As the story has been told to me, I come from three generations of pastors and prophets, and in this way, the prophetic has always been in my blood. I was raised in the Celestial Church of Christ, a Christian denomination founded in Benin City, where my mother’s family is from. In every house I’ve lived in, we’ve devoted a room or a corner to an altar for prayer. Only my father and brothers were allowed to touch the altar where we placed candles and offerings for God on Sunday, while my mother, my sister and I were not allowed past the halfway point. All Celestians (‘Cele’ for short) wear what are called ‘sutanas’ (also called ‘white garments’ in Nigeria), but only the women must cover their heads. We cannot wear shoes while we wear our sutanas. Men and women sit on opposite ends of the church and there are no pews. I did not sit in a church pew until I was well into my ’20s, when I went to an American church for the first time. Though my parents believed that learning Yoruba, my first language before English, would slow my development, we almost exclusively prayed and sang in Yoruba. I memorized songs, believing my people’s language to be the language of angels.
In my child mind, I did not question the rules, one being that although God loved me, He saw my body as a site of contempt. When my body began to open, to awaken its machinery of creation, my father was angry because now I was no longer a girlchild. Yet, I was happy because I wanted to be a woman, so I presented to my father this new development of my body. A promise, red as shame. Now, every month, my body would shed and release its labor. When my chest began its slow yet rude blooming, my father stopped hugging me, unable to reconcile himself with nature’s betrayal. When boys in my grade grabbed me and gestured towards my shaping body, when grown men hollered profanities from their cars, when my mother threatened to kick me out the house if I fell pregnant, when the world named me and my body before I had the language to name myself, I understood ‘desire’ and ‘shame’ were the cornerstones of womanhood.
Back then, I turned to the bible when I sought to understand the world’s workings. I was raised to believe that God gave humans answers to all the world’s problems, in the Great Book. In the Western canonical Bible, Eve is the first woman named, yet in the Hebrew Bible, Adam was first married to Lilith. Depending on which translation you trust, her name means “female demon” or “night banshee”. Lilith was the first woman to be punished for denying a man pleasures of the flesh. After first reading this, I began to ask: “What does pleasure look like outside of the male gaze or God’s approval?” The Bible told me it does not exist. After all, Paradise was set on fire when Eve sought pleasure for herself, and she was both gifted and punished with childbearing. Again, Eve was punished twofold by losing both her children, one to death and the other to banishment. Mary’s sole function in the Bible was to birth a boy god, only to watch him crucified after offering His people salvation. Lot’s wife was not only denied a name, she was disavowed by God for looking back to see the fall of Sodom and Gomorrah, for being a woman who could bear witness to His most blatant savagery. While Jezebel ruled Israel with a brutal hand, her name is most often associated with an evil or scheming woman. Paul acknowledges Mary Magdalene as one of the earliest followers of Jesus, and one of the few besides Mary to witness the Crucifixion, yet neither of them are widely recognized as followers of Christ.
Biblical men are afforded the grace to inflict cruelty, to kill God’s worshippers, to offer up their daughters in exchange for clemency, to be complex figures. But if a woman says ‘no’ to God, if a woman refuses to lay beneath her husband, if a woman looks back, she is either erased entirely or relegated to a secondary role in the Church.. For years, I struggled to reconcile my relationship to God when I couldn’t see my face in His teachings. I’m not sure if I am still religious but I know that the Bible was my first book of poetry, and poetry is the medium through which I make a tangible sense of my life.
When I moved to New York, my sister and I lived together for the first time as adults. There was tension between us before she arrived, but once we lived together, years of unresolved frustration and anger were crammed together in our two-bedroom apartment. It was never a serious strife: neither of us endangered the life of the other, but we were both capable of enacting impressive cruelty upon each other, both incapable of forgiveness. My sister accused me of gaslighting her by shuffling her objects around the living room, and would throw violent fits when I didn’t listen to her. Yes, I do blame the patriarchal forces of the Bible for wielding unlawful power, but I was immature and cruel to her. At every turn I reminded my sister that I was the eldest, and she could not oppose me. We screamed and cursed at each other, and it went on like this: her begging me to hear her out, me ramming headphones in my ears, ignoring my sister from the safety of my bedroom. In The Wild Iris, poet Louise Glück evokes nature’s voice to connect with God and weaponizes language against forces that reigned above her:
And all this time
I indulged your limitations, thinking
you would cast it aside yourselves sooner or later,
thinking matter could not absorb your gaze forever—
We were kids when my sister repeatedly told me to kill myself. She said it in childish rage, initially, but as we grew up, she’d say it again with more intention — the kind that cleaves flesh from bone. It seems dramatic to write this all out — two sisters needlessly quarreling in a two-bedroom apartment somewhere in Queens — yet in the middle of this heat, it felt Biblically ordained that one of us would strike down the other with the fury of Kingdom Come. It was the closest I’d ever felt to my sister. It was also the farthest. Blinded by rage, I turned to other literary women who would understand. Reading the work of Louise Glück and Brigit Pegeen Kelly felt like a proper introduction to the Divine from a feminine perspective.Theirs was a voice I was so hungry for, especially then, when I was consumed with rage towards my sister. In truth, I was afraid of what I had become. In “Clear Morning,” Glück meets God’s eye without ever saying His name. Here, she crafts a voice which returns us to the natural world. Who better to comfort God than one of his most noble creatures:
I’ve watched you long enough
I can speak to you any way I like—
I’ve submitted to your preferences, observing patiently
the things you love, speaking
through vehicles only, in
details of earth, as you prefer,
As the poem progresses, there is risk and truth. Glück is unflinching in her exactness:
I cannot go on
restricting myself to images
because you think it is your right
to dispute my meaning:
I am prepared now to force
clarity upon you.
When I first read this poem, it was like a voice of the oracular, from a feminine perspective allowed me the gift of emotional sharpness. I was able to negotiate the complexities and nuances of desire that was lawfully denied to women in the Bible. How does the Divine sound when it comes from a body that menstruates? How do shame and divinity exist in a singular body, a body with all the complexities of the feminine?
To understand my rage towards my sister, I looked to the oldest sibling rivalry in the non Judeo-Christian Bible. At the time, having only read To The Place of Trumpets, The Orchard opened, for me, a new door in Kelly’s poem “Brightness From The North”:
Bright shapes in the dark garden, the gardenless stretch
Of old yard, sweetened now by the half-light
As if by burning flowers. Overture. First gesture.
But not even that, the pause before the gesture,
The window frame composing the space, so it
Seems as if time has stopped, as if this half-dark,
This winter grass, plated with frost, these unseen
Silent birds might stay forever. It seems as if
This might be what forever is, the presence of time
Overriding the body of time, the fullness of time
Not a moment but a being, watchful and unguarded,
Unguarded and gravely watched this garden—
The black fir with its long aristocratic broken branches,
The cluster of three tiny tipped arborvitae
Damp as sea sponges, the ghostly sycamore shedding
Its skin, and the sweet row of yews along the walk
Into which people throw their glittering trash….
And who, when the light rises, will come up the walk?
We can say no one will come—the day will be empty
Because you are no longer in it […]
The greatest strength of this poem is Kelly’s remarkable ability to combine the tangible (“silent birds”) with the intangible that transforms the body (“the presence of time”), offering me the nuances I need to speak of the oracular. We begin in the natural world, in a world governed by ever-shifting time, and arrive back in the human world, burdened by “glittering trash”. Kelly teaches me to observe, to mythologize and reshape the world as I see fit. The following poems in this anthology are poems guided by women and non-binary poets engaging with the Divine through multiple lenses. Several poets engage in both established and borrowed mythologies, such as Leila Chatti sitting beside Mary at a gynecologist’s practice. There are similarities between the poetry of new writers, Carly Joy Miller, author of Ceremonial and Virgin author, Analicia Sotelo. While their works differ in style, there are poems which meet as sister poems, both evoking and mythologizing desire from a feminine gaze. In “Ceremonial For The Beast I Desired”, Miller confesses:
Tragic, how ceremonies
bitter: my body a door
Beast, when done,
blurs my chest still:
missed shadow, phantom
gift. Still I kiss
his jaw wild with yellow
jackets. I shepherd
too long in his furs.
“In his furs” segues us to Soleto’s “The Minotaur Invents The Circumstances Of His Birth”:
I am born: her birthing dress is a mast in my mouth,
a moth wrecked in specks of sarcophagus black,
a parasol in the twelve-armed wheel of a phaeton,
a crinoline smoking in a fragrant fire—
I crawled through her human body
to meet her spectators head on
& in the high forceps of the evening
I wonder about the Bible’s short-sightedness, how women are portrayed, and what that means for my ever-evolving faith. I want more complicated women in the Bible but the Bible is fixed in time, so I find myself crafting a New Divine with the women who make God on their terms. These poets implicate the oracular in their language and give me new ways to see my body as holy. The natural threads which bind these poems together stem from the oldest human gesture–an urgency to be seen and felt. Maybe that’s what I wanted from God all along. I wanted His words to touch me, and to affirm that what my body naturally does is not shameful, that to be female is to be endless.
I.S. Jones is an American / Nigerian poet and music journalist. She is a Graduate Fellow with The Watering Hole and holds fellowships from Callaloo, BOAAT Writer’s Retreat, and Brooklyn Poets. She is a Book Editor with Indolent Books, Editor at 20.35 Africa: An Anthology of Contemporary Poetry, freelances for Vinyl Me Please, Complex, Earmilk, NBC News Think and elsewhere. Her works have appeared or are forthcoming in Guernica, Washington Square Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Rumpus, The Offing, Shade Literary Arts and elsewhere. Her work was chosen as a finalist by Khadijah Queen for the 2020 Sublingua Prize for Poetry. She is an MFA candidate in Poetry at UW-Madison.