‘And what if he tells you to make poems?’

Review of "Trespassing on the Mount of Olives" by Brad Davis.

“Though I have never been to Mount Olive, New Jersey,
I have spent years of my reading life on the Mount of Olives,
trespassing, looking for a brown-skinned teacher…”

writes Brad Davis in his book’s title poem, inspired by a news report of a trespassing teen in Mount Olive, New Jersey. The poem summarizes well the quest which Davis shares with us in the collection Trespassing on the Mount of Olives: Poems in Conversation with the Gospels.

The formation of this 67-poem collection, Davis tells us in the Preface, was a three-plus-year period during which, “… I made a slow read of the gospels, letting the birddog process of lectio divina flush poems from the convoluted thicket of my psyche.” Each poem is thus connected with a scripture passage, most from the gospels, giving the reader a sense of the poem’s inspiration, theme, and a glimpse into the fertile mind of this skillful communicator. The result is a collection that is by turns imaginative, poignant, thought-provoking, mind-stretching, clever, funny, and moving.

Many of the poems are what one might expect to find in such a project – a fictional delve into the minds of Bible characters. “Young Elizabeth’s Lament” begins:

“Not without much labor have I, like Sarai before me,
resigned myself to being only half a woman.”

In “Annunciation” on the morning after the angel’s visit Mary muses:

“I hear my sister stirring on her mat …

Can I tell her? And how to explain it to the man I am to wed?
What have I done?…”

A poem of this type I found particularly moving was “The Watchers.” Based on the Bible record of Jesus being in the wilderness with the wild beasts during his 40-day temptation, one of those creatures wonders:

“But how long our strange duty here?
Until he dies?

… And I will die protecting him, the Maker
made brother to us all.”

Another type of poem is Davis imagining and transporting Bible characters into modern settings. In the poem “What Matters Moves” angels are part of a video game. “Prepping for Bible Study” contrasts crowds around Jesus with modern social distancing rules during the COVID-19 pandemic:

“… so many had gathered that it was SRO
in the house. And outside the gate
the crowd was even larger. And no one
wore masks or gave a thought to whether
the grocery store clerk had or had not
sanitized his conveyor belt…”

“Report from the Field” is the news update, from a young reporter, of a Capernaum “lakeside retreat” and “rabbinic love-fest” where it is hoped the Teacher will “gain traction” and “expand his fan base.” Instead,

“… a cell of ragged interlopers,
…removed tiles from the benefactor’s roof …”

prompting the Teacher to go “off-script” and more.

Not all of Davis’s poems deal with people or Bible events, however. Many go beyond individual characters and incidents to explore big ideas. He grapples with the concepts of light and darkness in poems like “Sometimes” and “Parsing.” He discusses what it means to be human and mortal in poems like “This Will Be Misunderstood” and “When the End Comes.” I found lines from some of these poems mind-stretching, like these from “How It Will Be”:

“Each old thing a door
for the new thing pressing
on the old from within,

not to erase the old thing
but to step forward in
and through the old,”

There are other types of poems as well. A few (like “Ode to the Ferryman” and “Squam Lake NH”) recall family stories and childhood memories. “Fraction” plays with the word “division.” “Man with a Water Jar” takes its inspiration from a painting. I laughed out loud when I read “A Carol” with its epigraph: “translated from a shepherd’s original ecstatic utterance,” which begins:

“God is a big fish
God is an ocean
God is a tiny boat
God is from Goshen”

The most moving poems for me, however, are the ones in which Davis shares his personal response to the day’s scripture. In “Do Whatever He Tells You,” he asks:

“And what if he tells you to make poems?”

In “Confession” he admits (in response to the day’s scripture “Rejoice that your names are written in heaven”) that he would love for his name to be engraved on the front door plaque of his dwelling in honour of his greatness as a poet. And in “Credo” he reflects on death in the context of his father’s dementia:

“He does not recognize the fork.
And on the far side of

a wall he hasn’t a clue is there
his whole life awaits to be returned

to him – in the resurrection…”

As you can probably tell, I really enjoyed this book. The poems are interesting, accessible, and beautifully written and crafted – mostly in free verse. The inclusion of a scripture passage or passages at the beginning of each poem makes this collection a great choice for devotional reading and meditation. It is altogether a most worthwhile and rewarding “trespass” through the gospels.


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