EILEEN TABIOS Engages
The Gospel According to Judas by Keith Holyoak
(Dos Madres Press, Loveland, OH, 2015)
Everyone remembers the story of Jesus Christ's close friend, one of the 12 Apostles, who sold him out for 30 pieces of silver, identifying him with a kiss. Later, crazed with guilt, Judas hanged himself. He is the ultimate symbol of treachery. Stockyards call the goat that leads other animals to slaughter the Judas goat. In Germany, officials can forbid new parents from choosing the name Judas. Guides at the historic Coptic Hanging Church in Old Cairo point out one black column in the church’s white colonnades—Judas, of course. Christianity would not be the same without its traitor.
—“The Gospel of Judas,” National Geographic, May 2006
Ever since the 2006 National Geographic Society publication of the first English translation of a Coptic text known as “The Gospel of Judas,” I’ve been very interested in any effects from that discovery. But one doesn’t need to have that predisposition to find Keith Holyoak’s The Gospel According to Judas an immensely satisfying read.
Holyoak wrote his book to … well, let’s let him state his intent with the project:
Suppose the apostle who betrayed Jesus was somehow resurrected—what would he have to say for himself? Would he confess to his crime, or try to explain it away? Would he show remorse and beg forgiveness, or claim to be himself a victim? Would he feel himself cut off from Jesus, or follow him still?
Holyoak then uses an imagined “Second Coming” by Judas to answer such questions through poetry, even as references to chapters preface each poem title, indicating that individual poems are also all parts of a larger story.. The use of poems isn’t what’s brilliant, though, about the book’s structure. What’s brilliant is Holyoak’s presentation of himself (or a persona) as a literary executor for Judas who ostensibly emailed him the poems that Holyoak, as executor, put together in book form. This structure is presented in the book’s opening, “Executor’s Preface” as well as the “Executor’s Notes” at the back of the book—both apply a welcome Borgesian and witty layer to the overall project. For example, the Executor received Judas’ poems starting in the spring of 2007 and over a period of several years. During that time, the Executor traveled to Cambodia. One of Judas’ poems is “Angkor Thom” which, when the Executor received it, made him wonder if Judas was stalking him. If the Executor then was the same as the poet who might have actually visited Cambodia in real life, such visit (and tourism?) might have facilitated Holyoak’s poem with local details from Cambodia, a poem whose presence (the poet would make) the Executor rationalize as possibly an effect of Judas stalking him. (Got that?) The effect, among other things, is amusing given how the presence of Angkor Thom, “the final capital of the Khmer kingdom (late 12th to 17th centuries,” is not a reference one might have anticipated in a tale of Judas Iscariot.
Indeed, I get the sense Holyoak really had fun with this project. For example, a Note on this back-and-forth between persona (Executor) and poet makes me smile at the way a poet’s technical consideration surfaces:
Songs of Mariam Magdala
Judas refers to Mary Magdalene by her name in Aramaic, their native tongue. Perhaps he simply liked its musicality.
The poems, themselves, are well-crafted and do the job in presenting Judas’ thoughts about his life and legacy. Contemporary references actually freshen the story—for example, in “Chapter 8: Top Ten of Infamy” Judas googles himself:
Surfing the Internet today I hit
Upon a top-ten list of evil men
Throughout history. I checked the names on it,
Fearing I’d find my own. Idi Amin
And Vlad Dracul rub shoulders there with Hitler;
Holyoak utilizes a diversity of poetic forms, from the terza rima of Dante to rap. I must say that his rappin’ made me laugh out loud (in the Executor’s Notes he called the poem’s speaker some “poorly educated punk”)—from “Chapter 22: Coulda Binna Buddha”:
Binna fool, ditched school
Ran across the Golden Rule
Surfin’ on the Internet
Jesus is the best yet
Looked ya up on Facebook
Verses from the praise book
“heads up fer cheaters
Don’t follow leaders
Feed the parkin’ meters
Silver change that’s Caesar’s”
The second-to-the-last poem, for me, grounds the project in a moving manner. Entitled “Chapter 26: Dialogue of Judas & Jesus,” it ends with the following Q&A:
Judas: How is it, at the end?
Jesus: Dying a man, I feel a man’s regrets—
Not for the sacrifice, the great work done
For which I lived, knowing my death completes
My Father’s pledge, the duty of His Son,
But I will miss the lesser, human joys—
Laughter of children, sea foam, cries of birds,
The taste of figs, and she with kohl-dark eyes
Who heard my voice beyond the sound of words.
Finally, it’s fitting that the book ends with a benediction—reading this book can be a blessing to the receptive reader. I’ll end the review, as well, with the last poem:
Chapter 27: Benediction
Do not grieve overlong when I am gone,
Fearing that I have left you here alone.
The time for weeping ends, let tears be done.
Bow to the four directions—I am there.
I guide the sun, the moon, the morning star,
And catch the swallow falling from the air.
I am with you always, in the head
Of dew upon the lotus, in the reed
Beside the lake, and in the mustard seed.
A very satisfying read, indeed, benefitting from the poet’s own scholarship (Holyoak is a psychology professor at UCLA). Recommended.
Eileen Tabios does not let her books be reviewed by Galatea Resurrects because she's its editor (the exception would be books that focus on other poets as well). She is pleased, though, to point you elsewhere to recent reviews of her work. I FORGOT LIGHT BURNS received a review by Zvi A. Sesling at Boston Area Small Press & Poetry Scene; by Amazon Hall of Fame reviewer Grady Harp over HERE; and by Allen Bramhall in Tributary. Her experimental biography AGAINST MISANTHROPY: A LIFE IN POETRY received a review by Tom Hibbard in The Halo-Halo Review, Allen Bramhall in Mandala Web and Chris Mansel in The Daily Art Source. SUN STIGMATA also received a review by Edric Mesmer at Yellow Field. Recent releases are the e-chap DUENDE IN THE ALLEYS as well as INVENT(ST)ORY which is her second “Selected Poems" project; while her first Selected THE THORN ROSARY was focused on the prose poem form, INVEN(ST)ORY focuses on the list or catalog poem form. A key poem in INVENT(ST)ORY was reviewed by John Bloomberg-Rissman in The Halo-Halo Review, and the book itself was reviewed by Chris Mansel in The Daily Art Source and Allen Bramhall in Mandala Web. More information at http://eileenrtabios.com