Poets of Franklin County: A moment of grace
In the mid-1980s, Turners Falls poet and devout Catholic Paul Mariani went every Sunday to nursing homes in Greenfield, bringing communion to elderly patients unable to attend church. Bringing communion to the elderly was one of many acts of service Mariani chose to partake in over the years.
One Sunday, as he entered one of the nursing homes, Mariani saw strips of yellow crime scene tape blocking access to some of the rooms.
“I’ll never forget this,” he says, shaking his head. “I asked the nurse, ‘What’s this all about?’ I had never seen it before.”
A nurse informed Mariani that AIDS patients had been brought to the nursing home since his last visit. The police tape was meant to prevent anyone other than authorized personnel from entering their rooms. The newness of the disease made people fearful, Mariani said. There had not yet been extensive research into how it was transmitted or how to treat it. Even some of the nurses were reluctant to enter the rooms of AIDS patients.
As Mariani was offering communion to others, a woman approached him from behind the yellow tape.
“She was just worn out with grief,” Mariani recalled.
Mistaking Mariani for a priest, the woman asked, “Could you come in here? My son’s dying of AIDS.”
In the room, Mariani saw a young man in his twenties who lay in the bed unconscious, reduced to “just skin and bones.”
“Can you give him the last rites?” his mother pleaded.
Because only a priest can administer last rites, Mariani telephoned the priest of his church, Our Lady of Peace, in Turners Falls. Mariani is visibly moved as he recalls the image of the priest crossing the yellow tape and leaning to say a prayer over the young man.
This image, coupled with the story of another young man who died of AIDS, was the inspiration for Mariani’s poem, “The Pietà,” one of three of his poems to be included in “St. Peter’s B-List,” a new anthology of contemporary poems inspired by the lives of the Christian saints.
In “The Pietà,” a friend tells the poem’s narrator of the death of her son, a young man Mariani says he had known well. The two had corresponded, Mariani offering advice about poems the younger man was writing while serving time in jail. In this story, too, people were reluctant to enter a room in which someone was dying of AIDS.
“It was almost like a Medieval plague. There wasn’t enough knowledge,” Mariani said. Lack of knowledge fueled fear.
“I felt the fear, to be honest with you,” Mariani admitted. “And yet here comes the priest, he goes right through, he goes right in there and he picks up the kid,” he said, recounting his friend’s story. By that point, his friend’s son weighed only 80 pounds.
“And the priest is a strong man,” Mariani said. “He just held him like a baby. Oh!” Mariani puts his hand to his heart.
Mariani’s image of the priest cradling the young man dying of AIDS is meant to echo the image of Mary holding Jesus on her lap after he was removed from the cross, an image famously rendered in marble by the Italian Renaissance sculptor Michelangelo. The comparison might seem surprising to some but it fits honestly into Mariani’s spiritual and creative questioning.
“Is there a way of getting at a second meaning — a deeper, spiritual meaning in the everyday, in the quotidian?” Mariani asks. “Can you do that? So that through the eyes of this kind of poet — a believer — you see what others might not see, in the sense that it’s infused with God?”
“St. Peter’s B-List” includes a range of work in a variety of styles and voices, including several poems by former colleagues of Mariani’s from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, poets James Tate and Martín Espada. Mariani taught at UMass-Amherst for 32 years and now, at 74, teaches at Boston College, where he holds the University Chair in English. This summer, he’ll be teaching poetry at Glen East, an 8-day writing retreat held at Mt. Holyoke College, sponsored by the Christian journal, “Image.”
“St. Peter’s B-List” was edited by Mary Ann B. Miller and published by Ave Maria Press, Notre Dame, Ind.
Trish Crapo is a writer and photographer who lives in Leyden. She is always looking for Franklin County poets with recent publications or interesting projects to interview for her column. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.