Review of Paul Mariani's Epitaphs for the Journey: New, Selected, and Revised Poems

Review of Paul Mariani's Epitaphs for the Journey: New, Selected, and Revised Poems

April 24, 2015

Review by Kathryn Robinson Belsey



A man who has been through bitter experiences and travelled far enjoys even his sufferings after a time. —Homer

The destiny of man is in his own soul. —Herodotus

When a poet assembles a collection of old, new, and revised work, and his publisher calls the result the poet’s “magnum opus,” one is compelled to ask what it is about this collection that makes it a great, cohesive masterpiece. Why these poems and not others? Why this order? It is Mariani’s creative process, his inspired decision-making, that lifts this new collection, Epitaphs for the Journey: New, Selected, and Revised Poems (Poiema Poetry)(Cascade Books, 2012), from personal and historical chronicle—rooted in the poet’s working-class roots, academic career, and spiritual formation—to the timeless level of an ancient classic.

It is no stretch to claim that this new volume, Mariani’s masterpiece, is a terrific modern take on the Homeric epic. Even Argos, Ulysses’s faithful dog, shows up here in the form of Sparky, Mariani’s dog, who at the end of the hero’s journey when the poet has “no time then to stop to pet a dog,” “lay down / somewhere in the woods to die.” In its own right, “Landscape with Dog” is moving and confessional (the reader cringes at the speaker’s frank lack of empathy for his dying pet), but in the context of the collection, the poem takes on mythic purpose and proportion. All the poems do. This is Mariani’s genius.

Epitaphs starts its journey innocently enough. In “Mairzy Doats,” the reader assumes we are being driven down memory lane (literally in “my father’s all-black / pre-war Ford”) to a childhood moment recollected in ambivalent adult tranquility. Is this collection, then, the opus of a Romantic poet à la Wordsworth? No. If the first poem is a stealth piece, the second is a decoy. The poet/speaker sets himself up as a modern-day Herodotus, the classical father of history. So is this collection a straightforward retelling of family lore and conflicted relationships? Yes, but no. Though Mariani makes use of personal history, Epitaphs is more, much more, than memoir. It is an epic spiritual quest.

Unwilling adventurer in the third poem, “Operating Room, Upper East Side, March 1945,” Mariani conjures Homer’s sirens and lotus-eaters. In postclassical hexameters (Mariani makes great use of this form in many poems throughout), the speaker embarks on his journey,

strapped to a gurney as the mask covers your face,

the sweet smell muffling your cries, two nurses in white

guiding you down some endless hall. . . .


And you listen

in the time you have left to the honeyed humming

in the spinning brain . . .


as the mother sings on, bending above you, bidding

her pretty ones to let go as she has and give over to sleep.

Even as he is lured and lulled into forgetfulness (especially in the wonderful villanelle, “New York, Christmas Eve, 1947,” reminiscent of Frost’s “Stopping by Woods”), the hero of Epitaphs is never out of range of supernatural aid. World War II bombers become “avenging angels,” and memory itself is the “Recording Angel” with power to rewind and redeem history. Examples of the mysteries of the Christian faith also bestow power and grace. In “Winter 1956,” the speaker is moved by

the little German priest

framed in the chapel light, shaking

as he lifted up the bread and cup,

so much in love with God he was.

In the second section of the book—called the second canto—Mariani’s hero crosses his first threshold, out of the known limits of his world and into a dangerous realm where the landscape and perils are unknown. This section is also one of heroic initiation. In “East of the Whitestone,” the hero is on the cusp of manhood. He and his friends rent a boat and take it across a river that nearly capsizes them. Frightened and grateful to be alive, Mariani’s hero says they catch “a single eel / which then we hacked to death as a scapegoat offering, / the river gods at last relented to leave us on the dusty / farther shore.”

But Mariani is not content to be a secular poet. Where Homer and Herodotus plot human affairs in context of an endless struggle against man-made gods, Mariani contends with “God’s erstwhile ways toward man” (“Quid Pro Quo”). He wonders how one bargains “with a God like this, who, quid pro quo, ups / the ante each time He answers one sign with another?” He confesses to a period of nihilistic disbelief:

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.

Before he can achieve reconciliation with God, the hero must first find atonement with his earthly father. In “Crossing Cocytus” (one of the five rivers of Hades), this quest is described as a “necessary crossing,” a “wrestling with the angel.” Later, in “Sarcophagus,” the speaker, defeated and exposed by his own anger after lashing out at his sons, prays to his dead father: “Forgive me father, / I heard something in me breaking. . . . / Forgive me for whatever grief I caused you.”

Mariani capitalizes on the Homeric atonement with the human father to lead to atonement with God, the Heavenly Father. The apotheosis of the hero’s fall from grace, death to himself, reconciliation/atonement with God, and rebirth comes in the middle of the collection. “Eastern Point Meditations” is a postclassical mini-epic within the larger journey. Light and bread are key symbols of Christ and his grace that guide and provide transformative sustenance to the wayfarer. Following Homeric tradition, the hero falls headlong into sin, away from communion with God, and into the arms of temptation, a siren, possibly a mistress. He is “like Jonah to get somewhere I thought I wanted.”

The speaker recognizes the damage he has done to his family and in distress repents and makes a literal and spiritual about-face. He flees east, to a Catholic retreat center at the easternmost point of the continent, and at the lowest point of his soul—“Deep calls to deep”—the hero confesses his sin to “Father Drury.” This spiritual father gives the “blown-out beacon” of a hero a passage from Isaiah upon which to meditate. The hero laments his bitter penance, but as he holds the Scripture in his trembling hand, a miracle happens; the bitterness begins to turn to “pan dolce,” or sweet bread of life. The hero calls out to God, “Maranatha,” come, Lord Jesus. And he waits. And paces. And walks along the seaside cliffs in ever-increasing darkness: “I will have to wait until the dark grows even darker before I can see the light.” Father Drury’s words come to him: “You will have to empty yourself / before you can begin to fill another.” Then the moment of redemption comes. In the darkness of the chapel, praying, lamp flickering, the speaker says:

And suddenly I am happy. For the first time

in months I am at peace. To the east, the moon has risen

in all its fullness, like gold gathering against a velvet dark. . . .

At the sea’s edge there’s a light so thick I could cup it

in my hands. I can contain myself no longer, Abba. Father,

I catch myself singing, remembering the children

in the choir loft preparing for communion.

Indeed, this is the poem’s moment of communion, of Eucharist, of reconciliation and encounter with the living God; it is, in fact, the turning point—the theophany and apotheosis—of the whole collection. Poet David St. John calls this moment in a poem the “aperture.” It is the moment of illumination when a poem opens up and discovery is made. (Mariani has fun exploring this moment earlier in “Light Streaming into the Head.”) “Eastern Point Meditations” recognizes the fleeting and unifying moment of aperture: “Like a fading ember, which the ever-shifting wind / awakens to momentary brilliance: in this the poem, the prayer and love are one.”

If there is any question about Mariani’s Homeric comparison, consider the speaker’s closing metaphor, wherein he likens Ulysses’ rebirth and return to Penelope to his own rebirth and return to his wife, if she’ll have him:

So here it is, the moment where I end and then

begin again, returning now to the one who waits there

for me so I may see her as the rock she is. Soon I will stand

before her, sea-tossed Ulysses, hoping to come home at last.

In what seems an odd digression in the fifth canto, Mariani inserts a wonderful but antithetical sestina, “The Great Wheel.” The poem is a beautifully crafted new “spin” on classical mythology’s wheel of fortune (not the game show but the wheel spun by the goddess Fortuna). Mariani’s friends take an after-dinner stroll in Paris in the gardens of the Tuileries. They see the huge Ferris wheel there, and, to Mariani, it becomes a mythic symbol of inevitability and their own mortality.

But Mariani is being disingenuous here. He doesn’t believe in the chance toss of dice in man’s fate; he believes in Grace that infuses human life with meaning and purpose. The poem is delightful, though one wonders at Mariani’s intent. The rest of his collection is a rebuttal of the notion of arbitrary fate.

The book’s title piece, “Epitaph for the Journey,” opens the sixth canto with “hipster guardian angels” who, along with other sentinels (poets, musicians, and monks) through the ages, act as harbingers of mortality. Such prophets hear otherworldly music others too often miss. Mariani is keenly aware of the poet’s prophetic role in translating these songs from beyond, of the seeming futility of doing so (for who listens?), and, ultimately, of the inevitability of the refrain. Each poem inscribes an epitaph, a memento mori, in the stones along the path of the human journey. Whether or not anyone hears the songs, they resound and resound, resonating truth for whoever comes after.

In Epitaphs’ last two cantos, the poems explore and affirm the redemptive nature of the hero’s quest for the sublime and the miracle of transformation when the light of Christ enters, the body is broken, and the hungry are fed. “There Was a Boy Once” distills the hero’s journey:

There was a boy once went out

To find the world. And the world,

It seems, found him in return.

The trick for the poet in returning from his journey is to cross the final threshold toward home. To be victorious, he must retain the wisdom he has gained and figure out a way to share the boon—in Mariani’s case, the living bread of heaven—with a hungry world. The boon of Mariani’s heroic journey is the everlasting and ever-nourishing grace he has found. This has been his holy grail, and he finds it in God’s presence, in the Eucharist, in the forgiving embrace of his wife and family, and in the words God gives him to share with others. The hero returns victorious from his odyssey.


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Kathryn Robinson Belsey earned her MFA in Writing from Pacific University, Oregon and was a finalist for the Intro to Journals Award for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, 2010. She was the featured poet at Santa Barbara’s 2014 Poetry Series. She has served on the editorial staff of Poetry International and Poetry in the Cathedral and has worked with Phi Beta Kappa’s Scholars in the Schools and Border Voices Poetry Project. Her work has appeared in In Posse Review, Ruminate Magazine, and From Glory to Glory: An Anthology by Poetry in the Cathedral. She teaches writing and research at Point Loma Nazarene University and Saint Katherine College. She has two Bengal cats named Oedi-puss Rex and Mama. Literary cats, of course.


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