To Believe in Things: Poet Joseph Pintauro’s Lost Love Poem to Life, Illustrated by the Radical Nun and Visionary Artist Sister Corita Kent

To Believe in Things: Poet Joseph Pintauro’s Lost Love Poem to Life, Illustrated by the Radical Nun and Visionary Artist Sister Corita Kent

Queer and radiant and in love with life, the priest turned poet and playwright Joseph Pintauro (November 22, 1930–May 29, 2018) was born and raised and annealed in New York, in the intellectual and creative ferment of the city, the city that never sleeps and always dreams. A late bloomer by every common measure, he published his first poetry collection in the gloaming hour of his thirties and married the love of his life — Greg, his partner of forty years — in the gloaming hour of life, at 81. But oh how splendidly, how fragrantly, how soulfully he bloomed.

Shortly after he resigned his work with the church in his mid-thirties, Pintauro commenced a series of wonder-smiting collaborations with artists, bringing his existentially enormous poems to life in small objects of shimmering delight that can best be described as children’s books for grownups. Four of them, illustrated by the graphic artist Norman Laliberté, he called “boxes” and dedicated to a particular emotional season of life — among them The Magic Box (autumn) and The Rabbit Box (spring).

But Pintauro’s most inspired collaboration, both poetically and aesthetically, was with the artist, designer, printmaker, pop art pioneer, and unstoppable force of social justice Sister Corita Kent (November 20, 1918–September 18, 1986). Entirely self-taught, she became one of the most innovative silkscreen artists of the 1960s and 1970s, suffusing her stunning prints with messages of solidarity with the civil rights and environmental movements of the era, messages of peace and harmony and love — love, as the poet Elizabeth Alexander might say, and did say half a century later, “beyond marital, filial, national, love that casts a widening pool of light.”

In 1968, the year she left the order and moved to Boston, Corita cast her widening pool of light around Pintauro’s debut poetry collection, To Believe in God, which unspooled a “trilogy of beliefs,” proceeding with To Believe in Man in 1970 and culminating with the out-of-print treasure To Believe in Things (public library) in 1971.

Corita — whose now-iconic “Rules for Students and Teachers” have inspired generations of artists, including John Cage — went, like Beyoncé, by her first name only, so that the spines of the living treasures read Pintauro / Corita.

Pintauro’s poem itself is an uncommonly beautiful, buoyant, and largehearted celebration of life — of the ecstatic improbability of it, the self-enlarging and unselfing interconnectedness of it, the luminous fulness of it across the entire spectrum of joys and sorrows.

With a feeling-tone evocative of Marie Howe’s superb “Singularity,” the poem opens the way it ends — by bridging science and the human spirit:

Millions of years ago, there
was blackness,
pure and beautiful Nothing. There
was no thing
in it, no star, no wind,
no light, no word, no broken heart.

But a time came when perfect,
restful Nothing
was to vanish forever. Something was
about to be.

Suddenly, there it was. Something,
all alone,
king of everything. Killer of ancient,
beautiful Nothing. There was
a silence.

…till Nothing screamed a death
scream and
that scream is still screaming, an
expanding ring into the universe
that will never end.

Nothing is dead…

Like any great work of art, the poem makes the personal the portal into the universal, into the beautiful bittersweet dance of life and death. Nested in the narrative sweep as wide as spacetime are a handful of poignant vignettes pinned to particular moments in time from a particular life. With exquisite subtlety, Pintauro captures his dying mother’s hopeless, hopeful cosmic bid against mortality:

My sister was told to do her typing away from the
rest of us,
where it wouldn’t disturb us.

We did our homework at the dining-room table while
our mother crocheted big white stars according to plan
on the
instruction sheet. When she finished one, she would tie
the yarn and flatten the star on the table: “Look boys,
that makes eleven.”

We looked up, as bored by the stars as our
homework. We
were too young to understand, she had
decided between
dying and making a bedspread and her stars were
all very
important.

We went to bed those nights with Julius Caesar on
our minds,
with Napoleon, Spartacus, photosynthesis, zinc,
granite,
       the
names of all the rocks of the earth and of
the constellations.
All that knowledge inside us, we fell asleep,
assured that
there are forty million mornings in unheard-of places.

While she lay awake, vaguely wishing there
were angels
who would accept the coming of a new bedspread into
the universe,
in exchange for her life.

Recently, I was going through the junk of the cellar
and I
found the bedspread. It was torn and unraveled
and stuffed
into an old pillowcase.

My sister recalls washing it once, and adding too
much bleach
to the machine. When she took it from the dryer, it
fell apart in her hands.

Radiating from these verses that celebrate the vibrant aliveness of the Earth — the minerals that form “the hills and the mountains” and are also “the substance the hills and mountains stand upon”; the “red hanging begonias” that “parachute onto twinkling grass”; the ice of February — is a reminder that these living miracles exist with us, not for us. Echoing Rachel Carson’s courageous countercultural insistence that “the real wealth of the Nation lies in the resources of the earth — soil, water, forests, minerals, and wildlife,” Pintauro issues a poetic admonition against the American hubris of proprietorship and extractivism:

Mr. Griswold owns all the property in America.
…but the trees never heard of him.
He owns the property except
the daylilies don’t understand
they are growing in
his dirt, and
the dirt doesn’t know
the difference
       between

Mr. Griswold
   and
the deer
   and
the chipmunks
   who trespass
      there.

to believe in the wind is to know

there are things we harvest which no man plants
in our sails
our hair, in sea
shells our ears,
the wind is
why there is music no man made
in our rooms
when october makes love
to the house.
The wind is why
the screen door
speaks to you now and then and why
it is true
when they are abandoned, barns will
moan and there is crying
on the fire escape
when no one is there.

long live the little greek diner
on first avenue near the 59th
street bridge

the greek there sells fresh fish
and fresh string beans, rice pudding
and homemade coffee for
ninety cents
because he’s old and his wife
is gone and he can’t sleep mornings.
he goes to the fulton fish market
to watch the sun come up, besides
the fresh fish there is cheaper
than frozen
he smells greece on the fish and
he feels
his childhood when he cleans them.

All of Pintauro’s poetry is essentially love poetry. Harmonizing the cosmic and quotidian scales of his verse-meditations is a subtle and symphonic love poem, evocative of that exquisite passage from the diaries of Albert Camus: “If those whom we begin to love could know us as we were before meeting them … they could perceive what they have made of us.” Pintauro writes:

long live our avoidance
of the quadrillion probabilities
of our non-existence

i am not who i was
i am not going to be who i was going to be
you changed all that

you are not who you were
you are not going to be who you were going to be
i changed all that

what is, is… and cannot at the same time, not be.
what was, was… and cannot,
not have been. so you see my love

we are us
we are us now and we shall never have been
not us.

who are we going to be?
we are going to be who we never would have been
without each other.

Rising above the human love poem is a grand orchestral love poem to life, improbable and temporal and transcendent life — life in which, as the great naturalist John Muir observed a century before Pintauro, “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” These verses close the miraculous To Believe in Things:

LONG LIVE EVERYTHING

… but remember,
everything is not every
possible thing
everything is only all
there is here and now

somewhen,
there will be more than there is.

you are not everything
but everything
could not be
everything without
      you.