Reviewed by D.S. Martin
Paul Mariani's latest book, Deaths & Transfigurations, is his first poetry collection since his excellent book The Great Wheel (Norton), which came out in 1996. It is rich with references to literature—particularly to Dante and Gerard Manley Hopkins—and to Scripture. It seems as Mariani ages, his obsession with his past continues to grow.
The first two sections of the book take on the overlapping subjects of loss and death. The very first poem begins with a quote from St. Augustine about how our memories cry out for attention, distracting us from our deeper search. In this collection, Mariani meaningfully deals with his memories, and uses them to bridge effectively back to the search. To the extent we are able to see truth in the poet's experiences, we are able to find truth for our own.
In the first section, where his nostalgia is most dominant, the poems begin to bend under the sheer weight of details from the past. And this is why many of the most successful poems, both here and throughout the collection, are those where his lyrical playfulness is permitted to roam. For example in "New York, Christmas Eve, 1947" he plays with the restrictive structure of a villanelle, effectively producing his own variation. Another poem, which he calls a failed ghazal, is also pleasing because of the way he plays with form.
There are three poems, in this section, in chronological sequence about his teen years at age 14, age 15, and age 16. To me, the first rings so true when he says, "I was fourteen then, and stood ready / to take on evil," as I know I was at age fourteen, and as I know my own son is today.
Looming large in these pages is the figure of the poet's father, whose rough tongue maintains its influence. In the second section—about death—we see his father and his father-in-law both nearing death, the death of a father years earlier in the heart of a son (or as he says in a later poem "the death of promise"), the eventual death of his father, and the death of Joseph (the earthly father of Jesus).
The third, and final, section fulfils the promise of the volume's title, though Mariani has already begun to probe the mysteries of transfiguration through the examination of his memories in the earlier sections. If the first section tells much about his family in the past, the final section is more about the subsequent generations and a look to the future.
Mariani is able to dazzle with his beautiful craftsmanship. To me the very finest poems in the book are those that make me wish that I had written them. The title poem, "Death & Transfiguration," is one such. It begins:
Down the precipitous switchbacks at eighty
the pokerfaced Palestinian cabby aims his Mercedes
while the three of us, ersatz pilgrims, blank-eyed, lurch,
and the droll Franciscan goes on about the Art Deco Church
of the Transfiguration crowning the summit of the Mount
The poem has three intertwining roots: the poet's visit to the Mount, the biblical story of the Transfiguration, and the painting of the same subject by Raphael. Mariani also makes reference to the intervening Crusades, which he'd thought of when he'd touched a fount from that period. All of this is done with a superb lightness of touch, allowing us to glimpse a many-layered reality that has been obscured by thousands of news articles and op-ed pieces.
Deaths & Transfigurations is enhanced by the engravings of Barry Moser. He has recently illustrated new editions of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Moby Dick, The Divine Comedy and the King James Bible—and has won several awards including the American Book Award for design and illustration. Each of the three sections of this book begins with a title page that shows water in one of its trinity of forms. The engraving for part 1 is of water as ice and snow; for part 2, a woodland waterfall; for part 3, a cloud rising above a sea. There are also three other illustrations, one for each section, plus an Alpha and an Omega device with iconic symbolism which Moser had first designed for Mariani's book Timing Devices.
I made an interesting visual discovery related to the title poem. The feet of the figure rising above the coffin in Moser's cover engraving are those of the transfigured Christ from the Raphael painting. Hidden unity such as this is a recurring theme throughout the book. For example Hopkins' "yes" to God in "The Wreck of The Deutschland" is echoed in section 3 both by Mariani in one poem, and by his son (a Jesuit priest) in another. The signs are everywhere, Mariani suggests, if only we have eyes to see.
D.S. Martin is a Canadian poet and music critic. His poems have appeared in many journals such as: Canadian Literature, Christianity & Literature, The Cresset and Windhover. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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Books & Culture Corner and Books & Culture's Book of the Week, from Christianity Today sister publication Books & Culture: A Christian Review (want a free trial issue?), appears regularly on Tuesdays at Christianity Today. Earlier editions include:
With God on Our Side | David McCullough's account of the pivotal year 1776 has resonance for Americans in 2005. (July 19, 2005)
The Rich Are Different—and Not So Different—from Us | Think you're burned out on memoirs? Read this book. (June 28, 2005)
A Grief Observed | Exploring the valley of the shadow in two literary lives. (June 13, 2005)
The Mind and Soul of Combat | Perhaps war really is hell. (June 07, 2005)
The Universal Language | If Latin died in our mouths, we'd just stop talking. (May 24, 2005)
At Home in the Dark | The first new book of poems in almost twenty years from Rod Jellema. (May 17, 2005)
"Taken Up in Glory" | The Ascension has been forgotten in many Protestant churches, jettisoning an essential part of the Christian story. (May 10, 2005)
Making Believe | Bedtime stories for grown-ups. (May 03, 2005)
Looking for God on the Holy Mountain | A journey to Mount Athos. (Apr. 25, 2005)
The Words of the Word | Two sharply contrasting perspectives on Bible translation. (April 19, 2005)
Divine Comedies | A report on Baylor's Art & Soul conference, version 2005. (April 12, 2005)
Unbelievable | Religion is really, really bad for you. (April 05, 2005)