Issue Date: October 7, 2005
Reviewed by KRIS BERGGREN
Despite its somewhat foreboding title, Paul Marianis 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. Marianis 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 sons 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 mans 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:
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. Marianis 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, Dont forget you are an American poet.
Indeed, Mr. Marianis 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 OConnor. 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 dont 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 doesnt 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. Marianis 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.
National Catholic Reporter, October 7, 2005
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