A review of Everything That Will Be New
Emeritus man of letters, Paul Mariani gives us his ninth collection of poems, which is perhaps the most irresistible and the most profound. One of his first volumes was titled Epitaphs of the journey, and now that journey is coming to an end as Mariani “raises unanswered questions you dare not ask” about how we “get through to the other side.” . . we are destined. In the early 1980s, he admits, “the sand in my own hourglass was almost gone.”
The quintessential storyteller, Mariani has many stories to tell of her long and successful life. Many of the “unanswered questions” he poses are found in this dazzling array of poems – elegiac, ekphrastic, eulogy, pastoral, lyrical, meditative – written in iambic pentameter, free verse and even Dante’s terza rima. The subjects explored by Mariani are just as powerfully diverse, from her ars poetica – painting – to nature in all its manifestations, from heroes like Harriet Tubman and Malcolm X to disaster like COVID.
Unsurprisingly, one of the first places Mariani raises questions is in his superb handful of ekphrastic poems, where he helps readers see inside a painting (and often the life of its artist) but also shows how painting reads us. From Picasso Guernica, Mariani asks: “Pilgrim, what are we going to do with all this? With Georges de La Tour Joseph the carpenter, Mariani shows how the mortal and the divine coexist in love. “From the darkness behind the man who turns the augur into wood,” symbolizing a tau cross, we see the boy Jesus holding a candle that seems to pass “with a bang . . . through [his] outstretched hand.” This light radiates from the face of Jesus as he comes to the aid of Joseph, the protector and nurturer, model of earthly obedience.
In Bastien-Lepage’s painting Poor Warblerthe little girl reveals a “look” that arouses our sympathy, “before you too find yourself turning away” in tears, as Mariani does when he meets the daughter of an old friend after mass, the face masked but wounded by a “tear”. ” with his brother.
Again, in “Wheat Fields Filled with Cypresses”, Mariani links Van Gogh’s “blue impasto” sky with its “marbled clouds” to the “paint-smeared clouds” that Gerard Manley Hopkins saw in Dublin” with its own end to come”. Mariani then links these images in this small masterpiece to the parable of the sower, emphasizing how the painter, the poet-priest and Mariani himself fight against the “darkened fields” of life. Countering the view of contemporary critics that Seurat’s Pointillist A Sunday on the Grande Jatte was irreligious or tasteless, Mariani agrees with the artist that everything “floats here / as if frozen in eternity, merging in endless harmonies of dots”, revealing “an Eden like no one has ever seen before “.
But if Seurat shows us Eden, Picasso shows us hell. Here is Mariani’s haunting opening line: “Like war itself, the paint will swallow you up.” The same goes for Mariani’s descriptions of Picasso’s apocalyptic images: a “screaming Pieta”, a Holy Spirit (dove) who “screams in anguish”, the gore of a “disembodied head” and a crumpled soldier. , “his eyes askew in death”. ” Ultimately, however, the last two ekphrastic poems, on Caravaggio The call of Saint Matthew and Dinner at Emmaus, summarize the hope and Christian love that animate the canon of Mariani. Like the apostles, we are summoned by Mariani’s poems on Caravaggio, however upset we are “by what is really happening before our eyes”.
Mariani also seeks wisdom among her “beloved ghosts”, including generations of her family “who rest silently somewhere in my blood”. There are also poems about his lifelong literary friends, Philip Levine, the unbeliever who could recite Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” so movingly it “could turn even an agnostic into believing “, and Bob Pack, another skeptic, whose conversations with Mariani were like “two rabbis” through whom “blessed jokes flow”. Mariani can’t wait to laugh with them again when they cross the big divide. And then there is the poem about Saint Margaret who, about to cross, finds Mariani’s wife, Eileen, telling her that they are going to have lunch together “on the other side”. Because Mariani does not invoke death without resurrection.
The tour de force of Everything that will be new is the five-page “A Periplum of Poets”, Mariani’s daunting poem beginning with her “turning away from the darkness” to see “a light come to me”. This is his late teacher and mentor, Allen Mandelbaum. Like Virgil, Mandelbaum introduces Mariani to all the poets whose biographies he wrote after having spent “years searching for a reality” among “those precious shreds they left behind”. Mariani couldn’t make a stronger statement about the role that ars poetica has played in all those “unanswered questions” it seeks answers to. Among the parade of ghostly writers are Wallace Stevens, John Berryman, “Jersey Doctor” William Carlos Williams (who, in another poem, Mariani praises living well, “which still moves me all these years”) , the “nervous Robert Lowell”, Hart Crane, and Hopkins, who created beauty from the “dark blue embers” of life, lifting Mariani’s imagination to offer her “solace”.
Throughout these poems is Mariani’s fine description and deep reflection on nature, with its pious splendor and tumultuous power. Like the paintings and poems that were central to his life, the natural world also reveals the glory of the Divine. “God’s creation, it’s all so good, so very good.” Trees, rivers, birds and flowers bear the imprint of holiness in Mariani’s poems. The 131-year-old catalpa outside his home is compared to ‘a silent guardian angel’, the snow moon over Singer Island reminds him of ‘the host raised up by the priest’, and every tree and leaf are “part of the mysterious flower of God”. ”
Leaves occupy a special place in Mariani’s creation. “Think how, over time, these branches will shake / the way they bud and bloom again in the spring.” What nature expects is also what humanity expects: renewal and redemption. Leaves are so central that a world without them would be “like words falling silent as they go astray”. Mariani’s sheets, of course, as with Walt Whitman, are the pages of his books filled with words that have not strayed.
But Everything that will be new does not omit the relentless tragedies of life, like the scourge of the coronavirus, the harrowing journey of the Black Moses, Harriet Tubman, or the “primordial tensions of these natural forces” like the tumultuous waves in the “wide Atlantic” crushing against the jagged granite shore” and “the exploding foam of silver glitter” that is “as ancient and now instantaneous as the whirlwind that Job faces.” With Job, Mariani tried to stay the course toward salvation.