In 2003, Cyra Dumitru published a volume of poetry entitled Listening to Light: Voice Poems. The poems are divided into three sections: the first in about Adam and Eve, and Cain and Abel; the second is about the Egyptian gods Isis and Osiris; and the third is about the characters of the gospel story – Mary, Mary Magdalene, Jesus, Peter, Judas and Joseph, among others.
While all of the poems are about “myths” (in the sense of archetypal stories), they have one thing in common – Dumitru focuses our attention on the flesh-and-blood people who are Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Jesus and Judas. (I’m reminded of Anne Rice’s “Christ the Lord” books – Out of Egypt and The Road to Cana.)
She does what can be done well with poetry – forcing us to consider Biblical characters in three dimensions, as individuals with recognizable hopes, dreams, problems and challenges. We see more humanity here than we’re used to reading. And the effect is immediate – we understand these characters as recognizable, and we experience Mary’s visit by the angel and Judas and his betrayal as events happening just as if we ourselves were the characters involved. Consider the dilemma Mary’s mother faces with her daughter:
What does a mother do with such a daughter?
She’s not interested in marriage, having children.
Says she’s too busy listening to God.
I’ve watched Mary sit with her back against a fig tree,
eyes shining, fixed on somewhere I can’t see.
For hours she sits heedless to flies, dust, heavy sun.
Then suddenly she stands, shakes herself
breathes deeply and opens
her arms to the fading light.
When she embraces me
sparks flow from her fingers
down my arms and back.
I am afraid for Mary.
She speaks f hearing a voice deep within
of seeing angels at the well.
I tremble because I believe her
but I am only a poor woman
who sees the way men look at her.
Judas and his betrayal become familiar not because the story is familiar but because we can see ourselves in his place: “Before his greatness my spirit shrinks. / The others speak of God’s voice enlarging them. / Inside me – silence. / His radiance – shadow…”
My favorite poem in the collection is “Joseph Recalls.” Joseph is one the pivotal characters in the story of the birth of Jesus, and yet we know so little about him. Dumitru positions him as remembering Jesus – we don’t know whether it’s before or after the crucifixion (presumably before) but it is clearly a time when Joseph knows he is unlikely to see Jesus again. He recalls what happened the day Jesus laid down his hammer and told Joseph “It is time now / for me to build / a house within / for God.” Joseph knows it is true as soon as Jesus utters the words and understands the sacrifice that is to come. And then Joseph says:
I have always
felt his light
see it streaking
of this table
he made as a boy.
It is all
left of him.
One feels the pain of a father who has physically lost a son, a son he raised and trained, a son he knew was destined for other things.
It is this poignancy that tears at our hearts, that helps us understand that these Bible characters are people like ourselves. Poetry can help do that.