An Argument with God, a review by James Luken.
True Story of the Resurrection (Wind
The reason I open the bible today is because I am reading a new book of poems by my long-time friend Mike Henson. Over the years, Mike has published quite a number of his poems in this newspaper. My essay is a something like review of Mike's book.
You stand warned: Mike is a friend. A close enough friend that if I had found the book weak, the poems forced, I would have returned it to him, and—as nicely as possible—told him that I had decided not to write bout his book. But I will happily write the review. These poems made me think of my mortal "soul" for the first time in a long time.
Most of the 50-some poems in the book reference the bible. Most cite a biblical passage, then, like an oysterman's knife or an X-ray, each one opens that passage to its meat. Listen hard, reader. This knife cuts deep. This X-ray will reveal your innards.
In one poem, Henson cites the book of Samuel. He writes from the point of view of an (apparent) Israeli soldier, whose unit has flushed out a group of six (apparently) Palestinian soldiers. Henson would probably tell you they are simply "the enemy," any enemies, any prisoners of war.
"The wind came up. /The smoke cleared./They blinked in the clear mountain light./ They looked at us/ and they wondered, what next?" "Next" is the prisoners' matter-of-fact execution.
The book of Samuel is full of such summary biblical deaths. Apparently, the Jewish kings, like most kings and presidents, were/are indifferent to the sixth commandment.
Henson sets many of his biblical poems in the consciousness—in the very guts—of the poor, the despised, the lame, those who—so the bible says—will enter heaven first. In his poem, "The Foxes Have Holes...," the Son of Man (Jesus, of course) is a barefoot, shirtless homeless man, reeling street to street in a dark, snowy neighborhood. He looks just like a homeless man. "What did I do?" the Son of Man called./ He knew he had done something, but what?"
Indeed, what had the homeless man—this modern Jesus—done to deserve dying on the winter streets of...Cincinnati?
One of the beauties of Henson's little biblical book, is the constant interweaving of the distant past, the near past, and the present. Then and now, and then again. In "The Elements of Sacrifice," he dives into the Oddessey of Homer, as Tennyson and Joyce had done before him. Ullyses, at one moment is killing a cow and cooking the meat for his hungry sailors, then—like a quick cut in a movie—he turns toward his customers as a fry cook cutting meat in a diner. One sacrifice (which Henson calls "the gift of flesh and time") the same as another, each of them echoing that most famous of biblical sacrifices. The poem ends: "An old man hikes into the mountains/ with a boy and a bundle of sticks."
In "Jeremiah in the DR," I found myself wondering "What the hell is the DR?" Several sections into this exquisitely long story-poem, an old man, this modern prophet, senses the "shadow of Trujillo," and I recognize this island of contradictions as the Dominican Republic, with its most famous dictator still alive in the memories—the collective unconscious—of the island's poor.
Like this Jeremiah, I had walked the roads on the other side of that same island...Haiti. And, yes, I had seen the shadows of the vicious dictators, Papa Doc and Baby Doc. I too had prayed for a sign, a symbol that would transcend some of the horror, redeem somehow the past.
Henson's prophet finds such a sign in a poor baker riding his bike down the road, carrying over his shoulder a huge mesh bag filled with many loaves of bread... "layered,/ one on another,/ like feathers on a wing." Jeremiah (and the reader) sees the image so clearly. Henson calls this innocent baker is "the Archangel of Bread." I can't help but recall a line from W.H. Auden's poem, "Herman Mellville": "The godhead is broken like bread, and we are the pieces."
The book's title poem, "The True Story of the Resurrection" is more a longish yarn than a poem, and is too perfect to describe here. You should read it, reader, even if you are an atheist. I'll give you a hint. This poem will show you how to recognize Jesus. [But I think you already knew the secret, right?]
Yes, every wonderful poem in this lovely hard-scrabble book will teach you to find the bread of life, and to recognize Jesus in the faces of the poor and homeless, the distraught.
My friend Mike's book isn't perfect, but he doesn't hesitate to point out his own imperfections, his own peccadilloes, his own sins.
The closing section's "Epistles" (letters) are from a persona named "Saint Michael." Who might that be? Popping up here and there, especially in these letters, is a tendency toward preachy-ness. I remain enough of an agnostic to shy away from any preachy-ness...except my own.
I'll close this review out with a quatrain from the book's only rhymed poem, "An American Parable." A guy (or girl) wakes up on Main Street, homeless and shoeless, confused to be somehow mixed up in this nightmare that some call the "Belly of the Beast": the US of A.
"I can see I'm not alone
On this road to rack and ruin.
Father, forgive us.
We know not what we're doin'."
No, Michael Henson, poet and prophet, you are not alone.