Seeking the Sacred

Book cover
Epitaphs for the Journeyby Paul Mariani, Barry Mosey IllustratorCascade Books. 234p $26

Philip C. Kolin, author of Reading God’s Handwriting, and Paul Mariani, of Epitaphs for the Journey, are Roman Catholic poets who allow their beliefs to infuse their poetry. They are also intellectuals who avoid the cloying quality found in some religious verse. Their best poems have a mystical—almost sacramental—quality and seem reminiscent of works by Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.

In Reading…, Philip Kolin examines those moments when the divine becomes apparent—to paraphrase the introduction. Getting inside his subjects, Kolin speaks for them almost as a medium. He writes in free verse, loading his lines with arresting metaphors, as in “God’s syllables so sacred/ Greek and Latin need a shawl/ Just to hold them, vowels,/ subduing the clamor of consonants.” (“Holy Communion”). Although there are a few poems about contemporary life, most of the book has a religious context.


Many of the poems achieve their effect through the use of synesthesia (“a man tastes names,” “Genesis”). Many are also written as lists that build to a resonating moment. Take “On His Comfort.” Musing on God’s concern for mankind, the poem is awash in alliteration (a Hopkins trademark) as it enumerates the ways God has aided his people. The poem’s final stanza is powerfully evocative: “To Lazarus he says take up your corpse/ And taste the light. His tears fill twelve/ stone water jars. He raises a daughter/ Coiled in death. Talithacumi, he whispers./ Little one, rise.” The metaphor, “coiled in death,” seems especially apt.

Editor of Vineyards: A Journal of Christian Poetry, Kolin asks poets to submit “carefully crafted poetry that is grounded in Christian belief and that …rises above the expected or clichéd….” He seeks authentic poetry “that displays the technical mastery and creative fervor” found in highly regarded secular journals. Using Kolin’s guidelines, one can say that both his and Mariani’s poems at the very least display the hallmarks of authentic poetry.

Paul Mariani, a poet, critic and biographer, most recently of Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J., writes about the ordinary life of his family as well as that of Biblical characters. Epitaphs… is a powerful collection of new, selected and revised poems, which are conversational and hard-edged. Generally writing in free verse and blank verse, Mariani also includes here several neo-formalist poems.

A passionate intensity reminiscent of Hopkins—who is referred to in several poems—often makes itself felt in this collection. Mariani’s skillful use of repetition adds to the intensity and at times gives his poetry a ballad-like feel.

Take “Nine One One,” possibly the best poem here. The poem weaves the nightmare of 9/11 with horrific events from the past, juxtaposing loss with loss—a mother’s, a wife’s, the Virgin Mary’s. It also ends with a Hopkins’ echo as it morphs into the voice of the Father who stands: “Above my whole bent, broken world,” and says, “Have I not/told you I will not leave you orphans? Not/ One of you. Not one, not a single precious one.”

Most of these poems are memoir-like. But instead of recollecting beauty in tranquility (à la Wordsworth), the poems look at tough moments—the deaths on 9/11, the loss of Mariani’s mother, the decline of his father and Mariani’s awareness of his own mortality.

There is a poem here that remembers the poet’s “icy terror” when one of his students asks him whether he believes in God: “…For Christ’s sake (this to myself…and then/ to her) I do believe. O.K.?...even if just then /I felt nothing but annoyance...“ (“Eurydice”). On a somewhat lighter note, there is even a poem on writing rejection slips for unsolicited poems when Mariani was America’s poetry editor.

An article that Mariani wrote for this magazine, “When Poets Write Prose” (America, 4/23/01), discusses authentic poetry and aptly compares it to daily Mass. Both, Mariani says, are “something proffered, a gift in the interstices of all the trivia of existence that fill our heads each day: a sacred moment, the Word that feeds.”

After reading these two books, one would agree. Wholeheartedly.

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