“death Poured out of His Mouth Along with the Gospel”
By Michael West
April 18, 2016
After years of controversy over the mishandling of sexual predators among the priests of his archdiocese, Archbishop of Minneapolis-St. Paul John Nienstedt resigned last June. Now facing criminal prosecution, the diocese is legally bankrupt. These are among the precipitating events of Zach Czaia’s first book of poems, Saint Paul Lives Here (In Minnesota).
A writer of fiction as well as poetry, Czaia has previously written an appreciation of his fellow Minnesotan J. F. Powers’s novels and stories, which share a style and subject matter with many of these poems. Narratively driven and possessed of clear protagonists, they exhibit a seasoned plotter’s sense of timing, pacing, and wholeness.
An especially absorbing sequence of poems, the “Father X” poems, portray a charismatic and trusted priest who was later stripped of his ministry for soliciting a prostitute and sexually abusing a girl in a former diocese. Like Powers depicting his eminently fleshly and fallen clerics, Czaia speaks to the paradox of an embodied, sinful, human priesthood: “death poured out of his mouth along with the gospel.”
Like Dante, Czaia is both loyal son and scourger of ecclesiastical princes, speculating in one poem—“If Dante Were Alive Today”—which circle of hell his archbishop and the archdiocese’s vicar general would be placed in. And equally like Dante, Czaia is too smart not to realize the pitfalls of such a project, how it opens him up to criticism, looking foolish, or worse. As he writes in the same poem, “And I know people in glass homes shouldn’t throw stones./And yes, this poem is a stone/and I aim to hit.”
For Czaia, the proper name is all-important, especially when it is conspicuously absent. He never names the school he attended, and he explains his choice to withhold “Father X’s” name in “Why I Won’t Publish Father X’s Name, Though the Newspapers Do”: “Because Christ was crucified on a cross, and the cross is a tipped sideways X, and you, Father X, are a cross to me.”
Formally, these poems range from the free-verse compositions common in much contemporary poetry to “prose poems”: short, verbally dense, and compressed paragraphs. The poems can be at times richly allusive; “john chapter thirteen verse eight,” for instance, echoes T. S. Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday” in its opening lines: “unless i wash you / unless i wash / unless i . . .” With Blake, Auden, and Milton also stored in his memory, Czaia has brought forth treasures old and new.
This review first appeared in the May 2016 edition of First Things.
Michael West is a Ph.D. candidate in English at Columbia University.