Mary Magdalene is every woman

Marie Howe’s poems present Magdalene in many forms, contemporary and ancient.

I  first heard Marie Howe read from these poems at a conference on writing and spirituality, and one poem in particular hit a nerve in the group of aspiring writers and clergy. “On Men, Their Bodies” is a litany of encounters with penises that the narrator, presumably “Magdalene,” has had.

Some at the conference objected that the poem was needlessly incendiary, meant to attract attention rather than elicit conversation. Others argued that it had been a valuable refocusing—men are rarely reminded of their embodiment in a religious context. Toward the end of the week, I asked a rabbi friend how he had felt about the incident. “I felt like it was an invitation to be a body,” he said. “I felt freer after that poem, like I could show up here as a full human being.”

Such is the complexity of the word Magdalene in our cultural moment. Mary Magdalene, the biblical figure and follower of Jesus, has been widely misinterpreted as a prostitute. She has been confused with many other women in the biblical stories, blended together into one type—the repentant harlot—despite biblical evidence to the contrary. There have been many attempts to set this tradition straight. Howe’s Magdalene poems are not in this lineage.