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Poetry review: 29/05/20


by Jonathan Kinsman

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Humanizing the bible for everyday living. 

Witness by Jonathan Kinsman is a creative reimagining of figures from the Bible and their journeys. It is Kinsman’s second publication, and it tries to answer the question, how can those in the Bible exist for us? Personally it also reminded me of Messiah, the Netflix series currently imagining the second coming of Jesus, in that it is also a wildly different and highly imaginative illustration of Jesus and those surrounding him.  

This pamphlet of unpretentious, accessibly written, prose-poems is a push back against the Jesus bandied about and weaponised by (mostly) extreme American right-wingers. It feeds into the established biblical figures as rebels and outsiders discourse, presenting them as marginalised, confused, fallible, human, queer, LGBTQ.

This pamphlet also reminded me of the song ‘Personal Jesus’ by Depeche Mode, the perspective of those surrounding Jesus feels a very personal interpretation, it suggests that God can be your personal God, that you are free to imagine religion in a way that makes sense to you.

The religious figures, such as Judas, John and Simon are also all presented as very human, with real feelings. They are not pure or one dimensional. For example Andrew is described as:

‘…jonah’s wayward kid,

hair in his face and holes in his hoodie sleeves,

trailing after some pretentious fucking nickname.’

All the poems in this collection start with, or were perhaps inspired by, a quote from the Bible. Then, more often than not they are created as if the speaker is in the body of the character. It starts simply; sensations are described, the character is grounded, they have a private moment of reflection and realisation, and are built from there.

Kinsman interjects modern life effectively and seamlessly into these poems, working to make the figures in the pamphlet relatable to a reader, whether they be religious or not. This can be seen in the poem ‘philip’, from whose perspective Kinsman writes: ‘you unload the bounty:/a tin of beans, a bag of pasta/a bar of chocolate’. This poem echoes modern issues of the day: food banks, austerity, even the Covid-19 crisis. Kinsman tries to offer an explanation as to how religion can be directly, practically relevant.

There is also a compelling, borderline-voyeuristic fragility to those Kinsman is writing about. Again, an element of this vulnerability serves to make these personas relatable. This can be seen when Kinsman writes of ‘simon the zealot’:

‘…your finger trembling

over the trigger you cannot pull when your eyes meet a boy’s

over its barrel and recognise that same spark of fury deep in

their darkness, the same quake of fear in his hands.’

The characters presented are imperfect, sometimes shockingly so. There is an undeniable sexuality present in this pamphlet that increases with fervour. The poem ‘matthew’ is overtly sexy, and perhaps this is to undermine the pious, virginal image of Christianity, to show that bodily desire can coexist with it. This presentation of desire also fed into the established sexuality present within Christianity that is visible but perhaps not always discussed, with Jesus as an attractive, vulnerable, mostly naked, immobilised figure whose presentation contradicts everything he represents. 

This book is quivering with life, one can taste the anticipation in it, the longing, and in this way does feel like raw faith. This is an emotive, moving pamphlet. One thinks of the Bible as a fixed entity, but Witness takes us to a place where its events were uncertain and unwritten, and there is also a lot of uncertainty in the figures Kinsman writes about. The message here is that it’s ok to be uncertain, Jesus’ earliest followers were also uncertain.

The last poem, ‘mattias’ comes after the acknowledgments, making the ending very much the beginning, as if Kinsman is handing the discussion of God and religion over to us. The subjects dealt with in Witness are no easy undertaking but Kinsman does so with multiple approaches, originality and gusto.

Review: Setareh Ebrahimi

Get it:

Jonathan Kinsman - WITNESS

Burning Eye Books

ISBN 9781911570820
Buy here

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