blackbirdonline journalSpring 2014  Vol. 13  No. 1
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Review | Reliquary, by Matthew Minicucci
Accents Publishing, 2013

spacer Reliquary

“Devotional poetry” for some readers implies dogmatic pronouncements, mystical woolgathering, and unctuous self-abasement in verse form. Of course, this assumption ignores countless tours de force by poets of many faiths, including Donald Revell and Mahmoud Darwish, that illuminate human interiority and the struggle/assertion of an individual’s identity in a god-infused world. That said, devotion will sometimes take a faith to its most extreme and dangerous end: judgment of others and their exclusion from divine blessing. Those of us who value poetry as a means to “make other people more real to us,” as Mark Doty has claimed, may approach a poetry that devotes itself to a particular creed with suspicion and prejudice.

Although Matthew Minicucci’s debut chapbook follows a Catholic schoolboy through the stations of the cross, his devotion in Reliquary addresses the aesthetic more than the religious, thus allowing the meditations to take on questions of beauty, interpersonal devotion, and memory. “It’s only symbol,” he writes, describing the cracked plaster of Christ’s outstretched arm in “Figure 7: Jesus Falls (2)”:

that small thing which has been wrenched apart
we seek to put back together.

More than any other lines, those few reveal Reliquary’s motive: to make the fractured whole or, at the very least, to see the spaces where the pieces used to go. In “Figure 12: Jesus Dies,” the speaker describes the sculpture “clean in its plaster cast, the crown of thorns / only seconds from slipping,” but

within this there are memories, whole days
of silence I thought had been picked clean, only to find
them illuminated again by the single barb of sunbeam
that slips through a collar or rolled cuff

What the speaker once saw as “clean” and, thus, lifeless—the plaster cast, the “whole days / of silence”—in hindsight reveal their complexities, the life surviving within them, but the question arises: does he view the congregants or the statuary as more real in memory? Here, Minicucci subverts the people that fill the clothes through which the light shines and leaves us with the image. Elsewhere, in “Figure 9: Jesus Falls (3),” we find a similar yet more convergent image:

The sun slides its way through stained-glass robe,
falls on the right side of the cross brace.

Its red is mutable, moving
from the bright and incandescent
to mulled plum; dark as a deep cut.

A long crack in the plaster pulls
from end to end. Light hangs in the room

like vermilion painted against the Pennsylvania mountains
I couldn’t stop watching on our first family vacation.

I remember how my parents managed to look anywhere
but at each other; how the path came to linger in its curves,

and how the headlights seemed to ignite the olive skin
of my father’s outstretched hand
as it pointed to constellations along the Milky Way

Compare “The sun slides its way through stained-glass robe” with the “sunbeam / slips through a collar or rolled cuff”; the red light with the olive that the headlights make of the father’s skin. In “Figure 7: Jesus Falls (2),” Minicucci writes of the arm “pulled back across [Christ’s] body,” an image that recalls the father’s “outstretched hand” above. Throughout Reliquary, we find human characters mirroring the stations of the cross, but take note that Minicucci avoids idealizing them as biblical figures; rather, the gestures of the biblical figures, rendered artfully, recall the artful gestures of the living people. Not deity and person but person and art compare. A devotion to aesthetics rather than to Catholic dogma allows for these connections, encourages us to locate nuance rather than absolutes.

Nuance operates in Reliquary in various ways: through cracks in the plaster; the years’ remove between the speaker and his memory of visiting the stations of the cross; the light and angle of looking; tone and voice. Consider the opening of “Figure 6: Veronica Wipes the Face of Jesus.” At the poem’s beginning, the speaker avoids immediate identification. Do we enter into an eclogue between Veronica and Christ? The sculpture and the viewer?

Why are you kneeling? Why have we both knelt?

Only in this way are we alike
in stature and statuary.

The initial conflation approximates the ways in which these two figures are alike, as mentioned in the second line. By the end of the poem, however, the chapbook’s familiar speaker emerges; he asks: “Why do I look to their faces after seeing yours?” Does Minicucci mean the faces of the other children on the Passion tour? The faces of his mother and father, who appear frequently throughout the collection? Or does he mean that he looks to the faces of Veronica and Jesus after seeing the face of an unknown “you”? The poem ends:

What I mean to say is
you’re both beautiful;

what I mean to say is sometimes
we see a menorah in something as simple as sage.

We may take away two gestures from the poem: 1) in the right light or at the right angle, figures (schoolboys/statuary), pronouns (you/they), or ideals (religion/art) may substitute, one for another; and 2) we will read meaning into almost any image. With the second point in mind, we might read the opening as the speaker reading meaning into the figure. In this way, the collection becomes an exploration of meaning-making, of discovery—of connections between seemingly disparate parts of one’s life.  end

Matthew Minicucci is the author of the chapbook Reliquary (Accents Publishing, 2013). His work has appeared in Hobart, The Literary Review, and Cream City Review, among others.

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