Sunday, April 1, 2012

Poetry is not just for April, and April is not just for fools

Fenway Park closes in on 100 years old on April 12th. 

April 12th, 1912 turns out to be two days before the Titanic hit the iceberg.  In Boston, we'll celebrate the first but not the second.

Meanwhile, as wags note, April is cool. Perhaps the coolest month? 

April also happens to be National Poetry Month.

As a token of our appreciation -- not so much of the work of poets, which can range from sublime to ridiculous -- but as a token of our appreciation of the common humanity expressed through poetry, this oldest of art forms -- let us think of our poets and our poetry, today and all days.

But whom should we cite?  Eliot, surely.  He gave us a modern tongue and the line that we parody and repeat (see above).  Someone once told me I should read Elizabeth Bishop.  I haven't.  Yet.

Rather, today, I look back to the time of ancient scripture and see something very much of now.

In this year's March 5th New Yorker, Adam Gopnik reviews Elaine Pagels' book, Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation (Viking), on the Book of Revelation, the pyrotechnical completion to the Bible.  In it, she looks at the question of why this particular story was The Final Story among the many that existed in the earliest days of Christianity, when many many questions remained unsettled.

Not small themes, I grant you.  I do recommend reading Gopnik's review and perhaps Pagels' book as well (I haven't yet read it).  Here are some more tidbits from Gopnik: 

[Pagels] accepts that Revelation was probably written, toward the end of the first century C.E., by a refugee mystic named John on the little island of Patmos, just off the coast of modern Turkey ....

What’s more original to Pagels’s book is the view that Revelation is essentially an anti-Christian polemic. That is, it was written by an expatriate follower of Jesus who wanted the movement to remain within an entirely Jewish context, as opposed to the 'Christianity' just then being invented by St. Paul, who welcomed uncircumcised and trayf-eating Gentiles into the sect. At a time when no one quite called himself 'Christian,' in the modern sense, John is prophesying what would happen if people did.

But where's the poetry, you ask?

Here is the poetry, and what beautiful poetry it is.

After decoding Revelation, Pagels then looks at other long lost texts from the period, including those recently found at the Coptic library Nag Hammadi.  I will let Gopnik take it from here:

As an alternative revelation to John’s, she focuses on what must be the single most astonishing text of its time, the long feminist poem found at Nag Hammadi in 1945 and called “Thunder, Perfect Mind”—a poem so contemporary in feeling that one would swear it had been written by Ntozake Shange in a feminist collective in the nineteen-seventies, and then adapted as a Helen Reddy song. In a series of riddling antitheses, a divine feminine principle is celebrated as transcending all principles (the divine woman is both whore and sibyl) and opening the way toward a true revelation of the hidden, embracing goddess of perfect being who lies behind all things:

I am the whore and the holy one.
I am the wife and the virgin.
I am the mother and the daughter.
I am the members of my mother.
I am the barren one
       and many are her sons.
I am she whose wedding is great,
       and I have not taken a husband.
I am the midwife and she who does not bear.
I am the solace of my labor pains.
I am the bride and the bridegroom . . .
Why, you who hate me, do you love me,
       and hate those who love me?
You who deny me, confess me,
       and you who confess me, deny me.
You who tell the truth about me, lie about me,
and you who have lied about me, tell the truth about me. 

Astonishingly, the text of this mystic masterpiece was—a bit of YouTube viewing reveals—recently used by Ridley Scott as the background narration for a gorgeous long-form ad for Prada perfumes. The Gnostic strophes, laid over the model’s busy life, are meant to suggest the Many Mystifying Moods of the Modern Woman, particularly while she’s changing from one Prada outfit to another in the back seat of a sedan. (One feels that one should disapprove, but surely the Gnostic idea of the eternal feminine antitheses is meant to speak to the complicated, this-and-that condition of actually being a woman at any moment, and why not in Prada as well as in a flowing white robe?)