Like a black kite
from another dimension,
the dying lamb—
an ordinary sky—
His poisoned eyes
reflecting the knowledge
that his flesh
in an ever decreasing
shrouding the sun,
He steps down
from His throne of air.
tearer of flesh,
back the sun—
legs and feet
clawing the earth
in time's shadow,
His skeletal breath
stinks of centuries
of rotting meat.
After an exploratory
peck or two
He grunts, hisses,
then starts with the eyes,
as He promises
Copyright 2011 by Jack Goodman
Critique by Jendi Reiter
There's something about Christianity and gothic horror that seems to go together, as we see in "Jubilate Agno" by Jack Goodman, a poet from Twin Falls, Idaho. Many of our classic fright-fest plots could be seen as variations on Christian imagery, but with God's goodness and trustworthiness removed from the picture. Compare "Rosemary's Baby" to the Virgin Birth, or zombies to the Resurrection. After seeing the "Twilight" vampire movies, I had a hard time not hearing Edward Cullen's seductive voice in this hymn we often sing during the Eucharist at my church:
The Bread that I will give
is my Flesh for the life of the world,
and they who eat of this bread,
they shall live for ever,
they shall live for ever.
Unless you eat
of the Flesh of the Son of Man
and drink of his Blood,
you shall not have life within you,
you shall not have life within you.
What are we to make of these parallels? One could object that artists in this genre are merely appropriating sacred images for the shock value of seeing them profaned. Such was some conservative Christians' objection to the scene of ants crawling on a crucifix in AIDS activist David Wojnarowicz' short film "A Fire in My Belly", which led to the film's being removed from a Smithsonian exhibit. Yet a brief tour through medieval art shows that blood, death, torture, and the grotesque have been part of the Christian story from the beginning. Part of the tradition's power lies in how it faces these realities of the human condition and promises ultimate redemption from them.
That hope, however, is not always as evident to our senses as the suffering, and so the latter threatens to dominate our imaginations, stifling faith. The horror genre voices our fear that unredeemed suffering is the only reality, or that we will have to save ourselves from it via brute force or magical talismans. In this respect, its spirituality can sometimes be more genuine than the G-rated kitsch that's often sold under the label of Christian art.
Given the long history of "the blood of the Lamb" in devotional art and its darker counterpart, horror, how is a poet to approach this theme in a fresh way? Goodman has made several choices that help him out. First, he sticks to describing the action in concrete terms instead of editorializing. He does not need to talk about loss of faith, or the terror of the victim. We feel these directly as we are caught up in the graphic scene. Second, the form of the poem works against any impulse to be florid and wordy, which seems to be a particular temptation for writers of gothic horror because of that genre's roots in the Victorian era. Short lines and simple words keep the action moving and build suspense.
At key points in the poem, Goodman pairs visually arresting images with a sound pattern that is strong and well-paced. The opening K-sounds in "Like a black kite" resemble the harsh caws of crows, while the words themselves instantly create a menacing atmostphere. The stately yet inexorable approach of the bird of prey is heard in the measured rhythms of "black wings/shrouding the sun,/He steps down/from His throne of air." The last phrase carries a subtle allusion to the devil, one of whose traditional epithets is "the Prince of the Air".
Another fine passage is "His terrible/skull red/from holding/back the sun". Regular readers will know I'm critical of over-using line breaks to manufacture drama. Here, though, the technique works perfectly because nearly every word is a strong one and essential to the phrase: terrible, skull, red, holding, back, sun. I can hear the strain of that holding-back. The almost sublime image is then followed by "shit-stained/legs and feet" just to crush any fleeting thought that this deity might be worthy of worship after all.
I would suggest reworking or cutting the second line, "from another dimension", a cliché that's been used to promote too many sci-fi B-movies. I don't know if the poem really needs "Carrion eater" in the second stanza, either. "Carrion" is close to becoming an archaic word that only shows up in gothic horror tales, and could be seen as overwrought. Also consider ending that stanza at "stinks of centuries", which still conveys the notion of decay without the obvious image of rotting meat.
The poem concludes with sibilant menace in the S-sounds of hisses, starts, eyes, promises, Paradise. It's a nice twist to end with a suggestion of the Lamb's masochistic pleasure, since the eroticism of submission is another sublimated strain in Christian imagery that the horror genre brings forward with a vengeance. Believing in God's power but not His love, some opt for the tragic beauty of knowingly trusting the untrustworthy, hoping thereby to manufacture their own transcendence. Jubilate agno—rejoice in the Lamb. Indeed.
Where could a poem like "Jubilate Agno" be submitted? The following contests may be of interest:
Flatmancrooked Poetry Prize
Entries must be received by March 1
Sacramento-based small press offers $500 prize, plus anthology publication for top 30 entries, for poems up to 500 words; enter online
Poetry 2011 International Poetry Competition (Atlanta Review)
Postmark Deadline: March 1
This well-regarded journal offers $1,000 top prize, plus publication for top 20 entries; enter by mail or online
Balticon SF Poetry Contest
Postmark Deadline: April 1
The Baltimore Science Fiction Society offers $100 top prize for poems with science fiction, fantasy or horror themes; winners invited to read at Balticon, their annual convention, in May; previously published work accepted
This poem and critique appeared in the February 2011 issue of Winning Writers Newsletter (subscribe free).
Categories: Poetry Critiques