In the third chapter of John’s gospel we read of a man called Nicodemus, who comes to Christ by night to confess the belief that Jesus is a teacher sent by God. Christ replies: except that someone be born anwqen (anôthen), they are not able to see the kingdom of God. This adverb anôthen, which literally means ‘from above’ (that is, locative and spatial), becomes, in the course of a complex translational history, the familiar ‘born again’ (that is, iterative and temporal) of the King James Bible.
It’s only appropriate that Ivy Johnson’s insurrectionary feminist bildungsroman should take its title from a daily piece of language which is both scriptural and also calques a hidden history of language and interpretation which has life-and-death consequences for all sorts of bodies – specifically, in this case, femme bodies. Must we be born again or born from above? And what’s the difference?
I introduce this translational fracture or fault as a way in to the fundamental preoccupation of Johnson’s text – the border, or distance, between spiritual and erotic life, between Christian restriction and avant-garde abandon, between “childhood” and “adulthood” (whatever those things are). I once heard the Rev. Lynice Pinkard preach that Jesus Christ was “a scandalous lover,” and you should have heard the murmur that went through the congregation when she declared those words. Like Pinkard, Johnson is writing not in order to provoke the murmur (though she doesn’t mind it), but to investigate through a map of her own subjectivity through time the degree to which this assertion is true.
Our first clue as to where this text will take us is in the cover art’s collaged image of Bernini’s St. Teresa – familiar in recent decades through its reproduction on the City Lights edition of Georges Bataille’s Erotism. Bataille’s lifelong meditation on eros, the sacred, and death through dozens of works (including The Accursed Share, also cited in this work), informs the inquiry of her own life Johnson has undertaken. It also situates her work genealogically amidst the vulnerable and explicit traditions of New Narrative writing, which also took Bataille as a tutelary figure.
Born Again is a prosimetrum, like another work of ‘new life’ – Dante’s Vita Nuova. And like its forebear, Johnson’s book maps a subjective fracture. The relationship between Born Again’s autobiographical prose sections, named after locales (“Seattle Washington,” “Devil’s Lake North Dakota”) and the poetic passages with which they are intercut is not explicitly declared, but remains in suspension. (The returning presence in the text of Maria Callas, as Pasolini’s Medea, tempts me to think of the poems as arias, or as the choral odes in Euripides’ tragedies whose distinct meters signal that we’ve made the transition into the world of the gods – which may be the same as our world.)
The titles, the forms, the references – these are all the outward lineaments of Born Again’s fundamental struggle – the freedom and self-knowledge of a subject, sexed female under repressive patriarchy that counts religious discourse and practice among its fundamental codes. (As the apostle Paul asks, Who will save us from the body of this death?) The power of the book’s narrative sections, which shape its overall effect, resides in their tense unwillingness to cheaply resolve this struggle. We read of the harms in a fundamentalist childhood, and then of the harms in a cold and secular city. The pleasures, likewise, are tangled: a lover receives the capitalized divine pronoun He as we learn that it is impossible to pass a night together without fucking three times (a reminiscence of Peter’s betrayal of Christ before the rooster has crowed three times?). We do not forget John’s story that Nicodemus came, precisely, by night. A scandalous lover, indeed.
What remains after reading Born Again is admiration for the integrity of the wrestling which seems tensed, unresting and unsettled even in the finished work, like the ancient statue of Laocoön and his sons. Beyond the debased sacred and the impoverished secular which is nothing but its mirror, – what would it mean to be born there, into that beyond? And what’s the view like from there, into the kingdom or kindom of heaven?
David Brazil is a pastor and translator. His third volume of poetry, Holy Ghost (City Lights, 2017), was a finalist for the California Book Award.