Imagine the Gospel narrative taking place right in your home town, right now. How would you know what was going on? How would you react?
This is what Tania Runyan imagines with delightful grace in “Before All Things.” In her telling, the key moments in the gospels happen almost simultaneously. First, Christ dies as “a record-long freight train / barrels” by a familiar road. A fisherman drops his pole and walks “toward the hill” — and it takes a minute for us to realize that this is Peter (or another of the first disciples) leaving his fishing to follow Jesus. Then, at the instant of conceiving Jesus, Mary becomes “A girl at a bus stop / clutch[ing] her side.” And to emphasize that all this is part of ordinary life, the speaker is off to see a movie.
At the moment when Christ is born, a meteor flashes in the speaker’s kitchen, and her response is wonderfully down-to-earth: grinding her best coffee “as an offering.” Christ’s birth also sends “Legion” (the demons in Mark 5:1-13) roaring away. And as if simultaneously, we get the instant in John’s story of the woman taken in adultery, when the Pharisees drop the stones they’d been ready to hurl at the woman. Finally, in one of my favorite images of the poem, Jesus’ multiplication of the loaves is imagined as “The loaves in the kitchen / ruptur[ing] their bags.”
In four short stanzas, Runyan takes the Gospel narrative that we usually think of as so very far in the past — and (literally) brings it home. This isn’t just a gimmick on the poet’s part; it’s deep theology. When she included this poem in Second Sky, her collection of poems inspired by Paul’s letters, she headed it Col. 1:17, which reads: He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. Notice the present tense: Christ is holding together all things right now. That’s the theological truth that this poem so engagingly dramatizes.
— Peggy Rosenthal
Before All Things
The day Christ died a record-long freight train
barreled through the Rollins Road crossing.
For seven minutes tankers and lumber flats
vibrated through the spikes in his wrists.
A fisherman dropped his pole by the retention pond
and headed toward the hill. A girl at a bus stop
clutched her side as the embryo implanted himself.
We’ll be late for the movie, I said.
That night, a meteor lit a tongue of fire
over the Midwestern sky. Our kitchen flashed,
and you froze at the sink. Christ was just born,
you said. I ground my best coffee as an offering
and kept watch through the night. Legion roared
through the maple leaves. The Pharisees’ stones
thudded to the ground. The loaves in the kitchen
ruptured their bags, then the earth burst into being.
image via Creative Commons.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.