By Shaileen B.
Why are women in the Bible such a rich subject for contemporary female poets? What draws Linda Pastan to Eve, Jo Shapcott to Noah's wife, Wislawa Szymborska to Lot's wife, Mary Szybist to Mary? Perhaps it's the space the Bible leaves around these characters, in which imagination can flower. Perhaps it's the wish to give voice to quiet ancestors, or the drive to make something ho-hum a surprise.
All this ran through my head when Clarinda Harriss sent me an email the other day. She will join Karen Garthe for a Poetry & Conversation reading on March 5, and I invited her to send me a poem for the blog readers. She sent this:
Blasphemy is the Child of Faith and Doubt
1. Eve Stands at the Bureau Mirror
holding a smaller mirror. Views her spine,
so scoliated she has only one real hip.
Turns, count her ribs down each side.
Always the same number : one short
on the left. Her old man—thin, pale,
bent as the bone that made him—now
long gone, she ponders pros and cons
of setting the story straight. Her reptile
memory glides behind her eyes. Who
would believe a word she says?
2. Lilith Discusses Her Impending Divorce
"He was big and dull. A hulking child. Always
pointing at things, crowing the silly names
he made up.
Look at me! I have been folded
in the black wings of Lucifer, I have felt all
his silky tongues. What could I feel for a
for a foolish creature who prattled 'pussy,'
giggled 'tits'? Who wanted lots of 'kids'? Yes,
he called them kids. Finally I called on God,
my lawyer: 'I want out! Let him marry
that blond doxy who gave You (oh, don’t
imagine I don’t know) her body once, to do
with as you liked. Hell, let him have the house.'"
3. Magdalene Admires Her Old Man’s Body
"It was risky to marry a second Jew after
the first hurled himself under iron wheels—
history, politics, fate, and faith. Thanks,
my comfortable dear, for only minor
terrors—bankruptcy, high blood pressure,
your mother’s fat (she should rest in peace).
Thanks for taking after your father, all brain
and tough muscle. I mean God the Lawyer
who fathered us all. Your lean brawn
is your birthright, I suppose. But you both
know possession in perpetuity is outlawed
in most States. So, old man, old dear, you
must have earned your body’s beauty.
Were you munificent? Did you hug lepers,
rescue desperate wives from stony death?
Give your goods to the poor before we met?
Were you a Jew as good as Christ? I see
my Christ, my brooding boy, my first love,
in your length of limb, the Jacob’s ladder
of your ribs. Oh, you ivory Jesus, you
antique piece of work lying cruciform
beside me in our cozy bed, can you see me
as I saw myself: begger, long-haired whore,
kneeling at bony feet.to wash or kiss them?
Saint me. Come to me in a burning bush."
Here are Clarinda Harriss's comments on her poem:
People have commented on my "courage" in writing and publishing this poem. I'm grateful but not sure where courage comes in; fact is, I've always been certain that Jesus had a wife AND that I knew exactly who she was.
Mary Magdalene has been a favorite figure in my life ever since I came across her in a very old Bible Story Book whose glorious black-and-white illustrations had been colored in with poster paint by my mother when she was a very young child. She lavished her most passionate coloring on Mary Magdalene and her long, long, foot-washing hair.
The courage may in lie in starting off with a very personal aspect of Eve: scoliosis. My backbone looks just like the new photos of Richard III's, and so does "my" Eve's in the poem.
Looking for more Poetry & Conversation? Come hear Clarinda Harriss & Karen Garthe on March 5 in the Poe Room at the Central Library at 6:30pm.