Today's poem is a tough one. Paul Mariani's Solar Ice has three stages. The first represents the journey to God through the beauty of the world. The second represents the revelation of that same God in the mystery of the Holy Communion. The third represents the narrator's rejection of both in favour of a personal hell. It has no clear happy ending, and seems to be more of a confession, and that is where its power lay. Besides being such a wonderful use of the imagery of the icy cold of winter and the thaw of spring to represent the human heart, I'll offer just a few thoughts about what I think Mariani is doing...
The first stanza... Last night at our Catholic Basics/Catechism group, we read these words by S Augustine, which illustrate Mariani's description of how the mind and soul of Man is drawn toward God through Beauty:
The second stanza... Mariani brings out a theme we have explored in our Friday study group, looking at Rowan Williams God With Us. The Crucifixion of Christ is the centre-point of history, around which everything else turns and derives its meaning. It is TS Eliot's "still point of the turning world" where "the dance is." Every celebration of the Holy Communion becomes an extension of this "still point," which Mariani represents in the priest lifting the Host over his head. The Host of bread, joined sacramentally with the death of Christ on the cross, becomes "a small white sun around which everything seemed to coalesce, cohere & choir." But "the thought of some old insult likewise reared its head" stops the "thaw" that has begun.
The final stanza... the circle of the Host diminishes from a Sun to a tiny "o." When the self turns in upon itself, in bitterness, the warmth of Divine Grace ceases to be something the narrator can experience, but it remains a "jagged O at the center of my world." But perhaps the light in the final stanza is the fact that the narrator recognises this as a self-imposed "hell, or some lovely ether foretaste of it." He realises that in giving way to the bitterness in his heart he is left with "darkness everywhere, & ice & ice & ice & more ice on the way, and this sweet abyss between myself & You." There is no shallow piety here, he acknowledges that there is a sweetness felt by our bitterness - but its consequence is an abyss.
by Paul Mariani
The sudden shock of what you really are.
Early March. The tentative return of afternoons.
Saturday, and Mass again. The four.
All about swelling buds on beech & ash
& maples. Crocuses & snowdrops
trilling. Four months impacted ice at last
receding from the north side of the house,
and bobbing robins back & soon, soon, red-
winged blackbirds strutting on the lawn.
Soon too the sweet familiar groundswell
of peepers in the marshes. Reasons
enough to melt the frozen heart.
Father lifted the host above his head & prayed:
a small white sun around which everything
seemed to coalesce, cohere & choir. But
as I raised my head, the thought
of some old insult likewise reared
its head, and in that instant the arctic
hatred flared, shutting out my world
& spring, along with, yes, my lovely wife & sons,
a no & no & yet another no, until I caught
myself refuse the proffered gift of Love.
At once the host diminished to a tiny o:
an empty cipher, like some solar disc
imploding on itself. Only my precious
hate remained, the self-salt taste
of some old wound rubbed raw again,
a jagged O at the center of my world.
Ah, so this is it, I whistled through my teeth.
So this is hell, or some lovely ether
foretaste of it, alone at ninety north,
with darkness everywhere, & ice & ice
& ice & more ice on the way, and this
sweet abyss between myself & You