Christine Beck was wandering the Louvre one day in 1999 and came upon a painting that grabbed her attention. The artwork‚ “The Madonna of Justice,” painted in 1620 by Bernardo Strozzi, depicts the Madonna and child with an angel, typical subjects for a work of the Italian Renaissance. But there was something different about this painting that stopped Beck in her tracks: Mary is pointing to a large book with the Latin words “Suprema Lex Esto, or, “the highest law. Beck, an adjunct English professor and former lawyer, says, “If you’re a lawyer in the Louvre, which I was, and you see a painting of a mother and a baby and a law book, it gets you thinking.”
Beck has just published a book of poetry, Blinding Light, which she says was initially inspired by the Strozzi painting. After seeing the painting, she researched it on the Web, but only found explanations saying the Madonna represented the law of the Old Testament. Beck disagreed. “I decided it was the law of mothers,” she says. “She’s got a baby and a book.” As a lawyer who is also a mother, Beck was intrigued.
She became interested in the notion of Mary and the law of mothers, what Beck calls “Lex Maturnus.” Yet “I knew I wasn’t going to write a book just about Mary,” she says. “I had to bring her down to my level. I had to think about the concerns of all mothers, about loving a child and not knowing what is going to happen in that child’s life.” The Strozzi painting poem was the first she wrote that is in her book, but the poem, like her ideas about the painting, evolved over time.
Some time after she wrote the poem, Beck took a writing workshop and chose to work on this poem. “One instructor told us to end our poems with a strong sensory image,” she says. “I thought about Mary feeling like her body had been taken over when she was carrying the baby. She might feel a baby’s heel pushing on her from the inside. This became the sensory detail I used in the poem. Once she had this image of the heel, she began to have many other ideas for poems. “It is mostly about a sense of things getting out of your grasp, things you can’t control.”
Beck wrote many of the poems as a student in Southern’s M.F.A. in creative writing program, and the book is a shorter version of her thesis. She graduated in 2013 and since then has been teaching creative writing at Southern and literature at the University of Hartford, where she taught law for nine years and later chaired the paralegal department. Her practice of law lasted more than 20 years, and during that time, she says, she was not thinking about writing poetry. But after leaving the legal field, she began to write and eventually decided to enter Southern’s M.F.A. program.
She entered the program with a clear goal: she wanted to write a book. She had some poems written when she started the program, the poem about “The Madonna of Justice” among them. As a former lawyer, she was new to the study of literature and creative writing, but she says her studies “forced me out of my comfort zone.”
Beck says that her book reads like a memoir but is also a meditation. She calls it a “braided narrative,” with poems about being a mother, poems about the law and poems about “blinding light‚” the desire to have a spiritual solution made clear, as in the case of Moses and the burning bush. But “while you’re waiting for the blinding light,” Beck says, “there are other things happening. The important thing is to go where life takes you and see what emerges.”