“Still Lives With Apocalypse” is the winner of the Prole pamphlet competition 2020 and is split between a thirteen part sequence which gives the pamphlet its title and nine other poems. The opening sequence images Jesus hanging out in various scenarios. He isn’t too good at magic according to “Penn and Teller Try to Teach Jesus Stage Magic”,
“Jesus goes through the rigmarole
one more time. Drops a ball,
not used to fashioning things
when not looking.
After another hour, they call
it quits. Jesus reaches into Teller’s
coat pocket and pulls out a dove,
sets it free. I’m sorry,
he says, offering
its olive branch.”
Jesus, it seems, isn’t very good at misdirection where he has to divert the audience’s attention while he makes the trick work. Once the pressure’s off, he produces miracles easily. The difference is that the olive branch is produced from a genuine need to apologise whereas the tricks, while entertaining, deliberately deceive people and can’t be turned into a parable. Elsewhere, he smokes drop behind a supermarket, serves miners pints, fails to teach premier league footballers they don’t need their excessive salaries, hangs out with Buddha and tries his hand at love poetry in “Jesus Wanders Obliquely Through Chinese Poetry”
“My long hair shines for no one.
You are the candle I keep burning
in the bedroom we used to warm together.
Our silk bed cover is wasted on just one skin.
Come back soon, Xiao Wen. The mountains are adamant.
They do not need another blood-red footprint
Pressed into their hard, graveled paths.”
I’m not sure if Xiao Wen is being used as a general woman’s name or a reference to Xiao Wen Ju, the first model to front a show by fashion designer Marc Jacobs. Either way, it seems Jesus has learnt there’s more poetry in unrequited or lost love than writing about the throes of passion or delight that a one night stand wants to stick around. Although I think the opening quoted line would be better as “My long hair shines only for one,” since “no one” implies that it doesn’t shine for Xiao Wen either. This Jesus is clearly one to mingle and try and understand the world through experience.
The remaining nine poems, “Mud Angels” are similarly themed around everyday miracles, Mary’s hair dye staining her shift, a “raggedy-ass crow” in In “How It Is” asks the speaker to retrieve a shopping trolley from the canal because it has burgers in it and teases,
“you wouldn’t recognise
from a shopping trolley.
And I got so pissed,
I said, I’ll show you
and I hoicked
that trolley out
muck an’ all.
And that raggedy-ass crow
he got his lunch
and I’d like to say
I got saved
but I didn’t.”
Not all good deeds are rewarded or perhaps the lack of reward was because the speaker enabled a crow’s lazy diet of burgers instead of carrion. The final sequence focuses on three historical episodes of flooding in an Italian town. In the third episode, people form a human chain to pass out books, artworks, anything that can be saved while the prisoners in La Murate are left to huddle on the roof,
“Angeli del fango, we are called
by those bringing us food, coffee.
Angels of mud. Cross yourself if you like,
but God has blinked and forgotten us.
Our only kept faith this chain of worn hands.”
Although it appears the finger is being pointed at the Christian god, those quick to blame him for abandonment show skewed priorities. I’d be the last person to argue that books aren’t important, but is human life not a priority?
Ultimately, this dilemma lies at the heart of “Still Lives with Apocalypse”, the sense of skewed priorities. The footballers failing to ask why they are paid excessively, the magicians’ sleights of hands, Jesus writing about the absence of love rather than addressing the cause of that absence, the demand Mary stands in a saintly pose for hours on end without easing her discomfort or caring about her aches and pains, the crow demanding junk food and the muddy angels saving books instead of people. In brief vignettes, Jennifer A McGowan doesn’t produce judgmental parables but presents scenarios, often with a wry humour, for readers to draw their own conclusions. This is fun with a serious intent.
Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.