In the introduction to the first (and to date only) anthology she ever edited, 2009's Jesus Girls: True Tales of Growing Up Female and Evangelical, local author Hannah Faith Notess complained about testifying: the evangelical need to tell the story of your fall and rise to Christ in a dramatic narrative. She had been born into an evangelical family, so she had little temptation to rise from. And the call came so early that she was a child before her life as a Christian began. "Before my attempts to invite Jesus into my heart, I was actually less of a sinner than after the fact, having had less time to sin," she wrote. "The truth was I had always tried to love God, and for all my love and God's love, I was really no better or worse than I'd been before." She seemed hurt that she couldn't take part in this Christian tradition.
As an atheist ex-Catholic, I don't know much about evangelical culture, but I can tell you that Notess's debut collection of poetry, Ghost House, is a whole tapestry of testimony. Some of it is explicitly religious, as when she's awakened in the middle of the night by "heartbreak":
It wakes you like the call to prayer you first heard
years ago, unfurled from half a dozen minarets
in a blue city, and when those voices shook the floor
you heard quite plainly, God is great,
what are you doing here?
But more often, the poems in Ghost House have to do with witchcraft, or hauntings, or the sorts of curses that happen in fairy tales:
Sometimes, the girl with a toad for a heart
forgets. Whole hours, it just blinks
from between her ribs, and even beats,
heartlike, till it grows scared or hungry.
Interspersed with the (apparently) biographical poems and the ones that construct a supernatural mythology, there's also the mythology of video games. Ghost House name-checks Pac-Man and Mario Kart. A poem called "Street Fighter II for a Broken Sega Genesis" begins "Our hands remember the feint and jab/but nothing works the way it used to."
These seem like three very disparate threads to weave together, but when bound as one book, with the narratives bobbing around each other from page to page, they are the story of a fall and rise (and rise and fall and fall and rise). At first, the video-game imagery and the stories about witches seem to chafe at each other, but when Notess tears them down to their basic elements, they have a lot in common. Here's a lament for Mario's dinosaur steed Yoshi from Super Mario World:
Dearest friend return
to the place we first met
and I will be reborn
and reborn and reborn.
When you look at it from the perspective of the character of the video game, it's a never-ending cycle of Old Testament–style torment and comfort. Who else would want you to die a thousand times by plummeting into bottomless pits and being consumed by carnivorous plants and crushed by giant anthropomorphic bullets but some old wronged crone from an old Hungarian story?
But anyone can make comparisons; why is Notess bringing these particular personal elements together? Maybe it comes down to testimony, to explaining the nuance and the sacrifice inherent in a life of service. Not every life story can read like an episode of Behind the Music, with gaudy sin and stratospheric climbs back to success. But every life story is worth telling; sometimes it just takes a poet to explain what makes the journey special.