Arts & Culture · Poetry

Poetry Sunday: “In Another Version, I Have a Child With G-d,” by Julia Levine

Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

The tradition of mortals having verbal or other intercourse—even erotic—with a god or God goes back a long way in literature. Who can read Herbert’s “Love III” or Donne’s Sonnet 74 (“Batter my Heart Three-Person’d God”), or Yeats “Leda and the Swan” without feeling these hot currents? More recently, women poets like Mary Szybist and Marie Howe have been writing poems from the perspective of the two Marys who knew Christ most intimately: his mother, and Mary Magdalene.

In this poem in which the speaker imagines herself having a daughter with God, Julia Levine walks the tightrope of humor, beauty, and blasphemy. An ironic stance is established outright in the title, where the phrase “In another Version” implies discontent with the version that is. In free verse tercets, Levine spins the tale of the traditional wrathful father-figure God made tender by his little bundle of joy. God’s joy explodes new solar systems and his smile rains down meteors, but his power stands in comic contrast to the speaker’s deflationary view of him: not unlike her first husband who also disappeared during night feedings and diaper changes and returned from shopping errands with all the wrong things. Like any (mortal) couple, the speaker and God get into “arguments,” but theirs are “about reason and mystery,” a high-flown subject about which the speaker doubts her husband can shed much light, “what with His claims / to have created a universe in a week / when He can’t even fold the laundry before bed.” This God is an oxymoron: omnipotent and utterly helpless. All brawn and apparently no brain, he harnesses lightning bolts but weeps at night over the mess he’s made of the created world.

In this poem—or version—the speaker (female, human, cast in the traditionally subservient role as wife) has all the power. She is the one who comforts God in his despair, reminding him of the miracles of creation in a crystalline list that trumps one image with the next and concludes with my favorite, “the wild, uncoded sea [that] / quietly unloads its portage of yesterday’s winds.” I love this poem for its sass and the way it turns received dogma on its head. Here, the woman not only speaks for God (relaying his dialog), but also orders him around and kvetches about his shortcomings. God is powerful, yes, but in the way baby superman is powerful, burping out wonders along with his messes and then gazing in wonder and horror at what he has made. The poem is imaginative and brave in taking a stance that does not simply rewrite biblical history but also challenges conventional thinking about creation and the problem of evil (an accidental incidence of God’s random, uncontrolled powers). God is flawed, the speaker says, but we forgive him for it because what is good in creation is so very wonderful.

I also love the poem for its diction, precisely chosen to serve its function in each case. Look how “coos and chortles with joy” sticks a hatpin in the idea of an almighty God-on-High, and how aptly those next images (a “daffodil hill / and quince orchards in spring) visually evoke God’s joy. What better way to describe a baby’s lips than “parted in plump collision?” I enjoy the humor in God’s cutting out to avoid a diaper change and the lame (yet mythical) things he brings home instead of milk and tomatoes (“a bushel of Horned melon / and three goats rescued from a cliff in Crete”). And I love, love that final dazzling list of things that God did get—just right.

 

In Another Version, I Have a Child With G-d

A girl this time. He coos and chortles with a joy
that shouldn’t surprise me, having seen daffodil hill
and quince orchards blossom in spring.

Still it’s sweet, how the big guy kneels beside her crib,
and then pops up like a newly exploded solar system,
crowing, Peek A Boo, now you see Me, now you don’t.

Which is how I feel about the night feedings
He promised to share. In fact, with few exceptions,
He’s not much different from my first husband—

His critically important errands
just when the baby’s diapers need changing.
Or how I ask Him for tomatoes and a pint of half and half

and He comes back with a bushel of Horned melon
and three goats rescued from a cliff in Crete. Honey, I say,
you are hopeless, and He smiles like a meteor shower,

which sets the baby laughing
at all the electromagnetic neutrinos dazzling the walls,
which only amplifies His pleasure,

until sometimes I have to insist He stop
before we all spontaneously combust.
Which He says is impossible, Darling, be rational.

This is where we get into our arguments
about reason and mystery, what with His claims
to have created a universe in a week

when He can’t even fold the laundry before bed.
But despite all the critiques on His cruelty and arrogance,
or the outright lies about His homophobia

and pro-life agendas, you have no idea
how often He cries at night when He thinks I’m asleep,
poring over His species,

weeping for the laughing owl, Cuban Holly,
or Xerces, the last blue butterfly.
Just reading the Times, He can take a millennia

over the lists of Iraqi dead, touching each name
as if fingering an original spark blundered into darkness.
On Sundays He stares out the window

at our unmowed lawn, devising good dreams
for the terminally ill. Other times He watches the baby sleep,
her flawless lips parted in a plump collision,  

and shakes His head, whispering, Honey, what was I thinking?
How could I have gotten it so right
and wrong at the same time?

This is when I gather His immensity into my arms
and croon, Shhhhh. What about the pomegranates
with their cathedrals of scarlet? What about the taste of it

and the fire of the actual flaring in a single afternoon
among the aspens? What about a body
meaning everything it cannot say

while all night, wave by wave,
the wild, uncoded sea
quietly unloads its portage of yesterday’s winds?

 

From Small Disasters Seen in Sunlight by Julia Levine, Louisiana State University Press (2014), lsupress.org. Reprinted with permission of the press. All rights reserved.

 

Levine, Juliia_6-23-15Julia B. Levine has won numerous awards for her work, including the 2015 Northern California Poetry Award for her latest collection, Small Disasters Seen in Sunlight, as well as the 2003 Tampa Review Prize for Ask, the 1998 Anhinga Poetry Prize, the Foreword magazine Bronze Medal for Practicing for Heaven, and a Discovery/The Nation award. Small Disasters Seen in Sunlight inaugurated the Barataria Poetry Series for Louisiana State University Press in 2014. Levine’s work appears in several new anthologies including The Places That Inhabit Us, The Autumn House Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry, and The Bloomsbury Anthology of Contemporary Jewish American Poetry. She received a PhD in clinical psychology from UC Berkeley and lives and works in Davis, California.

 

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  • Patricia Yarberry Allen, M.D. September 20, 2015 at 9:59 am

    Such an astonishing poem. The Husband and I read the Sunday offerings here each week and are always lifted up by the beauty of the words, the musical offering as part of our Sunday service and the introductions from our own poetry pope, Rebecca Faust.
    Many thanks.

    Reply
  • sarah pegasus September 20, 2015 at 9:52 am

    love the juxtaposition of husband/wife, little miracles of life & death, nature’s glories & global disasters

    Reply