by Jill Alexander Essbaum
neoNUMA Arts 2008
Reviewed by Rick Marlatt
Jesus is a Metaphor
Known for their remarkable mix of eroticism and religiosity, Jill Alexander Essbaum’s poems vibrate with well-proportioned rhymes, unforgettable imagery and a unique realization of form. For those fortunate enough to have experienced her previous books (Heaven and Harlot) or her electrifying live performances, Essbaum’s courageous examinations of death and spirituality in her new book, Necropolis, will be all the more impressive.
Necropolis is divided into three sections, which correspond to the three days that Christ reportedly spent in his tomb. Essbaum intersperses epigraphs from scripture, and the book unabashedly confronts the most paradoxical arguments within the Christian religion: infinite love, resurrection, afterlife and belief in original sin. Essbaum grapples with these difficult aspects of human need with humility; she illuminates the functions and powers of faith, as well as art’s role in exploring and defining that faith.
The first section, “The First Day,” opens with “On the First Day,” which details Christ’s initial postmortem hours. Essbaum displays in this poem a picturesque depiction of biblical images, simultaneously orchestrating an original narrative structure to support her own unique reflections:
They put him in the ground as if hiding
a great treasure. An ox-sized boulder marked
the spot of it, and a crown of thistle.
Women shined their faces with tears. Friday
grew colder than ever it was meant for.
Peter suggested it was time to leave,
and many of the people left. Some stayed
to pray and to mourn. Others watched the sky
for a sign like a star. Day dimmed nightly,
and the moon showed herself on the tomb’s roof
dancing like Bathsheba, naked and round,
full as a living body. Dreams survived
the watchers through those hard hours, foretelling
calm and its calamity. Jesus slept.
What begins as a rather traditional retelling of scripture quickly takes the form of a poetic transformation from grief into hope. Key phrases such as “sign like a star,” “dancing,” “dreams survived” and “foretelling calm” breathe a life of steadfast devotion into the scene, softening the horror that preceded it. Essbaum’s block structure makes the poem lucid and consistent. Fittingly, at the conclusion of the piece, the poet leaves us with the anticipation of resurrection.
“What We Didn’t,” “The Lord Summons His Regret” and “New Jerusalem” anchor “On the Second Day,” the middle section of the collection. Here, the poet internalizes much of the external stimuli from the previous section and corroborates it with the losses she’s endured in her own life, including the death of her mother, and ultimately, her own inevitable demise. In “A Funerary Catechism,” Essbaum combines relentless spiritual questioning with an easy ear: “Who is God? Somebody, somewhere / Where does He live? Not here / And what is the sum of dead and forever? / It’s never.” (44)
In “A Little Song,” the speaker embodies death itself and renders an unmistakable haunting:
Prayers might succor the dead,
but gifts laid at the gravehead
will go to vultures blunt and blackheart
enough to fathom that they aren’t
on their ways to dying, too.
So smirks me, from this tiny, pine room.
The moods of the poems in Necropolis fluctuate in correlation with the highs and lows of faith, namely, faith’s relationship with the intellect. Here, Essbaum smacks the reader with a jolt of realism, a vivid reminder that death touches everything. Yet, while the piece speaks to the finality and inclusivity of death, its deepest reflections are the product of a living, eternal thought process, which necessitates an existence after death. Further, this poem accentuates the many contradictory paradigms that Essbaum examines throughout the collection, and it does so with ghostly, addictive enchantment.
The concluding section of Necropolis begins with “On The Third Day,” which opens, “He rose again. His face was black and bruised.” (51) Using the resurrection as a springboard into further investigation of the afterlife, the final poems examine the universe by comparing life as humanity knows it with the future as Christian belief defines it. Integral to this framework are “If We Meet Again,” “The Naming of Things” and “Last Day,” genuine poems which neatly unite science and spirituality.
Jill Alexander Essbaum takes her craft to new levels in Necropolis. She asserts herself as a spiritual seeker, an imaginative seer with audio-emotive intuition. Essbaum displays amazing restraint and mechanical craft in these poems. Necropolis is a pilgrimage, a journey of existence, faith, and understanding. Though the realms she encounters in these dark spaces are often lonely and terrifying, Essbaum is consciously leading us toward the light. And she offers her art as a way for readers to channel this discovery through faith in the hopes of strengthening our collective soul, and as she states in “Oh Afterwards: A Benediction,” “turn to gold.”