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Corpus by Michael Symmons Roberts

On first looking into Michael Symmons Roberts’ poetry in his fourth collection entitled Corpus, the poems seem intricate and complex. Roberts’ extraordinary use of pun and metaphor seems particularly clever; his adept interplay between science and religion indicates mastery of both. However, the more I read and the more often I read, I become enchanted with his brilliant use of metaphor and even what a literature professor would call “metaphysical conceit.” That term is most often associated with John Donne, 17th century Anglican priest and poet, whose metaphors were so elaborate that they were likened to the conceits of Italian poet Petrarch in praise of his beloved Laura. Rather than just comparing two unlike objects as a metaphor does, a conceit creates a concept or an idea with the comparison. Consider the pun of the title (Corpus) comparing a large collection of writings with the body of a dead animal or person…thus the eternal nature of the thoughts of a poet. And so the entire collection goes, with poems that, as Roberts’ says, are “part of my ongoing dialogue with those huge themes of faith and doubt, body and soul that are the heart of the Christian tradition.”

Based on his conviction that Christianity is fundamentally an incarnational faith, the collection includes poems entitled “Post-Mortem,” “Corpse,” and a series of five entitled “Carnivorous.” There is a series of six called “Food for Risen Bodies” in which Roberts envisions heavenly diners and what meals in a resurrected world might be like. In correspondence about the collection, Roberts says, ‘I tried to take this incarnational heart of the Christian traditions as far and as deep as I could, so there are poems there about loved bodies, wounded bodies, dead bodies, risen bodies.” Several of the poems in this collection reveal Roberts’ comfort with science and his gift of comparing the mapping of a genome with the order of the universe.

“These are the miles of dead code.

Every desert has them.

You are on a mission to discover

why the human heart still slows

when the divers break the surface,

why mermaids still swim in our dreams.” (“Mapping the Genome”)

Referring to himself as an “annoyingly difficult atheist” in his youth, Roberts calls himself a “struggling liberal Catholic” today. He says like most children, he wrote poetry when he was a child, but he “never grew out of it.” A professor of English at Manchester University today, Roberts said in a recent email that “even in the books since Corpus I can’t seem to leave the imagery of the body behind.”

On the occasion of the holy season of Advent, as we wait and prepare for the arrival of God the incarnate, it is even more fitting that we ponder Roberts’ Corpus, particularly his poem “Flesh.”

“At night the earth’s flesh shifts,/which makes the house sigh/in its sleep, which sends a shiver/ through the wood bones of my bed,/…and wonder what the world’s/child will be like – a newborn/island, steaming/…”

It seems that Roberts’ poetry suggests that no part of Creation is untouched by the great Incarnational event of the birth of Christ. “…breaking in their voices with cacophonies of courtship and alarm.” And the last stanza does what his poetry always does: touches deep into the core of our hearts… “The world’s child is lost among us,/unversed in our languages,/walking the streets with a bowl,” reminiscent of Matthew 25. 37 – 40. And again we are reminded of the Living Christ.

Roberts’ viscerally evocative poetry gives new meaning to the words “read, mark and inwardly digest.” He takes the incarnational nature of Christianity to a deeply moving level suggesting there is no aspect of body alive or dead that is not part of the spiritual. As we do with much of our Christian belief system, Roberts insists that his readers suspend their disbelief to swallow the truth of our incarnational faith.

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