The cover of this astonishing poetry collection features a woman rising out of a primordial gloom, her arms clawing the cracked walls of an ancient mikvah, the Jewish symbol of purification. Hanging in the Doge’s palace in Venice is another image that could well have served on this cover: a magnificent 17th century painting by Artemisia Gentileschi of Mary Magdalene in the throes of an ecstatic vision, head thrown back, red hair streaming.
M is a gorgeous book in every particular: the quality of the paper, the size of the page, the delicacy of the fonts, the elegance of the logo, an “M” that births a fleur-de-lis. This book will not fit neatly on your shelf of women poets, and it shouldn’t. The design team that brought the manuscript to fruition, clearly understood its worth.
Kushner divides her book into three sections: the Via Desiderio explores eros in the stories of Eve, the Virgin Mary, and Mary Magdalene; the Via Dolorosa compiles a compendium of women, all with names beginning with “M,” who suffer every imaginable atrocity of the modern world: wars, rape, kidnapping, including the horrendous abduction of 276 Nigerian girls by Boko Haram terrorists. In giving these women a voice to express their collective “bereavement, rage and resilience,” Kushner reveals her own courage, empathy, and depth. Only in the Via Transformativa, the final section, do we hear her speak out of personal pain and loss in poems that search for her father and track the theme of intergenerational trauma in her family.
It is hard to believe this is a first collection. The church fathers needed a Mary who was a virgin and a Magdalene who was a whore, but Kushner abides by no such constraints. She gives us red-blooded women we can identify with: an Eve who can’t get enough of Adam; a Mary who recoils from the angel and longs to escape her destiny; a Magdalene who rebels and dares to defy the Pharisees:
Let them call me harlot!
And if they dare fling stones in my face,
I shall sing out the true nature of pollution:
Not this silken dove
Tucked between my legs.
Not this tiger-heart,
Pacing in its ring of fire.
Not even Jesus could resist such a passionate woman. In daring to reimagine this sacred story of stories, Kushner manages to restore to women what two thousand plus years of church history have systematically denied them. In bringing sexuality and spirituality together in a sacred marriage, Kushner stands on the authority of cutting-edge feminist theology, an impressive bibliography, and a church that finally acknowledges the Magdalene as “the Apostle to the Apostles.” Women will rejoice, discovering in these poems the sacredness of their own bodies and of the earth itself, for “Earth here is as opulent as their heaven.” What a gift. These are more than poems; they are prayers suitable for contemplation—intuitive, revelatory, and prophetic.