The Mystery of It All: The Vocation of Poetry in the Twilight of Modernity. Paul Mariani. Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2019.
Ordinary Time: Poems. Paul Mariani. Eugene, OR: Slant, 2019.
Paul Mariani has taught poetry for more than five decades and came to fame writing revelatory biographies of William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, John Berryman, Hart Crane, Robert Lowell, and of course his dear Gerard Manley Hopkins. The Introduction to his biography of Williams tells of Williams’s lifelong journey to find the new language and the new music of poetry, over and against the modernists like Eliot and Pound. In The Mystery of It All, Mariani wonders with Williams whether “the old forms—the blank verse line, the sonnet, the sestina, the villanelle, rhymed verse—ought to be replaced now with a sense of how the line might be formed and reformed, broken or extended or drastically reduced”(156). It bears saying that Mariani is a poet of startling power, himself. With this collection of essays and with Ordinary Time, a volume of poems published almost simultaneously, now Mariani surveys the rearview mirror of his work and his life to form and reform the line once again.
Modernity has haunted Mariani’s life and his poetics as both a shadow and a mirror. Especially because Mariani reads and writes poetry as a Catholic, his engagement with modernity has an especially piquant flavor and his discussion of the poet’s Vocation . . . in the Twilight of Modernity is evocative for anyone who shares Voegelin’s perspective on these questions. In his essay on “The Vocation of the Catholic Poet Today,” Mariani writes about his patron St. Paul at the Areopagus, how Paul had realized that, “Talk, however polished, could only take one so far” (31). The Logos cannot contain the experience. This was what Hopkins had discovered, and what his poetic progeny—most of them unbelieving, themselves—took on as the poetic task: to speak “convincingly to the world” of what “the world means and means deeply” (33). Mariani accepts the challenge to view this situation in the terms of “the Kantian sublime”(32), a glimpse of modernity’s dark obverse revealed by the ascent of human reason to a height where the certainty of a limit on what the human mind can encompass becomes more clear than it ever could have been before modernity. The poet leads us into ‘the mystery of it all’ and reveals to us not the mystery’s solution, but the depth of its inscrutability and how much its haunts our lives.
Considering “the mystery of it all” not as we find it among Catholic poets like Mariani and Hopkins, but in the poetic voices of others like Williams or Berryman who struggled more with faith, perhaps we find the poet’s vocation in the twilight of modernity to be disclosed even more articulately because the spiritual challenge modernity represents comes into sharper relief as it is recognized by one who does not have an avowed spiritual commitment. Williams gives us a good example. Mariani records how Williams, a physician, would blast jazz records from the window of his medical practice when the Episcopalian church across the street held services, and tells us of how for Williams “Christianity . . . was something to be plundered. Something that acted as an irritant of sorts. Something to be used…” (221).
And yet, how can we describe their work if not as revealing the hidden light at work in the world? Williams, “in his deep modesty and despair, believed, or seemed to believe, though something in him surely knew better” (159-160). The interplay of doubt’s darkness with the intuitions of faith is the landscape of this modern twilight charted by the poet whose vocation finally can be no more than to evoke “a sense of presence to which we are called to be present, which Stevens knew as ‘the real,’ and Williams as the ‘thing itself’” (160). As Kant’s sublime alternates pleasure with displeasure, triumph with fear, finally all we can know is that we are knowing. And yet, the cost we bear with the perspective of modernity is that knowing must be more certain than what is known.
It is Williams’s reluctance to believe, the resistance which Mariani wryly describes as how he “surely knew better,” that defines the space in which the poet works as much as the “thing itself” whose immutable truth the poet labors to reveal. The world shaped now for generations by Kant’s supersensible reason is no cakewalk for those of us who have made religious commitments or who hold to tradition, either. We also must grapple with the history we have received and the world in which we live. Faith is no sure insulator, no magical defense against the Enlightenment’s cold doubting and the world it has cultivated for us.
Yet we inhabit a world in twilight, where that cold doubting has crept in on our confidence in modernity for how it has led us away from the “thing itself.” We see this at work as much for Husserl’s phenomenological progeny as for Williams. That believers sit precariously on the tattered, threadbare edges of modernity alongside nonbelievers is not a proposition up for debate. The question is where we all go from here. And, Mariani proposes the poetic embrace of mystery as we find it disclosed in the sensible world as the only practical way to begin. As much as believers and nonbelievers both are captive to this late modern condition, both also can adduce luminous meanings from our world, from experience, from the “thing itself.” “The mystery of it all” is where we stand together with our knowing and not-knowing, and perhaps the evocative powers of poetry finally offer the only language that can gather the shattered shards of shared cultural memory and experience strewn about the modern landscape into something that speaks credibly to one and all. Perhaps the line can be reformed.
The stumbling block, if we are candid, may be Mariani’s own overt faith commitment. This is not because his commitment is not consonant with his method or objectives, not because it corrupts an effort to communicate the mystery to nonbelievers credibly by way of the experienced world, and certainly not because it is unreasonable in any way. Instead, because it is the proposition of the old world that preceded the modern world, the faith commitment poses the looming danger that the line will be reformed into its old shape. Unpoliced, the religious instinct would fold up the modern project while taking the pre-modern project back down from the shelf and picking up where we all left off. What will it mean to press poetically beyond the twilight of the modern into the dawn of a tomorrow that is not another yesterday?
The vocation of the poet in the twilight of modernity, I think Mariani agrees, is not to answer this problem but to engage it. The mystery speaks for itself, which may finally be the lesson we have been trying so hard and so unsuccessfully to learn from Plato down through Paul, all the way to Kant and here to today. If displeasure alternates with pleasure as we behold the sublime, so be it. If human reason becomes overwhelmed before the Divine Logos, so be it.
And if, in the midst of the mystery, “so much depends/upon/a red wheel/barrow/glazed with rain/water/beside the white/chickens,” so be it. Our human perspective in the cosmos only can be a human perspective in the cosmos, and all that our reason can do to symbolize our experiences of Nous is capture what we can as luminously as we can capture it and for as briefly as we can suspend it within our consciousness. The rest is too much for us to master.
“The world means and means deeply,” and the poet is here to point the rest of us in that uncertain direction. The poet undertakes a strategy of “indirect darting,” and “almost subliminal invocation that vanishes even as you try to fix it, which may in fact be one of the most successful poetic strategies of our time,” Mariani concludes. The best that can be managed is “the momentary lift or epiphany or spot of time, in which something is for a moment glimpsed, like subatomic motes, if you will, before it disappears. It is as much a question of the shifts in syntax, or the ambiguous modifier or pronoun or the poem ending with a question rather than a statement” (221). The line has no shape. The line is not even a line.
These poetic reflections frame a reading of Mariani’s own recent collection of poems, a cycle gathered between sumptuous covers with a golden image from Fra Angelico’s Paradise under the jarringly mundane title, Ordinary Time. Catholics will know that the title is not so mundane as it sounds. In the liturgical calendar, ordinary time marks the space between Christmastide and Lent, between Easter and Advent. The ordinal counting of weeks is not the mere passage of humdrum or the marking of time until something important happens. Great feasts for great saints abound on the calendar during ordinary time and, for many of us, the great events of our lives are bound to transpire during ordinary time. The great high feasts of Christmas and Easter, both axial moments in the year, certainly are not to be overlooked. But to say time is ordinary does not diminish it in our experience or in Mariani’s telling.
To review a cycle of poems is even more challenging than to review a collection of essays like The Mystery of It All. Yet I confess I am unable to separate these books in my mind, and the effort to say something to recommend Ordinary Time seems worth how it will reward the reader who has reflected on the vocation of the poet in the twilight of modernity.
I think the impulse to review these books together was born when I heard Mariani read a few poems from Ordinary Time, principally “They Too Go Round” that draws together Fra Angelico’s Judgment with William Carlos Williams—
In Williams’ Pictures from Breughel they go round
and around, those peasants pounding the ground
with their clogs and their boots to the sound
of the fiddles and sackbuts. True, nothing profound
there, just a rollicking midsummer dance with the stout-
rumped male and female, those suds-sodden faces caught
in a moment both comic and sad . . .
The challenge and the temptation to review Ordinary Time is found there. See how I cannot quote the poem without breaking the line for the way that the line propels the reader from stanza to stanza, unstopping, as the wheel goes round and round? See also the comic sadness of the ordinary peasants, “nothing profound,” and yet there is also the—
. . . ringdance of the blessed, the way Fra Angelico
reveals in his Judgment, that angelic choir gazing as if into
your soul as others gaze upward, the radiant glow
of that sea-changing moment, now and forever, hoy hoya ho.
A circle of angels, a circle of beer-soaked stompers, both a “circle of praise.” And, the circle of dancers turns round and round like a circle of angels gazing upward in praise. The wheel recurs as a motif throughout Ordinary Time in divine circumstances and mundane circumstances, all while the poet looks backwards on his own life and work to see the mundane and the divine intermingled throughout.
In places, Ordinary Time becomes so personal to Mariani that the reading of his poems feels voyeuristic. There are the intimate poems from an elderly grandfather for his grandchildren—“High Tea with Miss Julianna,” “The Stone My Grandson Gave Me,” and others—or, poems like “Coming Back from the Dead” about the poet’s brush with brain cancer. (“When My Father Found Out I Wrote Poetry,” and Mariani’s wry remembrance of his uncomprehending father, also stands out in the same way). These might seem only to be indulgences were the subject of this cycle not so closely related to how Mariani has described the poet’s vocation in The Mystery of It All. Mariani, like Williams, Hopkins, and all the others discovers the eternal in the everyday. Like the suds-faced stompers and Fra Angelico’s angels, ordinariness is the purpose—the dual sense of what is common to all life and the ordinal progress of life through that commonness toward life’s ultimate goal. How could we hope to separate the mystery from it all?
We are participants in one encompassing mystery, and the mystery is disclosed in the same creative act that writes the poem or paints the painting or builds a family out of simple biology. In “Mother’s Day, 2019” Mariani tells—
of how my father’d meant to pull me out
of school when I turned sixteen to work full
time in that Sinclair station across from
the courthouse in Mineola, what with six
kids to feed and money scarce, which was what
he’d had to do back in the Depression.
Which was when my mother, gone now, God
rest her soul, these thirty years and more,
told him straight out the only way
that was ever going to happen was over
her dead body. And to tell the truth, there must’ve been
something to the way she said it because
he dropped the subject and let it go like that.
And saying that to that man, friend, took courage.
Lives take shape like the poetic line, and like the poem when seen from the outside it all can seem like it was inevitable. It was not inevitable because choices matter. But our creative participation in lives as parents, children, spouses, and friends writes with the same permanence and beauty of the painting or the poem, the suds-sodden dance as much as the golden fresco, and the poet can show us, cultivating the intuition that in the perspective of eternity our creative participation evinces one loving design. All is the same dance in the same garden.
We glimpse this all only for a moment in the sublime brush with death or the rapture of timeless art or the love of family. And this is what Williams and Hopkins and all the rest sought out as they sought to reform the line and rediscover the power that lies in the words that echo and amplify the ordinariness of our lives to disclose “the real” and the “thing itself” beyond our modern certainties and knowing, beyond the rigidity of the classical forms, and down to the mystery where our lives are lived day in and day out toward eternity. The work continues in Ordinary Time.
There is nothing too shocking in observing that organized religion generally and Roman Catholicism particularly are having a bad time. By some statistical counts, more than 40% of American adults under 40 have no religious affiliation and weekly Mass attendance has fallen by 26% in the United States since 2018. This is an unprecedented situation in world-historic terms, and its implications are difficult to assess prospectively. But its causes are not mysterious. The perspective of faith has lost its grip on the imagination.
If the churches can hope to regain anything like their former cultural position, they must regain the imaginations of women and men living in the twenty-first century. Faith must bear witness to beauty as we experience it in order to speak to the world of believers and nonbelievers credibly. The Mystery of It All, Ordinary Time, and Paul Mariani’s long career as biographer and poet have borne witness to the possibility of testimony to how the “world means and means deeply.” The richness of that is found in those Mariani has written about, in what he has written, and in we who read it into our lives.