By: Sue Scalf
Reviewed by: Keith Badowski
Coosa River Books, 2008
The strongest poems in Sue Scalf’s latest book Burnt Offerings are dramatic monologues that go beyond their Biblical sources and imaginatively explore the personalities of the speakers. “The Plain One,” for instance, reveals Martha’s fiery reaction to the “scolding” Jesus gives her. The poem has an angry tone as Martha internally justifies her hurt over Mary’s lack of help in preparing and serving the food:
[Mary] knew there were things she could have
should have done, and I, well I was mute, having
that rebuke wash over me. Even if it were true,
someone had to do it. Someone always does.
Philosophy won’t clean the floors.
Martha’s practical nature, bruised feelings, and desire to illuminate the wrong that has been done her all come across in this strongly emotive poem.
“The Plain One” also exemplifies the poetic style Scarf uses throughout her collection: free-verse with a simple “everyday” vernacular. This approach helps to make these Biblical figures seem accessible and approachable, inviting the reader into the speaker’s circumstances like a friend on the phone or a neighbor talking over the fence.
“Through a Needle’s Eye” imagines the wealthy ruler who was told by Jesus to sell all he owned, give it to the poor and to follow as a disciple. Years have passed since he refused that advice. Although he seems haunted by the memory of Jesus’ expression and he notices supernatural omens in his daily life, for the most part he contentedly finds his passion in ornamentation:
Observe the glint of my ring;
it is intricately carved, and the setting
carnelian. The stone makes me think of blood.
I found a spot this morning in an egg.
It seemed a sign, fraught with some meaning
I could not discern, like a dream remembered.
Through the voice of this speaker, we experience the sensation of a “flash forward,” revealing what happened to that young ruler who in sadness turned from Jesus. The success of the poem lies not only in the utterly convincing personality and his nagging sense of something missed, but also in the novelty of bringing such a minor Biblical figure to the fore.
Some of the techniques at work in Burnt Offerings remind me of Morri Creech’s Paper Cathedrals (2001), an outstanding collection that features a series of poems from the point-of-view of Jesus’ betrayer, Judas. It’s possible that Creech’s tendency to mine deeper into imaginary territory, giving vivid, lyrical accounts of the “deleted scenes” from the Bible, has somewhat diminished my appreciation of Burnt Offerings. Creech took his inspiration from the scriptures, but he allowed the poems to reveal unexpected aspects of the personalities at play. For instance, Judas’ love for Jesus is intensely conveyed through a series of invented scenes.
I wish all the speakers in Burnt Offerings were as richly imagined and as startling in their revelations as Martha and the ruler. We hear from Adam, Cain, Joseph, Job, Peter, Judas, and many others, but for the most part, Scalf’s poems stick to the scriptural details, recounting familiar events from the main player’s point of view. Due to this faithfulness to the source materials, the element of surprise is fairly rare in this collection.
The poems in Burnt Offerings seem particularly geared toward those with a built-in interest in poetry with Christian and/or Biblical themes. In fact, anyone without prior knowledge of the Biblical personas might find themselves a bit lost. Scalf does not cite scriptures for the uninitiated and often omits the names of the speakers. The identities are obvious enough if you know your Bible. If you don’t recognize them on your own, however, it’s not very feasible to look up the sources. These are inter-textual poems, in dialogue with the scriptures. So unless you are already engaged in Biblical study, this collection might seem like entering a room of strangers making reference to their kin-folk and hoping you can keep up. Sept 2009
Keith Badowski is a poet and minister in Phenix City, Ala.