September 17, 2015 / Perspective
Marilynne Robinson’s novels have become almost synonymous with loneliness, but solitude here remains entangled with a less acknowledged trope—an enveloping and dazzling darkness.
April 6, 2009
Paul Mariani, Deaths & Transfigurations (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2005). 94 pages. $21.60 hardcover. Click here to purchase Deaths & Transfigurations from Amazon.com and help support The Other Journal.
Salty, briny, barnacled, and often shipwrecked, Paul Mariani’s sixth collection of poems, Deaths & Transfigurations, plumbs the depths of memory and mystery, death and life, and the steady current of illuminated ordinariness that flows throughout.
Mariani takes us from the warm, sought after “lawns & mansions of old memories [. . .]”—toy trains on Christmas Eve, wisdom passed from father to son, and magical first dates—to the coldness of unwaited loss, “a strange place, / [a] world of Mystery, where things never / seem to add up the way you think they should.” This is no pleasure cruise, no gentle rowboat shanty bellowing merrily merrily merrily merrily! This gathering of memories, sounding of dark beauty, is a haunting, humming ferry traversing the Styx, a “cross between a lullaby and blues.”1 In this gentle dirge, the strands of death and life are closely interwoven.
What is death?
For Mariani, death is the loss of his mother; the loss of good friends; broken promises; the complex, violent relationship with his father; the disillusionment of youth’s ideals; misplaced memories. All of these deaths find their summary in a final question-lament, which the poet cries to the night: “Wolf moon, wolf moon, prowling the evening sky [. . .] explain once more why / what happens has to happen.” Death-questions, it seems, are met with darkness. Yet, though loss and mystery threaten to overwhelm the living, and the comfort of answers are nowhere in sight, still we continue to “hold on for life. This mindless, precious life.”2
What is this life?
“All my life the chitter of the living has mixed together with the dead,” Mariani states, and with this intricate intertwining, he goes on to paint in fluid lines the moments of life in death, and death in life, all mixed up, inseparable. The light on a pitcher on an old oak dresser resurfaces long-gone friends; a dying father’s lost Silverado hubcap signifies a whole life; two crocuses herald “the coming on of spring”3 in the midst of a snow storm; and a fourteen-inch blood clot silts one’s veins while soaking up wine and jazz in Santa Monica.
What Mariani accomplishes so well in his three-part collection is to capture with pungent transparency these crack-open moments that illuminate the mundane. Sitting through a banal sermon, he catches a glimpse of the divine, and a simple interaction with his mother-in-law is transformed like thunder to a sacred, unexpected communion at the breakfast table.
Transformation doesn’t start and end in one moment; rather, it repaints what before seemed ordinary and then continues its outward spread quietly and simply. The ordinary remains, but in the splash of transformation, it shimmers with a lasting, translucent light.
That’s it, then, it would seem: first the old fears descending, then dejection
and the dunning sameness in the daily going round and round of things.
Then a light like ten thousand suns that flames the brain and brings
another kind of death with it, and then—once more—the daily round
again. But changed now by what the blind beseeching eye has found.4
Mariani’s collection is illuminated by Barry Moser’s six engravings, three of which move the themes visually from ice to snowmelt to cloud in a trinity that parallels and reimagines the poet’s life-death soundings. And mystery, darkness, and hope are beautifully captured in Moser’s cover illustration of swarthy modern-day apostles, perhaps sailors or railroad workers, lowering a coffin, as one of the men chances a glimpse of a body resurrected, whisking cloudward away.
Deaths & Transfigurations ends on a note of celebration, as Mariani commemorates weddings, ordinations, and a granddaughter’s tea-time stories. He finally offers a glowing lightness, like warm tea after a sea-chilled voyage, challenging the expectations of a linear plot from birth to death. By the book’s conclusion, we are steered toward a transformation that, without explanation, reverses direction, cracks us open, and washes us up onto another shore, letting us hear with mystery and final hope the “Death knolls, tolling backwards, sounding the wedding bell.”5
1. “Wasn’t It Us You Were Seeking?” 15; “There Was a Boy Once,” 85; “Pietà,” 51.
2. “Wolf Moon,” 57; “Ferry Crossing,” 58.
3. Ibid.; “Absence of Crocus,” 39.
4. “Death & Transfiguration,” 74.
5. “P.S.,” 71.
Becky Crook currently lives in Berlin, Germany. She occasionally teaches English as a second language, works as an independent editor, and continues to improve her German. She writes poetry and short stories (in English), and her essay, “Reading Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita while Dating an Atheist in Seattle” is featured in our new book, “God is Dead” and I Don't Feel So Good Myself: Theological Engagments with the New Atheism.