Saint Abishag

what kind of people send a girl to fuck
an old man? and what kinds of kings do you
worship that this goes on? I had my luck—
he didn't 'know' me—couldn't—what to do
but minister if not to cherish him
that's what we slave girls do: obey + serve
call me the saint of
                                   girls who never win
the saint of maidens valued for their curves
of girls creeped out by older guys
                                                            of girls
who pray that guys can't get it up who pray
to just be left alone + have a life
the saint of oh my god I'm going to hurl
oh yes my name is in the Bible

John Yohe

3 Questions for John

What was your process for creating these pieces? What is the significance of the forms/genres you chose for this work? What is the significance of this work to you?

Both of these poems come out of a lifelong (or the life of me writing poetry) interest in re-telling myths, which goes back to my interest in 70s/80s heavy metal music, where this happened. In particular, the band Iron Maiden’s song “The Flight of Icarus” retells the Icarus story as a betrayal of the son by the father. I loved that idea!

I was also very influenced by my teacher Diane Wakoski, with whom I studied at Michigan State University. All of her work is about re-telling and re-claiming myths, whether ancient Greek ones like Medea, or contemporary ones like Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz.

I’m interested in giving voice to the ‘bad guys’ of myths, Greek, Roman or Christian. Interestingly, a lot of the bad guys happen to be women. But, I want to challenge who the heroes are. The winners always get to tell history Narrative, and make themselves the heroes, in myth and in real life. I want to think about what the ‘losers’ might say about the Narrative.

The “Saint Abishag” poem is one of a series of poems I’ve been writing over recent years, based on the poem “Saint Judas” by James Wright, which the poet Cornelius Eady turned me on to in a class at The New School during my MFA Program. I’ve always traveled a lot, to seasonal summer jobs in other states, and spent many night in hotels. My memory is of one night not (amazingly, for me) having any books and opening the Gideons Bible at random and...there were a lot of dark and bizarre stories in there. Even the stories we think we know are sometimes different. But again, I became fascinated with the ‘minor’ characters, and the idea that they were vitally important to Christianity, either as supposed ‘bad guys’, like Judas, or even as ‘supporting characters,’ so that the ‘official’ saints couldn’t have become official saints without them. So, seems like the minor characters too should be saints, for their small parts in the Christian Narrative. But again, also wondering what they might have to say about the stories they appear in.

The saint poems I’ve always written in sonnet form: I think going back to the first night, being inspired but not wanting to write a huge poem. I’d experimented with sonnets way before then—I liked the idea that the form might help guide me into what they might say, and prevent me from trying to quickly get to some cliché ending: you never know how a sonnet will end when you start one. So, I’ve just kept this personal tradition: to only write a saint poem when I’m staying in a hotel, and to make it a sonnet. Problem: many hotels are now not putting Gideons Bibles in their rooms anymore! Anyways, I love that this minor servant girl, Abishag is mentioned in the story of King David. That her name was interesting-sounding enough to stay in the story, even though David is too old to fuck her by the time she becomes his maidservant/slave.

Born in Puerto Rico, John Yohe lives in northwestern Colorado. He has worked as a wildland firefighter, wilderness ranger and fire lookout. Best of the Net nominee.

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