Holy Week Poetry 2016, Holy Tuesday: “Easter” by Jill Alexander Essbaum

The Biblical account of this day in Holy Week kicks off with Jesus cursing a fig tree. It withers up and doesn’t produce anymore. So today I thought I’d go with a poem that gives a perspective of loss or, as the poet put it, of defeat.

Geoffrey Chaucer as illustrated in the Ellsmere manuscript of the Canterbury Tales

If you were lucky like I was, your high school English teacher had you memorize part of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. We learned the first part of the prologue, what some call the earliest example of English literature that we still have–Middle English but recognizable English all the same. Now that I’ve made English literature a career, I get a severe case of the yeah-but-not-really heebie jeebies writing that. We have stuff in English earlier that this and is Old English not English too and what exactly qualifies as “literature” anyway? But none of that is really relevant to today’s poem.

Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;

What is relevant to today’s poem is is that for centuries, these opening lines of Chaucer’s work have been a touchstone for the beginning of the English literary tradition: “When April with his showers sweet…”

That’s part of what makes T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land so chilling when it begins by changing the happy anticipation of religious pilgrims in spring into despairing loss. Published in 1922 (but probably written over several years prior), Eliot’s signature modernist work The Waste Land opens: “April is the cruellest month…” Eliot depicts he life-giving renewal of spring as cruel, pushing life where it is tired and dull and would rather not. It’s both devastating and beautiful, and I recommend hearing Eliot read those lines himself (the recording switches to another voice about a minute in). Or you could get Bob Dylan’s version.

That whole history of opening a work of verse by invoking the season of spring informs the beginning of Jill Alexander Essbaum’s poem here. The stunted, short lines that primarily use masculine (one-syllable) rhymes evoke the stopped-up, truncated feeling of loss she describes. Like Eliot with Chaucer, Essbaum inverts the rebirth of Easter into irrecoverable finality. Seemingly. For me the linchpin of the poem is the phrase “marble fact,” a fact that is both rock-hard and marbled–pied–in its beauty.


is my season
of defeat.

Though all
is green

and death
is done,

I feel alone.
As if the stone

rolled off
from the head

of the tomb
is lodged

in the doorframe
of my room,

and everyone
I’ve ever loved

lives happily
just past

my able reach.
And each time

Jesus rises
I’m reminded

of this marble

they are not
coming back.

marble tomb


One thought on “Holy Week Poetry 2016, Holy Tuesday: “Easter” by Jill Alexander Essbaum”

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