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A Review of Paul Mariani’s Book Epitaphs for the Journey

In Epitaphs for the Journey, Paul Mariani, a well-established American poet and biographer of poets, revisits his life journey and faith—two things that are not separate but intertwined like lock and key. Mariani is a skilled storyteller who unravels the tangled strands of his childhood and openly explores the mystery of God in eight cantos, each with twelve poems that are new, selected, and revised from his previous work.

He unflinchingly examines his life experiences that, no doubt, tested his faith. In “Duet,” he reveals his mother who unsuccessfully “tried to salvage” and “kept coaxing” his father to sing “in harmony” with her (29). In “Crossing Cocytus,” he explores “…the boy under the great-limbed / purple beech that fronts” his home “his scrawny arms / locked about his knees, as he keeps sobbing to himself” (73). However, Mariani does not leave the broken boy under the large tree crying; he consoles, “I would comfort him for his having fathered me. / It has come out well” (73).

Although life cam out well for Mariani, a Boston College professor, it’s at the end of the second canto that Mariani admits his flaws. In “Light Streaming Into the Head” he writes, “I tried to make myself into a priest and failed” (64), and it’s in “Betty: September 1957” that readers learn of the exact moment he broke his vow. He discloses, “…I came off my earnest, stringent year-long fast / & kissed her lips & dear God tasted woman once again” (54).

Because Mariani informs readers of his faults, they are perhaps more willing to explore his views of God. In “Soldiers of Christ,” Mariani revisits the place where his Catholic school once stood. He writes, “The school is gone now, the chapel too, / and the playing fields: all gone. Even / the mountain over which the sun rose / and where God would often greet me / has turned to ice and stone” (51). It’s not in the school, nor his failed call that Mariani only finds God, but it’s in the loss of his first child that he “first began to understand the cost of loving” (“Beginnings” 80). After his wife’s miscarriage, his friend challenges Mariani by asking him what he thought “now of God’s ways toward men” (81). Mariani does not give up on God, though. In “Nine One One,” a response to the 2001 terrorist attacks, he concludes with God affirming, “I will not leave you orphans? Not / One of you. Not one, not a single precious one.” And other poems near the book’s end, (e.g.: “The Gift”) reveal that Mariani discovers that God is in the small things of his family life as well.

Epitaphs for the Journey is a poetic, spiritual journey, which is also evident in the front and back cover engravings by Barry Moser. The front cover is of a small boy who seems to be searching for a way out of a large, dark structure; the back cover is a hunched-over, cane-walking grandfather in a cathedral “bound for home” (“Fish Ladder, Damariscotta” 204). The engravings fittingly bookend the life journey of Mariani.

Mariani’s book Epitaphs for the Journey will resonate with readers. They will see their own life struggles through Mariani’s poems. They will ask their own difficult questions about God like Mariani has done. And perhaps, they will come to the same conclusions or similar answers that God is in each of life’s moments—big or small.

Reprinted with permission from Englewood Review of Books (Fall 2012)

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