ISBN: 978-1-932842-40-1 (paperback edition)
Publisher: Star Cloud Press
Year of Publication: 2010
Format: Cloth Edition or Paperback
Page Count: 126 (paperback)
"Joseph Bathanti is a strong, eloquent voice in American poetry. His poems emanate from deep within himself and his culture, a world of rich ethnic ties and associations. I love the luminous details that he uncovers, again and again, like holy mysteries. His poems, which often deal — overtly and covertly — with religious themes, are restorative. These are, indeed, poems of restoration. Bathanti returns often to the well of memory, and he draws a fresh, sweet water from those depths."
—Jay Parini, The Art of Subtraction: New and Selected Poems and Benjamin's Crossing
"I am enraptured by the poems in Restoring Sacred Art, Joseph Bathanti's volume of love/hate poems about growing up and contending with the physicality of Pittsburgh, that unforgettable city. The language is rich, metropolitan, and accomplished, resounding with the poet's deep memories of friendship, family, neighborhood, school agonies, old cars, Catholicism, games, fights, binges, discoveries, hard jobs, affections, memories of a place and time. The stories and lines are artfully constructed, building to the moving conclusion of the book, when the poet returns annually to visit his people and remember the city. He never stops saying goodbye."
—Paul Zimmer, Crossing to Sunlight Revisited: New and Selected Poems and Trains In the Distance
We ease the statue out of the Chrysler trunk.
Stiff as a mob hit, she smiles,
her tattered robe della robia,
the nimbus studded with a star tiara.
In her arms, the smirking Christ-
child is lean and grim, in one hand
a ball with a cross planted in it,
the other held up like a boy scout's pledge.
I grab his mother in a headlock.
Philip takes the feet;
and we shuffle down Liberty Avenue:
Saturday night, the bars' glass-brick
windows lit with neon Iron City Light beer signs,
one Italian joint after another,
the spars of Saint Joseph's Cathedral shooting off
into the sky like wild onions.
We set her down for a minute at the foot
of Phil's studio and light cigarettes.
Four flights, fifteen steps each, straight up.
She stands there on the sidewalk,
holding the baby, gazing at Saint Joe's,
The Catholic Store, Mineo's Pizza,
the halogens twirling off across
the Bloomfield Bridge toward the Bishop's house.
The kid doesn't like it: the thrum
and noise, the lights. He's lived
all his life in a church.
We hoist them again and begin the climb,
pausing at each landing to rest, and crack at Mary:
You've got to lose some weight.
Too many cannolis.
When are you going to start exercising?
We offer her a smoke.
At the top, we wrestle her inside.
Phil turns on the light.
The baby has lost those two fingers;
only the thumb remains,
jutting out of the fist like a hitchhiker's.
He wants down. In the full light,
Mary is wan, tired, the smile thinning.
She has trouble holding her son.
Her eyes are wet; her lips quiver.
This is not unusual, my friend tells me,
gesturing about his workroom
where other virgin mothers,
nicked and beat-up, missing limbs and noses,
hold tightly to their squirming children,
trying to hush them, their tears
like gravel hitting the linoleum.
Singled from the queue filing
through airport security,
my 90 year old father is fully cooperative,
even amiable; not even surprised, it seems,
that fate has tapped him on the shoulder
to answer for something he is innocent of.
Two uniformed buxom matrons,
coiled hair and black patent leather
Sam Browns, heart-shaped
silver badges, ask him
if he’s accepted anything from strangers
since he’s entered the terminal.
He assures them he never accepts things from strangers.
They study him as if his affability
is part of the ploy, a filament
wired to the bomb he’ll trigger.
They prod over him an electric wand,
slip him out of his overcoat, shake his cane.
He smiles and calls them young lady.
He’s ordered to remove his shoes,
a pair of white Addidas,
not a scuff upon them; and his hat,
an old brown fedora they flip over
and over and empty of its nothingness,
before patting him down like a convict,
armpits and crotch, sliding
their hands up and down his arms and legs,
each skeletal ridge and knob
as if by magic he might divide
and reveal the vault of Armageddon.
Suddenly my father is terrible as Isaiah.
Yet he remains smiling, even as they strip him,
tottering naked on bare yellow feet,
white hair smoking off his chest,
millwright’s legs tungsten blue,
from him emanating an audible tick.
Then they peel him out of his skin,
jackknife him open:
sprung, mis-spliced wires,
capped sockets, taped frays –
the mysterious circuitry of detonation.
Still they don’t find what they’re searching for,
and he can’t remember
where he’s hidden it.
Driving a girl whose father loathed me,
son of an Italian who labored on the open hearth,
I crossed in a borrowed green Comet
the PA line into Wheeling.
Eighteen was legal in West Virginia:
Marlboros and three-two beer at the Hilltop
on a street with whorehouses and a Jesuit college.
She was sixteen, a minor –
the true miners secreted in black sulphurous pockets
whispering beneath the tavern floor we sat upon.
The jukebox was loud and country;
it was easy to ignore the charge being laced under us.
My girl was drunk and singing along – Loretta Lynn,
Tammy Wynette – though she didn’t know the words,
the way folks mouth like speaking in tongues
when the spirit lays hold of them.
A smudge on her cheek,
second-hand coat, her blonde hair shone white –
in that light,
aged into a coal miner’s wife
or a steel worker’s
like my mother.
When the 4 to12 shift from Wheeling Pittsburgh
dragged in, I smelled asbestos
and baked ore, the vaporous green sizzle
of my father’s work fatigues.
I wanted to tell her all about her father;
I’d rip him to pieces, that bastard.
My dad was a brave man,
He climbed boom cranes with nothing but a span of leather
fastening him above the smokestacks
streaming twelve stories of fire into the firmament.
But I had no vocabulary to render his mythic toil.
I knew more about her dad:
his suits and office in downtown Pittsburgh,
his perfect diction and college education.
We hung around till Last Call,
then kissed against the fender until the lot emptied
and the Hilltop’s neon shingle sputtered out.
The Comet wouldn’t start.
I turned it over and over until I killed the battery,
till I couldn’t get a peep out of the horn
or the lights to flicker.
The mighty Ohio beat by.
Whelped in Pittsburgh,
it loops north, in defiance of gravity,
abruptly slices west, southering
into the fang of northern West Virginia
that impales the border
of Ohio and Pennsylvania –
like the long jagged neck of a busted bottle.
That’s where we stood clinging to each other,
stranded along the omniscient river –
where I still like to think of us –
before those miners, like escaped Purgatorians,
burst black and smoldering
through the bottom of our lives,
and she started to cry,
anticipating her father’s patrician wrath.
I thought of who I could call –
knowing there was only one man on earth
who would rise out of his exhausted sleep
at the sound of my voice,
like Lazarus, and come running.