When a poet writes “I,” what does he mean? An Irish poet-friend tells me his “I” is always a fiction, based on himself but never his real self. Literary critics, reading an “I” poem, discuss the “speaker” or the “voice” but not the “writer.” Again the “I” is a fiction.
But some poets are ardently autobiographical. Gerard Manley Hopkins, a favorite of Paul Mariani’s, wrote that in “The Wreck of the Deutschland” “what refers to myself...is all strictly and literally true.” And Paul Mariani himself, in these new poems and elsewhere, stands firmly among the autobiographers.
Once a blue-collar Long Island kid, Mariani is now an award-winning poet (five books) and biographer of poets (John Berryman, Hart Crane, Robert Lowell, W. C. Williams, and—in process—G. M. Hopkins), with 14 books to his name. Retired as Distinguished University Professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, he holds a chair in English at Boston College and until recently was poetry editor of America.
The title of the new collection, Deaths & Transfigurations: Poems, plays on the title of Richard Strauss’s tone poem “Death and Transfiguration” and, as the composer wrote about his own work, “begins in C minor and finishes in C major.”
From its canny opening line, “The lawns and mansions of old memory,” its word-music sings of flesh and spirit and self and family: father and mother, jobs and schools, friends, New York, wife, children, New England. “How it steals up on you, this mortality,” he writes, and “All my life the chitter of the living has mixed together with the dead.” This is, then, a book of memory: of working with his father at a gas station, of his first date (“three emasculating buses OR be driven/ by my father”), of playing with a child, of family deaths, of, of, of—of, well, life-mystery and death-mystery. But it is memory with humor, and with deep Catholic belief and hope.
Mariani’s poems are approachable, with informal form and lucent images. Though “Hopkins in Ireland” is a sonnet in Alexandrines (Hopkins’s form), most poems have freer forms and rhythms, with or without rhyme. Yet they are not slack: Mariani crafts his work with light discipline and taut compression. Vivid images sometimes shine (“whatever diamonds say/ in that language only light and diamonds know”), sometimes tweak (“leech-thick paddies,” “two/ feet of snow spinning crabwise/ down for the past three days”), sometimes reek of earth and work (“the glare off the rain-scum slop/ congealing at the deeper end,” “Hot coffee, the self-inflicted slap”). His words are lively: “For six weeks I’ve tried lassoing the wind/ and come up with nada zip & zero.”
Understanding and compassion sing through all the poems. Some of my favorites are “Work,” about a summer job, “Light,” about a glass pitcher and people gone, “Pietà,” about a black priest cradling an AIDS victim, “Wolf Moon,” about the death of parents and self, “How It All Worked Out,” about his own death (in foresight, happily), “The Cup,” about his wife’s engagement ring and their priest-son’s chalice and “When We Walked Together,” about—and to—his wife, Eileen.
Two poems on marriage well catch the book’s tone in their openings. “Wedding Song” begins,
And so it goes. And so it goes.
The great tree blossoms, leafs, & grows.
Come sun, come moon, come storms, come snows.
So turns our years. And so it goes.
“When We Walked Together,” dedicated to his wife, begins,
When we walked together
in the cool of the evening,
walked together, you and I,
in the cool of the evening,
after the heat of the day....
No more need be said. After the book’s “Deaths,” such are the “Transfigurations.” And as in Strauss’s tone poem, C minor gives way to C major—to our delight.