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by Louise Robertson

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The Biblical Persona poem.

Most of us have heard of persona poems, also known as dramatic monologues like Robert Browning’s My Last Duchess or Patricia Smith’s Skinhead. Part of the trick to writing one is to make sure your audience knows the back story for the character. (Browning and Smith are really good at sketching character back story.)

The beauty of biblical persona poems is that most of the major characters and situations in the bible have great and well known back stories. You say Lazarus, and I know exactly what happened to him even if I don’t go to church every week.

Also, the biblical persona poem is wide open for extreme interpretation. You don’t even have to stick to the known characters. You can make one up and insert it into the story in the same way that Gore Vidal does with his historical novels. A great example of this Jesse, by Scott Woods. Or consider the poem I heard from the point of view of Jesus’ donkey written by the 2nd place winner of a high school writing contest. (I’m still surprised that the poem about footprints in the snow beat this one.) That was seven years ago and I am still thinking about it. Genius.

You can really destroy conventional notions while doing justice to the human psyche at its most human moments. Consider the poem “Unrepentant Eve on Judgment” by Airea Dee Matthews performed on the finals stage of WOWps 2010 and elsewhere. (If I can get permission to post the poem or a youtube of the here, I’ll do so. — Edit: the poem is now included below.) Here are a few more examples, just to show the wealth here.

Mary Magadelene, by Louise Robertson

I used to cover it carefully: sleeves, long clothes. When I was young, they’d stand near me, cupping their hands for my ass.

I know what I taste like.

They’d smell me, glazed reptile tongue in their mouth.

It is indecent, they’d say, the tipping

of the fabric on my backside. Stretch

and it’s an invitation, a widening. Open your mouth,

they’d say, and it means yes.
What color hair is that,
they’d say,
is it cinnamon flavored,
it is isn’t it? Let me
put my mouth on it, match my
beard to it.

It’s only going to far when you touch my feet,
lay flat fingers in the arch, as if that
curve means yes.

The whole body said yes to them.

Now, I wear a slimmer dress,
for comfort, and the gray
haired men say, “Slut.” I think, yes,
thank you Jesus, for this body and

learning how to keep my distance from
just about everybody. The whole body says,
yes, but not for you.

Jesus, Judas and the case of the Old Woman’s Son (A Murder Mystery), by Scott Woods

And lo I said unto Him,
“You could just raise him from the dead and ask him who killed him.”
And Jesus spoke, saying,
“Judas, you know it doesn’t work that way.”

We were passing through the village anyway,
following the midday star.
For days he washed feet and consoled lepers,
and I would count the money.
I wasn’t greedy then; just frugal.

The old woman split her face crying for her son
and praising The Master,
brimming to her eyes with despair like love.
She offered Him twelve apples, all rotten,
passing the basket to Him humbly.
He took only the worst one, fumbled through the fruit for it,
took a bite, and winked at me.

Jesus played dumb.
He did that a lot.
And when we were alone, He laughed.
Usually at my expense, like someone who knows
how the book ends and keeps looking over your shoulder.
He would always appear before me and ask,
“What part are you at?” and I would snap at Him
and He would kiss me on the cheek.

The old woman showed us her son.
He could not be touched and the shroud was already on him,
but we swore not to leave his side.

I said, “Would have been better if they kept him where he was.
We could have checked for footprints or markings.”
The Master bit His apple, looked me up and down like
I was short and spit apple chunks thusly:
“Better for the purposes of man, but not for the purposes of the Spirit.”
It was always the spirit with Him.
Just one time I’d like to turn to Him and say,
“You know…I think the SPIRIT did it!”
But then I’d have to break the bread and fish for the next two weeks,
and He had a way of making an easy job last all day.

We washed the desert from our hands and hair,
prayed, then prayed some more.
Jesus whispered to the body, to His hands,
to the body, then back to His hands.
The wind kicked up outside
but it was completely unrelated.
The camels brayed, tumbleweeds batting their shins.
That was not completely unrelated.

When we had finished, we went to the well
and found our man.
He was too nervous and too clean for deserts,
and, no matter how hard he tethered it,
his mule would not stand by him
in the presence of the Lord.

Jesus would not let them slay him,
and He took the man’s confession looking into his eyes,
holding his cheeks in His palms
and smiling.
And the killer’s tears fell to the dust in fistfuls of passion and shame.

When we left the next day
we were already two days behind the eleven.
They would wait, but I would have to hear about it.
“Every time He is with you He is late,” Peter would say.
“Go count crows,” I’d say, and ignore him (as usual).

Jesus was curious,
always gripping at things to see how they worked.
We stopped by a river and He spoke thus:
“Judas,
how many loaves of bread would you lay before me
that I could not walk on this water?”
Every time He said something like this I clutched at our purse.
I knew better than to challenge The Master,
but on that day,
I gambled that He could not swim.
And as I pulled Him from the river,
choking and laughing and clutching at my neck for purchase,
He slapped my back and said thusly:
“This is why I love you Judas: you do not believe everything you hear.
And if anyone asks, you were baptizing Me,” and shook
His hair like an animal in from the rain.

Thus sayeth the Lord,
forever and ever,
amen.

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EDIT – I have received a copy of and permission from Airea Dee Matthews to use “Unrepetent Eve on Judgment” — this is the poem I had in mind when I thought to include this particular form. It is one of the most astonishing and powerful examples of the Biblical Persona poem I have ever witnessed. But then Dee’s work is usually most astonishing and powerful. I’ve added it to the end and kept the other two examples. Three examples should be one way to say this is a rich form.

Unrepentant Eve on Judgment by Airea “Dee” Matthews

He called me Eve, Papa.
My name is Eternity
that was his first mistake.

You cracked me from his sleeping bone,
honed the swell on my hip with divinic chisel,
rounded my darkness by whittling,
nipples, an accident,
hardened clay they wouldn’t yield to the your will.
You liked their nerve
upturned the corners of your chapped lip
whispered “they should make milk.”
A yard of white silk spilled out,
birthed new moons.
Reasoned, “We will need more light for this making.”
Taking the strongest sliver of remains
you mended a tower of ridge and vertebrae
that the Romans envied.
Later, they erect monuments
of my unsleeved back
called them phallic, in fact.
Never faulted their ignorance,
I wished for it.

But you held me in your palm too long,
cradled me in your Mount of Venus.
Before you kissed spirit into this perfect geometry
You cried your regrets;
the tears salted my mouth.
Wished you could keep me to yourself,
If only you’d made me first.
How cursed and cruel our fate when even God makes promises
He doesn’t want to keep?
Still you winded this clay,
plucked me from infinity,
took me to Eden
because you still loved him.
I understood.
I was just glad one of us could.

Perhaps, I should have smiled more that first day
when he saw me and said, “This one at last is bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh.”
Wiped the rest from his eye,
clumsily grabbed for my breasts,
Chanted I will love him as my father’s brother
then My shoulders, my chin
Chanted I will love him as my father’s brother
patted my hair like one of the animals
Promised but never as a lover
He didn’t know what to do with me.
The serpent did.

When I slept
It crept across my skin, forked tongue to neck,
Sucked the nectar of accidental nipple, slid along the path of forest,
left his venom on the trail.
his milk inside of me.
He called it sugar,
Later, it made Cain
Even Adam, thought it was sweet.
Said it stuck to his jagged bone
where his rib used to be.

Judge me when a serpent rings itself around your neck.
Spins its shed skin in your mouth.
The taste will make you quake.
At the bite, you scream.
Have you tear fronds from palms
to cover your nakedness.
Awaiting a chance to ride the hisses to heaven
Who said this was temptation?
This is about redemption

You needed a cause to take me back.
I spread reason eagle on a bed of clover.
This sin was not my construct

And as such, I am empty of regret
So, have those men write me as your will bends.
Have them say that I ate an apple from a forbidden tree.
Not that: I let a snake crawl into my acceptance to get back home
Have them say that I was feckless and naïve.
Not that: I manipulated the variables with scientific precision.
I used the serpent as much as he did me.
Tell them that.
We know this:

Everything else you spoke into existence
Me, you made.
We know this:
I didn’t sin for the feel of rattle on my skin,
scale in my hair.
I fell for what I could not forget:
The taste of your sorrow’s salt
Being held in your stone palm of pulse and sinew
Birthing the moon under which Adam slept
I fell for what I could not forget:
My name.
I am Eternity
Though he called me Eve
That was his first mistake
You held me too long.
I knew all along
this end at the beginning.
Papa, that was yours.

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