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Benjamin Myers

Insistent Ghosts

The poetry of Paul Mariani.

Paul Mariani is a haunted man. Perhaps we are all haunted, but what is impressive about Mariani is his willingness to admit it, his openness about the ghosts in his life. Take for example the preface to his brilliant biography of John Berryman, Dream Song, in which he describes a shadowy figure who emerges from the Freudian/Dantean realm he calls "the dark underworld of the imagination" to pursue Mariani and impress upon him the obligation to write the book. Such frankness about one's ghosts, such willingness to break the academic posture of objectivity, is rare enough to be precious to any reader, and the value of this frankness is in the resulting clear view of the most troubling thing about ghosts: they always have a claim on us. They speak to us of commitments that go deeper than the commitments of our own making. It is perhaps, then, their proximity to us rather than alienation from us that makes ghosts so frightening. In Epitaphs for the Journey—Mariani's recent volume of "New, Selected, and Revised Poems," with illustrations by Barry Moser—his ghosts are on display in poems that are both intimate and learned, that time and again circle poetically around the deep claims laid on the poet's soul by the ghosts of time past.

Like Berryman, and like so many of us, Mariani is haunted by the ghost of his father, whom he addresses directly in "Crossing Cocytus" a poem that is clearly an attempt to put the old man to rest. The word "father" appears in no less than six titles of poems selected for the volume, and the very first poem in Epitaphs for the Journey, "Mairzy Doats," calls up the ghost of the poet's fathering, summoning the "Recording Angel" to "Rewind" the tape of Mariani's life to a moment when he was a small boy, sitting in the backseat while his father and his father's brother conversed up front in the strange dialect of adults, mixed in the child's mind with the nonsense coming from the radio. He is, however, unable to remain in that backseat for ...

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