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The Love Behind the Gaze

"Paul Mariani has demonstrated how great literature can help us maintain a gaze upon reality–even when that look seems to see little more than nothingness." Here we examine some of Mariani's work.
Gregory Wolfe

“What you look hard at looks back hard at you.” For more than thirty years, poet, essayist, and biographer Paul Mariani has demonstrated how great literature can help us maintain a gaze upon reality–even when that look seems to see little more than nothingness. Yet Mariani is also one of the few writers of our time who has seen–and conveyed, in language both powerful and graceful–glimpses of a love that gazes back at us through the Mystery. In his most recent collection of poetry, Deaths and Transfigurations, Mariani takes us from the nothingness of death to the love that, as his beloved Dante said, moves the stars.

Mariani is the acclaimed biographer of such modern poets as William Carlos Williams, Robert Lowell, John Berryman, and Hart Crane, as well as author of a sensitive study of the poetry of the Victorian Jesuit, Gerard Manley Hopkins. Two of these poets–Lowell and Berryman–had passionate but troubled encounters with Christianity, but Mariani’s biographies show that all were in one way or another searching for transcendence.

For many years, he taught at the University of Massachusetts, but has recently taken a Chair in Poetry at Boston College. His relationship to the Jesuits, reflected in this move to BC, is also seen in his role as poetry editor for the Jesuit-published America magazine and in a book of his called Thirty Days, a journal of an Ignatian retreat he took at a time of great turmoil in his life.

In the early 1980s, Mariani began writing poetry that spoke openly of his Catholic faith, a courageous step at a time when religious faith had been all but banished from the literary realm.

In Deaths and Transfigurations, his sixth poetry collection, Mariani recounts a difficult period of his life, which saw the deaths of his father and in-laws and several of his fellow poets. In the opening section of the book, the poet confronts the seeming nothingness of death–its challenge to any sense of meaning we can ascribe to our existence. In “Wasn’t It Us You Were Seeking?” Mariani confesses that memory, which we use to transcend death, often tries to change the past, to make it more rose-colored than it really was. But there are times when, like fishermen, our radar will pick up signs of “human wreckage” that is hauled aboard, “raw, barnacled, obscene.”

It is this unflinching honesty that gives Mariani’s search for reconciliation and resurrection the feeling of a passionate journey. Or, to use the metaphor he often employs, the Dantean pilgrimage through the infernal and purgatorial regions to a paradise that brings all things into a higher unity.

As John B. Breslin, S.J., has pointed out, there are three equal sections in Deaths and Transfigurations. If one looks at the poem at the center of the book, one finds “Mother of Consolation,” a meditation upon an icon of Madonna and Child. That the child is his mother’s son is clear from the human resemblance of the two intimate faces. But Mariani wonders how the child relates to the divine Father, who asks him to endure the Cross.

If too he is his Father’s son, how can you know but by the blinding love behind the gaze, or in the innocence of blessing? Even then there’s no way to know until you touch the mystery within.

Our own human gaze cannot see the Son’s love until our desire, which is so often “sick,” becomes purified, so that the outward gaze moves inward, to the original desires of the heart, to which the Son’s sacrificial love corresponds.

It is in the final section of the book where death finds meaning in vocation–the vocations of marriage, priesthood, and poetry. Here Mariani writes “epithalamia,” or poems that celebrate marriages, poems that resonate all the more acutely because he gives us an unvarnished picture of his own long marriage, one that has lasted through pain and betrayal, to find something like peace. He also writes of his son’s slow, stumbling pilgrimage toward ordination as a Jesuit, and of the chalice given to that son, adorned with the diamond from his wife’s engagement ring. In the final poem, “When We Walked Together,” Mariani describes a stroll in the garden with his wife, when words themselves are no longer necessary, “where simply being there,” a presence to one another, “was all that finally mattered.”

Deaths and Transfigurations is graced by engravings from the hand of Mariani’s longtime friend, Barry Moser, considered by many to be America’s greatest living illustrator. Moser, who has illustrated everything from classics like Tom Sawyer to Moby Dick and the King James Bible, is a fellow pilgrim, whose work is imbued with the religious sense.