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.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Not A Pittsburgh Poet: Michael Ryan

Editors Note: My apologies to my readers for the interruption in the series, "My Top Ten Favorite Pittsburg Poets." Today's post resumes regular entries on this blog and I will return to the thread of "Pittsburg Poets" soon. Thank you for your patience and loyalty. TL

I love used bookstores. Recently my friends and poets Michael Waters and Mihaela Moscaliuc visited from New Jersey. I treated them to several local used bookstores. Upon entering each one, Michael and I would race to the poetry section to see who could get to the "finds" first. Michael usually won (I was being polite to a guest), but I did manage to capture a hardback copy of Michael Ryan's God Hunger for a pittance. Ryan is new to me, but I am completely taken with him. I am now looking for his selected works, and will dutifully report back when I find it.

The opening poem to God Hunger, "Not The End Of The World," blew me away. It is three pages long, so I will not reproduce it here in its entirety. Since the last line is one of the strongest I've ever read, I'll summarize the narrative of the poem, and then let the final two stanzas speak for themselves.

A bird flies down the chimney into a wood stove. "Wings/alive inside cast iron/gave the cold stove a soul/wilder than fire, in trouble." The narrator knocks the window-screen out, drops a shade over the window, shuts the study door and stuffs a wad into the keyhole, hoping the bird ("whatever it was") would fly back up the chimney, would fly for "the full, clean stream of light/like the sliding board from heaven/our guardian angels slid to earth on/in The Little Catholic Messenger/weekly magazine." But, no success. Instead, "A dull brown bird no bigger/than my fist hopped modestly/out, twisting its neck like a boxer/trying to shake off a flush punch." It stayed on his rug, not moving, for so long that finally he scooped it up "and sat it outside on the dirt."

Ryan then describes how he rushed back inside and watched what happened through the window: the other birds started landing in a circle around the collapsed bird, at first encouraging it with chirps and cheeps, but when it didn't move, raising the stakes by pecking it and stepping back to wait. Ryan's climax and denouement provide an ultimate view of reality that is rare, even in poetry.

It flapped once and fell forward
and rested its forehead on the ground.

I've never seen such weakness.
I thought to bring it back in
or call someone, but heard my voice
saying, "Birds die, we all die,"
the shock of being picked up again
would probably finish it,
so with this pronouncement
I tried to clear it from my mind
and return to the work I had waiting
that is most of what I can do
even if it changes nothing.

Do I need to say I was away
for all of a minute
before I went back to it?
But the bird was gone.
All the birds were gone,
and the circle they had made
now made a space so desolate
that for one moment I saw
the dead planet.

For reasons I trust you can see above, if you do not know Michael Ryan, I recommend him to you. Of God Hunger, Robert Pinsky says:

Michael Ryan's book has what we seek every day from our radios and magazines and television sets, but rarely find: copious imagination, words that meet the test of reading out loud, our ordinary daily language joined to the extraordinary, the palpable force of life itself, held in words worth repeating.

I would only add that far too often we are thirsty for the memorable when reading a poem, as well. Not the case with Michael Ryan. Each one workshops the canon and can improve our lives--writing and otherwise. To read God Hunger is to be sated for a time, and then to desire Ryan's next book. Thankfully, there are many...

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Trio House Press Open Reading Period July 1-July 31

I have been on hiatus for a month. The series "Top Ten Pittsburgh Poets" will resume shortly. In the mean time, please be aware of the following submission opportunity. Trio House Press' website can be accessed by using the link in the right-hand column below.

Trio House Press is open for submissions of full-length poetry manuscripts (48-70 pp.) during our open reading period, July 1-July 31. Poets whose manuscripts are selected must serve as Collective Members of Trio House Press for a period of twenty-four months.

All submissions are through Submittable, accessed through our website ( between July 1 and July 31. Please include a detailed cover letter, approximately two pages in length, with bio, publication history and marketing plan at the beginning of the file in front of your manuscript. Open reading fee is $20.