As I look around at the work of contemporary poets, I find several of them returning to the great myths and stories of the Judeo-Christian tradition. There is nothing prescriptive or dogmatic about this work; rather it is a recognition of the importance of shared cultural references, which are useful for evoking emotions and ideas in poetry.
The most recent example of this is in Marie Howe’s new collection, Magdalene. In Howe’s version, the New Testament figure of Mary Magdalene is a woman who knew the range of human experience but chose to leave it all to devote herself to the divine.
Howe’s Magdalene is a decidedly contemporary figure, relishing experiences ranging from the delicately or humorously erotic to the tragic. Sometimes she represents all women but at others clearly speaks for the poet. In “Magdalene and the Interior Life,” the poet tells a very direct story about her (or Magdalene’s) imagination being dulled by medication; we are left to guess at the illness, but it seems to be anxiety or depression. As a result, she loses those vivid images of the world that are so necessary to poets. But then there is a kind of redemption, a return–“Suddenly an apple (I saw it! / An image of an apple inside my self!).” And later in the poem, she rejoices in the rediscovered possibilities: “Can you understand? I didn’t know until they came back / that the images had gone away for so long. // Like shy or frightened animals, slowly they came back.”
Howe is a slow and careful poet. Magdalene is only her fourth book in as many decades. She has worked hard to perfect these strong uncluttered lines, and she has earned the ability to treat the largest themes–sex and death, parenting and abandonment, joy and suffering. In her four-line poem “Calvary,” Howe doesn’t need to represent Magdalene at the Crucifixion. She can assume the wisdom of suffering that poets have shared for generations, while most of us simply stagger along with our ordinary lives:
Someone hanging clothes on a line between buildings,
someone shaking out a rug from an open window
might have heard hammering, one or two blocks away
and thought little or nothing of it.
Marie Howe reads from Magdalene at the U-M Museum of Art on Thursday, March 16.