A Review of
Reviewed by Katie Karnehm-Esh
I grew up in a non-denominational, dispensational church that prided itself on “rightly dividing the word of truth.” We once spent two years on the book of 1 Corinthians. Our pastor spent a whole Christmas service lecturing on the weight of a shekel. The homeschool curriculum many families in our church used taught that Abigail, King David’s wife, killed her first husband by being too much of a leader, and Bathsheba should have been more discreet. The Bible was frequently a weapon until you repented (especially if you were a woman), whereupon Jesus was offered like a nice soft bandage to save your terrible, sinning self. So when I started reading Hereverent by Katie Manning, I was instantly intrigued by her project. “I am tired of people taking the Bible out of context and using it as a weapon against other people,” Manning says in her Author’s Note, “so I started taking language from the Bible out of context and using it to create art.” Manning indeed makes art through spare, hypnotic poems that evoke the wonder and weirdness of the Bible while bringing a freshness to its ancient language.
At around 100 pages of short-lined poems, Hereverent is a quick, mesmerizing read. Manning, a professor at Point Loma and editor of Whale Road Review, says in her forward that she’s taken the last chapter of each book of the Bible and used it as a word bank for the poem, which lends a specific tone to each poem as well as a set of words. The title of each poem is loosely based on the book’s title (Book of Luke becomes “Book of L”) or the theme of the book (the book of Matthew is “The Book of What”) or what the word bank creates as the theme of Manning’s poem (the book of Exodus becomes “The Book of Sex”). “This is either the most heretical thing or the most reverent thing I’ve ever written,” Manning writes in her foreword, giving us the portmanteau Hereverent.
“The Book of Genes” (Genesis), is a powerful start to the collection, taking its material from when Joseph is about to die: “I am about to die/the father said/bury me/I will return.” Three stanzas and the death of the patriarch later, Manning echoes the first stanza with, “I am about to die/children/said/at birth,” making the poem an unsettling bridge into the rest of the story of the Bible. “The Book of Sex” (Exodus) draws its incantational tone from the instructions in Exodus 40 for how to set up the tabernacle: “It will be holy/it will be most holy/everything/set up/placed/and set up/placed/and burned.” Skipping ahead to “The Book of No” (Jonah), Manning pulls from Jonah’s temper tantrum at Nineveh and writes, “God provided a worm/and/a scorching/sun/ I wish I were dead/but the Lord said/you/died overnight.”
As a writer, I love the idea of creating found poetry from other texts. As a Christian, I read with anxiety, for a lesser poet could have turned this project into a gimmick. Manning, however, finds the razor-sharp line of creating art that feels like it has sprung up from a creative subconscious well, but honors the spirit of the original work. In “The Book of Am” (Micah) Manning opens with the lines, “I am like/ashamed/mouths/that/crave/blood.” Micah’s final chapter veers from woe over being alone in a world of evildoers, to a faithful waiting for God’s redemption. Several stanzas later, she ends the poem with, “the best/God/lives by itself in a forest/but/visits you/ like a neighbor.” “The Book of Calm” (Malachi) opens with “the day is coming/like a furnace” which feels like a very 2023 omen, and continues with references to fire, ashes, “that dreadful day” and “strike the land with/children.” Each Old Testament poem has the weird, ancient leanings of its respective book, with often the vocabulary providing context clues for what book I was reading.
Sometimes the revelations come through like the light shooting through the clouds, and sometimes the poems read like a code. As I read, I took a lectio divina approach to the book, reading it several times until each reading revealed something new. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the poems from the gospels.“The Book of What” (Matthew) is a ten-line poem that begins “a/tomb/at dawn/is/like lightning” and concludes with “now I have told you/the/end.” Mark (“The Book of Ma”) focuses clearly on resurrection and women, particularly mothers. Made up of mostly one to four word lines, the poem shows a mother in search of “a young man/in a white robe/who/is not/there” but what she wants from him is as surprising as Jesus. The Book of L (Luke) is full of L words, like linen, broiled fish, lying, still, blessed. “The Book of On” (John) is the cryptic masterpiece we would expect, featuring fish, and Jesus’s words; “you know that i love you/do you love me.”
I wondered as I worked my way through the book if a reader less who didn’t grow up on the Bible would be able to appreciate the poems. While I don’t know the answer for sure, an unexpected delight of Manning’s work is that it made me want to re-read the Bible, first by necessity of matching poems to books of the Bible, but eventually to see what material she was working with, and finally out of pure curiosity for what the book actually says. In the writing of this review, I found myself reading the last chapters of Genesis, Exodus, and Amos, and, despite having been flogged by the Pauline epistles most of my childhood, made me even want to return to the words of the Apostle Paul. In perhaps the greatest success of the book, Manning transforms Revelation from a book of terror to an image of mystery and water, light and leaving:“Your/name/will be/ water/ as clear as/God/flowing/down the middle/of the/streets.”
This final poem ends with the words “I am/the one who/leaves,” a reminder that the God of the Bible is the great Comforter, a light to our path, a lamp unto our feet, just, perfect, and our strong deliverer, but also: not here. God is confusing, and often terrifying. God left those of us who ascribe to the Judeo-Christian faiths with a book of enigmas written by a disparate collective of strangers who died long ago. Hundreds of years later, this book has been used to make the world better but also to cause pain, which Manning acknowledges. “If you’ve had verses from the Bible used in harmful ways toward you,” Manning says before giving a long list of the people hurt by the Bible, “I’m sorry. This book is for you, with love.” Manning’s project cannot undo the hurts committed in the name of the Bible, but her poems might give both reluctant and passionate readers of the Scriptures a new reason to open it again.
Katie Karnehm-Esh earned her MA and PhD in creative writing at the University of St Andrews, Scotland, and currently teaches English at Indiana Wesleyan University. Her writing interests include travel, yoga, holistic health, and forgiveness.
Reading for the Common Good
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