so we do it with the light on, always. It is coldest that way.
Essbaum is at her most personal and personable, however, when she is addressing God, making her peace with him, or taking him to task. His return to earth is called to question from the outset: “The answer I seek is one I do not truly wish to know / … don’t bother waiting up / he isn’t coming, as an even abject moon advises / learn to live without…” Essbaum’s God is unrelenting and too preoccupied with his own pain to attend to hers:
As over all things, God is over me– impersonally, a subtle body stilling me to stone, the flood and plague of your voice. (“Naked in the Garden”)
He “doesn’t care / where we wind up in the end.” His face is “under / gauze and ever at a distance” and seems “to sag a little when” she stands “too close.” In “The Faster’s Prayer,” the narrator mistakes a rat in her kitchen for God. Essbaum places herself in the role of apostate, rewriting the Apostle’s Creed as “The Apostate’s Creed”:
I believe in the Spirit, but the Spirit is sad. Whatever will satisfy the cobwebbed, crooked angels, always at the altar of us, Beflowered, with ragged hands?
The most successful of her puns is the conclusion to the poem “Concerning the Ends of Us”: “the Father / whose cataract gaze is like bruises left by water.” The divine watches over us with the impact of a large waterfall collapsing on stone, and yet the gaze is impeded, the cataract gaze of someone distant and old.
All this ambition, does it pay off? Other instances of punning in the book are less effective. In one poem, a crucifix whets our thighs, while in another, “the answer to everything” is whetting the tip of a tongue. Occasionally, Essbaum takes the easy way out. In “Sarah-Song,” laughter is described fairly conventionally as “the grief of happiness.” The sexing of Christ in “Thursday”–”I am helpless / under him and begging reconciliation bodywise, / the onset of my mouth against his thighs”–feels somewhat cheap and forced, as does the blowjob pun in “Ararat”: “There is nowhere to go but down, / and Honey, I can’t swim.” “Sex Among the Christians” begins, “Lean into me as a steeple might / and I will turn your flesh to food.” Not to be terribly picayune, but steeples don’t lean. When we are told to picture Eve as luscious and sly, we can’t help wishing we were picturing her as something less expected. Why are we picturing someone with two abstract modifiers and not with a visual image? When Magdalene’s scarves in “Calvary” smell “of violins and myrrh,” one might immediately ask, “Oh, do they really?” In two poems, Essbaum re-imagines God as a woman; when thus transgendered, God somehow becomes more understanding and kind–one can’t help wincing a little and thinking of Alanis Morrisette doing somersaults as God in the finale of the Kevin Smith movie Dogma. Also, a few of these poems collapse in the face of formal constraints. In a few of her otherwise masterful, loosely metrical quatrains and tercets, Essbaum occasionally forces rhymes which seem gratuitous, unearned:
….Amid the buzz
Of fools and faith, it is another Good one wasted on ourselves. Your retinue wears black, your mother