Combining the ancient with the revolutionary, R. Douglas Jacobs has created a unique literary experience with Gethsemane: An Epic Poem About Us. In three acts and one hundred forty-eight verses, Jacobs creates an epic poem that is religious in nature but unconventional in its interpretive framework. It combines rhymed sonnets with the creation story told from Lucifer’s point of view.
The poem’s radicalism comes from its idiosyncratic narrative, sing-songy verse, and startling cover art. The cover art reminded me of Matthew Barney’s equally epic Cremaster Cycle. Gethsemane’s cover depicts a naked angel with wings aflame, bent over as he touches a stream. The angel’s skin is chalk white, at once sensual and artificial. The sing-songy verse is reminiscent of Algernon Charles Swinburne, the Decadent English poet of the Victorian Era.
While the epic is an ancient mode of poetry, it has been used with less frequency in modern times. The Cantos of Ezra Pound, Paterson, by William Carlos Williams, and Anne Waldman’s Iovis Trilogy, remain stand-out examples. Epic poems based on religious themes are even rarer.
The epic consists of three acts. The first focuses on Lucifer’s rebellion, the second on the Nephilim in the days before The Flood, and the third section is a tale of modern seduction and tragedy. The narrative thrust seems Faustian rather than Christian. One of the more powerful sections is when Lucifer gets cast out of Heaven and feels the torment of forward-moving linear time.
All the while, his senses were sequestered
From a rancor within him that festered
As he begun his arduous climb
In feeling the first effects of time
Elapse in chronological succession;
Whereby, age accounted for the transgression
That made the moments that passed, moments to bear
So that his life would come to know despair
In the same manner that it had known joy,
Or so it was by Lord’s design to employ
A duality invoking a parallel
In contrasting that of Heaven with that of Hell
That, in and of itself, was a conundrum
Rooted in the evolution that was to come.
Jacobs establishes existential tragedy not in Eve but in Lucifer suffering the effects of spacetime. This is the Creation story re-interpreted for the postmodern age.
Gethsemane suffers the fate of narrative melded to the sonnet rhyme-scheme. On occasions the rhymes become mere doggerel. But that is a subjective quibble because the doggerel is sometimes necessary to move the plot forward. While not every rhyme is perfect or unforced, one doesn’t mind this since the story is so eccentric and compelling.
One final note: Gethsemane is a self-published work and one of the best I’ve seen. This epic poem has high production quality, from its arresting cover to the beautifully laid out pages. Self-published works, without the keen eye of an editor or the harsh glare of the general public, can become cheap schlock. This is the exact opposite. It is a gorgeously rendered art piece. (Although I didn’t listen to it, Jacobs also produced a radio play as an aural companion piece.) This epic poem is a cunning combination of an idiosyncratic and individual vision with a professional presentation.