Marie Howe, Magdalene (W.W. Norton & Co.)
There is something happening in American literary culture of late that strikes me as a profound shift. I assume others more alert saw it coming, and not all of a sudden. What jolted me awake to this thing I speak of was seeing for the first time a copy of Incarnadine by Mary Szybist, a book of poems published in 2013 by Graywolf Press that was awarded the National Book Award, which featured on the book jacket a gorgeous painting by Sandro Botticelli of the Annunciation, this not a hundred years after Ezra Pound announced the Christian era over.
Of course, that proved not to be the case for Dorothy Day, Flannery O’Connor, or Thomas Merton. However, those writers, and others—J.F. Powers, Caroline Gordon, and Walker Percy—all Catholics or converts to Catholicism, were in a distinct minority and were definite outliers to the largely secular tendency in fiction and poetry from before the advent of modernism. Other outliers followed, of course; I think of Denise Levertov as one example, Fanny Howe as another. Then towards the end of the 20th century and in the first decades of the 21st, something changed, as an increasing number of excellent writers emerged—I think of Franz Wright, Mary Karr, Dana Gioia, Ann Lamott, Scott Cairns, and Christian Wiman—all significant writers whose serious attention to the sacred a large number of readers, editors, publishers and critics began to embrace.
A year after Szybist won her National Book Award, Marilynne Robinson, one of the most highly regarded novelists writing in English, won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Lila, the third book in her Gilead trilogy about Congregationalist minister John Ames, published by Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux. Now this spring Norton brings out Marie Howe’s fourth collection of poems, Magdalene, a sequence of persona poems based on Mary Magdalene, a woman who figures prominently in New Testament accounts of the life of Jesus and a major figure in Christian hagiography since early Christian times.
The sacred is not a new interest for Marie Howe. Her first book, published in 1988, was entitled The Good Thief, a reference to one of the two criminals crucified with Jesus who in the Gospel of Luke asked to be remembered when Jesus entered into his kingdom. Her second book, What the Living Do, published in 1998, dwelt upon the death of her brother John of AIDS, which means the version of the Passion Howe writes in Magdalene was not her first: she has put herself at the foot of a cross before and has written a great book that helps others also be present there. Her third book, published in 2008, The Kingdom of Ordinary Time, alludes in the title to periods of time in the Catholic liturgical year, the first between Epiphany and Ash Wednesday, the second beginning after Pentecost and ending at Advent. It was during this season of Howe’s life and work that grace arrived—that is, Grace Inan Howe, Marie Howe’s daughter who was adopted from China when Howe was in late middle age. Now in her teens, Grace Howe (or some shining, true to life version of her) plays a uniquely crucial role in the redemption of Howe’s Magdalene. In fact, Grace Howe took the photograph that appears on the book jacket. Whether the image be real or abstract, it appears to me to be red hair, a prominent feature of many Magdalenes, in this particular image red hair against a black background being blown to bits.
Of all the images of Mary Magdalene I have seen the one that most sticks with me is Donatello’s carved wooden statue of her, his Penitent Magdalene, completed in Florence between 1453 and 1455. Unlike most images of Mary Magdalene, which show her to be beautiful, voluptuous and richly attired (if attired at all), her hair long, usually red, sometimes braided but more often unbound, Donatello’s Penitent Magdalene is old, emaciated, and naked, with only long matted hanks of her own hair to cover her. Many images of Mary Magdalene, including some of penitent Magdalene, show her nude or partially nude, but never old or unattractive, and such images are always somehow erotically charged. Donatello’s Magdalene is naked, not nude, flat-chested, not sexy. Her features are pitted and scarred with all the softness of flesh rasped away. When Donatello parts Magdalene’s lips with his gouge, we see she is losing her teeth, and he carves a vacancy in her eyes, or a strange presence, or some combination of the two that no sculptor ever rendered better before or since.
Donatello carved his Magdalene out of a single trunk of white poplar, a soft, close grained wood known to be preferred by carvers around the world. All of the other works for which he is known Donatello carved in marble or sculpted in wax or clay and cast in bronze. His Penitent Magdalene, carved in wood, stands out for me as one of the most powerful examples of expressionist art I have ever seen, and his choice of medium matters. Among Donatello’s contemporaries, only Masaccio in his image of the expulsion of Adam and Eve approaches it for emotional intensity—a great accomplishment on a flat surface, and in fresco no less—but somehow the softness of the white poplar made it the more perfect medium for Donatello to carve—as if into flesh, to make incarnate for his age—the incredible pathos and personhood of his Mary Magdalene.
Marie Howe’s Magdalene is not so old, nor so whittled away, perhaps not so penitent as Donatello’s; certainly she is penitent in different ways, for different sins we call by different names now. More on that later. For now, it is Howe’s page I want to discuss, for me an expressive and distinctive medium that invites comparison with that trunk of white poplar Donatello chose to carve. Every poem in the book is double spaced, including two prose poems; the rest are in free verse of various line and stanza lengths, most of the poems relatively short, the longest five pages, the shortest just a few lines. A number of those shorter poems appear in italics, without titles, in the lower right hand corner of the page, with the left hand margin pushed to the right. Some of those short italicized poems read as a coda to the poem they follow; several in the second half of the book read more as preludes. They appeared to me at first to function like certain short interchapters that sometimes appear in collections of short fiction, in Hemingway’s In Our Time, for example, or Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, or perhaps more famously in John Steinbeck’s novel, The Grapes of Wrath.
But back to the double spacing: it has the effect of giving more light and space to the language. It creates more time and encourages greater attention to the utterance. The danger in adjusting the frame like this is over-exposure, a risk Howe seems to take head on with eyes open. The language of her Magdalene, and some of her plights and concerns, can seem ordinary and every day. Then again, recognizing the sacred in the ordinary and every day is one of Howe’s greatest strengths and is never more present than in this volume.
How to describe the language—Howe’s “carving”? As far as diction goes, I’d call it simple, plain spoken, conversational—confessional often but not as to a priest or to a therapist, but to a friend or intimate. That said, there is nothing in the diction, the syntax, or the tone that doesn’t invite any reader in—it is Whitmanesque that way for me: boldly hospitable, warmly welcoming. Frank and uncensored. Nothing in the language obfuscates and nothing distances the reader. Instead, Howe’s Magdalene seems to take great pains to be understood, to make plain and present what she thinks, sees, and feels. This is especially true in her poem “The Affliction,” where Magdalene explains a process whereby she begins to overcome a sense of self-alienation after she has stopped taking pills. There is a “you” in the poem to whom she speaks, a presence never identified by name in whom the speaker confides. At certain points in the poem, to signal a change in her voice and in her self-understanding, Howe begins to capitalize certain words and phrases in a way that reminds me of that great genius A.A. Milne, Winnie the Pooh’s creator. Not quite midway through the poem we read:
My friend Wendy was pulling on her winter coat, standing by the kitchen door
and suddenly I was inside and I saw her.
I looked out from my own eyes
and I saw: her eyes: blue gray transparent
and inside them: Wendy herself!
Then I was outside again,
and Wendy was saying, Bye-bye, see you soon,
as if Nothing Had Happened.
She hadn’t noticed. She hadn’t known the I’d Been There
for Maybe 40 Seconds,
and that then I was Gone.
She hadn’t noticed that I Hadn’t Been There for Months,
Years, the entire time she’d known me.
I am convinced we would hear these capitalized phrases come out of Howe’s mouth differently than the rest of the text were she reading it aloud. But reading the poem silently to myself, seeing these gestures on the page, I experience a sense of awakening that is girlish and childlike, innocent and wonderful—this the testimony of a persona seriously afflicted by a host of problems just at the beginning of a process of healing.
So who is Howe’s Magdalene? And what’s the matter with her? And what happens to her? Like Donatello’s Magdalene, Howe’s Magdalene exists in dialogue with the traditional hagiography and New Testament accounts that include her. Not uniquely, she is a conflation of the Mary Magdalene referred to by name at least twelve times in the Gospels with the unnamed woman taken in adultery whom Jesus rescues from stoning, with another unnamed woman who anointed Jesus’ head and feet with oil and who dried Jesus’ feet with her hair, perhaps also with yet another Mary revered by the eastern church who was a reformed prostitute who later became an ascetic in the Egyptian desert. Having said that, it is also true that Howe’s Magdalene is also distinctly her own and distinctly of her age. She has experienced relationship problems, many sexual partners, and a history of abuse. She is addicted to pills and sounds depressed, anxious, and compulsive. Like her predecessors, Howe’s Magdalene exists in a relationship with Jesus that is sometimes hard to define. In fact, Jesus is never named in Howe’s Magdalene. There is a significant male presence, named once “the teacher,” who has disciples besides Magdalene, who seems to be the person whom Magdalene addresses in a number of the poems in the first half of the book. He is her teacher. I take it he is her confessor. I assume it is this male who suffers an agony in the garden in the poem called “Gethsemane” and who dies on the cross in “Calvary.” But before that, was also her lover? Was she, as certain Gnostic accounts suggested, his wife? From the beginning of the book, Magdalene’s story is erotically charged and emotionally complex. At first, her plight seems what Augustine would consider a case of disordered desire. Desire is, in fact, an important motif from beginning to end, and the resolution is richly Augustinian whether Howe intended that or not. But to answer my own question, yes, this book is a love story, beautifully, deeply spiritually erotic, and richly redemptive.
Here is how that motif emerge at the beginning of the book with an epitaph from the Gospel of Thomas:
His disciples said, When will you be visible to us?
and when will we see you?
He said, When you undress and are not ashamed.
As the source is a Gnostic gospel, we get a clear signal this will not be an orthodox rendering of Magdalene’s story, and Magdalene’s teacher won’t be orthodox either. It seems our ability to see God, whatever that means, will require that we strip ourselves naked and overcome what shame that process entails. I’m reminded of that moment in the Genesis story just after the fall, when Adam and Eve first become aware of their nakedness and try to cover themselves and hide from their Creator. It was at that point in the Genesis story alienation sets in, from the other, from the self, from God and from the natural world. In Howe’s Magdalene, there’s no hiding from God, and no sight or insight possible without first becoming somehow stripped bare.
This all begins in the very first poem, “Before the Beginning,” when the speaker asks the question
“Was I ever virgin?”
Did someone touch me before I could speak?
Who had me before I knew I was an I?
So that I wanted that touch again and again
without knowing who or why or from whence it came?
These loaded questions, uttered with a plain spoken simplicity and frankness, are explosive and disarming. We learn soon enough, two poems later, that this Mary, not to be confused with the Virgin, has been “touched” and has been “had” in many ways. Here her questions evoke scenarios that run the spectrum from the divine to the deviant. The desire to be touched that is alluded to—where it comes from, what it’s for, what it means—introduces an important thematic on sexual desire that will continue to unfold throughout the book.
It is Magdalene the psychologically and emotionally “touched” whom we meet in the very next poem. In “Magdalene—The Seven Devils,” a retelling of a story of exorcism from the Gospel according to Luke, the method is confessional. The individual devils personify various forms of anxiety, compulsion, and neurosis. Some seem very normal (“I was busy,” “I worried,” “the laundry was never finally done”), some more serious (“I knew I was breathing the expelled breath of everything that was alive, and I couldn’t stand it,” “the fourth was I didn’t belong to anyone. I wouldn’t allow myself to belong to anyone.”) These “devils” as Magdalene describes them have in common a fear and avoidance of contact, and various types of alienation both internal and external. She attempts three times to list and describe her seven devils, failing somehow in the first two attempts to get it right. With each revised recitation the poem spirals up and down emotionally, though tending darker and deeper with each retelling.
Howe’s version of the exorcism makes it a story of self-exorcism, which concludes, and partially succeeds, I believe, on the third try, with the seventh devil:
The seventh was the way my mother looked when she was dying,
the sound she made—her mouth wrenched to the right and cupped open
so as to take in as much air . . . the gurgling sound, so loud
we had to speak louder to hear each other over it.
And that I couldn’t stop hearing it—
years later—grocery shopping, crossing the street—
no, not the sound—it was her body’s hunger
finally evident—what our mother had hidden all her life.
Thus this encounter with death becomes a disturbing revelation of desire long denied but finally affirmed, an unmasking of the mother’s essential self facing death, whom the speaker sees, finally, listens to and hears. This is Magdalene at the foot of a cross for the first time in Howe’s narrative sequence, who “for months . . . dreamt of knucklebones and roots.”
The underneath. That was the first devil. It was always with me.
And that I didn’t think you—if I told you—would understand any of this—
“You.” Me? The gentle reader, John Ruff. I don’t think so. Sure, I’m invited into the poem, and I can imagine being addressed here at the end. But another “you” is addressed early in the poem, in the first naming of devils: “the second—I was different than you: whatever happened to you could / not happen to me, not like that.” That “you” is the person I hear Magdalene address here in the last line of the poem, which ends not finally but with a Dickinson dash.
Apparently, she told him—a big “if” for the existence of the poem and for the efficacy of the confession—implicitly, he understood—her unnamed exorcist, who listened, who was there for her. Who was present. Whom I read to be the unnamed male lover in the untitled poem that follows, on the very next page, in the same page spread, the text pushed to the right, to the bottom of the page, and italicized.
Looking down at him my tears fell onto his chest
and he looked at me with such pity
raising his hand to wipe my cheek
before he wrapped his arms around me and pulled me
down to the bed so he could press inside me deeper
It is a beautifully imagined erotic encounter between the speaker in the poem, Magdalene I assume, and a person I assume to be the “you” she addressed in the previous poem, there the exorcist, here the lover, soon to become “the Teacher.” Note the male is not in a superior lovemaking position, here or in “Low Tide, Late August,” the last poem of the first half of the book, which I read as Howe’s rewriting of the episode from John’s Gospel when Magdalene sees Jesus after the Resurrection and he says “Noli Me Tangere,” which is Latin for “Don’t Touch Me.” Whether or not that be the case, if it was Howe’s intention in the poem reprinted above to cast this lovemaking as tender, as sacramental, as incarnational, even Eucharistic, even redemptive, I think she pulls it off.
Before I saw how those two poems were connected, my understanding and enjoyment of the poem that follows, “On Men, Their Bodies,” was incomplete. Before I saw the connection between those two poems, I was unprepared to see how the short italicized poems worked in and for the sequence. Now I have that key. I think in each case, that the unnamed male presence is Magdalene lover/teacher/savior, and the speaker is Magdalene.
Reading the italicized poem above helps me to better appreciate “On Men, Their Bodies,” one of two prose poems in the collection. I had seen it first when it was published with a number of other poems from Magdalene by American Poetry Review. In October, I heard Marie Howe read the poem at my university, Valparaiso University, in our Chapel of the Resurrection, the largest university chapel in the country and our most sacred place.
The poem is “On Men” but not really on “Their Bodies,” unless men’s bodies can be reduced to men’s penises, which the poem, an extended monologue, is all about. It begins: “One penis was very large and thick so when he put it inside me I really did say, Wow.” And “wow” may be what one thinks or feels with such an opening, and throughout the poem, penis by penis for two pages. Twenty-three penises from beginning to end. A penis monologue, the first I’ve ever read, which Magdalene delivers with amazing frankness, obvious authority, startling warmth, abundant humor, gentle playfulness, understanding, patience, forgiveness, and affection, with some darker moments at the end, but without a hint of prurience throughout. It may be true that some men are merely penises; it has been said that some men think with their penises. But that’s not what this poem says or is about. In fact, what happens in the poem is that each penis becomes a different male through a brilliant, concise, often comic process of personification that begins in the second sentence: “One penis was uncircumcised, and I loved to grip the shaft and pull down so the head popped out like a little man.” A bit later we read how “One penis came as soon as I started to move. I’m so sorry, he said, but I didn’t care. I loved that boy.” Almost every kind of encounter a woman might have with a penis—and with her consent—is described, not clinically, not lasciviously, and absolutely without malice, resentment, or regret. It’s overwhelmingly a peaceable kingdom of penises, that only Howe’s Magdalene, already beginning to be saved herself, could utter, could herself begin to redeem.
As I said earlier, Marie Howe read this poem in my university’s chapel. She had told me earlier in the day she planned to read it, and I confessed to her it made me a bit anxious. I worried someone might think the Chapel not the place for that poem. I worried Marie would think less of us and of our hospitality should I ask her not to read it. I worried about my own caution.
All day prior to the reading I had been with Marie as she interacted with our writing students, and there was something that happened to them in her presence I can hardly describe. From off to the side I saw how they opened up to her as she opened up to them, how attentively, hungrily they listened to her, how stories she told them lit up in their eyes. She also listened to them, and I watched them become both braver and more vulnerable in her presence, and there was a dramatic authenticity in the comments and questions and confidences that were shared. Based on what I saw, and on the affection I felt on all sides, I figured Marie would do the right thing, and I encouraged her to read the poem if she thought her audience was ready to receive it as the gift I am confident she meant it to be.
During the sound check before the reading Marie insisted the lighting in the chapel had to be such that she could see her audience, and I understand this. Her rapport with her audience at the reading, which was men and women of all ages, but more women than men, was like what I had seen in the classrooms, and after she had read a few poems, including “Magdalene—The Seven Devils,” she put it to her listeners, did they want the whole story? and they told her they did, and she read “On Men, Their Bodies,” and an amazing thing happened.
I was in the second row, behind a group of middle-aged women who turned out to be the book club of a friend and colleague from Chesterton, Indiana, a little town near Lake Michigan and the steel mills. As Marie began to read, you could hear the chapel go quieter. You might have heard my heart as it began to beat louder and faster. Not too long into Marie’s reading of the poem, those ladies in front of me began to giggle, and then to laugh, which gave the rest of us permission to laugh, to relax and let the poem do its good work, and give us its good news. Their laughter was like a benediction they conferred upon the poem, upon Marie, upon all of us there, those middle-aged ladies enjoying heartily their first penis monologue, the best, most human and holy they will ever hear.
In the book that poem more than any other has the function of opening up and airing out all the rooms of a lovely mansion of poems. Perhaps Howe learned how to do this from Walt Whitman, whose spirit is in residence often in this book, especially in the second to the last poem, one of my favorites. After “On Men, Their Bodies,” Magdalene can say anything, which is key to her ongoing exorcism, key to becoming healthy and whole and sane again, to trust herself to love again, to see, to write, to forgive herself and others.
There is so much more to leave for other reviewers to comment on, especially the poems of the second half of the book where the disordered desire becomes not only ordered but sanctified in Magdalene’s unexpected motherhood. If you desire to read some of the finest poems written in our time about a mother and her daughter, go get a copy of Magdalene. But you have to read the first half to understand what a gift from God grace is and Grace was. Lutherans believe grace is unmerited, a gift better than we deserve. That’s how I read Magdalene, with great gratitude.
John Ruff has had poems published in Seneca Review, Poetry Northwest, River City, and elsewhere. He is a Professor of English at Valparaiso University.