Magdalene by Marie Howe
W.W. Norton & Company; 96 pp
Reviewed by Joshua Jones
It’s no understatement to say poetry has been possessed by documentary lately—and with good reason. Books like Tyehimba Jess’s Olio, Jill McDonough’s Reaper, and many others do the heavy lifting of research to represent the underrepresented and to expose abusive power. Although this way of writing poems has taken center stage, it’s necessary to acknowledge other books with similar ethical motivations founded on different methods. Magdalene, Marie Howe’s fourth book of poems, serves as a good example of such a book that begins from a near absence of source material. It imagines the inner life of a modern day Mary Magdalene, one few will recognize from her scanty biblical portrait. Howe’s account of the woman “from whom seven devils had been cast out” revises what we’ve heard about her and presents a wise, if somewhat erratic, teacher of the perennial lessons of empathy, attention, and love.
Howe’s Magdalene, unlike her scriptural counterpart, has room to express her vast interiority; in simple but elegant terms she speculates on her own psychology, describes her mystical visions, and ponders the nature of language. The poems follow a chronological arrangement without any hard section breaks. However, at irregular intervals Howe inserts seven short lyrics in the lower right hand corner of the page in italics. These poems, which one supposes coincide with Mary’s seven devils, both establish the pace of the book and reinforce its continuity. Most of the poems in the collection restrict themselves to one or two pages, making the book a quick read and lending a clarity to its narrator’s voice.
The story begins before the biblical account, “before I knew I was an I” as Magdalene says, speculating about the sexual violence that might have brought her to the place she appears in the Gospels. What immediately follows stands out as perhaps the best poem of the book, “Magdalene—The Seven Devils,” in which she describes her demonic oppressors as a bevy of peculiar and familiar anxieties ranging from “that I was very busy” to “if I touched my right arm I had to touch my left arm, and if I / touched the left arm a little harder than I’d first touched the right then I had / to retouch the left and then touch the right again so it would be even.” The poem lists far more than seven devils, one of which is “I could never get to the end of the list,” keeping a comical air in the poem that sustains us until we reach the devastating final devil, the recurrent memories of her mother’s death.
The first third of Magdalene continues this note of trauma, following Mary into her cycle of drug use and sexual exploitation. In these desperate conditions, she discovers her own mystical capacities to enter the minds of others and to reveal the world in greater clarity. In “On Men, Their Bodies,” she describes the penis of every man she’s slept with, navigating emotions from humor to outrage with precision. But her impressive powers of empathy and perception provide little comfort; she bottoms out: “I thought it was the worst, thought nothing worse would come. / Then nothing did, and no one.”
Forty pages in, Howe picks up to the biblical narrative, introducing a Christlike teacher who pulls Mary back from the brink of death. In her bewildering state of freedom she “walked where [she] wanted, free of the pretense of family now, / belonging to no one,” but follows him unable to resist the way “whatever room we might be standing in, / assumed an astonishing clarity.” Then, as quickly as he entered her life, he dies, leaving her empowered but listless.
The book ends in a delightful, if abrupt, revision of Magdalene’s story; she adopts a daughter who becomes Mary’s new teacher. These last poems proved some of the most enjoyable and show Mary “pulled… from prayer and desire / from even the memory / the smell and sound of him moaning against me.” In her encounter with “the girl” she finally sees herself in another person. They learn from each other and even joke about changing roles in their next lives: “Next time, you be the mother, I said. / No way, Jose, she said, as we turned the last windy corner.” In moments like these, in her earnest and simple exchanges, Magdalene will be alright, despite her past and the lingering grief over her teacher, she assures us of the value found in the persistent mystery of the world.
As a collection of good poems, this book shines. I can’t find a page in Magdalene that doesn’t touch me or have some element of plainspoken marvelousness in it. “Magdalene: The Woman Taken in Adultery” and “Magdalene Afterwards” shock me with their brief power each time I read them. However, the more I read it, the book’s construction as a story disappoints me. Some of this results from the decision to incorporate autobiographical poems that stray from the Magdalene narrative. The many men from the early poems seem to stand in for all men and then, in the book’s final movement, one man in particular, obscuring the narrative details in a sea of masculine singular pronouns that resist easy parsing. In “The Teacher” Mary says “Was he my husband, my lover, my teacher? / One book will say one thing. Another book another,” and, while I appreciate the attempt to unsettle our traditional assumptions about the relationship between Mary and Christ, this confusion muddled the otherwise clear narrative. But I may be quibbling, because the very reason I dislike the book’s construction makes poems like “Magdalene—The Seven Devils” so pleasurable. In that poem, the very lack of specificity and focus becomes the object of critique and makes the poem so relatable. Perhaps I struggle with the book in a way it invites. A life—a real life absent the aggrandizing narratives of traditions like the scripture this Magdalene departs from—does not always tell its story by the rules we expect of literature. This is after all what makes so many of the individual poems charming. But Magdalene is more than a charming, if slightly flawed, book of poems. It nurtures empathy while making the familiar fresh which could atone for a multitude of sins—sins this Magdalene has few of.
Joshua Jones is pursuing a Ph.D. in creative writing at The University of North Texas. He received an MFA in creative writing at The University of Massachusetts Boston. His most recent poems are in Far Off Places and Jelly Bucket. He’s written reviews for the American Literary Review, Breakwater Review, and The Live Oak Review. He and his wife wrangle dachshunds in Hackberry, TX.