A Door with a Voice by Katie Manning,
Agape Editions, 2016.
“God/should surprise you like/labor pains/or a kiss.”
In the poem “Book of This Season (all that remains of Thessalonians),” Katie Manning gives the reader this surprising and unique idea about God’s presence in the lives of human beings. In her new chapbook A Door with a Voice, Manning uses sixteen books of the Christian Bible as source text, creating word banks from the last chapter of each book to write poems that give the reader a different lens. Each poem’s title uses a rearrangement of letters from the original book title (thus “this season” from “Thessalonians”), adding another layer to this reimagined religious text. In her introduction, she wonders if the book is the “most heretical or the most reverent thing” she has ever written.
Although the poems are short, long and thin on the page, often one word per line, they bear an incredible amount of layered meaning and weight, especially when compared to the source text. Take, for example, “The Song of Sons.” This poem uses Song of Songs as a source text, the original a poem/song of lovers and seduction, one of the lustiest parts of the religious text. Yet Manning gives a different power to the woman in her poem, one of motherly protection and wisdom. In this poem, the son speaks:
over your heart
is a door
let me hear
Many of the poems can be read as commentary about the roles of women, not only in Biblical times but now. In “The Book of Men, (Numbers)” the daughters are ordered to marry so they do. “The Book of Dues,” which draws its text from Judges, takes the original chronicle of Israel’s fall from faith/embrace of idols and turns it into both a celebration and mourning of the death of the Lord, ending with “the young women settled – everyone did.” In “The Book of Verbs,” the advice of Proverbs becomes an assertion of female will: “listen/my womb/do not spend your strength/on kings//it is not for kings.” And in “The Book of Laminate,” we get an layered examination of how women often bear the burdens/sins of a society, starting with the title. The word laminate is often associated with a protective layered material or with an official card or badge that shows belonging to a company/business. Here the women are protectors, official soldiers in the battle. In the source text of Lamentations, the books ends with prayers for the recovery of Zion, which has fallen away from God. In Manning’s poem, the women step up to take on the emotional (even sinful) burdens of the society:
hot as an oven
these things our eyes
Manning questions whether her poems are heretical or reverent. Some poems are perfect examples of both. In “The Book of Thru,” Manning takes one of the only books named for a woman (Ruth) and, after relating a brief prophetic birth narrative –“no one//except him//will raise/the dead”– she ends the poem with a truncated version of the genealogical appendix that ends the original book of Ruth (one that many readers may remember from Bible school – so and so begat so and so, etc.). Manning removes any proper names, giving the reader a litany that repeats “the father of” ten times until it ends with simply “the father.” Her dichotomous feeling about her own work comes to light here. In one sense, she has erased the names of the descendants of God, erased Ruth herself, which could be seen as heretical. But she has also delivered, in less than sixty words, both the messianic promise of life after death and a genealogy that ends with the “birth” of “the father,” which reasserts the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, a most reverent idea.
These spare poems function as condensed and powerful strings of language that lay bare the heart of any religious text – the people who have faith that it is true, that it has a message for them. But Manning’s poems are not simply retellings of Bible stories – they reimagine the source language as a door to understanding our world – its traditions, violence, sex, love, and pain–through new eyes.
A Door with a Voice is available as a downloadable e-chap at http://www.sundresspublications.com/agape/adoorwithavoice.pdf