Queers, Jews and Liberals: Remembering the disciples, a review of Witness

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It is not often we remember Jesus as the Israeli freedom fighter he was but Kinsman does just that – and more.

Jesus is one of many radicals in our long, bloody human history. Whether the modern-day reader believes he was the son of god or not, historians generally agree he was a real figure who was tried for sedition against the Roman Empire (resistance and rebellion against the established authority) and executed, two thousand (or so) years ago.

Jonathan Kinsman explores Jesus under this light, writing the modern-day gospels in his ground-breaking poetry collection, Witness. It consists of 14 poems: one for each of the twelve Apostles of Christ (and one for Matthias who replaced Judas and one for Mary Magdalene).

The disciples were once society’s outcasts until time and culture (and, let’s face it, politics) rewrote them as the devout men we know from the Bible. However, Kinsman revisits the forgotten followers of god through today’s lens, reminding us of their undying relevance it is all too easy to overlook in the gospel.

Kinsman uses scripture quotes to preface each poem. This adds such a real presence – almost to assert its own value as a collection about religion, to prove to the reader that what the narrative tells us is based in scripture, that what He says is canonically radical. But it is so beautifully done.

I must say that the poem, ‘Jude’, makes me sob. It might have broken my heart.

From a more academic point of view, you must acknowledge the relevance of Jude (a trans woman struggling with her identity in today’s society). ‘Jude’ is an archetypal figure of the LGBT+ community and yet one that is surprisingly seldom shown in mainstream media. It makes it even more interesting since Kinsman is transgender – it’s fantastic to see work by an openly trans writer and this gives ‘Jude’ that bit more resonance.

When the god figure of the collection takes Jude’s hand, he takes the hand of the queer community in an interesting parallel to Pope Francis’ recent announcement supporting same-sex civil unions.

At first appearances, it is easy to miss the gravitas of Kinsman’s stylistic choices – it took me until halfway through the pamphlet – but there is something humanising about seeing ‘god’ and all his pronouns decapitalised. It isn’t discussed often enough that the choice, made centuries ago, to capitalise He and Him and His renders god almost inaccessible and untouchable, withdrawn. Kinsman strips these barriers down when he abandons capitals and, for the first time, we are on the same level as god.

On that note, Kinsman writes a god/Jesus-figure who is undoubtedly humanised. He is flawed and vulnerable (and raises the reader’s eyebrow a bit in the last two poems). It’s beautiful to see almost punk poetry that rewrites religion under the lens of the contemporary and strips away the façade that two-thousand years have given god. Witness is a fantastically evocative poetry collection that I would recommend to the religious and the non-religious alike. Kinsman captures a universality in something that has historically isolated readers.

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