When Janet Ruth Heller was studying modern Israeli literature in college, she came across a poem that would inspire her own poetry for the next four decades.
The poem, “His Mother,” by Chiam Guri, was based on the biblical story of a Canaanite general, Sisera, who lost a battle with the Israelites and never returned home because he was killed by a woman who drove a tent stake through his temple. According to Jewish legend, Sisera’s mother cried a hundred cries for him.
Guri’s poem reimagines the biblical story with Sisera’s mother at the center of it, empathizing with her grief. Its mournful tone contrasts with the celebratory tone often found in Bible stories about the killing of Israel’s enemies.
“It’s written from the perspective of a modern Israeli person who regrets the killing of Arab soldiers,” Heller says. “That really struck me because I thought it was original and so daring to write a poem that is so sympathetic with a very different perspective.”
Heller began writing poems in which she reinvented or reimagined biblical characters through a modern perspective. Now, after about 40 years of working on these poems, they have been published in her new book Exodus, released in January by WordTech Editions.
“I started the book when I was an undergraduate and worked on it through 2012, so it represents about four decades of my life as a writer,” says Heller, a Portage resident who is 64 and has retired from a long career of college teaching, including at Western Michigan University.
Many of the poems are dramatic monologues in the voice of a biblical character. “I’m Jewish, and I’m interested in updating aspects of the biblical stories and filling in the gaps,” Heller says.
The first poem in the book, “Jana” — which turns the biblical character of Jonah into a woman — grew out of a painful experience in early adulthood. “I had a relationship with a young man, and I thought it was going to wind up in marriage and it didn’t,” Heller says. “I was really upset when the young man broke up with me and ended up marrying the next person he dated. The poem is about coming to terms with this and all the psychological elements.”
In the poem, Heller writes,
“The whale thrashed me onto shore.
I had gotten so used to living alone
amid the ribs and thwarts of its belly
that the trees of the island seemed to gesticulate menacingly
and the wind threatened to knock me down.”
Heller’s difficult experience, however, did have a positive impact. “I started writing poems to help myself cope. I got into the habit of writing frequently, and I started revising more and taking myself more seriously as a writer.”
As a feminist, Heller is particularly interested in writing about women characters. In her poem “Leah,” she imagines the first of Jacob’s four wives as a modern woman whose husband is cheating on her. In a poem about Jezebel, “a woman considered evil, I was trying to figure out how she thought,” Heller says. “I don’t necessarily sympathize with her ideas, but I was trying to figure out what her perspective might have been.”
In fact, says Heller, she tries to identify with all of the characters she writes about, even when their actions are terrible, as in the case of the rapist Amnon. “For many of these poems I’m exaggerating something that’s inside of me, in some cases making it pathological.”
Heller says she tried for years to get poetry collections published that combined both religious and secular themes, but she had no luck. “Many publishers are not at all interested in poetry that has any whiff of religion,” she says. When she decided in 2010 to put her secular poems and biblically based poems into separate books, she found success. A chapbook of secular poems titled Traffic Stop was published in 2011, and a full-length book containing those poems and more was published as Folk Concert: Changing Times in 2012.
Heller has titled her new book Exodus, she says, because “I see it as representing all of the changes in our lives, including new relationships, taking risks, new jobs, new experiences, getting out of your comfort zone, taking risks and making changes in your life. To me, the Exodus is sort of a symbol of that.”