Elizabeth Marino, Bobby Kennedy, and Jerry Falwell

DebrisOn entering the world of Elizabeth Marino‚Äôs  new book Debris, we settle into a gentle, guided exploration of memory and desire, regret, intimation, and salvation. Her poetry calms the spirit, but it also challenges the heart. She challenges us to remember things of substance from our own lives; she challenges us to act without ever issuing a call to action. Marino‚Äôs poetry is about things that matter: some big enough to shape the universe and some small enough to change a life. 

Marino‚Äôs chapbook, published this year in a new edition by The Puddin‚Äôhead Press, is a collection of poems and snippets of memoir. In almost every entry, you can find both universal themes and fragments from Marino‚Äôs life. In her poem  ‚ÄúThe Use of Force,‚Äù for example, she begins by describing her own gentle effort to coax ‚Äúfour teaspoons of pureed corned beef through a grimace then a chipped front tooth, down his throat‚Äù ‚Äì the throat of her 81-year-old father ‚Äì and then in a final verse provides the contrast of a less gentle use of force in Afghanistan:

Over a million and a half child lives later, the
use of force is laid down in the sand like
a fine silk ribbon of impossibility
marking it as a new road, ignoring
the embargo by land and by sea,
ten years’ worth of bombing
civilians on the parameters of our “no fly zone,”
relief packages from far flung employed relatives
rifled and delivered empty.

Now countless elders
                from their own mass graves
                                wail Prayers for Dead Children, while to the east
                the feet of Afghan toddlers walk down this road
                                never cleared of American land mines.

One of Elizabeth Marino’s memoirs is titled “The Days of Bobby’s Passing,” and it tells how she was 13 in June of 1968 when she heard a distraught radio DJ report that Bobby Kennedy had just been shot. “We all killed him,” said the DJ. “…our whole, violent, gun-happy society cut young Senator Robert F. Kennedy down.”

My own sister Lloys Jean recently told me her own small story that took place on the same day in 1968 as Marino’s. Lloys Jean was 22 years old then, and was attending college in Chattanooga. She got a summer job working for fundamentalist preacher Jerry Falwell, and flew to Lynchburg, Virginia to begin. Falwell was a close friend of our family’s, and his mentor was my granddad John R. Rice, an influential fundamentalist and editor of The Sword of the Lord newspaper. Lloys Jean’s plane was met by Jerry Falwell himself. As he drove her back toward his office in Lynchburg, his phone rang. That’s right, Jerry Falwell had a “car phone” in 1968, a monstrous piece of equipment that took up most of the trunk space and included a large black handset looking much like any other ancient analog phone. Falwell picked up the handset and listened quietly for a minute or two. Tears began to course down his face, and he turned to Lloys Jean and reported, “They’ve just told me that Bobby Kennedy was shot. This is such a sad day for America.”

In today’s polarized world, the notion that Jerry Falwell in 1968 might have grieved for Bobby Kennedy, a man with whom he disagreed on so many subjects, is bizarre and unthinkable. But human beings are surprising creatures, and we have an innate capacity for compassion.

In Elizabeth Marino’s lovely story, she reflects on visiting St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, where she saw Michelangelo’s Pieta: “In flawless marble chiseled smooth, an ageless Mary held her broken Son across her lap, hands turned down. Somehow, the marble revealed Her misery without a single drop of blood.”

“The DJ said in conclusion, ‘Aren’t we all then responsible for the assassination of R.F.K.?’
My chills were gone now. ‘No,’ I whispered.”