Reflecting on the language of scripture through Robyn Donnelly's poetry

Posted Thu, 07/08/2021 - 09:01 by Katharine

In my role as poet in residence for CCJ, I have been privileged to meet Robyn Donnelly, a student of English and Creative Writing at Leeds Trinity University, whose final year dissertation is a selection of poems exploring the intersection of her Roman Catholic upbringing and her lesbian identity. Robyn told me that she found poetry the ideal medium for this exploration because of how imagery resonated with the language of the Bible, and how it enables you to tell other possible versions of a familiar story. For Robyn, the heteronormative interpretation of Scripture made her ponder the role of human (especially male) interpretation of Scripture. She also felt that God did not have to be gendered. Within contemporary culture, and especially the LGBTQ+ community, heteronormative approaches are increasingly being challenged; the assumption implicit in heteronormative readings of events or texts is that the ‘norm’ for relationships between people is heterosexual and any other interpretation is the ‘other,’ causing a sense of alienation and marginalisation for many people who identify with minority sexual or gender communities. When one applies a broader range of possible gender/sexuality interpretations to scripture, new readings emerge.  


The oppression experienced by Robyn in relation to the intersection of her faith and her sexual identity is powerfully evoked in the final lines of ‘Birth is Retribution,’ suggesting that hell may exist primarily on earth for those who feel discriminated against. For me, this poem, which Robyn explained records a vivid dream, evokes the personal encounters between the Christian and their Lord in the poems of the metaphysical poet George Herbert, especially his ‘The Collar’ and ‘The Pulley’ which are powerful articulations of God’s mercy and desire to engage with humans even when they feel out of favour with Him. The ‘Sycamore tree’ in this poem is also an echo of the story in Luke 19, 1-10 of Jesus calling the shunned tax collector Zacchaeus down from a sycamore tree so they could talk.


‘Forbidden Fruit’ makes such effective use of the image of the apple picked by Eve from the tree of knowledge and given to Adam, and their ejection from Eden. I loved the image of the ‘browned core containing/The seeds as a reminder of my sin,’ and how the ‘gaping lacerations’ vividly recall the wounds of Christ.


The concept of God’s ‘blessing’ in contrast to the ‘hubris of man’ in ‘My Sin is Man’s Creation’ is a great way of expressing an experience of being ‘othered’ by human interpretation of God’s word.


I hope you enjoy these poems, which fit so closely with the aims of the ‘transforming intolerance’ project, in which poetry is used to explore a common student experience that intersectionality led to them feeling outsiders in their university communities. By reading and sharing them we may move towards the intention to ‘promote inclusivity,’ and break down the barriers created by polarisation and othering.


Hannah Stone 

CCJ Poet-In-Residence

Poems by Robyn Donnelly cited her with her permission. Copyright remains with the author.


Forbidden Fruit


Did I pluck from the sacred tree

A queer, forbidden fruit? 

A fruit so alluring that it made 

Me commit the most impious acts,

That captivated me until all I held in my hand

Was a browned core containing 

The seeds as a reminder of my sin.

I buried them, the remnants 

Of my wrongdoings,

And something shifted inside.

I buried my virtue along with those seeds. 


I consumed that sweet and sanctified fruit,

Placed upon the Earth to be savoured,

Relished and then ravaged by man,

But so deserving of the merciful touch of woman.

Solemn voices in the darkness switch,

Those that were once moral have become depraved 

And I am unsure if the source of my torment

Is my own mind or that of my maker. 

Visions of the underworld flash before me

In vivid dreams. Premonitions of my punishment?

Gaping lacerations that ooze with sin

Fade as quickly as they appear.


I listened, but heard no voice from the ether.

I was banished from Heaven’s paradisiacal shores

The minute I considered tasting forbidden fruit.

Now I long to die in order to determine

Whether my hours spent agonising over

An immortal soul were ever worthy,

For I swallowed the fruit and she showed me true life.

My Sin Is Man’s Creation

I have never encountered such haughtiness

As I have found in the hubris of man,

Who feels himself so entitled as to revise 

The Holy Scripture under some moral guise,


And with this facade uses God to smite,

To condemn, to rebuke, to chastise,

To berate, to punish, to castigate, 

To twist His word to endorse their hate.


To cast me as immoral, an abomination,

What, for loving as God made me to?

Who gives that divine and holy right

To those who banish me into damnation?


Not The Lord, of such benevolence, 

With His altruism, compassion and solicitude.

To call me shameful, to question love,

Is surely denounced by Him above?


To oppress in judgement of those He did create,

What greater sin could be committed?

No man is as virtuous, or as just as God,

What gives him the right to this divine debate?


God blessed me with a sapphic passion,

Of which no man could be pure enough to possess,

And in his jealous rage, his entitled fury

He damned me in the name of God’s great glory,


And as I have suffered amongst mortal bodies

In death, man will endure an eternal fire,

And where he spurned me of any sympathy, 

I offer him all of the empathy he could desire.

Birth Is Retribution

I entered my Lord’s garden,

And asked him to set me free,

For on His estate, sin cannot prevail.

We sat under His Sycamore tree.


He placed His hand upon my shoulder,

And surrounded me with light,

And the ground beneath us parted,

As we looked down from heaven’s height.


No fiery pits raged below.

No demon rose from hell.

No spirits roamed in darkness.

No devil had been left to dwell.


I asked about the abyss,

And in reply he laughed, 

“What a fool I would be

To condemn my craft.


I made you in my likeness,

And gave you freedom, too,

So what you choose to do with it,

Is entirely up to you.”


I asked Him about my own sins,

And the wicked and corrupt,

And before I finished speaking,

He began to interrupt.


“The dishonourable and disorderly

Are chastened by rebirth.

For although hell does not exist,

It’s close enough on earth.”