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  • Poetry and Apocalypse: Theological Disclosures of Poetic Language
  • Dorothy Z. Baker (bio)
Poetry and Apocalypse: Theological Disclosures of Poetic Language. By William Franke. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009. 232 pp. Cloth $60.00.

Poetry and Apocalypse: Theological Disclosures of Poetic Language is a profound and radical study that holds many surprises. The first surprise is that it takes up the important relationship between literature and theology, a relationship that is studiously avoided in contemporary scholarship. Despite obvious religious meditation in the work of such diverse authors as Louise Glück, Seamus Heaney, Geoffrey Hill, and Fanny Howe, scholars seem to be uncomfortable with the religious arguments in their poetry. Likewise, when reviewers and critics read John Berryman's "Eleven Addresses to the Lord," Anne Sexton's "O Ye Tongues," and Allen Grossman's "How to Do Things with Tears," they broach each poem's metaphysics, transcendence, spirituality, and myth making but shy away from engaging in any discussion of theology or religious practice per se. At the foundation of William Franke's book is the assertion that poetry and theology were inseparable during the earliest stages of culture and that this unity of language and religious experience is fully in evidence in modern and contemporary literature.

The second surprise is that Poetry and Apocalypse does not treat lyric poetry closely defined. Rather it broadens its focus to take up the enduring vitality of poetic language in a variety of genres. Paying special attention to Dante's Divine Comedy and, most particularly and extensively, James Joyce's Finnegans Wake as examples of Christian epic, the book argues that the literary modes and themes of Christian scripture provide a structure and a telos for poetic articulation. That is, contemporary literature relies [End Page 674] on the repetitive structure of scripture and enacts typological strategies of scriptural hermeneutics. It does so to articulate the origins of the self and human culture and to give voice to the human sense of divinity and to the ways human beings imagine divinity. The fact that literature continues to evoke and rework scriptural types asserts its investment in religious thought and its goal of rendering the unity of human experience.

Franke does not examine the scriptural passages in which Job repeatedly questions God, biblical assertions of power in the figures of Miriam or Judith, statements of the desire of Lot's wife, or New Testament revelations of the simultaneous humanity and divinity in the person of Jesus, all of which appear and reappear in modern and postmodern texts as evidence of the bond of theology and poetic expression. Rather, he identifies rituals of blood sacrifice and death as the center of Christian theology, this being yet another surprising turn within the book. Looking to the studies of Gian Balsamo and J. J. Altizer, the book asserts, then, that the typological pattern of sacrificial death that engenders life is repeated throughout literature as the ecstatic and liberating transformation of death into understanding, self-sacrifice into love, and pain into the full experience of the body. Literature preserves and manifests the sensual immediacy of blood sacrifice and the human experience of terror of violence to a human being and the simultaneous awe of the gift of life. Consistent with his theoretical understanding of the form and function of the literary text, Franke understands Joyce's fragmented, inventive, and frequently irreverent language ("God becomes man becomes fish") as a literary means of resurrecting otherwise dead religious types or metaphors as visceral and potent assertions of a new community. His language arrests and appalls the reader in his attempt to enact the experience of the Crucifixion.

Ultimately, Poetry and Apocalypse is a book about radical Christian thought, and this, too, is an interesting surprise. The death and resurrection of Christ establishes a pattern of apocalyptic experience for the Christian church that demands that the believer be open to devastating events and horrific ideas within history in anticipation of a transformative and illuminating aftermath. Despair is always attached to the hope of transcendence; death is always attached to the affirmation of life. In this way, the openness to apocalypse becomes a condition of Christian life, a characteristic of the...