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Contemporary Italian American Writing

PAUL MARIANI: Distinguished Poet-Judge
The Bordighera Annual Poetry Prize 2011 - 2012

Paul Mariani is the author of over 200 essays and reviews, as well as seventeen books, seven of them volumes of poetry. His latest is Epitaphs for the Journey: New, Selected and Revised Poems, 2012 [ from pps The Poiema Poetry Series: Cascade Books www.wipfandstock.com/] D.S. Martin wrote, "Poems are windows into worlds; beauty, goodness, and truth; windows into understandings that won't twist themselves into tidy dogmatic statements; windows into experience." This is certainly true of Mariani's latest book and all of his very humane and well crafted poetry. There's a spiritual dimension to his work that searches for moral truths, yet he's never didactic. His poems are often universally resonate, narrative journeys into the soul. He is also the author of five biographies of poets, including William Carlos Williams, John Berryman, Robert Lowell, Hart Crane and—most recently--Gerard Manley Hopkins. All have been listed as Notable Books by The New York Times; his biography of Williams was short-listed for the American Book Award. He has also written four critical studies, including God & the Imagination, as well as a spiritual memoir, Thirty Days: On Retreat with the Exercises of St. Ignatius. He has been awarded fellowships from The Guggenheim Foundation, two from The National Endowment for the Humanities and another from The National Endowment for the Arts. From 1968 until 2000, he taught at the University of Massachusetts, where he served as Distinguished University Professor of English. Since 2000, he has held a Chair in English at Boston College. In 2009 he was presented with the John Ciardi Award for Lifetime Achievement in Poetry. His current projects include a memoir of growing up in New York in the 1940s and a life of Wallace Stevens. His biography of Hart Crane has been made into a film, directed by and starring James Franco, which premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival on June 20, 2011.

SILT

How it steals up on you, this mortality,
dropping its calling card, say, after the flight
back from your friend's wedding, six kinds of wine
on a stone veranda overlooking the starlit sea

while migrants labor in the fields beneath.
One morning you bend down to lace
your sneakers and find your leg stiff as a base-
ball bat. How many times you told yourself Death

wouldn't catch you unaware, the way, alas,
it did so many of your friends. That you'd hie
yourself off to the hospital at the first sign
of trouble. And then, when it should happen, as

it has, you go into denial once again, while your
poor leg whimpers for attention, until at last you get
the doctor, who finds a fourteen-inch blood clot
silting up your veins there on the sonar.

Mortality's the sticking thinners twice
each day into your stomach, until the skin screams
a preternatural black and blue. Mortality's
swallowing the stuff they use to hemorrhage mice.

It's botched blood tests for months on end.
Admit it, what's more boring than listening to
another's troubles, except thumbing through
postcards of others on vacation. Friendly Finland,

Warsaw in July. Mortality's my leg, her arm, your heart.
Besides, who gives a damn about the plight of others
except the saints and God? But isn't death the mother
of us all? Shouldn't death mean caring, the moving out

at last beyond the narrow self? But who has
time for that? Six wines on a stone veranda,
stars, a summer moon high over Santa Monica,
cigars from verboten old Havana, live jazz.

That's what one wants. That, and not some blood
clot clogging up one's veins. No poet will ever
touch again what Dante somehow touched there
at the Paradiso's end. It was there he had St. Bernard

beseech his Lady to look upon him that she might
grant him light and understanding, which he might
share in turn with others. Lady, cast thine eyes,
I pray thee, down towards me. I cannot take much height,

though God knows I've tried. Six wines, two cigars,
a summer moon over the veranda, where I kept tilting
outwards, my veins absorbing even then the gravitas of silting
while Love was busy moving the sun and other stars.

STATUE
           - for Allen Mandelbaum

A July evening, venti anni fa, the four of us:
Laura, Eileen, myself, moon-eyed New World pilgrims
on a Monday, in our Audi, with our delicious guide,
our Allen, up the steep mountain pass which leads

into Sulmona. Across from the Hotel Traffico
where we stayed that night, facing the Piazza
Venti Settembre, the only foreigners as far
as we could tell, loomed Ovid's bronzeblack statue.

Church bells rang their going on the evening air:
a semibasso eight followed by a flatter three.
The soft laughter of the strollers, arms about each
other, as it drifted on the hilltop currents.

All changed to air, thin air, except what Allen
taught me on that journey, not knowing he was teaching:
the exquisite patience of the man, this Englisher
of Homer, Virgil, Dante, & the moderns, straining hour

after hour for three baffled monoglots,
so that one might eat the bistecca of one's desire
rather than the tripe & ink squid one's language
had concocted. A kerchief dipped into the icy mountain

runnel & placed on Eileen's forehead, where we
had stopped beside the ruined farmhouse like the one
Horace speaks of in his letters, while I paced up
& down beside the car, clueless to her pain,

impatient for her color to return. The look
he flashed me then through those thick-rimmed glasses
which had seen so much, light blazing into darkness,
the way angels, he once told me, address each other.

As on the morning of our departure from Sulmona,
when I looked up from my coffee to catch him
standing there, his eyes already on his statue,
having crossed eighty generations to have it out

with that grand old polytheist, seachanging Ovid,
Sad-Seigneur-of-Scrutinists, his glittering,
redrimmed eyes aglint once more, while Ovid's
shifting bronzeblack surface glinted back.

THE REPUBLIC

             - for Frank Serpico

Midnight. For the past three hours
I've raked over Plato's Republic
with my students, all of them John
Jay cops, and now some of us
have come to Rooney's to unwind.
Boilermakers. Double shots and triples.
Fitzgerald's still in his undercover
clothes and giveaway white socks, and two
lieutenants--Seluzzi in the sharkskin suit
& D'Ambruzzo in the leather--have just
invited me up to their fancy (and illegal)
digs somewhere up in Harlem, when
this cop begins to tell his story:

how he and his partner trailed
this pusher for six weeks before
they trapped him in a burnt-out
tenement somewhere down in SoHo,
one coming at him up the stairwell,
the other up the fire escape
and through a busted window. But by
the time they've grabbed him
he's standing over an open window
and he's clean. The partner races down
into the courtyard and begins going
through the garbage until he finds
what it is he's after: a white bag
hanging from a junk mimosa like
the Christmas gift it is, and which now
he plants back on the suspect.
Cross-examined by a lawyer who does his best
to rattle them, he and his partner
stick by their story, and the charges stick.

Fitzgerald shrugs. Business as usual.
But the cop goes on. Better to let
the guy go free than under oath
to have to lie like that.
And suddenly you can hear the heavy
suck of air before Seluzzi, who
half an hour before was boasting
about being on the take, staggers
to his feet, outraged at what he's heard,
and insists on taking the bastard
downtown so he can book him.

Which naturally brings to an end
the discussion we've been having,
and soon each of us is heading
for an exit, embarrassed by the awkward
light the cop has thrown on things.
Which makes it clearer now to me why
the State would offer someone like Socrates
a shot of hemlock. And even clearer
why Socrates would want to drink it.

PIETA

New Year's Eve, a party at my brother's.
Hats, favors, the whole shebang, as we waited
for one world to die into another.

And still it took three martinis before
she could bring herself to say it. How
the body of her grown son lay alone there

in the ward, just skin & bone, the nurses
masked & huddled in the doorway, afraid
to cross over into a world no one seemed

to understand. This was a dozen years ago,
you have to understand, before the thing
her boy had had become a household word.

Consider Martha. Consider Lazarus four days gone.
If only you'd been here, she says, if only
you'd been here. And no one now to comfort her,

no one except this priest, she says, an old
friend who'd stood beside them through the dark
night of it all, a bull-like man, skin black

as the black he wore, the only one who seemed
willing to walk across death's threshold into
that room. And now, she says, when the death

was over, to see him lift her son, light as a baby
with the changes death had wrought, and cradle him
like that, then sing him on his way, a cross

between a lullaby & blues, mmm hmmm, while
the nurses, still not understanding what they saw,
stayed outside and watched them from the door.

MAIRSY DOATS

Rewind, Recording Angel, and play again the roll
and rise of Mairsy Doats, the lilt and lift
of those honied voices soothing to a small boy
in the back seat listening. The Andrews Sisters
and doesy doats, the whole harmonium of bird notes
floating from the radio of my father’s all-black
pre-War Ford those sixty years ago. They make
no sense, the syllables that sing liddle lambsey divey.
And yet, Angel, how they terrify and comfort.

Behind the wheel, my father’s laughing at something
his brother, riding shotgun, a cigarette clenched
between his gleaming teeth, has said. They’re making jokes
of words, which I can no more understand than the song
the trinity of sisters sing. Down the wobbling vortex
of memory the wheels go round and round, bumping
over New York’s ancient cobbled streets. From above:
the latticed gaps of the Third Avenue El as shuddered
sunlight flickers. Where we’ve gone or where we’re going
I cannot tell. Nor can I now recall a word of what
they said then, Angel, though you know that I was there.
Only splintered sound sloughing on the summer air
and laughter, like a shattered symphony forming
and reforming. Paul to the left and Louie to the right,
those two whose names I carry with me everywhere
I go, names by which the self is fated to be blessed
and cursed, recalled by flickers, if at all:
three bird notes by which the soul is summoned.

Mares eat oats and does eat oats and little lambs
eat ivy. The nursling music reconfigures to reveal
at last a meaning for the boy, which tells him only
this: that the animals were hungry and have been fed.
Up front, there’s that mix of English and Italian
laced with French, the odd patois their parents
brought with them when they left Compiano.
And now, in memory’s rearview mirror, after all
this time, I catch my father’s beseeching eyes dart
in my direction from death’s shadows, while Louis
sesanta anni fa turns towards me, as if
to let me in on something he’s just said.
But there’s too much clack and static, as now
his head falls back on his pillow in the casket

That’s it. That’s all I can recover: the flecked film
frozen in blacks and whites and sepias, like some
Roman ruin crumbling on a darkling plain, over
which the waves of time are lashing. Two
shadows only, caught on this cloudy moonlit
midnight here by the cold July Atlantic,
like the changing light of that overarching El,
and I alone left to tell this story in which
their names are entered, these two who follow me
everywhere I go, answering still, as mares and does
and lambs answer when they’re called, by force
of awe or fear or love or hunger, hoping to be fed.
Oh yes, Angel, hoping to be fed.

                                          Eastern Point, July 2, 2007

EURYDICE

A winter’s tale. I was teaching up at Hunter,
a night class, nineteen sixty-six or seven.
Mostly stenographers and clerks, with nine-
to-five jobs somewhere in Manhattan
or the boroughs. Introduction to Poetry & Prose,
the one oh one variety.

                                          That evening it was
Thomas Hardy. Hap, The Darkling Thrush,
The Convergence of the Twain, the appointed
iceberg peeling the skin off the Titanic
like some sardine can. Bleak and heady stuff
for a bleak and heady time. Nam, napalm,
race riots, Agent Orange, the whole shebang.

And I was on that night, my best imitation
orphic voice, rhapsodizing on Blind Necessity
and Fate, the marriage of a massive ship—state
of the art—with some far more massive iceberg.
Hardy’s Hope seemed a hollow thing in the face
of so much suffering, as I suppose he wanted it
to pale for the poem he was writing.

                                         No one to blame:
no grand design, no God or gods, no anything
but a rolling of blind dice. I preened myself.
After all, I was twenty-six, and understood
the mossy myths, dark and cold, that have told us
since before the Greeks how the world really works.

And then the time was up and the students
gathered up their things and headed out.
I was packing my books and the papers
I would have to grade back in our small
apartment out in Flushing, where I lived
with my wife and two small sons, trying
to finish my degree against the odds.

                                         It was late,
past ten, and the wind blowing down the cold
corridors of New York. I meant to head straight
for the subway round the corner to begin
the long ride home on the IRT which, along
with other huddled masses, would take me there.

I looked up to see a woman standing by my desk,
Neither young nor old, one of my students
, as nameless as the rest. She seemed shaken
and her face was pale. You’re a good man,
she was saying. Tell me you don’t believe
the things you said tonight. Tell me you believe
there is a God.

                                         Understand, this was outré and unprofessional on her part, almost comic, except
she looked as if I’d robbed her. And for what
it matters, I did subscribe to something like a creed.
Or thought I did. But we were talking Poetry here,
and this was New York City, not some Podunkville.

I assured her my own beliefs had nothing
to do with it. These were Hardy’s gifts to us,
the poems, written out of a world he had suffered.
True, he wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea—a brilliant
use of language, I warmed myself by thinking—
and the skeptic’s view was something she might
sip on, a way of adding to the available stock
of reality we are heir to.

                                         I turned towards the elevator
and bowed goodnight, then walked quickly down
the long cold corridors and past the guard out
on to Lexington, then down into the subway,
repeating Hardy’s lines about how the Immanent Will
that stirs and urges everything / Prepared a sinister mate /
For her. The place was almost empty at that hour,
and I already at the turnstile when I saw her
following at a distance, her lips moving
with the cold.

                                         I'm hard of hearing, and the train
was already entering the station, so I tried to read
her lips. Please, her eyes were saying above the racket
of the place, you’re a good man. Tell me you believe.
Eurydice, I thought, drowning in a hell of her own
making, pallid and accusing, and I some unwitting
Orpheus. For Christ’s sake (this to myself . . . and then to her) I do believe. O.K? I do. I do, even if just then
I felt nothing but annoyance, and to tell
the truth, a touch of icy terror. Please, go home,
it’s late. Everything’s O.K.

                                         A gesture only,
comforting someone who needed to be comforted.
She smiled weakly, a nervous smile, as if she’d
just avoided a collision with something
looming out there, immense and cold,
and backed upstairs to greet the vast and open
void as the doors closed after me.

                                         What in hell
had I just done? I thought, hanging from a strap
the weary, deadened faces all about me.
What was this, some operatic scene by Gluck?
How badly had I just compromised myself,
I wondered, then turned to catch two amber lights
and a skull dangling from a strap across the aisle,
as the train went hurtling down the sullen rails,
lugging each of us to our final destination.  

Copyright © 2011 by Paul Mariani. All rights, including electronic,
are reserved by the author.

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