My name is Joe McHugh and you don’t know who I am. More to the point, I am here to talk about Christopher Newgent’s latest micro-to-quasi-macro-collection of poems The Lion and the Lamb. You might not yet know who that is either, actually, but if I were to place a one hundred dollar bet on whose name is more likely to someday be in an encyclopedia, I would bet it all on Christopher Newgent. He’s more handsomer than me and he’s got arm muscles that, not only could, but WILL accidentally murder a nun tomorrow.
My fascination with The Lion and the Lamb rests in its use of religious myths and symbols, especially Christian, without itself being religious. The voice is not that of a preacher or evangelical dad or a monk or something. It’s much broader and intrinsically human than any of those. The pieces communicate general emotional reactions to interpersonal relationships and the state of the world. They represent feelings of disconnection (The Lion) and connection (The Lamb) that everything with emotions and self-awareness has to confront.
“The Lioness” is a perfect example of what I mean. The language of “I thought of your naked breast” and “the time I held my ear to your navel and heard an ocean” suggest a meaningful relationship between two people, and it is clear from phrases like “I wonder if you’re ever coming back” that the relationship is no longer intact. After setting up the degree of emotional connection, the poem communicates intense longing and it is then that the religious symbols are presented. The speaker of the poem longs for this other person so much that the person is likened to Vishnu, Christ, and Valhalla, all of whom are characters that hold immense power and control over the state of the world in their mythical contexts. The speaker is turning this other person into a mythical character with superhuman power. That’s a lot of longing.
In the final poem, human beings are plagued with the ability to discern suffering while simultaneously observing how impossible it is to eliminate it. “The Lion/The Lamb” very succinctly describes the difficulty of being alive and aware. That is it. Read the poem and not this thing that I have written, which is too wordy. This thing that I have written is folly.
The final stanza of “We Came Here to Save Something” characterizes this whole collection. The speaker describes a set of sheepherding images, again calling to mind Christian symbolism, only to conclude with “the whole scene / so pastoral I want to puke.” Concluding in this way is harsh and abrasive, but it communicates a lot of character, much like James Wright’s famous last line of “Lying on a Hammock . . .” Any sense of fondness for the pastoral scene is rejected, and even the scene itself is described with unattractive words like “dirty” and “scuttle.” With these notions in mind, the title indicates that the speaker is not just disappointed by the scene independently, but that the scene represents something that was unable to be saved.
When I think of the phrase “the lion and the lamb,” the first thought to pop up is that one part in the Bible where a lion eats with a lamb. It tells of a supposed future point in time when the earth will be flooded with peace and it seems that all living creatures will be satisfied without having to devour each other. As I said earlier, Newgent’s collection of poems is not itself about religion or Christianity, but that it does borrow many of the symbols. The image of a lion someday eating with a lamb represents hope for a better way. This same type of hope is floating throughout these poems. Likewise, it is affectively highlighted through the presentation of harsh human realities that I can relate to. Not only that: I have to relate to them, because I am human.
Joe McHugh likes to write music and poems and short stories and maybe movies scripts too. I'm not sure. I don't actually know the guy. He lives somewhere near Chicago and some of his work has appeared in The Broken Plate and in Dogzplot. As far as I can tell, he likes to post some of his work at the following address: www.josephmchugh.wordpress.com