Imagining Jesus: Denise Duhamel MFA '87 and Nick Carbo MFA '92
Here’s something we bet you’ve never asked yourself. How would Jesus drive? No road rage—that’s a certainty. What kind of car would He drive? Probably not an SUV. And what types of items would Jesus bring to the check-out line of the local A&P? Perhaps kitty litter, kosher pickles and canned black olives—or so suggests one of 63 contributors to Sweet Jesus: Poems About the Ultimate Icon, a new anthology edited by husband-and-wife Nick Carbó MFA ’92 and Denise Duhamel MFA ’87.
What is all this Jesus business about? Carbó (author of Secret Asian Man) and Duhamel (author of Kinky, a book about the lives of Barbie dolls) hear that question frequently these days, along with large doses of skepticism. Their joint venture strikes some as irreverent, although it really isn’t, Duhamel says.
“The poets we’ve chosen are writing about Jesus from a pop-culture point of view. They’re updating Jesus’ image to make him more relevant, albeit in an odd way.” Or as Carbó and Duhamel write in their introduction to the book, they want to “challenge the traditional notion of Jesus, bring Him up to date, and give Him a new wardrobe and new vocabulary.”
So here’s something new, excerpted from “Jesus at the Laundromat,” by Kim Addonizio:
Jesus loads his quarter
and eases into a plastic chair
by the Change machine.
Each year it’s harder to remember
why he returned.
Sometimes he knows
It was only nostalgia, and not
a second chance for anyone. Now
He longs for home. In heaven
things stayed white.
In the introduction to their book, the editors note that more than 30 years ago John Lennon declared, partly in jest, that the Beatles were “bigger than Christ.” He may have been right at the time, but things seem to be shifting of late. Currently the word “Jesus” appears in the titles of 1,793 available pop and rock songs, according to Barnes & Noble’s Muze electronic schedule. Jesus, it seems, is “in.”
But how “in” is He? And just how acceptable is a pop-culture view of Him in poetry form? Duhamel and Carbó recently sent the book (published in December by Anthology Press in Los Angeles) to a friend, who teaches at a Catholic institution in Rhode Island, for his thoughts. Although the friend loved the book, he admitted he couldn’t bring it into the classroom. But he did share the book with a Jesuit brother, who reportedly connected on a deep level to what the poets were saying.
Another friend is avidly reading the poems, although he carries the book around in a brown paper bag. But a nun, who came to hear Duhamel and Carbó discuss their new publication with a standing-room-only audience at a Miami book fair, was seen leaving midway through the talk.
It’s been a balancing act, the couple concedes, to give a broader definition to the notion of Jesus through this contemporary collection of poetry. And clearly, the reactions have been mixed. “But we haven’t received any hate mail,” says Duhamel. “We took out poems that would have been too inflammatory. We didn’t want to be completely over the top.”
The anthology includes poets who are gay, lesbian, Jewish, American Indian and Chinese, to name a few, and also features homoerotic poems, as well as works that muse more generally about the sex life of Jesus. “While many of the poems in the book are wickedly funny and irreverent,” says the publisher, “the collection as a whole manages to convey a profound sense of longing and spiritual questioning about the ultimate icon, even when the tone is tongue-in-cheeck, even when the longing is peculiar.”
Carbó was born in the Philippines and raised in Manila. In addition to Secret Asian Man, he is the author of El Grupo McDonald’s and the editor of Returning a Borrowed Tongue: An Anthology of Filipino and Filipino American Poetry. He has received fellowships in poetry from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York Foundation for the Arts.
Duhamel’s books of poetry include Queen for a Day: Selected and New Poems and The Star-Spangled Banner. Her work has been anthologized in four volumes of The Best American Poetry (2000, 1998, 1994 and 1993) She teaches poetry at Florida International University in Miami.
The couple met at Sarah Lawrence, married in 1992 and currently live in Hollywood, Fla.
— Elsa Brenner