Encore March 2014

Page 38

arts encore

Ancient Stories Made New

Poet puts modern spin on biblical characters and themes by

Margaret DeRitter


hen 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. She’ll be reading from the book during a Friends of Poetry event March 18 at the Portage District Library (see box). “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.

38 | Encore MARCH 2014

Janet Ruth Heller, at left, spent four decades working on her book Exodus, beginning when she was an undergraduate.

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