“…he soon learned
from all the eager talk of what things mean,
how ample mystery was — like bread from heaven.”
— “How He Came to Speak in Parables”
By Nancy Schmalz
Think of a person, someone you know well, or maybe a character you have read about. Now imagine that you can accompany this person during the various experiences of his life. As you follow your subject through the years of his development, you will have an intimate view of his behavior, his companions, and their interactions with each other. This imaginary journey is the one taken by poet David Southward in his new collection of poems, “Apocrypha.” Southward selected Jesus as his subject, and imagined the reactions of companions who were present at significant experiences in Jesus’s life. Distilling these responses into a sequence of sonnets spoken in the voices of these individuals, Southward has written a fascinating study of all the personalities involved, some familiar and others less so.
Apocrypha, the title of this sonnet sequence, means “writings or sayings of doubtful authorship or authenticity.” While it is true that much of “Apocrypha” has sprung from the imagination of the poet, it is also true that the characters in the poems react and speak to each other in ways consistent with our understanding of human behavior, so their authenticity is believable if undocumented. The apocryphal nature of these sonnets invites the reader to consider carefully the threads of human desire and regret, insight and weakness that are woven through each vignette.
Although Southward did extensive historical and biblical research, including a careful rereading of the entire Bible, in preparation for the writing of “Apocrypha,” readers of all faiths as well as nonbelievers can appreciate these sonnets as models of careful craftsmanship and especially as glimpses into the universal human hopes, fears and conflicts in the lives of all the characters who are represented. The poems encourage readers to let go of their preconceptions and bring fresh attention to the details of the life of Jesus and his contemporaries. Part of the pleasure of reading “Apocrypha” is the discovery of room for discussion and for differences of opinion in the interpretation of the characters’ personalities. A careful reading raises the tantalizing possibility of a bridge between disparate views, a common ground where readers can meet for fruitful discussion. Eavan Boland, in her essay “Discovering the Sonnet,” says “… every poetic form has a … vital existence through the personal encounter — by poet and reader, both.” In Southward’s “Apocrypha,” the image of Jesus that results from the interplay between the ideas of the speaker of each poem, those of the reader, and those of the poet himself is richer for being seen through these multiple lenses.
The sonnet form chosen by Southward as the structure for these poems is fascinating in itself. A venerable form, the sonnet has been with us since the 14th century and is still used by contemporary poets. It requires careful attention to rhyme patterns and meter, providing a sturdy scaffold on which a poet can construct a story or display an image. Though the sonnet may seem to impose strict requirements on the poet, Southward points out that the rules actually provide freedom as well as challenge; once the pattern has been selected, the writer is free to fill it with his best ideas, undistracted by conflicting possibilities outside the designated form. Just as painters, weavers, bakers and gardeners revel in the beauty they achieve by meticulous care to the details of their own crafts, poets receive satisfaction by seamlessly melding structure and content. In these sonnets, David Southward elevates the poetic craft by managing to make his adherence to rules seem effortless. The reader’s attention is drawn first to the content and beauty of the images, and only later to the elegance of the underlying structure.
In the sonnet titled “Brother James,” James describes his bewildered attraction to the teaching of Jesus:
“His sayings branched out into mysteries
for thoughts to nestle in, like winded doves.”
Readers of “Apocrypha” will discover the same pleasure James experienced as they encounter the ideas and mysteries, the skill and grace that resonate throughout these poems.
Nancy Schmalz is a musician, gardener, teacher and knitter living in a historic home in Mineral Point with her husband, Peter. Her collection of poetry, “Breath to Music, Air to Sound,” was published in 2017 by Mineral Point’s Little Creek Press.