On Writing ‘The Book of Job’ / Bethany W. Pope
‘The Book of Job’ is an acrostic sestina crown which I made in order to explore the nature of suffering. This subject deeply interests me, since I am a (rather unconventional) syncratic Christian and I grew up in an American home with a chronically ill mother, surrounded by what would be considered (here in the UK) as extreme poverty. A lot of faiths seem to be based around the idea that, if God exists, and S/He is good, then all suffering is either a giant cosmic mistake, the product of the Biblical narrative of ‘The Fall’, or a just punishment for some sin (acknowledged or not) on behalf of the person who is currently suffering. This last is the general American interpretation of illness and tragedy. I can’t count the number of times that well-meaning Christians said to my mother (sometimes with near-genuine tears in their eyes), ‘ You will be healed, if only you pray to God for forgiveness.’ This view is probably at the bottom of America’s resistance to any sort of national health. The unspoken argument is, ‘Why should I pay to heal a bunch of dirty sinners.’ I wanted to explore a different potential cosmic narrative, which I’ll get to in a minute. First, a note on form.
My two most recent books (Crown of Thorns, Oneiros Books and Undisturbed Circles, Lapwing) were, in part, explorations of formal narrative. Crown of Thorns was largely autobiographical; the lives of my parents and myself laid out in a series of sonnet crowns, adorned with acrostics that ran down the first letters of the left margins of each poem and combined to supply an additional narrative that served to link each poem and (hopefully) supply the stories with a deeper meaning. Undisturbed Circles took this trend a little further. It is also composed of sonnet crowns, some mythic, some personal, but the acrostics are circular double-acrostics that run down the left and right margins, some in varying patterns, that added a layer of narrative complexity.
‘The Book of Job’ is, in a sense, a continuation of that formal exploration. The content of each poem should supply the form. The story of Job was originally oral. Poetic forms with a lot of repetition and a distinct rhythm lend themselves to recitation. I wanted to write something that, despite its complexity, sounded like it could have been passed down from mouth to mouth. Because the story is a very early, very human, exploration of the nature of God and Their relationship to mankind, I wanted to choose a form that, in some way, reflected our collective perception of God. The circle is sacred, after all. It was humanity’s first image of God, appearing in every culture and in most religions, even in cave paintings. Sestinas are a circular form. The end words repeat in a spiral. Once I discovered that, this poem almost wrote itself.
Now, about that acrostic. It runs down the left-hand margin of the poem and it reads, ‘We are a novel that God is writing. We suffer for the sake of His plot, for the glory of the Artist. We are characters who must agonize in order to grow. The devil’s a plot device. Evil is an evolutionary spur. Goodness is the fruit of woe. Our pain makes us interesting to God. Our pain makes us real. One day we will be real enough to step off the page.’ Just before I began writing this poem, I had finished the third draft of my first novel (Masque, to be released by Seren in 2016) and while I was editing it I was thinking of my childhood, my faith, and my relationship to these characters who existed (for me, if no one else) and whose lives were spilling from my hands. I loved them, like real people. I hurt them, like real people. I wanted them to live. I wanted to speak to them, to hold their hands and explain that I had a plan for them, that their suffering was serving something greater, that they would become, through their joy, their agony, something that would (hopefully) outlast their creator. I wanted to make something more real than I am. Something to engage with. If there is a God, and we are His mirrors (as so many faiths tell us we are) then S/He must share this desire. In this way, I reasoned, I can know Them.
The poem itself came very quickly after that. I wrote it in about six hours, during which time I developed a very bad nosebleed. After it had finished blowing through me, I fell on my bed and slept for fifteen hours. Then I woke up, had a shower, and started cleaning it up.
Copyright © Bethany W. Pope, 2015
Bethany W Pope is an LBA winning author and a finalist for the Faulkner-Wisdom Awards, the Cinnamon Press Novel competition, and the Ink, Sweat and Tears poetry commission. Placed third in the Bare Fiction Poetry Competition she was also recently highly commended in this year’s Poetry London competition. She was recently nominated for the 2014 Pushcart Prize. She received her PhD from Aberystwyth University’s Creative Writing program, and her MA from the University of Wales Trinity St David. She has published several collections of poetry: A Radiance (Cultured Llama, 2012), Crown of Thorns (Oneiros Books, 2013), The Gospel of Flies (Writing Knights Press 2014) and Undisturbed Circles (Lapwing, 2014). Her first novel, Masque, will be published by Seren in 2016. Her work has appeared in: The Galway Review; The Prague Review; Sentinel Quarterly; The Writer’s Hub; Envoi; Poetry London; New Welsh Review; Poetry Review Salzburg; Sentinel Literary Quarterly; The Brooklyn Voice; And Other Poems; Magma; Tears in the Fence; Ink, Sweat and Tears; The Antigonish Review; Bare Fiction; The Lampeter Review and many more.