Still Lives with Apocalypse, Jennifer A. McGowan
Prolebooks, 2020 £5.50
Hearing heavenly voices on earth
Jennifer A. McGowan’s dark wry humour shakes up her reader’s received knowledge of Jesus. She places him in known places on Earth — Central Park, Washington DC, Notre-Dame, Dorchester, Constantinople — and adds surreal elements.
Every poem is a film shot, a study in visual adroitness. Irreverence persists.
In the first poem, ‘Getting Wacked With Jesus ’round the back of Wawa’, the narrator encounters the Son of God, smoking weed ‘in thin pages of thick books’. Together, they think about their mothers, and Mary’s presence at the crucifixion:
how three of them can cry harmony
around your bleeding feet, lay down
the blues like smack.
The poem reflects on the wisdom of perspective and a wistful longing for the company of the prophet ‘just hanging and smoking poetry’.
In ‘Jesus Pulls Pints Down The Local During The Miners’ Strike’ we’re drawn into that volatile episode in recent British history. Jesus knows these men who bleed like him, and in empathy gives them drinks on the house. He alludes to birthdays — his being Christmas Day, perhaps it’s one they can’t afford to celebrate:
Cashing out, he pays
with leftover pieces of silver
It’s a reference to betrayal by the political elite — an eight-line poem of protest.
Buddha and Jesus meet in the final poem of ‘Part One’: ‘Buddha Meets Jesus Around Midsummer To Do Some Catching Up’. They play cards, share wine, don’t say much. ‘They have been leaned on too long’. This is a mindful moving piece. The women in their lives are put to the side as they sit with:
a sudden thieving of the sun;
a bo tree, leaves infinite as the sun
‘Part Two’, entitled ‘Mud Angels’, is a group of musings on religion, belief, the Devil and redemption. It’s a powerful commentary on human behaviour and the spiritual. I found the poems hypnotic and sensual.
Doing a double take on Jesus
The great thing about poetry, maybe a defining thing, is how it can make you do a double take. The Jesus we meet in the first thirteen poems of this pamphlet is nothing like the Catechism Jesus of my Catholic childhood. But then again, I’m not so sure…
This Jesus is a weed-smoking loser and a sage with miraculous powers; he’s a flounderer who leaps up when you’re quite sure he’s drowning and suddenly walks on the water.
This Jesus wears his divinity lightly, and with humour. He doesn’t do bullshit. Some of the poem titles, which all read like shock headlines (and are given in capitals in the pamphlet), might give you a sense of what’s going on: ‘A Bunch of Hippies, Jesus Included, Burn their Draft Cards in Central Park’; ‘Jesus Gives Man City the Lead after Three Minutes’; ‘Jesus Gets In On the Relic Trade in 15th Century Constantinople’.
He gets about a bit. If you’re the son of God, I guess you can do that.
I really got to love this Jesus. In the poem ‘Penn and Teller Try to Teach Jesus Stage Magic’, Penn tells Jesus, ‘Christ, you’re terrible’, as Jesus fumbles hopelessly through the tricks they’re trying to teach him. The famous illusionists eventually lose patience:
After another hour, they call
it quits. Jesus reaches into Teller’s
coat pocket and pulls out a dove,
sets it free. I’m sorry,
he says, offering
its olive branch.
He’s full of compassion but doesn’t make a big deal of it. In ‘Jesus Pulls Pints down the Local during the Miners’ Strike’:
He recognises these men.
They, too, are always bleeding.
He pulls pint after pint,
saying over and over, Don’t worry,
I missed your birthday,
I’ll cover it.
This Jesus doesn’t talk much about dying, but he thinks about it. He knows what’s coming. A Christmas tree, propped up in a window to die, makes him whimper.
This funny and profound pamphlet may be the 2020 answer to the perennial question, ‘What would Jesus do?’