It’s one of the enduring mysteries of the fundamentalist tradition: the Bible, a book commonly taught to children, is filled with R-rated horrors that would seem more at home in a Tarantino movie than a bedtime story.
A twice-widowed woman seduces her father-in-law by the side of the road, as blackmail or a bargaining chip. A childless wife offers her servant to her husband as a consolation prize, then banishes the servant and her son to the desert to die. A father is called to murder his son as a sacrifice to God; at the last minute only, the Lord stays his hand. A father is promise-bound to murder his daughter as a sacrifice to God; this time, the child is not so lucky.
These are stories of a world without mercy.
In her poetry collection The Acolyte, Nancy Hightower explores the brutality of these ancient stories with unflinching vision, fully inhabiting the tragedy, the hunger, the passion, the grief. The poetic narratives are familiar, though slightly skewed — a tilt into the uncanny. The language is haunting, the imagery surreal: “Shapeshifting, double dealing / with spies and kings, we lived / on both sides of the looking glass, bathed / in moonlight while keeping watch / for the star to be birthed from our stories” (A Virtuous Woman II).
The narrative is skewed in part because The Acolyte foregrounds the stories of women, the Bible’s minor and supporting characters, so often condemned to horrible and gruesome fates for the edification or punishment of their male connections. For the most part, the women of the Bible are the original “women in refrigerators.” But Hightower depicts these women in all their power and powerlessness, humanity and inhumanity, villainy and virtue.
It can be empowering to reclaim these stories, and also terrifying.
For instance, the story of Jael. When Sisera, an oppressor of the Israelites, fled after a setback in battle, Jael found him. She promised him milk and rest and a safe place to hide. Then, as he slept, she drove a tent spike through his temple: “as the spike hits skin, then, / the skull’s soft crunch” … “just a simple tent nail / and a cup of milk; / we women have our ways” (Jael).
Women, masters of hospitality, of the domestic matters of milk and tents, also emerge as masters of treachery and betrayal. “In the south / things happen. / My mother’s belly juts out malignantly; / Jim says it’s God doing” (PTL: Circa 1981). These Biblical women are liars and tricksters, driven time and time again to subterfuge and disguises to achieve their aims. Tamar dresses as a prostitute to reclaim what’s hers. Leah dresses as her sister to steal her sister’s fiancé. Delilah cuts her lover Samson’s hair while he sleeps and renders him weak.
And yet they are also inevitably disposable: low-value pawns in the affairs of men (and the masculine God is no exception). They can be sacrificed whenever convenient, to achieve the greater good or simply to make a point. (Lot’s wife is another bright thread running through this collection, referenced in several poems; she cast a glance over her shoulder as her family fled the city they’d called home, and the Lord transformed her into a pillar of salt.)
Jephthah promises the Lord that in exchange for victory in battle, he will sacrifice whatever he first sees upon his glorious return. Of course, “Who should come out to meet him but his daughter, dancing to the sound of timbrels” (Judges 11:34). With the lines “No ram to appear / and save me from my oath,” the poem (“Jepthah”) offers a callback to Abraham and Isaac: another sacrifice mandated by God, until the last moment when the Lord relented and sent a sacrificial animal in the blessed boy’s stead. But no such luck for the nameless daughter of Jephthah, who would never have her own story. Like the women of our own time’s mythologies, she exists only as a footnote: a supporting character, fridged to teach her father, and readers like us, a lesson about promises.
“She,” one of the darkest, most brutal poems in this dark, brutal book (rivaled only by “On Eating a Child,” which requires no explanation), lays bare the theme of women as sacrifice — even when the sacrifice of firstborn sons is the only kind that actually matters. Hightower describes the Bible verse preceding “She” as a kind of trigger warning: “But the men would not listen to him. So the man took his concubine and sent her outside to them, and they raped her and abused her throughout the night, and at dawn they let her go. At daybreak the woman went back to the house where her master was staying, fell down at the door and lay there until daylight” (Judges 19:25-26).
Can you blame the women of the Bible for fighting back with deception, seduction, treachery — whatever minor weapons they could wield? The story of the sexes is one of asymmetrical warfare.
Hightower’s evocation of these mythical narratives is often subtle and indirect. Vivid images and pregnant metaphors fuse with other myths, chimaera-like: Lazarus meets Orpheus, Psyche meets Moses. The rich symbols can all be remade and repurposed, the stories reinvented as the storytellers change. It takes effort to tease out the connections; these poems are both minimal and dense, and there are no wasted lines.
In “Ritual,” one of the earlier poems in the collection, Hightower writes, “scratched arms and blacked out nights / the bartender and priest who both / know me by name, thoughts dark and hard / and always beyond the reach of God.” Two forms of confession, the profane and the sacred — and poetry, of course, is a kind of confession as well.
In The Acolyte, the profane and sacred come together, sweeping and lyrical, creating alternate meanings from sweat and sacrifice, murders and martyrdoms. “I push my way through voices,” says “Mary(s),” “hair gathered and ready, / only to find you scribbling in the sand, / rewriting the story. / The one they never get right.”