Thursday, September 1, 2011

Poetry Review: Laura Hope-Gill, "Jonah"

I’m not exactly a neutral critic when it comes to the poetry of Laura Hope-Gill. I divided my time growing up between Michigan and Florida, and she was a classmate of mine in the latter. She’s now based in North Carolina, where she’s published two books of poetry in collaboration with area photographers. One generally doesn’t hear her name in discussions of the best contemporary poets; she has yet to see her byline in the likes of The New Yorker or The Best American Poetry annual anthology. However, her relative obscurity does seem something of an injustice. Poems like “Jonah,” my personal favorite of her efforts, rate the attention of other poets and poetry aficionados.

“Jonah” retells the story of the Old Testament’s reluctant prophet; its conceit is to reimagine the character as a young boy. This is not entirely a new idea. The Disney animated film Pinocchio, taking off from an episode in Carlo Collodi’s original children’s book, has its title character—also a young boy—follow somewhat in Jonah’s footsteps. Both are swallowed by a giant whale, and both find redemption with their escape. Pinocchio, though, only alludes to the Biblical tale. The character’s redemption is a personal one; its meaning for others is as an example, and perhaps a caution. Pinocchio is not intended as a prophet. Laura’s poem steps into this breach and asks what if a young boy was a prophet? What is it about a child that could make him a leader to the righteous path for others?

Laura acknowledges the traditional Christian view that childhood is a state of incontinence that needs to be outgrown. Jonah is described as “restless,” one who finds joy in "piss[ing] his name in the sand," and "the stick-thrower who prods the dead fish/for the smell." Most evocatively, Jonah notes, “Ask me to serve you too much of myself,/and I become the flame-thrower of my temperament,” a statement in which he rebukes both himself and God’s interest in him. This double-edged lack of faith is further emphasized by the succeeding sentence, “I am the boy who doubts the judgment/of anyone puts their trust in me.” His most abiding sin, the failing that has left him trapped within the whale, is “lack[ing] the patience needed for life.”

The lure that brings Jonah into sin is expectation, and the time in the whale is a purgatory for burning it out of him. He is cut off from the troubles of the world—the whale travels beneath a tempest he never feels—and, through his memories, rediscovers its joys. This is bound up with repentance; a disdain for his mother redefines itself as love, which presents itself as acceptance: “her subtle weaknesses abhorred, and craved them now.” And pleasures are not taken as a given, but as a gift; the almonds in his pocket are now a sweet respite from the chum the poem opens with him eating. Desire is ultimately reoriented towards rendering unto God, and Jonah’s singing, borne of that desire, brings God delight. The poem ends with Jonah forgetting “he was suffering/and into a world he could neither see nor hear sang.”

The singing is what the child can offer that the adult, with all his or her anxieties, cannot. One of the poem’s best lines, “Becoming a man nearly took/everyone on that boat down with him,” pointedly identifies adulthood with the anxieties that drive one from God. When Jonah flees God’s call by boarding the boat bound for Tarshish, he’s not running from being an adult; he’s acting like one. His sojourn in the whale’s belly, with its uterine imagery, is where, in addition, to penitence, he rediscovers childhood’s purity and is in effect reborn:

In the water, the blood slows thickly
as the body bends into the waves that shaped it
ages ago, enfolding, remolding […]
It is through childhood’s purity—through the child’s song—that the child can lead others in a way an adult cannot. In a lovely pair of metaphors—“[…] the music warmed the rib, resonated/outward into his [God’s] beloved sea”—Laura speaks of the power of the child’s singing to enrich others. It is in this way, to borrow the line from Isaiah 11:6, that “a little child shall lead them.” Perhaps Laura’s Jonah, like Pinocchio, is an example after all. While he is presented as a prophet to follow, it’s implicit that he’s one to emulate as well; the desire to sing is open to all.

”Jonah,” by Laura Hope-Gill, can be found here, along with six of her other poems. “Jonah” is the first of the poems after the introduction by Jeff Davis.