Thursday, June 28, 2012

My Top Ten Pittsburgh Poets: Joseph Bathanti

About Joseph Bathanti's Restoring Sacred Art Gerald Stern writes:

I am a sucker for Pittsburgh poetry, but it's not just the location that moves me in Bathanti's book. I like two main things: the outrageous and amazing memory of particulars, of things; and the mad and tender turns the work suddenly takes. Bathanti is loyal, maybe grudgingly, to a dear--a loved and hated--world. Throughout the narrative, his poetic strategies are marvelous; one poem after another is deft, and moving, and original. This is an important book.

To this delightful recommendation from Gerald Stern--a poet who knows a lot about Pittsburgh and about writing important books--I would add that Restoring Sacred Art possesses a diction of apotheosis, raising the ordinary language of his Italian Pittsburgh roots to divine utterances of sacred images gilded with the profane. How else to describe the kind of descriptive language Bathanti uses in a poem like "The Tongue" (Epigraph: And the tongue is a fire,/a world of iniquity--St. James 3:5), where as a little boy he drops the F bomb on his mother:

I'd thought I'd been talking to myself,
but the sound of that word--
cheap, weightless, thrilling--
wormed out of me in a voice
which the house over and over whispered back.
In only her underthings,
my mother wheeled, clutched for cover
a towel to her throat and breast
in a gesture I would see
astonished women forever copy.

Unable to deny it,
I stood outside her bedroom door,
the tip of the word still hanging
like a switchblade from my mouth.

But it is in the narratives of the quotidian rituals of growing up in the particularity of his family, on his street--Collins Avenue--with its unique raised octaves of mothers calling in its sons and daughters for dinner, with its coal dust and soot so thick that the streetlights remained lit in the afternoon so the children could see to walk home from school--that Bathanti best shines his inherited ecclesiastical language. Although this language of faith inadequately attempted during his childhood to explain in one hour a week what happened during all of the rest, in these poems he conscripts it to successfully communicate the unresolved tensions it created. Take, for example, the poem "Penance"--

Frantic with relief,
like a child fished from a well,
I burst from my First confession
into the sunlit world, how kind now

that I was finally good. Upon my tongue
the next morning I would accept
another sacrament, Holy Eucharist,
and become the bones of slaughtered saints

immured in glass reliquaries,
all light and sweet decay.
It was fine to die.

But heading home, he gets into a game in "Booze Alley" with "the black kids from Hilliards [who] didn't wear shirts." The inevitable tussle ensues with one Jacky Lando--Little Jack:

We argued: "safe" or "out."
He fired slag in my face,
remanding me for a blind instant to pitch and fear.
Sin grouted inside my eyelids.

I threw a wild punch,
opened my gravelly eyes, and saw the others
frozen in wonder:
Jacky soughed a crown of blood at my feet.

Then from his mouth slipped a pearl,
and then another and another
dropping like fantastic alms onto the alley floor,
as if my fist, guided by the Holy Spirit,

had split a secret vault of treasure in him.
The other children backed away,
as if I were the bad one. Jacky howled
like judgment, blood bearding him,

dripping from his chin, and I knew
that my Confession had been annulled.
Jesus would refuse my tainted heart.
Dipping my hands into the dirt,

scooping up his blood and teeth,
sun and silvery filth coating them,
I knelt and offered them to him,
as if he were the Prince of Peace,

the very least of them.
In was in His power to call back His blood,
resow His teeth, spin time back
to the moment outside the confessional

when my soul was spotless. But instead,
looking down at me upon my knees,
he marshaled his principalities,
his wiles and discernment,

cried piteously
like a wounded little boy,
then spit his wild suffering
blood in my face.

Not all poems in Restoring Sacred Art are replete with ecclesiastical diction. There are times that we almost forget, like the characters in Bathanti's Holy History, that we are in a universe watched over by a God as silent, yet as immanent, as Bathanti's dead tailor grandfather. But just as we begin to get comfortable in our secular thoughts, the poet restores our minds as bicameral vessels--now cracked-- desirous of salvation, yet unable to find it, either in the old liturgy or in some new iconoclasm.

Collins Avenue

The nights of tripe and bocci
they hobbled down to Troiano's saloon,
dragging like chained shades behind them
lives shipped in steerage
across the Atlantic,
artifact hands working like marionettes,
coarse operatic garments
of self-loathing and insane pride,
headstone faces inscribed
with gold teeth, concrete skin
we expected any minute would chip away
and reveal a monster with a shrill,
superstitious wife given to rosaries
in dark churches.

All evening behind the clubyard wall
we heard Vivaldi's sonata,
"Al Santo Sepolcro," revving and dying
over and over on the windup Victrola,
the querulous wooden crack of the balls
and voices like the creak
of a crowbar unprying the rusted-shut.

They didn't own the words to articulate
their wounds, not even in their native tongue,
though we, the children, "Americanos,"
could not have comprehended.
They belonged to us, these old men,
and we to them; but we had no old country,
only Collins Avenue, this one "via"
along the pinched breast of a new country
they could not turn their mouths from.
America had murdered Christ all over again.

Doomed to haunt the family "fotografie":
no names, averted faces,
flashing gunbore eyes,
canes and crutches propped
against the Quince tree, rising
arm after arm with its mutant fruit,
under which they brooded, hoarding
their damnable secrets like blood money.

Spare is my translation.

Neither the translation, nor the world that Bathanti translates into his gorgeous poetry are spare--both are replete with elucidation: in the art of language and in the art of life. In a single volume of poetry, Bathanti contributes immensely to the restoration of art in the sacred and the sacred in art.

Joseph Bathanti is the author of five books of poetry: Communion Partners, Anson County, The Feast of All Saints, This Metal (nominated for the National Book Award), and Land of Amnesia. His first novel, East Liberty, won the 2001 Carolina Novel Award. His latest novel, Coventry, won the 2006 Novello Literary Award. His book of stories, The High Heart, won the 2006 Spokane Prize for Short Fiction. He is the recipient of Literature Fellowships from the North Carolina Arts Council in 1994 (poetry) and 2009 (fiction), the Sherwood Anderson Award, and many others. He teaches at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina.

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