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The Poets, Jesus: Representations at the End of a Millennium.

Peggy Rosenthal, The Poets, Jesus: Representations at the End of a Millennium. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. 189pp. $29.95 (cloth).

Following on Divine Inspiration, Peggy Rosenthal's fascinating anthology of poems about the life of Jesus, this critical work has a different agenda. How have poets over the past two thousand years represented Jesus? How has he functioned as an image in poetry, and how have different periods been reflected in his image? Primarily, she sees Jesus as a dramatic character cast at various times in history in changing roles. Rosenthal's selection of poets is idiosyncratic -- and that's a virtue. She does not try to be comprehensive or even especially fair. She talks about poets she likes, and that shows in the way she writes about them. That personal perspective makes this book all the more enjoyable.

In an impressive tour de force -- no chutzpah lost here -- Rosenthal begins with a chapter entitled "Jesus as Christ and More: The First Eighteen Centuries." She starts with Christian hymns -- Philippians 2:6-11, for example -- and the proliferation of images that characterized Jesus and believers' experiences of him in the early church. Jesus as music, as the Lord of the Dance, as mother. "He is the living breast," writes the poet Ephrem. This search for interpretive language parallels the efforts of theologians to understand the Christ event -- and indeed much of what the church devises in the early centuries is nothing less than metaphor.

By page 10, we are up to Hildegard of Bingen (!) and deep into grand allegorical systems of meaning in which Jesus the person becomes less prominent, but the Franciscans in the thirteenth century lead a recovery of the humanity of Jesus and personal identification with his suffering and death. As Rosenthal puts it, "after a millennium of exalted titles for Jesus, the devotional appeal to his humble humanitas is quite startling." On the next page, we find God the Lover in John of the Cross -- as indeed in much mystical poetry. And from there it isn't far to the Petrarchan sonnet and Miguel de Guevara (early seventeenth century). Jesus is shepherd and lover in Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz--but she also "plays games with the Word, makes puns on the Baby's crying at his birth for our sins for which he'll die, and turns the Baby God into Cupid wounding us with his arrows of love....

The usual suspects are here--John Donne, George Herbert, Henry Vaughan, Edward Taylor. Part of what begins to happen, as Rosenthal notes, is that Jesus moves inside the poet; the Christian drama is acted in the self in the seventeenth century, which is one reason we in the twenty-first century resonate with that period's poetry. There are also not-so-usual suspects -- Zhang Xingyao and Wu Li, creator of the first Christian Chinese poetry who was astounded by the idea of the Incarnation (as anyone should be).

Chapter Two features Jesus as Romantic Hero. Subsequent chapters treat the slide into modernism ("Jesus Pale and Shrunken"), postmodernism's antihero, the politicized Jesus of Africa, the archetypal Christ in Arabic poetry, the absent Jesus, and Jesus in the hands of the playful poet. (This last chapter is published in a shorter form in this issue of Cross Currents.)

The quality of surprise and rapid association that characterizes the writing of chapter one is at work in the entire book. Rosenthal shows us poets we have not read, and new faces of poets we thought we knew. Mercifully, she does not stay with the traditional English-language selections. Walt Whitman is here, to my surprise and delight, but so are poets like Annette Droste-Hushoff, Nigeria's Christopher Okigbo, the Israeli poet Natan Zach, and the Iraqi Muslim Badr Shakir al-Sayyab. This book is worth the price of admission just to encounter the names and snippets of the work of these and literally a dozen or more poets whose work is mostly unknown to Western readers.

My personal discovery is R. S. Thomas, whom Rosenthal calls the major twentieth-century poet of waiting for the Absent God. I have not previously read his work. An Episcopal priest in the Church of Wales, Thomas writes poignantly out of a spirituality of emptiness. Although he rarely mentions Jesus by name, Thomas waits in his poetry expectantly for God to speak, as Jesus present (or returned?). It is a long way from Philippians. Perhaps not surprisingly, Thomas's work is out of print.

Vassar Miller (a poet mostly forgotten, Rosenthal suggests, because of her unfashionable use of Christian imagery in the twentieth century) said that poetry is by nature redemptive, because in overcoming "the silence of God that Christ endured on the Gross," it "raises the pain of life onto the level of beauty." As Rosenthal says, "Word made flesh made sacrament is, in poetry, again made transformative word." That is a pretty good description of what she is up to in this book, demonstrating in graceful and unencumbered critical style how poets have tried to do just that for two thousand years.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:ARNOLD, KENNETH
Publication:Cross Currents
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2000
Words:837
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