Ordinary Time: Poems
Reviewed by Simon Travers
These are extraordinary times. It is often the first thing that anyone will tell you in conversation. Last fall, the political sketch writer of The London Times toured Britain as a stand-up comedian with a show named after his catchphrase, ‘This is Not Normal.’ Even before the tragic convulsions of COVID-19 began to manifest, we felt the tremors of corrupt political leadership and an acquiescent church, fragile institutions and violent ecosystems, eroded common ground and ingrained injustice. Who can prophesy how awe-fully extraordinary our times are about to get?
Ordinary Time is the eight collection of poetry published by Paul Mariani, poet, biographer and University Professor of English emeritus at Boston College. At the age of 80, the poet communicates that he is well aware of his mortality. On one level, this collection feels like a humble gathering and benediction. Grandfather is saying a few words at a family dinner. There is a poem for each grandchild, for deceased relatives, and Mariani’s gratitude for his faithful bond to his wife and mother is evident. However, Ordinary Time is combustible with urgency; ambitious in scope and deep in wisdom.
In a 2011 interview, Mariani commented that his reading and writing follows, ‘the model of Christ on the road—to Cana or Capernaum or Jericho or Jerusalem or Emmaus—that is what I am looking for.’ In light of this, the majority of poems in Ordinary Time are parables assembled as lyrical poetry. Mariani has a gift for fashioning anecdotes into wider truths, for tracing a finger on a map and gently saying, ‘here we are.’ In company with Mariani, there is time for a child’s imaginary tea party and sixth grade hockey, time to dream of the flow of the Mississippi, to stare at old paintings and the full moon. The parables and anecdotes start but never stay local. The life Mariani describes, and the process of describing it, manufactures the ordinary time that on a bend down the river becomes poetry with historical and geographical vision.
Wordsworth’s statement that poetry ‘takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity’ appears to stand as a working definition for much of Mariani’s process. A childhood trauma forms the centre of ‘Pantoum for East Fifty-First’. Mariani shares a moment when he was rescued as a 6 year old by his mother when local boys doused him in kerosene and threatened to set him alight. Later in the poem, his father is involved in some local vigilante-ism and in the next poem, ‘Johnnie Walker Black’, Mariani incriminates himself for knocking his brother’s teeth out. These incidents are shocking but gain weight as they are hauled from the 1940’s through ordinary time. The use of the pantoum structure, a hipster’s twirling mustache of a form, elevates the emotion into a wider reflection on inner city gentrification. The pantoum begins, ‘And then, in an instant, it‘s gone: the world of East Fifty-First.’ The structure of the poem acts as a framing device to see what exists now in the light of the endemic, casual violence that has been replaced.
In terms of style, unsurprisingly for a man who has spent much of his career writing biographies of poets, Mariani is concerned with craft and tradition. If he were a chef, he would be serving classic cuisine with trusted flavor combinations, closely guarded family recipes and quality ingredients cooked well. If you need innovation and experiment, you need a different poet. Mariani holds a control over his craft that repeatedly leaves the impression that this is what poetry is supposed to taste like.
There is a robustness to Mariani’s imagery, grounded in the city of his youth. He speaks predominantly in conversation, saving his linguistic flourishes for when he encounters extremes; for when we arrive in the presence of the ‘refulgent’, the ‘gelid’, or the ‘shrieking malebolge’. Similarly, Mariani welcomes the reader into a range of forms and poetic structures. He does things like rhyme ‘Mississippi blues’ and ‘age old bruise’ and it charms and leads further into the poet’s world. Everything works together to help the reader listen.
Ordinary Time maintains a consistent high standard of thought and craft, but one poem that stands above is ‘Psalm for the Lost’. Although the tone of the poem captures the bleaker and more desperate of the psalms, it is a riff on 1 Corinthians 13:12. Here is a meditation on what it means to live as we see through a glass, darkly. Although in many senses, Ordinary Time works as a collecting and gathering of life, Mariani is also deeply concerned with the ways in which age and time unravel people. He poses questions about what happens at the end of our questions, at the end of our research, at the end of our projects? His answer is that it goes dark, and we are left with other questions about where our loyalties lie. Mariani doesn’t flinch as he lays this out, but neither does he end without hope.
What happens when we leave this earth? What happens if we fall to this new pandemic and our time is done? On Earth, Mariani traces out through Ordinary Time the ways in which things carry on and not much changes. Whenever we leave, we will leave an earth on the brink of collapse, empires bristling against their borders, rampant inequality, imperfect cities and unanswered questions. We will leave behind people who will have to do without us but who will carry us forward in ways we cannot anticipate, just as we have for our ancestors. We will leave things more permanent than ourselves; mountains, rivers, artworks, the command to love our neighbors. We will leave without really knowing what of what we lived was fumbling in the fog and what was visionary, but we may also leave with the peace of the Christ who leaves his peace with us. As he illuminates all of this in poems that burn with authority and conviction, Paul Mariani stands as a witness that these are ordinary times.