Becoming Judas

Image of Becoming Judas
Release Date: 
September 1, 2013
Red Hen Press
Reviewed by: 

Some kinds of art bear very close examination. Take for example the enormous triptychs of Hieronymous Bosch, full of fantastic but clearly rendered figures human and demonic. Though one would never call these paintings realistic in style, each of their details registers as real, on its own terms, capable of standing alone.

On the other hand, the pointillist paintings of Seurat can only be seen from far off. When the viewer approaches for a close look, the image dissolves into thousands of discrete colored dots.

Each of these two ways of making art communicates a worldview. In Bosch’s work, everything has a place in an intricately ordered—if sometimes dark—universe. In contrast, Seurat is less concerned with or sure of sense than with the human powers of imagination and perception to create a kind of order, however tentative and temporary it may ultimately prove to be.

Nicelle Davis’ new collection of poetry Becoming Judas, published by Red Hen Press, belongs to the latter variety of art. Indeed, the book takes as its subject matter this very issue of the human imagination’s power to reconceive history.

She is a tremendously inventive and ambitious writer whose public readings are spectacles that display not only her poetic gift but her talent as a costumer, seamstress, and puppeteer. On the page, minus such pyrotechnics, her work can seem more prickly and difficult, requiring effort and rereading.

Part of the work’s difficulty lies in the diversity of the various threads she weaves together here and the startling perspective she takes on these elements, for in this book, Ms. Davis brings together multiple strands of myth, popular culture, and personal history, often of a subversive nature, in her effort to construct for this book a sort of “homemade religion.”

Literature has always been viewed skeptically by philosophers and the religious who have argued that it is composed of untruths. In response to such charges, Ms. Davis subjects the stuff of culture, history, and religion to the recombinant power of the imagination and seems to argue that these disciplines make use of the same tools, though they might deny it.

Metaphor takes elements of two unlike things and welds them, creating a synthesis that colors our understanding of both. It is necessarily a provisional sort of structure, a lens we can use to investigate the nature of reality but one that cannot be taken too literally.

For all that, it can be a dangerous endeavor to play with the sacred and the settled. Many will take offense at this writer’s imaginings. Perhaps as with the ancient Gnostics’ texts, this is her reason for cloaking these poems in difficulty.

In the apocryphal “Gospel of Judas” Davis imagines, Jesus is presented as a bully who manipulates Judas into betrayal in order to realize Jesus’ Gnostic desire to “sacrifice the human body/that swallows [him]”(“Jesus in the Gospel of Judas”). In this thread, Judas comes off as a sort of victim, a martyr who “loved Jesus enough to die for him” (“Broadcast Yourself”).

Another alternative history emerges when the writer conflates John Lennon with Jesus, a juxtaposition perhaps born of Lennon’s own ironic proclamation in the 1960s that the Beatles were “bigger than Jesus.”

We can see why these “myths crossed” early on for Ms. Davis (“Disclaimer: Assumptions Made By This Homemade Religion”). In their fashion, each of these men were “prophets of peace,” and both were murdered, largely because of their very public insistence on speaking the truth as they saw it. As Ms. Davis remarks on this issue, “I tell you, there are/those of us who must fall; our faith an all-in wager” (“Broadcast Yourself”).

The comparison may seem to us outrageous because Lennon’s was a staunchly anti-religious faith. Yet we may concede that “[t]he men who killed John/Jesus were after light. Afraid the dark/would swallow them” (“Disclaimer: Assumptions Made By this Homemade Religion”). Peace in the violent modern world is as unlikely a prospect as it was in the ancient one.

Also woven in with these reimagined narratives is the story of Joseph Smith, prophet and founder of Mormonism. As Ms. Davis was born in Utah and raised as a Mormon, she is likely better versed in this tradition than most of us.

Although Ms. Davis’ is clearly a lapsed faith—if she ever embraced it at all—Smith’s gospel of angelic testimony seems to provide a model for her efforts to create the homespun religion she is after here. Partly that is because it is an American religion, one that marks for this writer an effort “to tether God to the ground” (“The Mother of Invention”), to marry an American practicality and literalism with prophetic writings.

The final element in this tapestry is Ms. Davis’ own personal history. The effort to combine her personal past with these other better-known narratives falters, for we lack a set of commonly shared facts to compare with these retellings.

Except in memoir, where the reader expects and assumes an effort to stick to the facts, the stakes are obviously much lower here than in the writer’s other narratives. The facts of a personal history are much more malleable than those of shared myth.

Yet to this author the facts are less significant than the act of reimagining them. As she proclaims in the book’s final poem, “December 1980,” “I want to believe we’re mimics of the divine.”

Ultimately, Ms. Davis presents the act of making and remaking such narratives as a feminist task. Her own mother, to whom she dedicates the book, has acted as a kind of Penelope, “raveling and unraveling” “a tapestry—image of women passing/the small stone of memory—hand to hand—bridging generations” (“Mother”).

Becoming Judas is a challenging book, but it rewards our efforts as readers with a brief look into a tremendously inventive and energetic mind.