Joking with Jesus in the Poetry of Kathleen Norris and Annie Dillard

Joking with Jesus in the Poetry of Kathleen Norris and Annie Dillard

Peggy Rosenthal

With Jesus, it’s not always suffering and passion. He’s also the kind of savior that can make you laugh.

The contemporary West’s major spiritual problem is distractedness. Our modes of communal distraction have multiplied and internetted so all-absorbingly that our daily round gets tied up in the illusion of total worldwide connectedness, while our personal schedules keep us dashing from meeting to meeting, car phones at one ear, radio chatter in the other. To shock us into paying attention to what truly matters — God’s presence in our midst — some contemporary poets are inventively recasting the figure of Jesus. In this essay, I want to focus on two who do this in delightful, even comic, ways: Kathleen Norris and Annie Dillard.

Norris’s poem, “Luke 14: A Commentary,” is a good place to begin, since it boldly portrays Jesus as the jokester, popping up to surprise us.

Luke 14:A Commentary

He is there, like Clouseau,

at the odd moment,

just right: when he climbs

out of the fish pond

into which he has spectacularly

fallen, and says condescendingly

to his hosts, the owners

of the estate: “I fail

where others succeed.” You know

this is truth. You know

he’ll solve the mystery,


as he is, the last

of the great detectives.

He’ll blend again into the scenery, and

more than once, be taken

for the gardener. “Come

now,” he says, taking us

for all we’re worth: “sit

in the low place.”

Why not? We ask, so easy

to fall for a man

who makes us laugh. “Invite those

you do not know, people

you’d hardly notice.” He puts

us on, we put him on; another

of his jokes. “There’s

room,” he says. The meal is

good, absurdly

salty, but delicious. Charlie

Chaplin put it this way: “I want to play

the role of Jesus. I look the part.

I’m a Jew.

And I’m a comedian.”

(Cross Currents

44, no, 4, Winter 1994-95)

I have to confess that I can’t read this poem without smiling. Though I’ve read it literally dozens of times, each reading delights me a new. Norris has managed, at least to my mind, to give her readers the very experience she’s talking about: of being gloriously surprised by a Jesus who entertains us by saving us and saves us by entertaining us. She does this, first, by catching us off guard with her opening simile: “He is there, like Clouseau.” This Jesus is unquestionably Present, but in a guise we’d never have guessed: as a film comedian who plays the role of bumbling detective. From then on, the poem tumbles through line after line of wordplay that is at once fun and profound, teasing theological depths out of everyday idioms in such a disarmingly bright way that we can only gasp out a laughing “Wow!” by the end — which is precisely the experience Norris wants to give us of Jesus.

I won’t try to point to every one of Norris’s jokes. But I’ll note a few that open our eyes to dimensions of Jesus’ character that are in Scripture and traditional Christology but which, Norris is showing, we don’t appreciate the wonder of. Casting Jesus as comic detective, she can say he does indeed “solve the mystery” of the meaning of our lives; he can be billed, Alpha and Omega that he is, as “the last of the great detectives”; he could apply the comic twist “I fail where others succeed” to all his apparent failures in the Gospel narratives, culminating in the scandalous failure of the Cross. Among the idioms that Norris turns into theological puns, there is Jesus’ “taking us / for all we’re worth,” and there is our “fall[ing] for a man / who makes us laugh” by falling, himself, into the fish pond of humanity. It’s a splashing Incarnation that wins over our hearts. And there is the multiple punning of “He puts / us on, we put him on,” which reminds me of Ephrem’s fourth-century wordplay with the paradoxe s of the Incarnation: in the idiom for teasing as “putting someone on,” Norris uncovers both the classic formulation that Jesus has put on our humanity and St. Paul’s imperative that we put on (clothe ourselves in) Christ. Norris has also slipped some Gospel allusions, cleverly, like clues, into the film set of a backyard garden party by the pool. Merged with the wedding party scene of the poem’s title, where Jesus advises us to take the low place, are some of his other surprising sayings that turn conventions upside down: the wedding parable at which people are pulled in off the street; the promise of room for all in his Father’s mansion. And wrapping it all up, as in the best farce, is the layering of roles and disguises: Jesus is Clouseau playing a detective who is taken for the gardener who is (in the post-Resurrection appearance to Mary Magdalene) Jesus himself, who – finally–Charlie Chaplin wants to play.

Norris recasts Jesus in another unexpected film setting in her recent poem “Return of the Swamp Thing” (Image #25, Winter 1999-2000). But most of Jesus’ appearances in her poetry tend to be more oblique. Typical is the way he enters in “True Love,” the final poem of Norris’s cycle called “Mysteries of the Incarnation.” (This and subsequent quotations from Norris are in Little Girls in Church, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1995.) At the end of a lighthearted list of lovers, including “Sampson/and Delilah” and “Noah / and Mrs.,” is “The Magdalene, / the gardener,” followed by Norris’s conclusion in the playfully down-home mid-western tone that she has made a hallmark of her verse: “God help us, / we are God’s chosen now.” The First Epistle of John says famously “we are God’s children now,” but Norris makes us more by the simple changing of a word. After that startling appearance of the Risen Jesus to Magdalene, Norris is saying, we’re simply stuck being God’s beloved. That appearance of Jesus as gardener also figures in “Luke 14: A Commentary,” where he blends into the scenery as if playing hide and seek. Clearly Norris likes this Gospel episode for its hint of how the numinous works (or plays) in our world, flashing out for a surprise transformative instant.

Her poem “Hide and Seek” makes this very process its subject. The poem takes place at St. John’s Benedictine Abbey, in Collegeville, Minnesota, where Norris has stayed for a couple of extended periods of time. The title metaphor appears first as a lightning flash over the field where the monastic community at St. John’s is about to bury one of their number, Brother Louis. The poem then moves through a string of metaphorical hide-and-seek experiences, like lightning flashes, to end with thanks “for unsearchable riches / that reach into our lives, love / calling us by name.” Yet these last lines of the poem aren’t quite its end, because that “love” circles us back to the poem’s epigraph, which is a line from Brother Louis himself: “Your true and only Son is love.” This is about as indirect an entry as Jesus could make into a poem. Yet without that hide-and-seek appearance of the Son as “love calling us by name,” the poem would lose its meaning, which is precisely this incarnational grounding. When asked in an interview about how living at the abbey had influenced her, Norris answered that one effect had been to reveal metaphor to her in a new way, because “when you’ve got a religion based on the Incarnation, you can’t afford to say that metaphor is not important” (“Monks, Meaning and Metaphor,” Critic, Spring 1995). The Incarnation itself is metaphor, she goes on, not in the sense that it’s untrue but “in the sense that it yokes the human and the divine. That’s what metaphor does; it’s yoking two disparate elements.” And in “Hide and Seek,” many more than two.

The other impact of living at the abbey that Norris mentions is “going to liturgy every day. Really getting into that rhythm has changed my life” and “had a profound effect on my writing.” I had sensed this effect in the poems of little Girls in Church even before coming across this interview. I heard them as liturgical poetry, by which I mean not that they’re intended for liturgical use but that they feel like Benedictine liturgy. If seven times a day, you chant the psalms and hear a passage read from Scripture, the rhythm of that enormous range of human emotion taken up into prayer inevitably seeps into your whole being. What she has absorbed isn’t just the phrases from Scripture, which are embedded now in her verse, but the entire tone of Benedictine spirituality: its joy that bubbles up from the depths of that daily round, bursting into lighthearted laughter at the most unexpected times. I remember waiting once in the dark chapel of a Trappistine onastery for the nuns to enter for Compline (the Trappists are a reformed Benedictine order, and the Trappstines are their communicaties of women) and suddenly hearing an outburst of the heartiest laughter from an adjoining room. It was the nuns responding to a talk, perhaps by their abbess, but in that setting I heard it as the exploding delight of the angels singing God’s praise. A verse in the middle of her poem. “Land for the Living” shows that Norris has had similar experiences:

Earlier tonight, a young monk, laughing,

splashing my face

with holy water. Then, just as unexpectedly,

he flew down a banister, and

for one millisecond

without feet –

was an angel–robed,

all irrepressibly joy

and good news.

The splash of holy water is the bedtime blessing that all monks and guests receive on exiting a Benedictine monastery chapel after Compline, the last communal prayer of the day.

This poem brings us to another important dimension of Norris’s spiritual aesthetic, because the poem begins: “Menstruation is primitive, / no getting around that fact, as / I wipe my blood from the floor / at 3 a.m. in the monastery guest room.” Any poem that starts with menstrual blood on the floor is announcing itself as a “women’s poem” in the sense developed in the twentieth century’s final decades. Menstruation, menopause, childbirth, sex from a woman’s viewpoint: these uniquely female experiences were embraced as subjects beginning with the women’s liberation movement of the late 1960s. Being of Norris’s generation, I remember how liberating it did feel to talk and write openly about these things, after growing up in a society that validated only male experience. At first, our openness was itself the point; Norris’s own poems of the 1970s are very much women’s poems of this sort. By now, most of us don’t feel the need to make such a point of simply having a female perspective; rather, this perspective can enter as a dimension of insight that also encompasses more. “Land of the Living” is a grand example of “women’s poetry” at this mature stage of development. Menstrual blood isn’t the whole point; it’s the starting point for a flow of thought that merges the having (and not having) of children, the laughing monk transformed into an angel, and — in an unexpected way–the Child Jesus.

Musing, first, on that menstrual blood on the monastery floor, Norris sees it as her monthly renewal of not having children. She “celebrate[s]” this “monthly flowering / of the not-to-be”; “let it go,” she says, “without regret.” Yet she also goes on to celebrate the flowering of the to-be, in the form of her baby niece in a photo on her mirror, sitting “like the Christ Child / on her mother’s lap,” looking “amused, and wise” in her “blood-red dress.” The surprise of Jesus’ entry in this simile isn’t of course in the likeness of the poet’s sister and niece to a Madonna and Child; thousands of such likenesses have been drawn in literature and art. The surprise is in the image dressing the Christ Child in the color of blood specifically identified as menstrual. With this image, the poem’s various celebrations of “letting go” flow together: the poet’s letting go of having children, letting herself gladly be “a useless woman”; Jesus’ letting go into a woman, evoked in an icon of “the black madonna… / expectant ” with the “good news” that joyfully bursts from the laughing monk; and this monk, “young,” whose letting go of having children and even of sex the poet brings into her monthly celebration of the not-to-be as into a liturgical rite, complete with the psalm chant about seeing God’s goodness “in the land of the living” of the poem’s title. In this richly alive context, the “amused, and wise” smile of the poet’s niece as Christ Child seems to be her/his secret knowledge of the metaphorical oneness of these celebratory renunciations.

Kathleen Norris’s writing of the 1990s is special for these links it has discovered between women’s experience and monastic spirituality. Common to both, she has found, is a groundedness in the basics of nurturing life, a rootedness that works well with her poetic persona’s voice of down-home common sense. Many of her poems take place in the kitchen, where she celebrates women’s connectedness across generations, often obliquely through apparently trivial objects or quirky habits. The quotidian, her poems say, is full of surprise wonders, if you only know how to see them. In “Kitchen Trinity” the poet, her mother, and her grandmother become the three divine persons in Rublev’s famous icon of the Trinity, which conflates them with the angels who, in the Genesis story, announce Sarah’s unexpected pregnancy and so make her(this is the poem’s final word) “laugh.”

In a 1996 article on Seamus Heaney’s poetry, Suzanne Keen comments that Heaney shows us being “caught off-guard by the marvelous” (Commonweal, May 17, 1996). I love her phrase for its catching a typically turn-of-the-millennium spirituality. After a century of taking the rationalist, secular world for granted — that is, of assuming that what we see is what we get — any sight of more, of a marvelous beyond the material realm, is bound to catch us off guard. We’re going about our daily business — fixing breakfast or sitting in a committee meeting or shopping at the mall — when: boom! Reality bursts open, the impossible suddenly appears right in front of us, and with Norris’s Sarah, we let out an astonished laugh. “You’ll be struck dumb / by the ordinary,” writes U.S. poet David Craig, who has taken such moments as his subject, “and everything, / will start to matter” (“The Apprentice Prophecies,” Like Taxes: Marching through Gaul, Scripta Humanistica, 1990).

The surprise discovery of the sacred in the ordinary is the special gift of a century of unbelief. Precisely because religious faith is no longer assumed, it isn’t dull or obligatory, as it had become for the Victorians and their counterparts in other Western countries. It teases, it lures, it intrigues. Such is the story that contemporary novelists are starting to tell, according to critic John McClure, who has been charting the narratives of rediscovery by Don DeLillo, Toni Morrison, Michael Ondaatje, and others (“Post-Secular Culture: The Return of Religion in Contemporary Theory and Literature,” Cross Currents, Fall 1997). And since the middle of the century we’re had the stories of Flannery O’Connor, a master of revealing the mystery lurking in the midst of our ordinary preoccupations. O’Connor didn’t take the mystery lightly: toying with the divine was like playing with fire, she thought. Yet her comedy of the grotesque makes both funny and terrifying the experience of the sacred breaking into our priv ate, self-absorbed worlds. Her Holy Ghost is always playing tricks on her characters, pulling their complacent rugs out from under them and leaving them startled in midair, holding their breath and hoping against hope that Someone will swoop a soft cushion under them to ease their inevitable fall.

The poetic world I think is closest to O’Connor’s is that of Annie Dillard (1945-). Both writers evoke a genuine terror at the sacred power that catches us off guard, yet within their terror is a comic vision, because what catches us off-guard is ultimately God’s love. This comic vision of Dillard’s isn’t limited to her poetry — an expression of it that has won many readers’ hearts is her essay “An Expedition to the Pole” — but I’ll

stick to her poetic expressions of it here. Dillard’s world is one where we’re always blinking in wonder, doing double takes, and being tossed head over heels as the sacred pops up to surprise us. When personalized, the entry of the sacred into Dillard’s world does take the form of Jesus (not, as for O’Connor, the Holy Spirit), though he comes in an array of disguises, games, and jokes.

One whole poem that’s a joke on how we can never get hold of Jesus is “The Sign of the Father,” in Dillard’s collection of “found poems,” Mornings Like This. The poem takes scraps from an authentic scholarly text, New Testament Apocrypha, and brilliantly rearranges them to show, as Dillard says in a prefatory note, “the absurdly fragmentary nature of spiritual knowledge” (HarperCollins, 1995). I won’t quote from the poem because it needs to be read as a whole for its effect: Jesus and his sayings appear in tantalizing snatches, then disappear into an ellipsis or a half-gone word, in a teasing game of hide-and-seek.

Dillard loves the challenge of seeing a poem as a game; I like to imagine her delight at the challenge she took on in a poem that plays a very different sort of trick with Jesus: “The Man Who Wishes to Feed on Mahogany” (this and subsequent quotations are from Tickets for a Prayer Wheel, University of Missouri Press, 1974). The poem’s epigraph is a quotation from a 1969 interview with Borges: “Chesterton tell us that if someone wished to feed exclusively on mahogany, poetry would not be able to express this. Instead, if a man happens to love and not be loved in return, or if he mourns the absence or loss of someone, then poetry is able to express these feelings precisely because they are commonplace.” Taking up this quote as a gauntlet thrown down — as if she’d laughingly replied, Oh, so poetry can’t express that man’s wish to feed on mahogany? — Dillard has composed a stately blank verse poem in which she presents the man’s wish as a deep, tender love for the absent adored one. Then, in a metaphorical tou r de force, the man and his beloved mahogany turn before our eyes into a figure for Jesus, whose love for “my fellow creature” weighs so heavily that it “holds him here, /… nails him to the world,” and into us, we creatures who return his love so longingly that we “desire to drink and sup at mahogany’s mass.”

Such transformations are right up Dillard’s alley. Anything is possible in the world as she sees it: a man craving mahogany is simply no big deal. And what makes anything possible, she implies in two Christmas poems, is the Incarnation. It is because God does the wonderfully crazy thing of “emptying” himself into human form, both poems suggest, that all wildly improbable comings-to-life can happen. In “Christmas,” “tin canisters eat! their cookies;… My wristwatch grows / obscurely, sun- / flower big…. Dolls in the hospital / with brains of coral / jerk, breathe and are born.” In the Christmas section of “Feast Days: Thanksgiving-Christmas,” not only do animals talk at midnight (“of course,” the poem grinningly shrugs), but “the soil and fresh-water lakes I also rejoice,/ as do products/ such as sweaters / (nor are plastics excluded / from grace).”

One of the epigraphs in “Feast Days: Thanksgiving-Christmas” is as follows:

Woman, why weepest thou?

Whom seekest thou?

— John

With these words of the Risen Jesus to Mary Magdalene, Dillard adds the wonder of the Resurrection to the reasons why anything imaginable can now happen. Dillard is alluding to this Gospel episode where Jesus is “taken / for the gardener,” as Kathleen Norris put it in “Luke 14: A Commentary,” for the same purpose as Norris: their Jesus will pull any trick to wow us. You think you’re talking to the gardener, but-oops–it’s God. And because it’s God, Dillard wants us to realize, you just never know what you might be seeing. Since “God takes the substance, contours / of a man… / dying, rising, walking, / and still walking / wherever there is motion” (“Feast Days”), then wherever there is motion anything can move into a different form. Dillard’s world is populated by transformations as wild as Ovid’s: people turn into animals that turn into plants that turn into gods and back again. The marvelous is always catching us off guard, as Dillard sees it, because that’s the only way it will catch us at all.

Dillard’s whole enterprise as a writer is to make us marvel. But she’s sure that the sacred is too stupendous for us to stare at directly; we can handle only glimpses, and even these usually come in disguise. A favorite poetic trope of hers begins “Once.” Once, she’ll write, I was doing some ordinary thing (going to the door, digging in the garden) when up popped the utterly extraordinary (the last of the Inca kings in her bathroom, in her hallway an ape wearing her nightgown.) Such astonishing moments form the very plot of Dillard’s long poem “Tickets for a Prayer Wheel,” which I’d rate with Auden’s Horae Canonicae as one of the major spiritual works of twentieth-century English poetry, not least because both are immensely accessible and engaging. In Dillard’s poem, a family is trying to figure out how to pray–that is, how to call on the sacred–while the sacred is already swarming through their house, meeting them in wacky disguise at every turn. The poem is simultaneously low comedy and high: low in the slapstick of planting beans on the bookshelf or bumping on the stairs into Saint Irenaeus wearing a necklace of macaws; high in Dante’s sense of the Commedia as a vision of everything in the cosmos held harmoniously together by a divine love so dazzling that the poet can only break into joyous laughter, in the Paradiso, at its flaming brilliance. God swirls through the house of Dillard’s poem, taking the form of wind in the beds, or of a picture of the universe that grabs the viewer into its heart, or of Christ:

We keep our paper money shut

in a box, for fear of fire.

Once, we opened the box

and Christ the lamb stepped out

and left his track of flame across the floor.

Why are we shown these things?

PEGGY ROSENTHAL gives courses and retreats on Poetry and Spirituality. She is co-editor of the anthology Divine Inspiration: The Life of Jesus in World Poetry (Oxford University Press). Her home base as an independent scholar is Rochester, New York. This essay is adapted from her new book, The Poets’ Jesus, published by Oxford University Press.

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