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THE LITTLE BOOK OF JUDAS by Brendan Kennelly, £8.95, 224pp, Bloodaxe
old religion, ‘Judasanity’, is everywhere. With my eyes opened by delving
into The Little Book of Judas
(even though I am in Norwich rather than the rough myth-laden Dublin of
Kennelly’s poems) I’m rawly aware of those ‘local manifestations of universal
decay’ (‘Kisses’) which saturate the experience of narrator and reader
in these sharp, vivid poems. The
Little Book… is a shortened version of Kennelly’s earlier epic, yet
with new poems added too, as if Judas won’t loosen his grip on the poet’s
imagination. And in this book they spiral, in their disparate sections,
towards the uneasy conclusion that Judas is in all of us, waiting to speak
with his untrustworthy honesty, and, perhaps most of all, in those of
us who profess an interest in the written word.
Kennelly’s Judas is a Tiresius character, an anguished voyeur condemned to relive the few fearful facts of his own earthly career. He is literally beside himself in his acts of betrayal: condemning himself, burying himself, allowing himself a few searing moments of connection. Jesus is present, in images of silent immanence, or offering a few words of ambiguous acceptance: in one poem, Judas is interviewed for his ‘job as an apostle’ and strains to display appropriate knowledge about the nature of the Trinity and Mary’s virginity. But which particular apostle’s job is he being interviewed for? ‘At the end, Jesus nodded. He looked me in the eyes./ ‘Congrats, Judas’ he said, ‘The job is yours.’ (‘Interview’)
As Judas unravels himself and our expectations, we find his story interspersed with surreal interludes of social comment and atemporal confusion (God is a single mother, Judas appears as a chat show host, James Joyce has dinner with the holy family). Many of the poems hunker down in a squalid sexual morass, twisting the knife in tales of abuse and exploitation. Pity is mixed in with the pain, as Kennelly/Judas exposes ‘the perfectly human/voice of the fleshy damned’ (‘A Voice at Last’). The pages are gathered into gnomically-named sections, each of which has its own flavour. ‘Are the poems honest, Doctor?’ provides a concentrated twist of poverty and degradation. ‘High on Silver’ confronts the pervasive power of money over morals. The ventriloquism intensifies here with the ‘Pinstripe Pig’, a character who sniffs out profit in every situation. In the section entitled ‘Some Lads’, Kennelly diversifies his voices into further uncomfortable caricatures: Professor O’Paytreat, Pontius Pilate, the unhappily married Heaven and Hell.
There is a strong strand of burlesque in both plot and language throughout the book, which disarms and condemns the reader by turns. Joycean neologisms (‘a member of the slopposite sex’, ‘judasfatigue’) vie with spiritual puns (‘The Dark Night of the Hole’). Kennelly keeps the tension electric with partially submerged sonnets giving an eerie kind of rightness to the most dubious of lines, and short, startling poems which punch the reader awake. I was impressed by the anarchic build-up to what felt like the most important poem in the book, the long exploration of betrayal in ‘Kisses’. This poem explores the axis of terrible knowledge – that the impulses of tenderness and destruction are grafted onto each other – on which The Little Book of Judas uneasily rests. ‘We’ve spent our hearts for this, we spend them still’. It was with a sense of numb relief that I turned to the grim nursery-rhyme shades of Kenelly’s subsequent poem.:
…I met an old goat who said Judas is well
Heigh-ho Judas is well
And as long as that’s true there’s hope left in hell
Heigh-ho there’s hope left in hell’
Though even this last line is deeply ambiguous: hope for Judas? A good or a bad thing?
The Little Book of Judas is not just heart-breaking, scatological drama, however. Judas grasps the enormity of his attempt to articulate spiritual experience, almost despite himself: there are some elusive and very moving lines in, for example ‘No Image Fits’: ‘That I cannot understand is the bit of wisdom I have found’. And together with an uneasy acknowledgement of the transcendent is a distrust of literature, language, words altogether: ‘there’s nothing as treacherous as poetry’ (‘Send a Letter’), and ‘we’re in the crucifying business together’ (‘Parodies’). I relished ‘Special Decree’ in which Judas battles with an Emergency Committee to take his book over from ‘Brendan Kennelly, who is a sick man’, and the ‘Reader’s Report’ ambiguously conflating orthodox and Judas-centred gospels: ‘A great deal hangs on portrayal of the central character……I recommend a large paperback edition./ I’ll bet it sells.’ And I’ll bet it does. The Little Book Of Judas is a racy poetic read which boxes your spiritual ears, leaving you queasy, breathless, and uneasily exhilarated.
© Sarah Law 2002