Thirteen poems exploring various aspects of Christian experience make up this chapbook by David Brendan Hopes; most, like the title poem, focus on specific Christian images or events, though a few, such as “The Soul May Be Compared to a Figure Walking” and “From the Infinite Names of the Center,” explore universal spiritual experiences not limited to the Christian tradition.
The first three poems in The Penitent Magdalene present contemplative responses to specific works of Christian art. The second poem, “The Annunciation/Jan van Eyck,” offers enough descriptive detail for the reader to imagine the painting—an early fifteenth century painting of the Annunciation—though the description is also commentary and interpretation. These interpretations both penetrate van Eyck’s fourteenth century vision and present it to the modern audience. For example, the descent of the Holy Ghost is described as a “circus dancer on a golden wire,” an apt description of van Eyck’s stylized ray from the window to Mary’s head. Yet when the next line notes that the dove is out of proportion to the figures of Mary and the Angel, Hopes affirms a late-medieval principle of religious art, that it presents spiritual essence rather than material reality. In the words of the poem, “the miracle/ survives the carnival of externals,” both echoing the previous reference to the “circus dancer” and the original meaning of “carnival” as “farewell to the flesh,” the feasting that precedes a religious fast.
The third poem, “The Meeting of St. Anthony and St. Paul/Sassetta,” responds to a painting of the same era as the van Eyck painting and also housed in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Just as the previous poem contained a playful description of the “golden wire,” this one describes the stylized golden haloes surrounding the heads of the saints as “rings of...
(The entire section is 794 words.)