Mary is a River is the third collection by Rachel Jamison Webster that I’ve read. What draws me to her work again and again is her uncanny ability to connect all people to each other, the universe to itself. In Jamison Webster’s work nothing is lost, nothing is futile. All energy, all efforts are intertwined through time and space. This interconnectivity challenges and comforts me, takes me out of my narrow view of the material world and into a unified, ordered space. I’m not a Christian, and so I was initially concerned that the messages contained in this collection would not resonate with me. No so. This book expands the universe beyond individual beliefs and lifts all boats, religious or not.
Mary is a River seeks to address and reconcile two fundamental mysteries of religion and life: Why do we minimize the role of women, and how in this marginalized position do women manage to serve as the primary sources of the lessons of faith? These questions seem contradictory, and purposefully so. For we can only learn about the essential “continuity of Being” as Jamison Webster puts it, through those who can best teach its meaning (namely women, mothers, and caretakers).
We’ve been working to challenge binary societal labels as of late, as we should. But the resistance to these challenges tells us all we need to know about the power of labels and of the structures that birthed them. It’s no wonder women have been classified “the weaker sex,” since men have always been in charge. And the parameters of faith and worship have long been the realm of the patriarchy. With categories so ingrained, with social definitions so constricting, how can we look at our programmed beliefs with new eyes? In a world in which faith is often used as a cudgel or an excuse for cruelty, can we find its greater meaning and intent? Mary is a River implores us to do both: to recognize the nature of faith, and to honor the role women have played in making faith possible.
The author tells Mary Magdalene’s story in first person and in two sections, each poem numbered rather than named. For Mary herself has been numbered rather than named in the Bible, as the afterword mentions that Mary is “like a plural shorthand for ‘woman’... Yet there she was, again and again, in all the most important moments: when he was anointed as The Christ, when he was murdered, when he was discovered missing from the tomb.” This demands a counter narrative from Mary herself. The name Mary is used to describe “half of the women around Jesus—including his illustrious mother.” Mary Magdalene, portrayed through time as a prostitute rather than Jesus’s wife, is granted no agency; Mary is a River corrects this deficiency. Part one of the book focuses on Mary’s human concerns and pull toward the limitations of this life, while part two signifies the turning point from Mary the person and caretaker of the human Jesus, to her understanding and internalization of grander and more infinite notions. We follow her through these two parts from Mary’s earthly love for Jesus, his gruesome and wrenching crucifixion, and her search for meaning amid pain and loss.
What the patriarchy misses in all of this is that by erasing Mary’s story, Jesus’s story can never be fully realized, just as mortal men can never be all they’re meant to be when women are subjugated, as sexism damages all. The Marys of the Bible are
mixed and muddled...
made me into no woman, two women, three
because what one woman could
contain such contradiction—
But Mary Magdalene serves as one of the two necessary parties in the connection of God and humans. Jesus’s resurrection has no meaning if humans imbue it with none. Mary comes to understand this two-way exchange, and spends her life after the crucifixion teaching the faith that connects all human beings to eternity, that there is no salvation without people doing the work.
Mary’s journey to this understanding allows her to “wake outside my names.” At first, she’s acutely aware of her impermanence, of “our bodies, how fragile they were...So terrified of death / we had to make ourselves myths.” But Mary sees the possibility of salvation early, saying “It is what is possible for the human / who has given up smallness.” She vacillates between fear and hope, gravity and weightlessness. Women are pelted repeatedly by the lesson of invisibility, with all manner of instruction to make ourselves minute. Mary relays,
I went inside to get something,
anything, to give him, but I thought then
that even my gift would be evidence of my unworthiness.
The intersection of a divine awakening and earthly misogyny lives loudly in her.
But she pushes on, and through. As Mary gains the insight of eternity, the world shapes itself differently in her consciousness. Water doesn’t end at the shore. Cliffs don’t dissolve at their edges. Skies no longer serve as boundaries. At this point, Mary “left my life for my life.” Jesus becomes more that her earthly partner, as she allows herself to “imagine my hand // was his hand, feeding me.” Mary, who once lived for a person, now lives for something larger.
Jamison Webster insists that faith is not a blind alley, not a paradise without questions, concerns, or doubts. Faith is a living, breathing, changing element that confronts us consistently, that tests us repeatedly. Faith shifts, strengthens, strains, constrains, frees. As Jesus heads toward crucifixion, Mary fills with human worries: “How could I not see martyrdom / as a kind of terror, alienation or shame?” And crucifixion is unquestionably brutal and vicious. His death and resurrection are written by men, leaving us an eternity of a “one-sided stitching into history, his story.” Each are cast into their roles, as the Bible “raised him high in his humility, / and they entombed me in my grief.” Mary is deprived of her own story.
But this is where Mary’s narrative becomes even more urgent as Jesus ascends and Mary remains on earth.
And I was the part
that would have to live, to stay back alone
in the slower realm of stone and story.
And yet Mary felt his presence: “I could not believe he was feeding us / in his hour of need.” The two became one as “the matter we’re in / will matter less.” Instead,
What he left was an opening
in the earth, a portal
for the human possibility
of divinity, anyone can enter.
Mary does. And she helps others to do so. As we all can; as we all must. Find our footing, then use it to reach for something greater, whatever that is to us.
Amy Strauss Friedman is the author of the poetry collection The Eggshell Skull Rule (Kelsay Books, 2018) and the chapbook Gathered Bones are Known to Wander (Red Bird Chapbooks, 2016). Amy’s poetry has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Pleiades, Rust + Moth, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. Her work can be found at amystraussfriedman.com.