Man Overboard: A Tale of Divine Compassion by David Denny
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
You have probably heard the story of Jonah, but never like David Denny tells it in Man Overboard: A Tale of Divine Compassion. In 24 poems capturing the voices of Jonah, God, sailors, wind, whale, people of Nineveh, their king, even the vine and the worm, Denny retells this familiar tale with imagination and economy that nonetheless holds a treasure chest of riches.
Denny’s use of natural, cultural, and historic details delights, even as it grounds his flights of fancy in reality:
“… my wife
clicked about my burning ears like a locust.
…. I untied all 613 knots
in my tallit” – “Flight” p. 4.
Those familiar with the Bible will recognize echoes of favorite passages:
“Seeing the dry bones of
my chosen ones scattered
on the ground…” (“Arise and Go” p. 23)
brings to mind Ezekiel’s vision from Ezekiel 37.
God’s inquisition of Jonah after Jonah complains about His lack of judgment:
“Where were you
when the Tigris began to flow? Where were you
when the walls of Nineveh were hosted to the sky?” (“God’s Response to Jonah” p. 25)
reminds us of God’s questioning of Job in Job 38.
In other places Denny subtly draws our attention to Jonah as a type of Christ.
“Can a man be born twice” Jonah asks after being vomited by the fish (“A Good Question” p. 19), and we hear Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus in John 3.
The story of “The Perfumer and His Wife,”
“… And when he told us
that like a fox without a den he had nowhere to lay
his head…” pp. 25-26
remind us of Jesus’ words in Matthew 8.
Most significant of the finds in this book for me, though, are Denny’s illustration of the subtitle: “A Tale of Divine Compassion.” Compassion oozes from these poems. God refers to Jonah as “my dove” (Jonah means dove), and speaks of “his lovely face” (“Arise and Go” p. 3).
The wind speaks of Jonah as “this little one” – “Stormspeak” p. 5.
God calls the great fish “lovely, sweet and langourous one” in “God Speaks to the Great Fish” p. 18.
To the Ninevites, God says:
“My heart delights in you, for you were lost and now
you are found…” – “Turning Point” p. 29.
As poems, the individual pieces are easy to understand even as they make good use of poetic devices like anaphora, paradox, onomatopoeia, personification, and surprising juxtapositions:
“I can’t go back now
My stomach can’t hold
that much crow” – “On a Hilltop Overlooking Nineveh” p. 41.
In Man Overboard, Denny opens our eyes to the compassionate song of redemption that plays a sweet counterpoint to Jonah’s blues of nationalistic pettiness. Thanks to this little volume, I don’t think I’ll ever read the book of Jonah in quite the same way again.
Thank you to David Denny and Lora Zill for the review copy of Man Overboard. A shorter version of this review first appeared in the Fall 2014 issue of Time of Singing.