Easter Sonnet: Poetry Reading

By Rosenthal, Peggy | The Christian Century, March 27, 2002 | Go to article overview
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Easter Sonnet: Poetry Reading

Rosenthal, Peggy, The Christian Century

NOT MANY POETS write sonnets these days. Strict verse forms are unpopular, as are strict forms of any kind in a society wary of rules that impinge on our "freedom." But form doesn't always inhibit freedom. As Wendell Berry observes, a set form is "an invocation to unknown possibility" because it "creates impasses" which cannot be broken through without openness to the unforeseen. "One puts down the first line of the pattern in trust that life and language are abundant enough to complete it."

Mark Jarman is one poet who has this trust. Jarman is so exhilarated by the challenge of writing sonnets that his new book Unholy Sonnets is composed entirely of them. In playing off against John Donne's title "Holy Sonnets," Jarmail doesn't mean that his own poems are irreverent. Rather, he knows that he writes for a postmodern culture suspicious of the concept of the holy, so that as a Christian poet he must startle and surprise in order to be heard.

The first surprise of the sonnet beginning "Today is fresh, and yesterday is stale" is how colloquial it is. Jarman gives us lines so disarmingly comfortable that we scarcely notice that we're in a sonnet. The series of opposites making up the opening quatrain is beguilingly simple, as charming as the word "tale" with which the quatrain ends.

We probably aren't even aware, as we swing easily through the poem, of how today's part of each line (the first two beats) names the more positive term of the opposition, and yesterday's part (the last three beats) the more negative. But the pattern shapes our reading as we move unsuspectingly into the second quatrain.

I say "unsuspectingly" because we're immediately thrust into another realm. With today's place taken by the empty grave, we find ourselves at Easter. Today's fresh, fast, "yes" news turns out to be the resurrection. And with the resurrection comes a transformative twist. With the full grave emptied, the shame of death becomes "glorious," and the most common "someone" turns out to be God.

In the third quatrain, now wholly in the resurrection's transformed world, oppositions cease. Instead we see the resurrection's unexpected effects. "It happens overnight. The world is changed." Seeing Easter in such cliched terms makes me laugh and nod. Yes, Easter's resurrection is indeed an overnight happening that changed the world.

After September 11 we heard often that "the world was changed." This is certainly true for those whose loved ones were killed. But at this first Easter season after the tragedy, Jarman's poem reminds us that every personal change is itself somehow changed by Christ's resurrection.

To help us picture this change, he gives us two images wildly unlike anything I've ever seen. "The bottles in the cellar all decant": I picture a wine cellar's bottles all de-corking themselves, cartoon-like, and tipping themselves to pour their contents onto the floor.

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