Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Book Review: Paper Cathedrals (2001) by Morri Creech

Since my undergraduate college days, I’ve been enamored by intersections between art/literature and Christianity. It’s especially powerful when, whatever the medium, the artist/writer avoids being preachy or maudlin and succeeds in engaging Christian motifs in a strikingly thought provoking way. In Morri Creech’s poetry collection Paper Cathedrals, I discovered exactly that kind of stimulating engagement with biblical materials.

In “Honey and John the Baptist,” Creech imagines an internal monologue for John the Baptist. John has completed his preordained purpose of preparing the way for Lord and simply waits in a state of purposelessness:

. . . the crowds had gone,
what work was I left to do,
having set it all in motion, . . .

No longer the chosen . . .

Creech’s poems often probe those afterward and in-between moments of New Testament events, the Bible’s “deleted scenes.” These are shown to be moments of weakness, sorrow, and/or regrets.

In his impotency, John the Baptist reflects not only on his own coming death, but also on the temptations and coming death of Jesus:

And weren’t the long beams of the cross
already hewn from the tree,
Salome’s young thighs
ripening toward the dance
as I ate of the honey,
as I tasted the scald of bees
drowned in the chambered sweetness
of their own making?

Not all the poems here are biblically based. Several are responses to photographs and a few seem to be familial poems. However, the most stirring and even somewhat disturbing poems are those written from the point of view of Judas, the betrayer.

Creech’s poems give us a hugely sympathetic Judas, a disciple in love with his master, devoted, and intimately a part of the inner circle. Vividly the poems retell familiar scenes which are made new through showing them from Judas’ point of view alone. There’s an added dimension of pain when we know in advance that the speaker is headed toward betrayal and destruction.

Without a doubt, the most striking poem of the collection is one entitled, “The Room Reserved for Judas” where Creech imagines in acute detail the living quarters that were set aside for Judas in heaven but were never claimed.

There are no pictures arranged
on the mantelpiece, no flowers pressed
in the pages of the a family Bible. The door
remains numberless. . .

Yet even there, in the far corner of the kingdom,
one can still hear God’s loud voice
and the trumpets of mercy . . .

As the heavenly sounds penetrate this empty room, the poem conveys a haunting sadness of loss and disappointment. One of God’s children, chosen by Jesus to be his disciple has fallen away. He will never come into his inheritance. It’s a chilling poem.

Paper Cathedrals is an astounding collection.

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