The American Journal of Poetry
"Strong Rx Medicine"®


Paul Mariani

De Profundis

And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.


A blank slate, an empty canvas, that sheet
of foolscap eight and a half by eleven long
Bob Creeley—late minimalist,
hip puritan, wiping at his one good

eye—told me once was how a poem began.
Began, because there was no other choice.
And young James Franco, telling me how
he’d tried to recreate what Hart Crane

had done by staring at his own blank page
there on that Olivetti. He was recalling
something Ed Harris had once said:
how he wished he’d kept those two

minutes in the film he was making, where
Jackson Pollock stares unblinking into
the white canvas at the nothing that is there,
not unlike the Creator God who once stared

into the darkness covering the face, if face
it was, given the way the language works—
or doesn’t—that seems to call us from those depths.
That is, until the Spirit, the Arch Breath,

call it the Wind if you will, whipped over
those waters, as over some blank black canvas.
And, in time (if there was time back then)
God said, Let there be light. And like that,

like a switch turning on, there wás light,
and the Lord saw it and called it good. And
where nothing was (if non-being can be said
to be) the trumpet sound of sound itself

began to sound. And it was good. And words
followed: the multifoliate pulse of Pythagorean
sound. Music is its name, what the ancients,
who seemed to know knew better than

we know (if we know anything at all)
called the Music of the Spheres. Then
lines. Lines of verse. Lines of paint as now
Pollock’s brush begins to swerve down

and then across the canvas. And it was good.
Oh, it was very good, for as Issho says,
we must learn to live as waves, each of us unique,
but part, always part, of the ocean from which

we came and to which we must return:
a face of water that stares into a face of water
across which the Wind must always wave its way.
And then it’s back once more to that blank slate

that began these lines: the empty canvas
which seems to taunt the one who dares
to stare upon its face until you catch it staring
unblinking back into the blank face of the beholder.



Paul Mariani

Johnnie Walker Black


And there he is, in the fishscale light
of morning up on East 65th.
It’s 1945 and our mother
has walked my little brother Walter

and me to this decaying brownstone
to visit the widow of my father’s cousin,
Frank, whose Army Jeep crashed somewhere
in Germany just weeks before. Margie

is her name, and she’s left now with two young
boys: Frankie, whose father never had a chance
to hold him, and who will come to share
an attic room with Walter and myself.

And then there’s Frankie’s brother, who has
just squeezed out through the kitchen
window onto the bleak back yard, stepping
on one of the babe chicks he’s gone out to feed.

And now he’s howling with yet another loss.
But then that’s neither here nor there now,
is it? For even then you knew such missteps
could never be undone. And so with the one

who writes these words, standing there
with Walter by some bent garbage can
down the darkened street, as he rifles through
a box of stale cupcakes the grocer has just

tossed into the ashcan as if it were some
newfound grail. But when Walter demands
some crumbs, his brother grabs an empty
whiskey bottle from the grail and brings it

hard down across his mouth and then blood
is gushing out and there’s a black gap
where Walter’s front teeth were. And now
our mother is on the curb shrieking

for a cab to stop please stop and then
my brother’s gone, leaving another gap
as black as hell itself. And here’s the thing:
you spend a lifetime trying to understand

just what it was you did that morning. But all
you can piece together is that sullen garbage
can, illumined by a flickering tongue of light
coming from the grocery window. That,

and a black bottle that seems to snigger
at what you have accomplished. And here’s
the thing. Walter and I still joke about
that whiskey bottle all these decades later,

and always over a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black,
Walter’s favorite, served straight up for him
in a crystal tumbler, repentant Cain offering it
as Walter takes it with that capped-tooth grin

of his, both of us laughing at what happened
way back when in a world long gone, the first shot
followed by another and another, Cain trying
to make amends for what can never be amended.



Paul Mariani

Coming back from the dead


can be disconcerting take it from one
who’s been there hobbling on rubber legs
through fifty shades of graves to end up
riding down a metal tunnel that kept screeching
ha! haha! ha! your body strapped to a gurney

where (ha ha!) if you blinked the whole insane
scenario would have to be re-played and where,
at the nightmare hour, exhausted and confused,
you might almost be forgiven if you let
your guard down as I did one dark night

after weeks of drifting sideways down
the lonesome corridors of the indifferent hospital.
Surely the stone-faced technician
hunched over the demented ill-lit controls
had to be a Mossad agent or was he

or Walsingham the Queen’s spy,
with a wrecked Jesuit wracked there
on the twisting ropes I can’t say for sure
except that that’s what paranoia does to you.

So, where’s this going? this nightmare scene
that will not let me be? And now it’s back to those
chiaroscuro corridors where they will close me
round and drill into my skull shunting
wires down my spine to fine-tune my sick brain

so it can rise again at last from the long dark night
it has spent these last months entombed in
and follow the flicker of what I take to be
an eastering, there, among the crocuses,
all three of them, and all a lovely purple.




PAUL MARIANI is the University Professor of English emeritus at Boston College. He has published over 250 essays, introductions, and reviews, as well as scholarly chapters in anthologies and scholarly encyclopedias, and is the author of 18 books, including biographies of William Carlos Williams, Berryman, Lowell, Hart Crane, Hopkins, and –most recently—Wallace Stevens (Simon & Schuster 2016). He has published seven volumes of poetry, most recently Epitaphs for the Journey, as well as a spiritual memoir, Thirty Days: on Retreat with the Exercises of St. Ignatius. His awards include fellowships from the Guggenheim and the NEA and NEH. He is the recipient of the John Ciardi Award for Lifetime Achievement in Poetry. For fifteen years he taught at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference and another fifteen years at the Image Conferences in Colorado, Santa Fe, and Seattle. From 2000—2006 he served as Poetry Editor of America Magazine. His life of Hart Crane, The Broken Tower, was made into a feature-length film, directed by and starring James Franco in 2012. His poems have appeared in Poetry, Image, The Agni Review, First Things, New England Review, Hudson Review, Tri-Quarterly, The Massachusetts Review, New Criterion, Ploughshares, Prairie Schooner, Quarterly West, Sewanee Theological Review, Gettysburg Review, Santa Clara Review, Doubletake, Boston College Magazine, and Southern Quarterly, as well as in numerous anthologies of contemporary poetry.



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