Saturday, 2 April 2011

The Terrible Jesus

Don't want to turn this blog entirely over to cack-handed (cack-minded?) theological speculation; but I am interested in this poem by Peter Redgrove, a rather underrated poet, all things considered. It originally appeared in From Every Chink of the Ark (1977):
It is the terrible Jesus. He walks on water because he hates its touch. He hates his body to touch everything as water does.
(As Orpheus sang from the river of his body)
The ulcers close as he passes by
This is because he rejects ulcers
Anything raw and open, anything underskin
He rejects it, or cover it with a white robe
He fasted forty days as long as he could because he hated food
And hated those who gave him food
And puts worlds of feeling into his mouth
Lucifer came and tempted him out of natural concern
For this grand fellow starving in the desert
But would he pass the world through him
Like anyone else? Not at all.
He came bacj from the tomb because death
Looked like hell to him, which is another thing
He won't do, die, not like everyone else.
Nor sleep with the smooth ladies.
Instead he goes up to heaven and hopes
For less participation there in those empty spaces
But from there he calls down to us
And I know those cries are calls of agony since there
All the sweet astrology-stars pierce his skin
I is worse than earth-death that destiny startlight for those
That won't join in, hedgehog of light.

This is the terrible Jesus. There is another,
And none will give him a name. He takes care.
He lives allaround. I breathe him. He breathes.
Like the air we breathe, he is free to us.
This is the noli me tangere; and also a meditation on the withdrawal of God from the world, or more to the point the apparent absence of God from the world. It is a poem about the difficulty of believing in an aloof Jesus. One of the texts with which it stands in complex relation is Donne's famous 14th Holy Sonnet:
Batter my heart, three-person'd God ; for you As yet but knock ; breathe, shine, and seek to mend ; That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new. I, like an usurp'd town, to another due, Labour to admit you, but O, to no end. Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend, But is captived, and proves weak or untrue. Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain, But am betroth'd unto your enemy ; Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again, Take me to you, imprison me, for I, Except you enthrall me, never shall be free, Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
This, we might say, is a heartfelt but unscriptural poem: the Christ of the gospels does no ravishing, and his only battering is performed in anger, as the moneylenders are beaten from the temple (unless we count the self-battery, as it were, of the crucifiction)

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