The True Story of the Resurrection:
poems by Michael Henson with a foreword by Richard Hague

 ( Nicholasville , KY : Wind Publications, 2014) ISBN  978-1-936138-70-8;   $15; 94 pp.
 
Review by Pauletta Hansel.

Full disclosure here: Michael Henson is an old, dear friend. We are co-editors of Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel, the literary journal of the Southern Appalachian Writers Cooperative. I have known him since he worked nights at Duro Bag and wrote his novels by hand in the early mornings, 500 words a day of tight sentences and compact paragraphs that were relentless and beautiful and true. I knew him when he first turned his pen to poetry. I watched those sentences unfurl to lines and stanzas that carried the rhythm of song. I have called him—admiringly, jokingly—the “Walt Whitman of Over the Rhine,” the Cincinnati neighborhood where he once lived and still works, for his poetry’s long, multi-jointed lines, anaphoric structure and dense, succulent descriptions.  And while all that is still true in Mike’s first full-length collection, The True Story of the Resurrection, I find myself now with no one to compare him to but himself. In the book’s introduction, Richard Hague mentions Melville as a possible influence. Perhaps there is a hint of Wendell Berry in these pages; the final poem is especially reminiscent of “The Mad Farmer’s Love Song.” But mostly these poems represent only Michael Henson at his very finest, so let me just say that there is the power and presence of an author at his peak in The True Story of the Resurrection, a book that is based loosely on no less than the Bible itself.
 

Many of the poems are written in what seems to me a style similar to the Jewish tradition of midrash.  With the root meaning of “to study” or “to investigate,” midrash stories help to both fill in gaps and draw forward the essential lessons within sacred texts. In Henson’s “Adam and Eve,” an oft told tale, Adam looks upon his mate with wonder and sensual delight (“She smelled of figs/and of the lanolin of in the
wool of Lamb”) even knowing that:
 

                tangled in her hair
                and lurking in the bones that framed her,
                she held his Disaster
                and that he held hers
 

because:
 

                …his story was hers
                as her story was his
                and that was worth everything that was to come. (pp. 7-8)
 

As in the modern feminist employment of midrash, women, too, have voice in these pages. The speaker in “Exodus,” though she bears on her back old scars from the Egyptian men she once fled, remembers:
 

                But their women did nothing to us.
                And the children did nothing to us.
                Yet we despoiled them;
                We despoiled them utterly
                and the women wailed
                with their broken sons in their arms. (p. 16)
 

Henson also explores the psalm in lyrical, prayer-like poems of both praise:
 

                For whatever has set the stars to arc across the sky (p. 22)
 

and plea:
 

                Father of all who falter and fail
                how do I dare to put pen to a prayer (p. 26)
               

Most of the poems in The True Story of the Resurrection are not content to merely look back. They turn a clear and steady eye to our current struggles. Henson’s “Short Book of Proverbs” asks us:
 

                Which is the greater threat?
                That which attacks us?
                Or that which we ingest?
                The fox can master anything but poison. (p. 29)
 

The biblical stories, too, are often cast within our present time and circumstances. “After the Flood” caused by four days of rain lashing the Appalachians , “A stench rises/ of fish-flesh and desiccated sewage.” (p. 12)

 

In his letter to his old friend and fellow organizer, Tom McGrath, now deceased, Henson writes from the Ark that, “Forty days/forty nights,/ dollars rained down” and “flattened the mountains of West Virginia,/ stripping them down to naked stone.” (pp. 10-11)
 

In Henson’s “Old Testament” the smell of gunsmoke drifts up from the valley (p. 14) and “a line of soldiers snakes along the road.” (p. 13). He tells us:
 

                No other god is so angry.
                No other god offers us
                so many ways to offend him
               

                but a man might wish for a god
                who understands the failings of a man… (p. 18)
 

On the “Old Testament’s” final page, Henson’s Jonah “lay cramped” not in the belly of the whale, but in the “belly of amnesia” after a night in Reno . “What now? he thought, What now?”

What follows is, of course, “The New Testament.” The section’s first poem ends with a woman who “suckles a child/born in the mire of a stall.” (pp. 41-42) and continues with a poem cycle set on a Christmas Eve just months past 9/11:
 

                But the old story tells us
                compassion survives
                in the mangers of the poor. (p. 43-54)
 

Mike Henson’s Gospels are mostly set in mostly in an urban community much like Cincinnati ’s Over the Rhine, with its issues of poverty, substance abuse and gentrification. Henson’s “Son of Man” is sent “barefoot and shirtless and stoned out of his mind” out into the snow in search of “The Shelter.” He dies not on a cross but, in the snow after “a dog barked six times, then stopped/…the Son of Man was very tired and the body did not rise again.”  (p. 62-63)
 

Henson’s “The Woman at the Well:”
 

                …shuffles into the park
                in her big buckety boots,
                stumble-stupid, sag-eyed, double-damned
                drunk…
 

eventually woken by a man who:
 

                …wears a long black coat
                and there is about him
                something terrible and redemptive.
            ...  

                He stands in the mist at the curb of the fountain
                where the waterfall is enough to make a person sing.
 

But even so,
 
                She reaches for the bottle
                —the empty, terrible, traitorous bottle—
                and her hand begins to tremble. (pp. 59-60)
 
The book’s title poem, “The True Story of the Resurrection,” gives us an unnamed Jesus who is indeed both “terrible and redemptive” as well as revolutionary. He stubbornly will remain neither crucified nor mainstreamed. Despite “some very sharp marketing minds” who perform “in total secrecy/ the most stunning makeover of all times,” Henson’s Jesus shrugs off the trappings to go “about his father’s business.” He strays from the script, “out to ruin it all unless they can get him under control.” And so they eventually:

                built a new cross.
                And they nailed him down again.

                And again.

                And again. (pp 67-69)
 

Michael Henson also carries on the role of disciple through his own “Epistles of Saint Michael” to the marginal, the many, the poets, the Friends (Mike attends Quaker Meeting) and to America itself:
 

                America ,
                You can tell the pin-stripe Goliaths
                I’ve gone home to America .
                You can tell them
                I’m out in the yard with David,
               Counting stones. (pp. 80-81)
 

The True Story of the Resurrection is a bold book likely, as the saying goes, “to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.” Mike offers “fair warning” as part of his introduction, that some might find the poems disturbing in their use of the Bible as inspiration: “I was disturbed myself as I wrote them,” he writes. His book, he says, constitutes his “long-standing argument with God,” one he knows he will never win (“as Job can tell us”) but one for which “we win God’s blessing when we try.” (p. 1).
 

The True Story of the Resurrection derives certainly from Mike’s Jesuit-trained argumentative mind, but also from the sweet, sweet blessing of his creative spirit. It is both wise and lovely in its music, its images, its language. It is also clever and erudite and packs a definite punch. Read it. Those of us who do may find that it may help teach us:
 

                how to talk of that for which we have no word. (p. 91)
 


Reviewer Pauletta Hansel is a writer, teacher and author of four poetry collections, most recently The Lives We Live in Houses (Wind Publications, 2011) and What I Did There (Dos Madres Press, 2011.) Her fifth book, Tangle, is forthcoming from Wind Publications. Her poetry has been featured in journals including Appalachian Journal, Atlanta Review, Postcards Poems and Prose, The Notebook and Still: The Journal, and anthologized in Listen Here: Women Writing in Appalachia and Motif 2,3 and 4. She is writer-in residence at Thomas More College and managing editor of Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel, the literary publication of the Southern Appalachian Writers Cooperative.