Nicelle Davis: Becoming Judas

What if we thought about the gospel story of atonement in terms of a children’s game?

— I don’t wanna play Judas. You play Judas.
I don’t wanna play Judas. You play Judas.

But somebody’s got to play Judas, otherwise this cosmological play will come to a grinding halt. Consider this: if you play Jesus, sure you’ll be the savior of the world and everybody will love you. But first you’ll have to be tortured and crucified. And when you look at it like that….

— I don’t wanna play Jesus. You play Jesus.
I don’t wanna play Jesus. You play Jesus.

In thinking of a way to approach reading Nicelle Davis’s unwieldy book Becoming Judas, just published by Red Hen Press, my mind went in this direction after watching a couple of her poetry readings.

Not that this makes it easier, but it disarms the mind ready to bring its preformed opinions on the gospel story into the reading. Before one even opens the book the disturbing question must be addressed: what would it mean to become Judas? But first, who was, or is, Judas? In the gospel story he betrayed Jesus and so he has come down to us as the ultimate traitor. Yet the existence of Judas also betrays the paradoxes of Christian doctrine. For if he (if someone) had not betrayed Jesus, then Jesus could not have become the savior. And we are all Judas in the sense that we are all in need of salvation. But if we are already sinners, already Judas, then what does it mean to say, becoming Judas? Does the phrase move in the wrong direction?—away from working out salvation? Or does it mean to be instructional? And what does the Gospel of Judas have to say about this?

The unease initiated by the book’s title is not relieved upon a first glance of its contents. The array of lineal deployments confronting the reader suggest a number of strategies to this becoming—no straight and narrow path. There are even poems with holes and chasms in them. But this one might expect from the thematic dyad Judas/Jesus. The poems show that danger is involved in reading and self-examination.

These dangers begin in childhood, as one begins the process of discovery in explorations of self and other, with games of role-playing and imaginary scenarios. At a certain point children’s games become very serious. Rules must be drawn and adhered to. And so, in Becoming Judas, we find the gospel story presented as a child’s game alongside the strategy of the adult poet, reflecting on game playing and demonstrating it at the same time, as the great poet-doctor Williams taught us to do. To the question, ‘What would it mean to become Judas?’ Davis might answer, quoting John Lennon, just imagine. Imagination—the ability to imagine, the process of imagining—is the hero of Becoming Judas.

Foremost among the strategies of imaginative becoming is Davis’s personal story, recounted in part in the poem Disclaimer: Assumptions Made by This Homemade Religion:

My myths crossed when I was four. I mistook the pastel picture of Jesus hung in every Mormon home for John Lennon…. I still talk to John when praying to Jesus.

In the poems that follow, personal history, Judas, Jesus, John and Joseph (Smith) are sprinkled together in the poet’s imaginings to become a patchwork, a collage of becoming. Glimpses like the one above are the closest we get to discrete pictures (others include the one of the poet’s mother in Change These Bones and the excellent description of a famous photograph in Flash: Leibovitz’s Photo of John and Yoko), apart from the illustrations provided by Cheryl Gross, which add a quirky, spidery visual accompaniment to the poems. The ostensible playfulness of the illustrations serve as another strategy to lighten an inherently difficult book.

If the difficulty of Becoming Judas can’t be escaped, it’s worth reminding one’s self that becoming an adult person is the most difficult thing in life. To quote Lennon, “It’s getting hard to be someone.” This is how I take the curious photographs of the poet that adorn the covers of Becoming Judas. On the front cover she is clothed in an odd homespun patchwork of what appear to be feathers, furs, fibers and other matter clouted together. She is kneeling, attentive, looking the viewer full in the face, in a circle of what may be her own cut hair. On the back cover she is standing, seeming to be in the process of cutting her hair, in what looks like an antique child’s dress, the way a doll from days gone by may have been dressed. These excellent photos, the result of the combined talents of photographer Dennis Mecham, costumer Pavlina Janssen and Ms. Davis as model, tell us that Becoming Judas is about the work on self that all responsible human beings are called to do.

The problem is, the adult mind finds itself (when it finds itself at all) conditioned by habit, calcified into attitudes and postures going by names like conviction, belief and opinion. The faithful aren’t likely to question their beliefs unless they happen to be nagged by a lingering doubt. Most Christian sects dismiss Mormonism because of its rejection of the Holy Trinity and its exaltation of Joseph Smith, but none of them are likely to see Smith as a modern-day Paul, crafting the Christ story as he saw fit, nor would they be likely to give any credence to the theory that Christ himself was invented by the Romans. But all would agree, perhaps, that it is necessary for each individual to work out their own salvation. And here, perhaps, religion-making, myth-making and poetry-making come together.

Becoming Judas has made me very curious about the gnostic Gospel of Judas, in which the story is told in the form of dialogues between Jesus and Judas, and which reveals that Judas’s actions were done in obedience to Christ’s instructions. Davis makes the drama deeply vivid and moving in the ten-part eponymous poem:

      What use is there in knowing me
                    if you are me, Judas?

 You hate this answer.

 I hate this answer.

             We simultaneously turn

 in our beds—away from salvation.

And here we see Judas’s terrible predicament. He asks Jesus how he can love him without hating himself.

In the final poem, December 1980, Davis gives us the closest thing we will find to her statement of purpose or fundamental belief: “I want to believe we’re mimics of the divine.” In this poem Davis brilliantly weaves the personal into the religious/pop-mythical. I wonder how successful she is in achieving this belief. I don’t know if I can. There is so much to forgive, always, in others but especially in one’s self. Moreover, existing in profound doubt, I find it more likely that humanity will always, as Wilhelm Reich said, murder its Christs. However one has it, Davis’s conclusion is spellbinding:

Jesus says, forgive you, if you forgive me. Judas says, forgiven you, but I
won’t forgive me
. Jesus says, well, we’ll just have to keep this show going then.

A poet, if she is worth the name, is able to play the child’s imagining game while bringing mature tools to bear. Nicelle Davis surely is such a poet. The paradox of Becoming Judas is that it is so easy to read—that is, one can read it all the way through in a short span of time, and yet its subject is so difficult to grasp precisely because becoming a whole, healthy person is the most difficult thing to do. One can be sure that Davis carefully crafted the contrast into Becoming Judas. Because its lingering questions are built into its formal beauty, it is the kind of book that continues to call out to the reader from the shelf, to be opened again and again. And that is the best kind of book.

visit Nicelle Davis

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8 Responses to Nicelle Davis: Becoming Judas

  1. angela says:

    Your write-up makes me want to read…but upon watching the video, it seems very light. I know that you write that it is rather heavy material, so, why do you believe the quirky presentation? I ask this not as a criticism, but out of curiosity.

    As an aside, I am still trying to follow a Coursera on Kierkegaard (not very well) and a lecture/question today had me thinking about Socrates vs Jesus – now we throw Judas in the mix…life is never straightforward, is it?

    • Oh, it’s not light reading. That’s why Davis’s reading/performance is so curious. In the video she presents the material as though she were teaching children, but it’s clearly adult material. My surmise is that she does this to disarm the reader/listener who might bring their preconceived notions on religion and John Lennon or who might be resistant to the material, which is very challenging. I’ll be reading these poems for a long time.

      Speaking of difficult material – Kierkegaard is quite challenging. I’ve never managed to get all the way through any of his books, but I’ve enjoyed reading large sections of them.

  2. Susan Scheid says:

    Nicelle Davis could not possibly have a better advocate for her work than you are with this essay, as in this: “The array of lineal deployments confronting the reader suggest a number of strategies to this becoming—no straight and narrow path.” I wish I could get my mind around more poems at a time. Davis’s preoccupations, while they may not be my own, are worthy, and it does sound as if she’s got a subtle, supple poetic mind.

    • The book is rich on so many levels, and Davis has a presence unique in the world of poetry.

      • Susan Scheid says:

        Mark: That’s a big statement, coming from you, as you have such breadth and depth in this area. Can you say more about why she is unique?

        • I don’t know how much breadth and depth I have, but as I’ve said, I’ve never seen anyone present their material in performance the way Davis has. I’ve tried to give a sense of the levels of her poetry: the formal, lineal arrangements, the blend of personal, religious and cultural myth, the power of the book’s cover photos, but also in the content of the poetry itself I admire the way she takes the side of Judas, as it were, to paint a broader picture of humanity, that we are all in need of forgiveness, which includes forgiving ourselves. Lou Reed was on a similar track, but it’s not common in the world. People generally are reluctant to confront the darkness within themselves. I do think she has a unique way of following and presenting this path.

  3. Pingback: Best Reads of 2013 | The Mockingbird Sings

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