of Books Involving Anger, An Icon, A Sin
A non-review by
books came my way late last year that form a kind of medley
of sin and redemption, Western style: Garret Keizer's, THE
ENIGMA OF ANGER: ESSAYS ON A SOMETIMES DEADLY SIN; Jossey-Bass,
SWEET JESUS: POEMS ABOUT THE ULTIMATE ICON, edited by Nick
Carbo and Denise Duhamel; Anthology Press, and Albert DeMeo's
lamentation, FOR THE SINS OF MY FATHER, written with Mary
Jane Ross; Broadway Books.
Garret Keizer's book is a broad look at anger with references
from history, literature, myth and the Bible. He's an Episcopal
priest in a part of Vermont called The Northeast Kingdom,
a name that conjures hobbits, wizards and thousands of trees,
but in fact is a place of both backward rednecks and progressive
ideas. Vermont, for one, was the first state to legalize
civil unions between gays, an action that was met by some
locals with boiling anger: "Instead of a deer, kill
a queer," but also with calm acceptance. So the village
Mr. Keizer inhabits is a microcosm for the rest of us: anger
as part of the daily landscape.
not necessary to embrace the book's Christian coloring to
benefit from its content. That tone is more an underpainting,
and like any good underpainting does not insist. The author
is astute about states of mind like road rage, hating ones
job, outrage at crime, and even ire over banalities like
cutting ahead in line, or failing to be understood by a
dull-minded misapprehension of one's intentions. He also
brings up the anger of Agamemnon, King Saul, Christ and
Malcolm X. This is not a new age self-help book, but an
at times frenetic exploration of the types and complex roots
of anger. It's a sin the author freely admits to struggling
with. He might even suggest anger defines him, yet Mr. Keizer
comes across as spirited, righteously indignant and hugely
is only partly because he believes in redemption. He also
believes in himself, and wants all of us to do the same.
Examining his own anger is one route to a humanism that,
to my reading, becomes its own redemption. You don't need
the symbolism of Yahweh calling on Abraham to kill Isaac
if you've ever yelled at a little kid, a pet, or an old
lady. You don't need Jesus smashing the money lenders' tables
if you've ever had a mysterious fee added when your account
dipped at the very moment you were strapped for cash--a
fury-causing usury. The image of an angry God or Christ
may help one digest anger, or put it to better use. Mr.
Keizer might even suggest Abraham could have gotten mad,
refused God: no way am I killing my son. It's hard to imagine
Medea murdering her kids because she hated their father
more than she loved them, but the author takes a brave look
at a mother's rage. I've often wondered if a follow-up has
ever been done of a victim's family members who have witnessed
the killer's execution. The word closure strikes me as absurd
in such a circumstance. An eye for an eye. Does it work?
Does it end the anger? I don't know.
This is not a book to suggest that a commandment or idea,
like love your enemy, is going to stop an arm in its arc
of descent with a meat cleaver over a lover's head, or a
bigot from hating. Anger remains an enigma, but if you've
ever asked yourself, why am I so furious, or regretted your
temper (or a family member's) these essays are an enlightened
read. After all, how many saints are among us?
The introduction to SWEET JESUS mentions an Alabama disc
jockey calling for nationwide burning of Beatles albums
after John Lennon declared the Beatles were, "bigger
than Christ." The statement may or may not have meant
bigger as in better, but it certainly meant bigger at the
box office. Since that time we've had a resurgence of born
again Christians frightening us (depending upon whom you
ask) with the politics of the ultra-conservative right.
As the intro says, Jesus is back on top.
Fortunately, the Jesus of this wise, funny, reverently irreverent
anthology is the Jesus of a humane soul, not one of a political
movement. In the first section, Strange Faith, poet Ron Koertge
asks: "'If you exist,' I said. "Send me/a pony.'"
When Jesus then appears, the supplicant is amazed and Jesus
admonishes the general lack of faith. "'Be reasonable,
Jesus. It's hard just to take your word for it./'But I'm here.
In your bedroom. Isn't that enough?'/'So is the pony outside?'"
Philip Dacey's "The Feet Man" is an assembly line
worker breaking down after nailing tiny Jesus feet to tiny
crosses all day, "...knowing what you have to do to make
a living." Jack Veasey's, "The Son of Man,"
is a hobo thrown out on the street, "...by Republican
congressmen/who call their cruelty 'reform.'"
There is anger. Beatings by a father in the name of restoring
a child's faith via an unleashed leather belt. Lucia Perillo's,
"Cranky Jesus," who in spite of his rotten death
never had to wait tables or work for a living. And her,
"Lazy Jesus," who may have been bored with carpentry,
and is not too useful, "Not that he's the type of guy
you'd want anyway/on the bottom of your sofa, going up a
flight of stairs." Though he's always a nice guy.
In the section, Jesus Is Just Alright, Barbara Hamby's,
"Ode to Money," Jesus "...would not be saying
to anybody, anyway/ any time, you gotta have money, honey/if
you wanna dance with me." Hal Sirowitz: "We're
Jewish, Father said...A lot of people still believe He's
the Son of God/I don't know what He had against His real
father/But if you ever did that to me/said you were someone
else's son, I'd be insulted." With Thaddeus Rutkowski's,
"Missing Bejesus," faith evaporates when death
is stared in the eye after a weird accident.
In Apocryphal Jesus, Peter Jay Shippy's carpenter has a
dream, "I've risen and I can't ever get down."
There is a teen Jesus. And a poverty-wracked Mary who's
had it with an immaculately conceived, dreamy son and a
tired-out Joseph. There is "Matthew The Story Teller"
who conjures up a Jesus character with ideas like, "treat
others as you would be treated," and who is told it's
his best work.
The book ends with Contemporary Jesus. Jesus as the hottest
lover in the mind of a holy roller in Rebecca Baggett's,
"Lorna Sue Cantrell, Singing in the Choir": "That
night I lay spread-eagled on my bed, while the Holy/Ghost
probed every part of me/those carpenter's hands/reach inside
me and twist till/something knotted there came loose..."
In, "Christians Killed my Jesus," Eric Gamalinda
has Jesus accused of being gay, or a Jew, a "nigger,"
or a "slope," nailed to a tree and crucified all
over again by a mob who then goes home to wait for the second
coming. Finally, Kim Addonizio has "Jesus at the Laundromat,"
"Jesus at the A&P," "Jesus in the Nursing
Home." Some poems fall flat, happily they are few,
and no need to name names.
If Garret Keizer explores anger to find grace, the poets
in SWEET JESUS explore an icon and find humanity. If the
Priest seeks the divine through a fire-fed emotion, the
poets start with the divine and redeem the man.
No such luck for Albert DeMeo. His father was a Mob capo
and assassin. We meet Albert as a young kid who adores an
attentive, patient, caring Dad. But inconstancies begin
to rub on the boy's appreciation of his perfect pop. His
dad, Roy DeMeo, doesn't go to work like other dads, in the
trunk of his car the son finds wigs and fake glasses and
other disguises. He also find a hidden gun. It's not long
before his father trains Albert in the ways of weapons:
"My father gave me my first gun when I was six...I
was allowed to shoot only at targets. One day I shot a chipmunk...My
father was furious. 'What did that chipmunk ever do to you?'
he asked me. 'You don't shoot nothing without a good reason.'"
He takes his son to the Ravenite Social Club (yup, of John
Giotti fame). There they pay homage to "Uncle"
Nino, a Mob boss. Lots of "uncles" populate Albert's
life. When he makes his first confirmation they line up
to give him cash. They press their gifts into his small
palm, adding up to $5,000.
Albert learns of stolen goods that his father's "boys"
deal in, goods "fallen off trucks." There is prostitution
and loan-sharking; at one point Roy DeMeo had the largest
auto theft ring in New York City. The family gets rich,
buys a showy house on Long Island, Roy becomes a made man.
But by this time Albert is living a dual life, an A student
with no friends, no sports, no kid's life. He hangs out
with his "uncles;" mobsters, cons, crooks. They
are nice guys--a bad guy is not bad twenty-four hours a
day, we learn. Albert's childhood, his joy has been taken
from him by his beloved father. Albert learns to compartmentalize
what he knows is wrong from the deepest place where the
love for his father resides. To his credit, Roy DeMeo did
not want his son in the Mob. He invested legitimately, ensured
college money for Albert and his sisters. Everyone was ignorant
of Roy's darkest secret: the executions ordered by Mob boss,
This is where the book crushes any romantic ideas about
the Mafia. The DeMeo's lived in a bubble protected from
the truth. Inevitably the bubble bursts and the spiral down
is a living nightmare. "He also explained the ins and
outs of the monetary system within the Mob, a system that
simultaneously benefits and enslaves its member. Once a
member begins paying a certain amount of money to the boss
each week, he is expected not only to maintain but also
to increase that amount. My father had long been kicking
in up to twenty, thirty, even fifty thousand dollars a week...If
the tribute payments leveled off or lessened, the assumption
would either be that he had outlived his usefulness or that
he was pocketing part of the profits. Either was dangerous."
Roy DeMeo thought he could have it all: mob murderer and
loving father. His ultimate depression, once he knows the
deadly game is up, makes Tony Soprano look like a Woody
Allen neurotic. What did him in was killing an "innocent"
by mistake. Killing for business he accepted without conscience,
but not a boy who was not involved, that he took from a
mother. Finally, Roy couldn't live with having dragged his
own son into hell with him. He makes the ultimate choice
This book is Albert's attempt to redeem himself from the
split his father cleaved in him. If ever there was a candidate
for a book about anger, Albert DeMeo is it. If Garret Keizer
makes a case for separating the criminal from the crime,
for the righteousness of anger before forgiveness is even
a hope, then Albert DeMeo may recover. Or as Sherman Alexie
asks in his poem, "Eucharist," "Sweetheart,
are we the baptism?/Are we the flesh and blood?/Are we the
washing of feet?"
Line them up: Anger, Icon, Redemption. Happy New Year.
©December 2002 J. Stefan-Cole