(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

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...

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(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Abbot, Anthony S. Review of Upholding Mystery: An Anthology of Contemporary Christian Poetry, edited by David Impastato. Theology Today, July, 1997. A review of an anthology that includes some of Hopes’s poems, categorizing him as a writer of “the natural world.”

Hopes, David Brendan. “The Boy Stood on the Burning Deck: Knowing the Mediocre and Teaching the Good.” English Journal 75 (1986): 42-45. Elucidates Hopes’s criteria for what he considers good poetry, helping readers understand his own poetry. Mediocre poetry for Hopes is that which tells readers nothing new.

Hopes, David Brendan. A Childhood in the Milky Way: Becoming a Poet in Ohio. Akron, Ohio: Akron University Press, 1999. This prose autobiography connects Hopes’s childhood in Akron with his poetry about God and nature.

Maksel, Rebecca. Review of Bird Songs of the Mesozoic: A Day Hiker’s Guide to the Nearby Wild, by David Brendan Hopes. Booklist 101 (2005): 926. A brief review of a book of nature essays by Hopes, citing his ability to “find the magical in the quotidian,” the same ability that makes his religious poetry effective.