by Gabrielle Freeman
Flagellant is one of the first terms that came to my mind after reading Jill Alexander Essbaum’s chapbook The Devastation. The speaker in the poem offers a prayer that is also a confession; a huge, gut-wrenching, guilty ball of confession. In the end, the speaker even admits to taking control of the devil.
Let me first state that while I was raised with a good understanding of the Bible; Baptist elementary school, Lutheran catechism, Catholic neighbors, even a stint in the Latter Day Saints; I found myself having to look things up as I read through this poem. On page 17, Essbaum writes “And the asp is on my breast.” This image tickled my memory, and not in a particularly pleasant way (asp/breast), so I had to find its source. Intriguing writing, writing that works, will make the reader seek understanding and clarity. What I found was the quote from Isaiah that reads something like this, depending on your translation “…the suckling child will play on the hole of the asp.” I’ll admit, not an altogether reassuring image. However, when further examined, this image is meant to be extremely reassuring. The prophet writes that after the Messiah comes, the child will be able to play near a hidden asp and not be harmed. Essbaum twists this to the dark side.
If I continue looking at the prophets, namely Isaiah and Jeremiah, to understand this poem, I come to Jeremiah’s explanation of the devastation of Jerusalem in Lamentations. The devastation he describes was brought upon themselves. Essbaum’s speaker blames herself for her own devastation in this confession. “Never rely on desire to tell you the truth. / I told the truth on a regular basis. / I was the saddest I knew. / You were the sadist I knew. / And the distance between the two” (16). The wordplay between “saddest” and “sadist” shows the culpability of the speaker. On the next page, Essbaum writes “But the lamb is in the cabin. / And the jasper is in your grasp. / And the asp is on my breast. / I confess: / MAY I BE TORMENTED WHEREVER I AM” (17-18). The speaker is not saved by the lamb from poisoning; in fact, the asp is on her breast. This not only recalls the “suckling child” in Isaiah, but it replaces the child’s innocent nursing with the asp in a disturbingly erotic manner, and this the very thing that the Messiah is supposed to protect the child from. The speaker calls down her own punishment in Dante-esque fashion because of this.
In what are perhaps the lines most indicative of self-flagellation deal with the Beast. The speaker actually takes control of the Beast in the following lines: “Oh Beast, I put thy mark upon me.[…] Oh Beast, I betrothe my woe to the rosette guilloche / of your palace. / Oh Beast, I proffer my soul to the mould / into which you have poured me. / (Poor me.)” (23). Essbaum’s use of assonance lashes the reader like a whip; it cuts the guilty flesh.
The guilt and desire for punishment in this long poem are palpable. Essbaum’s use of twisted Biblical ideas, wordplay, and poetic devices make it work. In the end, the “you” in the poem, the “sadist,” the “Beast,” is the speaker’s obsession and her doom. “And I will dive from the very trestle. / That will be the last of all I ever do. / Except cry out for you” (24-25).