Friday, January 15, 2016

The Gospel According to Judas By Keith Holyoak

The Gospel According to Judas
By Keith Holyoak
Dos Madres Press
Loveland, Ohio
ISBN: 978-1-939929-30-3
62 Pages

Review by Dennis Daly

Taking for his subject the man who made it happen for Christianity and western civilization, Keith Holyoak delves into the anti-heroic betrayer of Jesus Christ in a sublime meditation on flawed humanity. Holyoak entitles his poetic collection The Gospel According to Judas and it lives up to its name. In fact the spell of divinity he weaves so suspends one’s disbelief that the reader begins to budget his or her well-earned share of thirty pieces of communal silver in an effort to make good on humanity’s unaccountable, yet clearly irrefutable, trespasses. 

Holyoke’s persona positions himself as an honest broker, an intermediary between the resurrected Judas and his public. The poet sets his collection up as 27 chapters abounding with contrasting angles of approach and multiple voices. The first chapter, Double Cross, opens with a jolt. Judas imagines himself as a last-minute-hero and for his pains he is crucified with his messiah on the left of a shared cross (Here is as good a place as any to consider the pun embedded in Holyoak, the poet’s last name). As Jesus turns to his right to grant salvation to the also-crucified good thief, Judas confronts his existential destiny,

… “Rabbi, why have you forsaken me?
Though I have sinned (as all men must), have I
Not testified for you?”
                                         “On Calvary,”
The thief broke in, “We all must hang forsaken.”
“Join me today in paradise,” said He,
Still facing right. Bereaved, the earth was shaken
As wind-blown dust smothered the afternoon.
“Water….” I was alone—He had been taken.
“And me?” Soldiers trudged to their garrison.
“And me?” Whispered the voice, “It has begun.”

Almost from the beginning Holyoak imports concepts like reincarnation from the major eastern religions in an effort to explain Judas’s search for expiation. These long ago western heresies now seem to fit easily into the poet’s search for universal truths entangled with forgiveness.  It’s as if Holyoak clicks a light on, forever altering the surrounding modernist and mechanistic sensibility. The tree of knowledge roots itself solidly within the tightly versed piece, Samsara. Consider the center of this poem’s internally spreading space,

The tug of gravity
at ninety-six thousand feet
gives form to vap’rous dust,
figments agglomerate
to seed a memory
hurled back to earth and thrust

into the nascent brain.
Gliding beneath the clouds
familiar smells of earth
awaken genetic codes—
as desert stirs in a rain
the soul prepares for birth.

Chapter 9 delivers a remarkable poem Holyoak titles Genesis. This narrative piece flows effortlessly and deliciously in terza rima into a concluding feast of shared figs. It chronicles the first meeting between Christ and Judas and it is jaw dropping. The dichotomy between these two natures of light and shadow manifests itself in pinpoint conversation and piercing metaphor. Judas speaks in a moment of poetic exhilaration,

Stepping into my courtyard, I was blinded
By light that coalesced as form and flesh.

One step—his shadow fit me. We were kindred
Sharing a cloak. “Judas Iscariot”
(His voice bespoke a kiss, my name rang sacred),

“You are the son of David, are you not,
Versed in the teachings of Pythagoras?”
I hesitated, then replied, “God taught

Them both to hear the chords rippling across
The heavens; to the Greeks He also gave
Numbers to measure what’s harmonious

To ear and eye …

Notice how the form almost merges into the content: a perfect use of structured verse.

Another terza rima narrative called Climbing Mount Zion follows the uncertain band of Jewish insurgents in triumph, or is it delusion, through the east gate of Jerusalem. A brawl ensues. Christ and his followers dine with Mary Magdelene, who anoints Jesus with expensive oil. Judas is horrified by the money wasted, money that could have been distributed to the poor. Up to this point Holyoak has followed the New Testament plotline. Judas’ concern now internalizes and he acts. The poet imparts the betrayal lead-up with subtlety, but with little drama. In these lines Judas rationalizes,

… Hearing him, I was sure

My teacher, brother, friend was bound for woe,
Slipping away from us. Should I do nothing?
Just listen, watch, keep silent, let him go?

Sometimes a thoughtful man must act, trusting
In God, or instinct. Inquiries were passed
Along, a meeting set. They gave me something

To feed the poor—much less than what we lost
When Mariam despaired, but thirty pieces
Of silver surely helps. My dice were cast.

Toward the end of this collection, in Chapter 25, Holyoak sets the piece Angkor Thom, a truly strange poems that opens in the poet’s voice and switches over to the voice of Judas. Angkor Tom, a Khmer temple complex once lost in the jungles of Cambodia, now rises out of algae and decay and tree roots with images that suggest the state of Judas’ karma-driven soul. Here are the concluding two stanzas, stanzas that both soothe and connect with a prayerful gentleness,

The barren fruit rotted long ago—
Here, this strangler fig soars to the sky,
Spreading to soothe the sun, while down below
Its roots, exposed like holy serpents, try to meld with temple stone—see how the flow
Of life binds earth with heaven! Tell me, why
Have I crossed oceans seeking out this place?
Is this the tree of knowledge, or of grace?

O bodhisattvas, multi-facetted
As mountain peaks at dawn, gazing within
On silence rising from the fountainhead,
You who have helped the generations spin
Through birth and death, letting compassion spread
To every living being, every sin,
Smile yet on those of us who seek release,
Until our hungering and striving cease!

This poetically-generated Judas appears to have attained a timeless peace by opening his heart to mystical rhythms of musicality and artistic harmony, and that is what Holyoak offers his readers in his magnificent book.

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