WHAT IF CHRIST did not appear as a homeless infant in a Bethlehem barn, but as a chemistry teacher — in “a condo with new car smell” — in suburban Maryland, circa 1989? And what if Mary Magdalen, a recent high school graduate, had an illicit affair with her teacher while other disciples jammed in a garage band in search of “acceleration and shriek,” “hot mercy and radical love”?
The New Testament gets a remix in poet B. K. Fischer’s verse novella Radioapocrypha, a pagan rejoinder to the biblical story of redemption. An homage to a 1980s adolescence, it might also be one of the more necessary poetry collections for 2018: Fischer lends us nuanced ways of thinking about faith and fakes, secular shamans and sexual misconduct, deceit and devotion. In polyphonic lyrics and prose poems, she tells a story about a teenage girl that makes us come of age, all over again, and rethink our archetypes for prophecy and the divine.
Biblical gospels pasteurize the scandal at the crux of the Christ tale: Mary, the virgin mother, conceives a child without sin. Joseph, just as miraculously, accepts a son he did not father. The holy family is not nuclear, and childbirth in a barn, idealized in the Nativity crèche, could not have been a tidy affair.
Fischer’s collection delves directly into these human complications of the Christian myth, staging it in a Maryland subdivision near Washington, DC, where the paranoid edicts of King Herod have been replaced by DEFCON and the nascent threat of AIDS. To frame the story, she riffs from the Gospel of Mary, a fifth-century papyrus codex, as well as songs by Prince, Sonic Youth, Depeche Mode, and Joy Division, among others. Channeling these voices, Fischer catapults the reader into the psychic life of a young woman named Maren Manning — a valedictorian and an admitted “overachiever” — who returns home after her first college semester ends with a miscarriage and an “inpatient clinic where / even the lauded daughter is served up / the same pills in a soufflé cup.” While the biblical Mary is visited by magi, Maren is rescued by emergency medical services and sent home on antidepressants.
Like epic poets who call up a muse in lieu of an ambulance, Fischer literalizes “invocation” with a phone call: the epigraph’s first line reads “This is she.” Maren, now a grown woman with children of her own, skirts questions about her youth:
Sorry, I didn’t mean to
hang up on you, you
caught me off guard —
he was — I wasn’t —
all of that happened
in another life, none
of it matters now.
The phone call, which kick-starts the narrative, suggests Fischer’s campy engagement with T. S. Eliot, who famously compared the lyric poem to overheard speech and who claimed that blasphemy was, in fact, a specie of belief, “a symptom that the soul is still alive.” In Radioapocrypha, heresy is a version of holiness, one driven by longing: the narrative alternates between Maren’s affair with James Callahan, “a lover and a healer […] a real son of a bitch,” and his teachings, which mix song lyrics and Newton’s laws.
The mock-messiah’s seduction of his former student is complicated by Maren’s perspective. Indeed, Fischer’s story suggests that the desire to become a god — or to worship one — might be hardwired. As a “goody-goody” with parents who work for the National Security Agency and sleep with a “service revolver in a drawer by the bed,” Maren finds an illusory security in her teacher’s erotic attention.
It is the yearning and aloneness of this gifted teen, tuning into the world’s threats and expectations, which is most convincingly drawn in these poems. Author of Museum Mediations, a critical study of ekphrasis; Mutiny Gallery, a novella in verse about a mother’s flight from domestic violence; and St. Rage’s Vault, a collection that lends new language and metaphor to the experience of pregnancy, Fischer has often written into the gaps in our poetic imaginary including the somatic experiences of women and children. In Radioapocrypha, she turns up the amps to capture the psychological complexities of a teenager grappling with adult danger and desire.
In the prose poem “Miracles,” her character Maren chronicles ordinary benedictions:
The hour the antibiotics kicked in. The last outbound train running ten minutes late. Your aunt hitting the lotto in time to make the mortgage. The thick envelope. The light left on in the van but the engine still turning over. The proximity of the neighbor.
When you ran out of gas, and he helped you push the car into the parking space at Casa Real. The key to the library bathroom. The rusted padlock. The handkerchief in the pocket. The extension cord. The tarp in the trunk. The single dry match. Stand clear of the closing doors.
Indeed, Callahan’s canned adages (“I don’t come to abolish but to complete,” “root for the underdog, give to anyone who asks”) pale alongside Maren’s tactile attention to the texture of the life she is living.
Gradually, the reader comes to trust Maren as the witness of events. Her observations lend piquancy to the dinning uniformity of a suburban town where even tragedies seem predictable. In poems such as “Parable of the Cheerleader,” “Parable of the Donut,” and “Our Lady of the Prom,” she gives an account of ritualized adolescence: high school’s social hierarchy, adjudicated by the popular; sexual exploration, conducted on the sly; radical haircuts and drugstore cosmetics, bought in hope of instant metamorphosis; suburban sprawl and aisles at Marshalls, bathed in “the sallow / fluorescence of the middle class”; and the petty thefts, auto-wrecks, and deadly virus inaugurating losses of life or innocence.
“[N]o one was surprised sex could kill you,” Maren surmises. “We were raised on cataclysm.” And it is she who interprets the meaning of Callahan’s death when he flips his Nissan. And it is she who sleeps fitfully, “clench-jawed and calling out about the Iron Curtain and the iron lung, voodoo, Virginia Woolf, Watergate, the last man standing in a field of wheat.” Precocious, haunted by polio and the Cold War, schooled (as any 17-year-old) in the “foolish wisdom of the flesh,” she carries revelation before she meets her savior. But her intersection with a charismatic teacher, and his turbulence in her life, has the lucky effect of confirming — rather than destroying — the clarity of what she sees, what she feels, and what she claims as her own.
At college, Maren had sought out her own sexual conquest, one that leads to her short-lived pregnancy and hemorrhage on the floor of her dorm. Though she later wonders if the universe thought her “too chicken for either a baby or an abortion,” she has returned home to face the brutality of a small town’s rumor mill. In “Our Lady of Walgreens,” she states: “I stopped going out much after I overheard, / from the bathroom stall in the bowling alley, / Maren Manning got knocked up but it was / an alien so she threw it in the dumpster.”
Fischer taps into our political fascination with female sexuality: its power, its fetishized purity, its policing. Her protagonist’s circumstances mimic the “monstrous birth” reported in the journal of John Winthrop, Puritan governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, who graphically described the miscarriage of the excommunicated Anne Hutchinson, interpreting her malformed fetus as a sign of spiritual deviancy. Miscarriage aside, the power — and production value — of Maren’s physique are evident to Callahan’s disciples. Parker, the band’s pimply singer, notes: “With a body like that who needs college.”
And that is exactly the problem: it is 1989, and Maren is as smart as she is beautiful. So, she must learn how to deploy her resources, much like the experts at the nearby Pentagon. As Radioapocrypha concludes, we learn that Maren survived her go-around with cult and scandal. She has become a suburban wife and mother. But her hallucinatory need for a god has not been satisfied. Even her compensatory obsession with crafts and wreath-making fails to fulfill. She still dreams of her messiah, though she finds that “[e]ach year my faith decays by half, then half again.”
Agnostic, but still riven with spiritual need, one mixed with erotic longing, Maren has become a thwarted artist. Her book of revelation is not one she can write: we learn, in the final poem, that she has recounted her tale to “Barbara,” her confidant and amanuensis. This metapoetic turn is fitting. Women’s gossip has always been its own underground gospel: a way of surviving, a mouth.
Perhaps, as Wallace Stevens observed, it is not the god but the belief that counts. With Fischer’s Radioapocrypha, we should be startled by her portrait of the hunger to believe, against reason, in a demagogue who appears to answer a generation’s matrix of fear and desire with promises for a better life. Our human need for saving grace might rival our need for food and sex more closely than we acknowledge. But we follow the siren songs of what Depeche Mode called, in 1989, “Personal Jesus” at our own peril.
Heather Treseler’s poems and essays appear in Harvard Review, Boston Review, The Iowa Review, Southern Humanities Review, The Weekly Standard, Notre Dame Review, and The Missouri Review, among other journals, and in four books about postwar American poetry. She is an associate professor of English at Worcester State University and a visiting research associate at Brandeis University’s Women’s Studies Research Center.