by Matthew Minicucci
Accents Publishing, 2013
21 pages / $5 Buy from Accents Publishing
With a 15th century Jacopo Bellini panel stretched across a nearly gilded cover, pages the color of bone, and vacillating moments of nostalgic faith and analytical skepticism, Matthew Minicucci’s debut chapbook Reliquary feels like it could have been produced by Andy Warhol’s idiosyncratic Catholicism. John Updike, in discussing the 1989 retrospective of Warhol’s work at The Museum of Modern Art, recounts Warhol’s infamous closet Catholicism, his private acts of grace, and his daily attendance at Mass before finding the “Catholic negativity” of “profound hollowness” in Warhol’s canon. Updike’s conclusion appears in his trademark parallelism: “Protestantism, when it fades, leaves behind a fuzzy idealism; Catholicism, a crystalline cynicism.”
Minicucci’s work exudes the skepticism of a mind that still finds faith and ritual beautiful. Such is the tattoo of literary Catholicism: the whispers of youth remain as scars for some, a bright complexion for others. Reliquary is focused on a class of elementary school students led through the fourteen Stations of the Cross by their teacher, Sister Theresa. Two students in particular–the narrator and his friend Chris–return within narratives replete with philosophical and theological asides. Minicucci leads the first poem with an epigraph from Horace, referencing the Promethean act of “making each of us,” the correct precedent for a collection of poems so focused on hands, on faith formation. From the first poem alone, “Jesus is Condemned to Death”: “the perfect curve of marble hands connecting / supple to supplication”; “how Jesus’ index and middle finger separate / from the thumb, point to the sky as Pilate reads”; “Caiaphas stands with his hands outstretched / fingers splayed and downward”; “Sister Theresa sets her hand on my thigh, / presses nails into flesh, pushing / my small knee to the floor.” The focus on hands and palms is to be expected in a Catholic ritualistic milieu: the receipt of the Host, the offering of peace, yet Minicucci focuses on the terrible strength of touch. He must kneel at the first Station in order “to meditate / on each prick of thorn and pull of the lash.” Sister Theresa tells him that “This is what suffering looks like . . . It’s beautiful.”
Sister Theresa might be the collection’s most intriguing personage. Minicucci thankfully avoids the stock clerical representations that mar many recollections of youthful Catholicism. Sister Theresa’s sting does reside within her desire for control, yet her actions occur within the nearly docetic Catholicism of the text, as Minicucci clearly peels ritual from belief. The mode of Catholicism has always been prefigured toward postmodernism: the Word and words are acts of transubstantiation. Like the relic-holding room of the collection’s title, and perhaps Updike’s Protestant perception of Catholic iconography, faith paradoxically needs palpable signs to survive, even if those signs are the preserved fingers of saints. Minicucci’s book, by focusing on the core sequence of the Passion that lines church walls, considers what happens when a religious ritual suffused with layers of signs becomes wholly that which is signified. The act of poetry then becomes an act of “new” faith.
This new faith is no less visceral. The staying power of postmodern Catholicism is that even with nontraditional belief, the images and processes of ritual still ring true. Chris, frightened by stories of Christ’s suffering, wets himself. Though he is embarrassed, he “would have bled if given the choice,” opting for punishment more iconic than contemporary. Even the narrator’s later disbelief is not simple; as a schoolchild, his own “hooded heart” is reflected in Christ’s meeting of his mother. Sister Theresa, in an act of powerful and empathetic story, asks the children to imagine Christ’s last sight of Mary. Such visceral faith causes the narrator to touch the fifth figure directly. Sister Theresa must pull his hands from that icon, and he considers the complexity of that act:
back and forth, how inside us
there are multitudes
but don’t dare uncoil our fingers.
The narrator is torn: while much of this sequence is “only symbol,” a “small thing which has been wrenched apart / [that] we seek to put back together”, why does he fall back into nostalgic faith? The answer might appear later in “Figure 7: Jesus Falls (2),” where the narrator concludes that he does not believe in the “pretend” act of transubstantiation because the “wine-dark liquid has no hand / on the treacle and spit that filled my mouth after a fight / how it tasted like the snipped tin / Chris dared me to eat off the floor of my grandfather’s shop.” The narrator tastes the Host and the spit, but the latter has no referent other than direct experience. Yet that desire for palpable discovery ironically leads him back to the Passion sequence, the most violent and visceral New Testament narrative. Like the other children, he “can’t help but stand sedentary, watching / the light move along the cross / as it lies on Jesus’ back like a blanket.” He again reaches for the icon, and runs his “index finger along his sinewy arm.” He must touch faith.
Reliquary’s true mystery, and its greatest success, is cataloging the differences between unbelief and disbelief. The latter almost requires the possibility of belief as an axis point, something to push back against. The images of the Stations of the Cross would mean nothing to the narrator without the Catholic architecture, in the same way that critics of Warhol’s mass-produced, soup-can iconography are fascinated by the duality of something ubiquitous made individual and great. In “Figure 12: Jesus Dies,” “Sister Theresa doesn’t have to ask for silence.” The children are still, “hands in pockets, / trying to reach further than the cloth’s catch.” They are looking at death, and they believe in it. The solemn moment leads to reflection by the older narrator:
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 a rolled cuff.
He mouths the letters INRI “again and again, trying / to find some secret word; an incantation in that breath; / simple song that waits and swells the tongue.” Whether that song and faith requires a divine antecedent is not the point: the search is delivered, given flesh, and made real through words.
Nick Ripatrazone‘s books include Oblations, This Is Not About Birds, The Fine Delight: Postconciliar Catholic Literature, and This Darksome Burn.