Harlot by Jill Alexander Essbaum
(No Tell Books, Reston, VA, 2007)
Sex and Religion in Harlot by Jill Alexander Essbaum
The urge for sex and a yearning for the divine are the dark and tormented existential bases from which this complex work springs.
The book’s dedication is the first indication of the complicated ride ahead: For Rahab (the Old Testament prostitute of Jericho who gained biblical favor by sheltering Israelite spies), Tallulah (the driven flamboyant 20th century actress with a voracious sexual appetite) and Joan of Arc (the 15th century soldier-maiden who generated powerful competing myths of virginity and harlotry).
These poems contain the beginnings of an interesting exploration of the religiosity of sex or the sexuality of religion. A tension-filled mix, and it seems fitting that one of the book’s epigraphs (“Every harlot was a virgin once”) should be by William Blake, a devout Christian who argued against the repression of bodily desires in the name of religion; who considered that the urges of the body participate in the divine. And indeed, in reading the Harlot poems, the first thing that came to my mind was Blake’s simple but hugely powerful poem, The Sick Rose:
O Rose, thou art sick!
The Invisible worm,
That flies in the night,
In the howling storm,
Has found out thy bed
Of Crimson joy;
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.
This piece has been interpreted in many different ways, but the relevant optic here is the one that sees the rose -- symbol of freshness and innocence -- as human sexuality (thy bed /Of crimson joy is a masterful phrase) and the corrupting worm (also a recurring symbol in the Harlot poems) as the shame and guilt we attach to sexuality under the influence of religion.
Harlot is both an acknowledgement of, and a challenge to, this worldview. Even while infused by guilt and a sense of sin and damnation, these poems champion female sexuality, they reclaim it.
The manner of reclamation is through a steady, incremental reconfiguring and recalls the relationship of Hester Prynne, heroine of The Scarlet Letter, with the scarlet letter A she is made to wear publicly by her judgmental Puritan neighbors, as a consequence of adulterous behavior.
Hester accepts, then gradually appropriates her A. She refigures it, metaphorically through her steadfast lifestyle and literally through her elaborate embroidering of the A -- “so artistically done, and with so much fertility and gorgeous luxuriance of fancy” ... “that the capital A might have been thought to mean Admirable, or anything rather than Adulteress.” Decades after her scandal has subsided, Hester returns of her free will to live in the same community that chastised her, and although none now compels her to it, chooses to continue wearing the scarlet A. It has become a central symbol of identity to her, as she herself has become increasingly complex, nuanced, and human to those observing her. As a result, “The scarlet letter ceased to be a stigma ... and became a type of something to be sorrowed over and looked upon with awe, yet with reverence, too. “
The poems in Harlot employ the beauty and power of language to assert ownership of and to recast female sexuality, as Hester used her life, her needle and her imagination to appropriate the scarlet letter. All the poems contribute to the complexity of the portrait under construction, but key elements of the mechanism Essbaum uses are powerful lists and litanies -- labels and incantations -- that challenge, refigure, recast, situate, define and always redefine their subject matter, as in the compelling poems Minx, Harlot, Whoreheart and Aphrodisia.
Add to these a deeply-felt religious backdrop and the net result is a picture of a complex, shifting, tormented, and ineffably human landscape. These poems do not represent some sophomoric debate about good versus evil or right versus wrong. The woman -- especially the religious woman -- who chooses or is compelled to base her identity in her sexuality can never be easily labeled or defined. What these poems claim for her is complexity and nuance, religiosity and -- above all -- humanity.
Men are a central phenomenon in these poems -- men as both lovers and as metaphor for the lost divine. The virgin Magdalene in Young Magdalene’s Prayer dreams of
A king, as divine
As her desires are deep.
The Christ-lover is all powerful, there is almost no existence without him:
I draw closed like a curtain in your absence (from De Profundis)
and in An Oracle Concerning the Melancholic Concubine:
When he abuses you
in his absence, when his somnolence blacks you out.
Identity lines are continuously blurred. Is ‘he’ in the poems the present-day lover, or the yearned-for Christ? Is the narrator a sexually-alive Christ-obsessed present-day woman, or is she the passionate biblical Magdalene, erstwhile ‘fallen’ woman, would-be bride of Christ? Is the continuing compulsion, the deep wanting that drives these pieces simple sexual appetite, or is it longing for God? Or both?
The Magdalene theme infuses this collection, appearing explicitly in two pieces told from Magdalene’s point of view (Young Magdalene’s Prayer and Magdalene’s Hymn) and implicitly elsewhere throughout, such as in And It Came To Pass, Crux, Bad Friday and Nightboat.
The poems cycle into a chronicle of passionate but failed sexual and religious relationships -- and indeed, what earthly man could ever realistically fulfill the role of Christ to a would-be bride of Christ, what hope for close approach to God is possible for a supplicant who believes she is damned from the outset? For these poems are haunted by a restless certitude of sin, of damnation and guilt, largely unleavened by hope of redemption:
but with a birth defect, and broken –
for what the devil claims he rarely abandons (De Profundis)
That it ought to be know I was born this way,
With indiscriminate tendencies (The Thirty-Four Sorrows)
I am but a wasteland of worry (Bad Friday)
Into my living death, Lord, come (Despair is the Only Unforgivable Sin)
dim sinning of the linens (Post-)
The strophes of bleak prophecy that constitute Surely Come the Days contribute likewise to this theme, and it is also underlined by the merciless energy that goes into blistering self-excoriation, as in A Force is a Push or a Pill:
my shoddy, my so-for-nothing
Yet always at the base of it all are the irresistible dual compulsions that sustain forward motion -- towards God and towards sex -- born in pain and living on pain. And it Came to Pass, the first poem in the collection, lays out the nature of this yearning in shocking alliterative lines:
I wanted you
Like a wound
Aches for the dagger digging
Into it, so bloody
And brutal and black.
I wanted you like that.
The Solitary Anguish of Irreparable Regret puts the brutal despair of the dilemma in a nutshell: the narrator’s nature draws her irresistibly to the divine, yet it is her nature that keeps her from attaining the divine:
Because I want to sit down next to you,
I do not sit down next to you.
On the way to this conclusion it is interesting to observe the respective roles that woman and her lover play in the repeating cycle of lovers in Harlot. There is no victim, and no aggressor. Or rather: each is victim and each aggressor, turn about. The lovers are co-dependent peers, partners, they array themselves foot to foot: equally powerful, and equally powerless. The Assignation, for example is set up in aggressive couplets of action and counter-action -- she did/he did style:
She will dream of her maneuvers
And his rocket. How she flipped him like a lever,
how he plugged into her socket,
how he strangled her waist with the corset
of his straitjacket hands. How she surged
In the world of Harlot, you dish it out, but you have to be able to take it, too. One of the most striking themes in the collection is the narrator’s clear-eyed recognition of her vulnerability and her own stark need. These are facts to be faced among the facts of existence, two sides of the same coin -- she is used, but she uses. In Why Hast Thou? for example, we read:
I am the axe maid. I hack and hew.
But bleeding, I bleed freely.
In Judas Hausfrau we see the always-morphing narrator as nonetheless decisive and powerful:
I am tall
in my sins
while in Song of Bird, Dirge of Branch she acknowledges her naked vulnerability baldly:
And I want you more than I want to breathe.
I warble desperate melodies,
The harlot’s psalm, a martyr’s hymn.
I am naked in my beggary.
This collection does not make much of love. Strange Woman “searches the sky for a god that will reach down and love her” while the Clockmaker’s Mistress conceptualizes the act of loving as passive acceptance of the mechanism of her own destruction:
I loved you
like the wild plum loves
the teeth sinking into it,
wetly, willing, quiet as quartz
we read of Minx:
But if she says she loves you, she lies
and the narrator writes in an imaginary post-script in Post –:
Also. I forgot to love.
The hopeful reader looking for a redemptive arc in this collection is disappointed, but perhaps this cursory treatment of the role and power of love explains why this collection does not go there. A hopeful reader might also look in a collection like Harlot for not just the rescue of the erotic but for the (more audacious still) positing of the erotic -- literally and metaphorically -- as a ritualistic, mystic path to the divine. Sex as religious worship, sex as connection to the divine, building on the mystic tradition which seeks direct apprehension of the divine through the restoration in the self of a primordial state of being -- pre-verbal and pre-thought. There are some glimmerings of this direction of thought in the collection. For example, the narrator in And It Came to Pass describes herself as:
a postulant in the Church of the Kiss
and The Assignation speaks of:
How the cloister
of her thighs wept liturgies and hours
but in the end, Harlot doesn’t complete a full arc from sex as damnation to sex as potential redemption. Overall, the emotional cycle seems to move from deep compulsion to depression to defiance and back, consistently underwritten by intense passion. At the end of it all, as we read in The Nothing That’s Left:
we become great riddles to ourselves
and the devils that indwell
There is little joy in this enormously courageous collection. But immense passion. Whatever the final answer -- and even if there is none -- we must never stop rising up in passion. Again, from The Nothing That’s Left, the last poem of the book:
and – god damn it – I will bleed
until there is nothing that’s left
but the nothing that’s left.
Nic Sebastian hails from Arlington, Virginia and travels widely. She has two sons and a husband who travel with her as they can. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Valparaiso Poetry Review, Lily, Autumn Sky Poetry, Mannequin Envy, Avatar Review, Anti- and other poetry journals. Her first collection, Forever Will End on Thursday, will be published in 2009 by a poetry press with a twist: http://verylikeawhale.wordpress.com/the-essbaum-sebastian-nanopress. Nic blogs at Very Like A Whale (http://verylikeawhale.wordpress.com).