BURLESQUES ON THE SECRET BOOK OF JOHN by Egon H.E.  Lass

BURLESQUES ON THE SECRET BOOK OF JOHN

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KIRKUS REVIEW

A collection of poetry presents a sendup of an unusual creation story.

In 1945 in the Egyptian desert, a trove of ancient scrolls was found that changed the way people think about early Christianity. These scrolls came to be known as the Nag Hammadi Library, and some scholars believe that they represent the teachings of a variant brand of Christianity now known as Gnosticism. Among these texts is The Apocryphon (or The Secret Book) of John, which tells a story of the creation of the world that is very different from the one many readers know from the Bible. At the core of this new saga is the construction of the body of Adam by 74 angels. And it is this arcane tale that serves as the foundation for Lass’ (A Lean Against the Wheel, 2015) endlessly surprising new collection of verse. The volume takes its structure from John’s version of the creation of Adam; accordingly, there are 74 poems here—one for each part of the first man’s body. Thus poem 18, “The Left Shoulder,” reads in part: “The clavicle a bulwark, / A strut from shoulder blade to sternum, / Favorite perch for devils plotting a soul’s corruption.” And poem 58, “The Right Thigh,” opens: “The right thigh is the thigh / Of ages. When you lift this thigh, / You will know that you are dealing / With quality. Let’s talk about this / For ten seconds. Any longer, / And I get bored.” These last lines bring out the collection’s greatest strength: its humor. Lass’ tone throughout the book is by turns clever, funny, and sarcastic; these are, after all, burlesques. So readers expecting the somber sounds of Scripture should be (delightfully) surprised by the poet’s cheeky wit. But don’t let the laughs fool you: This volume offers complex poetry with remarkable allusive depth. Lass dives down into Greek, biblical, and Gnostic myth here, and those looking for a pleasant diversion may wish to search elsewhere; in other words, the poet’s most obvious ancestor is T.S. Eliot, not Mary Oliver. Yet readers willing to put in the effort should find that secret treasures abound.

A droll and challenging verse exploration of a seldom-read religious tale.

Pub Date: April 1st, 2018
Page count: 157pp
Publisher: FutureCycle Press
Program: Kirkus Indie
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1st, 2018