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Divine Inspiration: The Life of Jesus in World Poetry.

Robert Atwan, George Dardess, and Peggy Rosenthal, assemblers and editors, New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. 580pp. $35.00 (cloth).

One can only be grateful for the generous labors of Robert Atwan, George Dardess, and Peggy Rosenthal in bringing together a cornucopian selection of excellent poems in Divine Inspiration: The Life of Jesus in World Poetry. Several years ago, Oxford published a pair of volumes entitled Chapters Into Verse: Poetry in English Inspired by the Bible (edited by Robert Atwan and Laurance Wieder). These are beautifully made and intelligently selected books of poetry based on the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. This valuable new Oxford anthology both narrows the focus and broadens the range of the earlier volumes. (Those who already possess Chapters into Verse, Volume II: Gospels to Revelation will find Divine Inspiration an excellent supplement and no mere recycling of a good idea.)

As the full title suggests, the poetry in this volume responds to the Gospels. The narrative thread of Jesus' life and teachings can be readily followed through the nine sections: Birth and Infancy, Preparation for Public Ministry, Healings and Miracles, Encounters, Parables, Sayings and Discourses, Final Jerusalem Ministry, the Passion, and the Resurrection. Within these categories, specific Gospel verses are identified and amply quoted before each handful of poems. As one might anticipate, selections from Luke predominate in the beginning of the book, while Mark gets his say in the darker days toward the end. No Gospel is neglected, though it did not surprise me to discover rather more Matthew and Luke than John and Mark. Within this judiciously balanced superstructure, the editors present an extremely wide range of poetry collected from around the world.

A precise example suggests the remarkable effort that has been made to arrange a variety of responses to the life of Jesus. Turning to "The Trial" in Part Eight, The Passion, the reader finds a framing selection from Matthew 26:57, 59-66 (from the New Revised Standard Version, chosen, the editors explain, "because it is an up-to-date, non-sexist, readable translation" [xxvi]). The surprising first poem, "Comrade Jesus," by Sarah N. Cleghorn (an American political activist of whom this poetry-reader had never heard), opens as follows:

Thanks to St. Matthew, who had been At mass-meetings in Palestine, We knew whose side was spoken for When Comrade Jesus took the floor. (426)

A tough-minded poem, "The Tale of a Dzeleka Prison Hard-Core Hero," by Malawian writer Jack Mapanje follows, disrupting the barbed whimsy of Cleghorn. Then, reminded of the verse, "Then they spat in his face and struck him," the reader encounters a translation of a very important poem by Jacques Roumain, a Haitian poet and one of the leading spokesmen of the Negritude movement. "New Negro Sermon" describes the transformation of a victim Christ, "poor nigger," into "the god of those in power." Roumain deplores the organized church's possession of Jesus and reclaims a comrade and friend for the revolutionary rejection of European domination:

We do not pardon them because they know what they do: They lynched John who organized the union, They chased him through the wood with dogs like a savage wolf, Laughing there, they hanged him to the sycamore. No, brothers, comrades, We will pray no more. Our revolt will rise like the stormbird's cry, Above the putrid lapping of the swamps. We'll no longer sing the sad, despairing spirituals! Another song will spring forth from our throats Our red flags we shall unfurl, Stained by the blood of our upright brothers. Beneath this sign we shall march, Beneath this sign we are marching, Standing tall, the wretched of the earth! Standing tall, the legions of the hungry! (432)

As the headnote to the poem informs us, the last eight lines of Roumain's call to arms became a motto of the Negritude movement. A poem on Pilate's headquarters by the French baroque poet Jean de la Ceppede, a selection from contemporary Nicaraguan poet Ernesto Cardenal's "Cosmic Canticle," and a dramatic monologue in the voice of Pontius Pilate by American poet Vassar Miller round out the treatment of this episode.

If this reading experience sounds rather more jarring than conducive to devotional meditation, the aim of the editors has been fulfilled. They write that Divine Inspiration "is not primarily a book of religious or devotional poetry - of poetry, that is, written by believers for believers, and restricted in tone, quality, or dogma. It is instead an effort to bring together examples of the fresh, varied, and unpredictable ways in which the words of the Gospels have inspired poets in the past and continue to inspire poets today" (xxiii). The emphasis on twentieth-century poets, the inclusion of doubting voices, and the willingness to present works from countries where Christianity is not the main religion all contribute to the persuasiveness of the volume's thesis that the life of Jesus is, has been, and will continue to be relevant, and not only to Christians. Peggy Rosenthal concludes the accessible historical survey of her introduction optimistically: "Poets, whose vocation it is to give voice to their culture's deepest perceptions, show no sign of losing interest in the challenge posed by the Gospel's central figure" (xliii).

The practical uses of this anthology will surely occur to creative homilists, to adventuresome directors of religious education for young people, and to couples planning wedding ceremonies. It would certainly make a refreshing change at one of this summer's weddings to hear Rainer Maria Rilke's "On the Marriage at Cana," Carlos Pellicer's "Sunday," Richard Wilbur's "A Wedding Toast," or the gorgeous "Hymn of Faith: The Wedding Feast" by the fourth century Syriac poet Ephrem. Ephrem's poems became part of the liturgy of the Syrian Christian Church, but I would have never known them were it not for their inclusion, in lovely translations, in Divine Inspiration. The discovery of poets such as Ephrem, as well as the recognition of old favorites (George Herbert, Denise Levertov, Gwendolyn Brooks) makes dipping into this volume especially rewarding. My only regret: the old chestnut on the parable of the talents, Milton's sonnet "On his Blindness," didn't make the cut.

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Author:Keen, Suzanne
Publication:Cross Currents
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1998
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