Paul Mariani – Bizarre Time – Poems – Overview
Flammable with urgency
A review of
Ordinary time: poems
Paperback: Slant, 2020
Buy Now: (Amazon) (Kindle)
Reviewed by Simon Travers
These are extraordinary times. It is often the first thing someone tells you in conversation. Last fall, the political sketch writer of the London Times toured the UK as a stand-up comedian with a show named after his slogan "This is Not Normal". Even before the tragic convulsions of COVID-19 began to manifest, we felt the tremors of corrupt political leadership and a resilient church, fragile institutions and violent ecosystems undermined the common ground and deeply rooted injustice. Who can predict how impressive our time will be?
Ordinary Time is the eighth collection of poems published by Paul Mariani, poet, biographer, and university professor of emeritus English at Boston College. At the age of 80, the poet announces that he is aware of his mortality. On one level, this collection feels like a humble gathering and blessing. Grandfather says a few words at a family dinner. There is a poem for every grandchild, for deceased relatives, and Mariani's gratitude for his loyalty to his wife and mother is evident. However, the usual time is urgently flammable. ambitious in scope and deep in wisdom.
In an interview in 2011, Mariani noted that his reading and writing follows: "The model of Christ on the way – to Cana or Capernaum or Jericho or Jerusalem or Emmaus – that is what I am looking for." Given this, the majority of poems in ordinary time there are parables that are put together as lyrical poetry. Mariani has the gift of forming anecdotes about further truths, drawing a finger on a map and gently saying: "Here we are." In Mariani's company, there is time for an imaginary tea party for children and sixth-grade hockey, time for Dream of the Mississippi River to stare at old paintings and the full moon. The parables and anecdotes begin, but never remain local. The life that Mariani describes and the process of his description create the ordinary time when a river bend turns poetry with historical and geographical vision.
Wordsworth's statement that poetry “originates in emotions that are collected in peace” seems to be a working definition for much of Mariani's process. A childhood trauma forms the center of "Pantoum for East Fifty-First". Mariani tells of a moment when his mother saved him when he was six when local boys poured kerosene over him and threatened to set him on fire. Later in the poem, his father is involved in local vigilantism, and in the next poem, "Johnnie Walker Black", Mariani accuses himself of knocking his brother's teeth out. These incidents are shocking, but are increasing as they move from the 1940s to normal time. The use of the pantoum structure, the swirling mustache of a hipster of a shape, increases the emotion in a broader reflection on the gentrification of the inner city. The pantoum begins: "And then it is instantly over: the world of East Fifty-First." The structure of the poem serves as a framework to see what now exists in the face of the endemic, occasional violence that has been replaced.
In terms of style, Mariani deals with craftsmanship and tradition, not surprisingly for a man who has spent much of his career writing biographies of poets. If he were a cook, he would serve classic cuisine with trustworthy flavor combinations, closely guarded family recipes, and well-cooked quality ingredients. If you need innovation and experimentation, you need another poet. Mariani has control over his craft, which always gives the impression that poetry should taste this way.
Mariani's paintings are robust and based on the city of his youth. He speaks primarily in conversation and keeps his linguistic flourishes when he encounters extremes. because if we arrive in the presence of the "Refulgent", the "Gelids" or the "screeching Malebolges". Similarly, Mariani greets the reader in a number of forms and poetic structures. He does things like the rhyme "Mississippi Blues" and "ancient bruise" and it enchants and leads into the world of the poet. Everything works together to make it easier for the reader to listen.
Ordinary time maintains a consistently high standard of thought and craft, but a poem that stands above it is "Psalm for the Lost." Although the tone of the poem captures the darker and more desperate of the psalms, it is a riff to 1 Corinthians 13:12. Here is a meditation on what it means to see darkly through a glass. Although ordinary time serves in many ways as collecting and gathering life, Mariani is also deeply concerned about the way age and time unravel people. He asks questions about what happens at the end of our questions, at the end of our research, at the end of our projects. His answer is that it is getting dark and we have other questions about where our loyalty lies. Mariani doesn't flinch when he interprets this, but he doesn't end without hope either.
What happens when we leave this earth? What happens if we fall for this new pandemic and our time is up? On Earth, Mariani keeps track of how things go on and not much changes through ordinary time. Whenever we leave, we will leave an earth on the brink of collapse, empires reaching their limits, widespread inequality, imperfect cities, and unanswered questions. We will leave people who have to do without us, but who will move us forward in a way that we cannot foresee, as we did for our ancestors. We will leave things more permanent than ourselves; Mountains, rivers, works of art, the command to love our neighbors. We will go without really knowing what was fumbling in the fog and what was visionary of what we lived, but we can also go with the peace of Christ who leaves his peace with us. While illuminating all of this in poems that burn with authority and conviction, Paul Mariani is a witness that these are ordinary times.
Simon Travers lives in Plymouth in the south west of England. He works as part of the warehouse team for a manufacturer of high quality chutneys and jams. Creative projects at www.stackhousejones.com Tweets @SimonFromPlym.