Mary Magdalene’s Left Foot

I saw the picture in Newsweek or Time
and couldn’t believe who was back in the news.
But there it sat, encased in antique gold
and pedestrian prose, apart from the rest
of her imaginably lush lost body,
which it recalls with false synecdoche.

The news is littered with the bodies of women
—whores, some—who have returned to minerals,
a pile of iron and zinc and calcium
that wouldn’t even fill a shoe. We glimpse
of Mary Magdalene a golden whole
that never ached for flesh or grew hair coarse
enough to scrub mud from a traveler’s foot.

But gold is meretricious flattery
for the whore who washed Christ’s feet with tears,
who rubbed sweet oil into his sores, then kissed
each suppurating wound that swelled his flesh,
knowing that it was God’s clear flesh beneath
its human dying. And that is more than you or I
will ever know of where we place our lips.

 

From the moment I read it in a Xerox copy of Andrew Hudgins’ then-forthcoming Saints and Strangers—the copy that fellow Bread Loaf waiter-writer Julia Carson let me share way back in 1985—“Mary Magdalene’s Left Foot” has been one of my favorite poems. Its voice is striking—conversational, plain—its blank verse subtle after the near-dactylic skip of the first two lines. I recognize its speaker: educated, impish, leafing distractedly through magazines while sex hovers at the margins. His skepticism hides a childlike curiosity; the body fascinates him as the nexus of faith, sex, and death. I didn’t have to be a Southern Baptist to feel I shared his struggle. Growing up with the usual statues that bless some blue-collar Catholic households, ceramic Mary smiling benignly from my mother’s dressing table, I’d learned how the divine and the material coexist, inspiring awe even in the form of kitsch.

The turns that dominate Hudgins’ poem are playful and revelatory. In two new books—The Joker: A Memoir (Simon & Schuster) and A Clown at Midnight (Houghton Mifflin / Mariner, his ninth book of poetry) Hudgins explores the operation of jokes and their place in his life and psyche. Hudgins may call himself a joker, but his character as a poet is shaped by conscience and compassion; the light is brighter, the laughter louder, because he dares to look at darkness. In an interview with Nick Norwood included in Hudgins’ prose collection The Glass Anvil, the poet observes that it’s “fun to play” with language, “fun to feel words resist chaos, insist on their arbitrary and hallowed connection to the world and to meaning.” When that connection breaks down, however, chaos and darkness meet, meaning dissolves, and only laughter helps to keep despair at bay. In The Joker, Hudgins expands upon this point: “Jokes home in on the disordered places where meaning fails. They are drawn to chaos but they are terrified of it too because they cannot NOT see where meaning breaks down. Once they find those inconsistencies and breakdowns, they play with them…Their attraction to chaos can be satanic delight or a godly attempt to heal by cauterizing a wound.”

That place in jokes where meaning breaks down (or reverses itself, or reverts to nonsense) is often, but not always, the punch line, and it’s also a kind of turn. For this reason, it’s hard for me to read “Mary Magdalene’s Left Foot” without thinking of Hudgins’ jokes and how they influence his poetry. Neither a joke nor a poem can succeed unless each part serves the whole; the mechanism of words must be well made, perfectly paced. Surprise is crucial; however planned, the effects must seem spontaneous. The turns in “Mary Magdalene’s Left Foot” are ironic and epiphanic, yet also influenced by joke structure—which makes me reflect on how often punch lines offer epiphanies of their own.

The poem’s narrative is straightforward. Hudgins recalls the claims of a news article that this relic of Christ’s companion has turned up—an artifact that, for readers, is “encased in antique gold / and pedestrian prose, apart from the rest / of her imaginably lush lost body.” The zeugma here calls the relic’s integrity into question; the rest of the sentence reverses our expectation of cliché—an unimaginably lush lost body—to suggest that the speaker has probably spent some time imagining what her body was like. (Hudgins is one of our few poets who admit to masturbation, and not the literary kind: see The Never-Ending’s “Heat Lightning in a Time of Drought” or “His Imaginary Friend” in Shut Up, You’re Fine, Hudgins’ collection of dark light verse.)

The next stanza is ironic. Having opened with casual magazine-reading and a sly dig at prose style, Hudgins reverses expectations through (forensic) science and heartbreak; this poem will take on more than misplaced faith or ancient hoaxes. The news offers distraction but also stories of dead women: Magdalene and murdered prostitutes. Her foot puts him in mind of a shoe that could hold what’s left of a woman’s body reduced to its basic elements—that is, the dust—to which we return. Such thoughts are not the sort to sustain the first stanza’s playful lust, and the poem’s direction shifts—ironic, again—to reassert Magdalene as Biblical figure, a “golden whole” restored by faith yet removed from real experience and the frailties of flesh.  A poem begun in cynicism must somewhere consider faith if it’s to move beyond variations on its own initial stance. When Hudgins calls gold “meretricious flattery / for the whore who washed Christ’s feet with tears,” he rejects the literal and figurative gilding of the myth.

The poem ends with a twist both revelatory and funny, both epiphany and punch line: when Magdalene kissed “each suppurating wound that swelled [Christ’s] flesh,” she knew

that it was God’s clear flesh beneath
its human dying. And that is more than you or I
will ever know of where we place our lips.

In The Joker, Hudgins writes, “Laughter isn’t demonic, but the result of our human double vision. We see both the perfect world we desire and the flawed one we live in. Believers and unbelievers live in different flawed worlds and conceive different perfections.” Hudgins, however, lives in both and loves both worlds—their elements, their grime, their physicality—and this love finds expression in his humor. In “Mary Magdalene’s Left Foot” (I love that it’s her left foot, her sinister foot), the poet’s closure melds the poignancy of Magdalene’s ministrations with the urgency of a mother warning her son about STDs: “You don’t know where she’s been!” Both readings are fully convincing and fully simultaneous, just as we’d expect from a master poet and joke-teller. As The Joker: A Memoir puts it, jokes “illuminate how we think and the often irresolvable contradictions our lives are built on. The laughter they draw from us both expresses our sorrow at our inconsistency and soothes it.” Here, too, is sorrow evident: the anguish of the rational believer who seeks to glimpse the divine in flesh. The epiphany is a punch line, and the punch line an epiphany, fusing deepest wisdom with a slightly naughty joke—and not for the only time we’ll find they exist together in Hudgins’ rich, never gilded body of work.

 

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Ned Balbo’s latest book, The Trials of Edgar Poe and Other Poems, was awarded the 2010 Donald Justice Prize and the 2012 Poets’ Prize. He is co-winner of the 2013 Willis Barnstone Translation Prize for his version of Baudelaire’s “Le mort joyeux” (“A Happy Death,” in the current Evansville Review). His flash fictions have appeared in Pleaides, Gargoyle, and Waccamaw and his personal essays in Creative Nonfiction and Crab Orchard Review. “A Jester’s Truth: Faith, Humor, and Vision in the Poetry of Andrew Hudgins” is forthcoming this Spring in Birmingham Poetry Review.

Hudgins, Andrew. “Mary Magdalene’s Left Foot.” Saints and Strangers. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1985. 13. Print. By permission of the author.

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