Winter Books
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Issue Date:  October 7, 2005

By Paul Mariani, illustrated by Barry Moser
Paraclete Press, 94 pages, $24
An American idiom infuses poems of ordinary life


Despite its somewhat foreboding title, Paul Mariani’s new book Deaths & Transfigurations is an honest, beautiful and accessible collection of poems. He cultivates themes from his life in academia, his working-class childhood and his Catholic faith. His reverence for all three is illustrated in black and white engravings by renowned designer and illustrator and Mr. Mariani’s great friend, Barry Moser.

These poems are quite personal: Mr. Mariani enters his themes of the power of love, the pain of loss and the possibility of renewal through the terrain of intimate relationships. They are set against a backdrop one might expect of a poet born in 1940, just prior to the baby boom: self-definition apart from parental authority; the meaning of life in a fast-changing world; the realities of aging. They subtly touch on newsworthy topics, too. “Pieta” describes a woman who can only discuss her son’s death of AIDS after three martinis at a party, but the death she describes is achingly beautiful, transfigured by the compassion of a dark-skinned priest cradling the young man’s wasted body in his arms.

Mr. Mariani spent part of his childhood in Levittown, N.Y., that iconic site of postwar middle-class mobility, where he struggled with the tension between his reality and his dreams. In Deaths & Transfigurations he negotiates such tensions honestly. In “Work,” Mr. Mariani examines the demands of his working-class youth (and his blue-collar father) and his dreams of pursuing a higher intellectual calling. Long days sandblasting and repainting a swimming pool under a “bitching sun” recall the slavery of the pyramid builders to which he likens an impatient adolescent self, yearning to break free of such tyranny:

… Here inside this
Blazing pit ruled silence,
   punctuated by the bark
Of orders from a man who had
   a pool to finish,
Brushstroke by numbing
   brushstroke, blood-thick paint
Baking the metal and our hands
   under an Egyptian sun
While darkened each day more my
   princely skin …

Still, Mr. Mariani understands that a man must feed his family, and that respect pervades other poems about his often difficult relationship with his father, including the tender “Wolf Moon,” about caring for his father near death.

While his work may draw those who grasp its religious themes, allusions and images, Mr. Mariani’s appeal is not limited to Catholic or religious readers. Mr. Mariani describes himself as “an American poet working in the American idiom. I remember writing [fellow poet] Phil Levine a letter and told him I was interested in getting a respectable response to a Catholic poet. There has been a marginalization of that for any number of reasons. He said, ‘Don’t forget you are an American poet.’ ”

Indeed, Mr. Mariani’s territory as a poet is that crossroads between the vision informed by his faith and the American idiom he loves. To succeed there holds an extra challenge. “I agree with Flannery O’Connor. It means you have to try even harder. You have to be good on both levels,” Mr. Mariani told NCR in an interview.

“[The poet] Robert Hass said Americans don’t have one voice, they have two voices,” Mr. Mariani said.

Mr. Mariani listens for the second voice wherever he goes. “I listen to jazz, I listen to the way people speak, their inflections. I want to lift them into the poem,” he said.

Mr. Mariani doesn’t think the two positions of faith and culture are so very polarized. He speaks of “a deep hunger” in the wider culture, “a longing for the God dimension, the spiritual dimension,” and points to a renaissance of faith-based intellectuals and artists. Writers like Scott Cairns, Patricia Hampl, Ron Hansen, Larry Joseph and others are participants in this “inchoate” movement reclaiming Christian faith-based themes such as mystery, longing for meaning, and the transformation of suffering through imminent grace, as legitimate topics for serious artists in a post-postmodern era.

“Maybe the movement in Christianity is beauty. To show people the beauty of the world,” Mr. Mariani said.

Ultimately, these poems show us the subtle transformation of the ordinary events of our lives and our shared history as Americans seen through Mr. Mariani’s sacramental vision. He offers images to 21st-century America that remind readers that though death on a personal or cultural level necessarily claims parts of us, its counterpoint, love, summons us just as tangibly.

Kris Berggren, an NCR columnist, writes from Minneapolis.

On art, faith and the church

If the medium is the message, then the art of engraving -- a difficult and exacting technique of carving positive and negative spaces from the grain end of hard wood -- is fitting illustration for a text that deals so much in the concrete and often juxtaposed occasions of joy and suffering.

“I cut the white areas away and leave the surface of the block standing. The tool pushes the material, it doesn’t gouge it,” explained Barry Moser, whose work illustrates Paul Mariani’s Deaths & Transfigurations: Poems. “Then it’s locked into a printing press and struck with ink on a piece of paper.”

“The medium is nothing if not disciplined,” Mr. Moser continued. “It takes a kind of mindset that is rare, especially today when art has become a matter of self-expression, where people don’t like the idea of discipline anymore. There is no such thing as spontaneous engraving. I am very big on delayed gratification.”

Delayed gratification as part of one’s craft, or part of one’s survival; the inability to hide from the medium, or from God; the discipline of an art, or a faith practice -- Mr. Moser’s comments echo themes from Mr. Mariani’s work.

Ironically, Mr. Moser is agnostic, despite a Southern upbringing in Tennessee in which religion, he said, was inevitable.

“In high school I would go to revival meetings in the summertime,” Mr. Moser said. “I got saved half a dozen times, I reckon. One time it stuck. I ended up putting myself through college as a Methodist preacher.”

But Mr. Moser fell out with religion because of the hypocrisy and racism he saw embedded in church life in the pre-Civil Rights era.

Mr. Mariani, on the other hand, is devoted to his Catholic faith. He briefly attended seminary, is a lector and eucharistic minister, attends Mass almost daily, and considered becoming a deacon. He is proud that one of his three sons is a Jesuit priest.

“The faith is absolutely foundational,” he said. “This is my life. There will always be questions and doubts; you either say yes or no. You still have to live each day and deal with the questions.”

Yet while Mr. Mariani said he has never experienced a period of alienation from the church, the institution has sometimes caused him pain. For example, while he greatly admires many priests, several poems address his doubts about the human and institutional failings of the church he loves.

“It’s really hurting us,” Mr. Mariani said of the ongoing fallout from the clerical sexual abuse scandal. “It is not over yet. It is such a huge issue. I think the poems are one attempt to deal with this. My son is a priest and this is part of the baggage he will have to carry around. It is so sad.”

-- Kris Berggren

National Catholic Reporter, October 7, 2005

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