Book review: “The Hollywood Catechism” by Paul Fericano

Poem: We are all Elijah on the mountain
June 8, 2015
Book review: “Poetry in the Bible” by Garry Wills
June 12, 2015
Show all

Book review: “The Hollywood Catechism” by Paul Fericano

fericano...hollywoodIf someone comes across a copy of Paul Fericano’s book of poems The Hollywood Catechism (Silver Birch Press, $16, 110 pages) a hundred years from now, I’m not sure what they’ll make of it.

I’m not sure what someone today under the age of 40 would made of it.

This is a book that seems to be firmly rooted in the American culture and mythology of the 1950s. Consider “Poem for Ralph Edwards” which is a single line: “This is your poem.”

That’s hilarious — but only if you know that, during the 1950s, Ralph Edwards was the host of a sappy pseudo-reality show providing well-scrubbed video biographies of celebrities, called “This Is Your Life.” (By the way, in the Notes section of the book, there’s one for this poem that reads in toto, “This is your note.”)

Sure, a reader can check the internet for background information about Edwards, but that makes for a clunky reading experience. So Fericano is running the risk of unintelligibility to many potential readers. My guess is that he doesn’t give a damn.

After all, here is a guy who, for the central section of his book, has an 11-page poem called “The Howl of Lon Chaney, Jr.” which is nothing less than an effort to borrow the scheme, cadences, language and incantatory outrage of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” and employ them in a slashing jeremiad against Hollywood in the voice of Lon Chaney Jr. who, in a variety of mid-20th century films, starred as the Wolf Man, the Mummy and Frankenstein’s monster.

 

“Baying the dirge of death”

It’s ridiculous chutzpah. Yet, Fericano pulls it off.

The poem is about actors

who traveled to Hollywood who died in Hollywood, who

returned to Hollywood & killed time, who
spied on Hollywood & moped and refinanced in
Hollywood and finally left to discover the
Year, & now Hollywood is desperate for her icons…

It is also about the Hollywood studio system, embodied in Universal Pictures, a “conglomerate of muscle and means [that] laid waste/their skills and pimped their talent and creativity.”

Hollywood is “where there are thousands of child actors in chorus lines/all at once baying the dirge of death.” It is:

Hollywood the silver bullet heartbreaking tear-jerking ill-fated

deadly envelope please of the heart!

 

“An Elvis thumbnail”

Nevertheless, I think it would be wrong to read this poem and the others in The Hollywood Catechism solely as diatribes against the impact of Hollywood on the arts and the American culture. If it were so, Fericano would truly be courting obscurity. Who, aside from a film nerd or a history grind, knows much or care at all about Lon Chaney, Jr., for instance? Or Ralph Edwards? Or Joe DiMaggio? Or the Three Stooges?

Certainly they are part of the mental and emotional landscape of people like Fericano and me who grew up in the 1950s. But we Baby Boomers are dying off and will soon be gone.

There is a poem about Elvis Presley, and you could argue that everyone knows Elvis. It’s called “It’s Not Enough of Elvis” and includes these lines:

…we auction the corpse
And sell every last bone to the highest bidder
there’s an Elvis foot
there’s an Elvis foot without the Elvis toes
an Elvis collarbone
an Elvis spine jawbone ribcage finger
an Elvis thumb with part of an Elvis thumbnail
and of course there’s an Elvis pelvis…

That captures the way that the entertainment industry and the American culture have picked over the remains of Presley. Everyone knows that. But how many know about ELVIS, the phenomenon who changed music and society in the U.S. and throughout the world?

At this point, Elvis is no longer Elvis because of what he did. He has become a name, like Houdini or John L. Sullivan or Babe Ruth — a name known to all Americans and much of the world, but little else. Does Elvis really resonate with any reader under the age of 40 today? Will he resonate with a reader of this poem in a hundred years?

 

A surrogate

This poem is about the commercialization of Elvis’ remains, but there is a deeper, more universal level to it, I think.

In this poem, Fericano is writing about relics — relics like those that the Catholic Church, in particular, has gathered of its saints and prophets. Like the tongue of St. Anthony of Padua. Like the hand of St. Istvan. Like the head of St. Catherine of Siena.

Many of Fericano’s poems reference the Catholic Church and its rituals and prayers, even the title of his book: The Hollywood Catechism.

Throughout these often rageful, often witty poems, Hollywood is a surrogate for the Catholic Church.

 

“Sidekick angels”

Fericano has more than enough reason for his anger at the church. He was one of the many young boys molested by priests, and he now works as the director of Instruments of Peace/SafeNet, a nonprofit reconciliation group for survivors of clergy sexual abuse.

In “Return With Us Now To Those Thrilling Days of Yesteryear” — the title is a reference to an iconic line in the opening narration of the Lone Ranger television show — he writes with a sort of gallows humor of months of molestation at the hands of a priest in the seminary where he was studying for the priesthood. Then, one night,

…my body springs from his mouth
slips through his hands and leaps from his bed
and races round and round the room
as music from a phonograph down the hall
plays the William Tell Overture…

With that theme music for the Lone Ranger show in his ears, Fericano imagines that it’s not just the priest but “sidekick angels” chasing him around the bed while

Out in front on a white stallion is Jesus in a mask.
Like a cloud of dust and song
he gallops in the lead to head me off at the pass.

Funny and chilling — the abuse is a betrayal not just of trust and authority but also of faith.

 

“Dirt clod backyards”

Reading The Hollywood Catechism, I was struck by the many parallels between Fericano’s life and mine.

He was born a year after I was. Like Fericano, I went to the seminary, but was never preyed upon by a pedophile. He was the middle child of 12 kids who were “constantly being mistaken/for someone else by mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles,/cousins and even one another.” I was the oldest of 14, and we all remember how our Dad, trying to get a child’s attention, would call a string of names before getting the right one: “Kathy, Teri, Geri, Jeanne…” He grew up in San Francisco, and I in Chicago, but we both had “dirt clod backyards” because the kids just wore the grass away. His and my mother had devotion to St. Gerard during their final pregnancies and gave the baby girls versions of his name — Giralda for his sister, Geralyn for mine.

So, perhaps, I am more sensitive to some of his references than the general reader. Still, I think anyone, regardless of age or era, will pick up on the humor and rage coming through these poems.

 

“Thy King be Kong”

There are six poems, for instance, scattered through the book which take Catholic prayer and turn them on their ear. The prayers themselves, I think, are familiar enough, even to non-Catholics, that Fericano’s subversion of them will ring a bell.

Consider “The Our Father” and Fericano’s poem “The Director’s Prayer,” which begins:

Our Fellini,
who Art in Carney,
Clooney be thy name.
Thy King be Kong,
thy Penn be Sean,
in Bert as it is in Ernie…

It’s silly. And it’s meaningless — and so, it seems to say, is its model.

The same is true for Fericano’s version of “The Hail Mary” which he calls “The Halle Berry.”  It ends this way:

Holy Berry,
mother of Chuck,
root for us winners
now and at the hour
of our last stand.
X-men.

The other four are “The Sign of the Double Cross” (“The Sign of the Cross”), “The Actor’s Creed” (“The Apostle’s Creed), “Morey Be” (“Glory Be”) and “Prayer of the Talking Head” (“Prayer of St. Francis”).

 

“Open in the end zone”

Fericano’s poem “The Hollywood Catechism” links Hollywood and religious faith directly, contrasting Burt Lancaster as Elmer Gantry “preaching/to a tent full of Holy Rollers” with a Sunday pro football game. While some are directing plays at the game,

The rest of the faithful
show up year after year
despite a lifetime of losing seasons.
They tackle
and get tackled
and do their best
to recover fumbles…

Dozens of penalty flags
litter the field
Seconds tick away
like missed field goals
Millions start to check
the point spread
and everyone keeps looking
for God to get open in the end zone….

 

“Amen, see?”

Yet, something else is going on here as well. This is a poem — and this is a book — that is not simply about Old Hollywood. Nor it is solely about the Catholic Church.

Hollywood and the church are surrogates here for the experience of life.

If the system of Hollywood is oppressive and if the system of the church is oppressive, so is life. We are all at the mercy of large, often-mindless forces.  We are all betrayed.  We’re born to die.

Nevertheless, we “show up year after year/despite a lifetime of losing seasons.”

Perhaps that’s the core of these poems.

Despite the oppression, we continue to show up. Despite our rage, we can still crack jokes, as Fericano does. Maybe that’s why we can show up.

Maybe that is a kind of faith. Let us pray:

In the name of the Bogart,
and of the Cagney,
and of the Holy Edward G.
Amen, see?

 

Patrick T. Reardon
6.10.15

2 Comments

  1. A.D. WINANS says:

    I’ve known Paul since 1975 and published one of his books when I was a small press publisher. I believe this new book of his is his best work and glad to see him have it published by a press that actively pursues distribution of its books. Great insigntful review here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *