‘Quid Pro Quo,’ the title of Paul Mariani’s poem, contains a dubious use of the Latin phrase, which means a favor in return of favor or equivalent retaliation. In this poem, a young husband expresses his anger at God in the event of his wife’s second miscarriage. Later when his first child was born, he became confused about whether the baby was God’s kind gift, a “quid pro quo.” Overall, this confessional piece probes into the topics of death, miscarriage, and atheism.
Explore Quid Pro Quo
‘Quid Pro Quo’ by Paul Mariani is about an angry young man’s heartfelt confessions after experiencing the second miscarriage of his wife.
When the “flintbacked” Chenango Valley of New York unleashed itself in spring, the speaker, a twenty-four-year-old man, witnessed the loss of his second unborn child. It was the second time within a span of four months his wife miscarried. His colleague, a lapsed Irish Catholic, asked what he thought about “God’s ways toward man,” signaling at the recent incident. In his reply, he not only shocked his colleague but also himself by showing his middle finger up to heaven, particularly to God. Later, his wife conceived again and that time a baby boy was born. It made him rethink his response to God when he was grieving.
You can read the full poem here.
Just after my wife’s miscarriage (her second
in four months), I was sitting in an empty
classroom exchanging notes with my friend,
a budding Joyce scholar with steelrimmed
glasses, when, lapsed Irish Catholic that he was,
he surprised me by asking what I thought now
of God’s ways toward man. It was spring,
Paul Mariani’s confessional piece ‘Quid Pro Quo’ begins straightforwardly with the issue that broke the speaker’s heart. The incident of his wife’s second miscarriage not only shattered him but also shook his belief in God to its very roots. Just after the incident took place, he was sitting in a classroom with one of his classmates. He studied the works of Irish writer James Joyce and was a lapsed Irish Catholic. Upon hearing the bad news, he asked the speaker in an ironic tone what he thought about “God’s ways toward man.”
His friend, who no longer followed the rigid rules of the religion, would have found no other fit expressions to console the speaker. He tried to tell the speaker if God was so kind how He could allow this to happen to him. Thus, “God’s ways,” in no way “just” to humanity.
Mariani uses situational irony in the ending of the stanza: “It was spring.” Spring is the time of life and rejuvenation. That spring, when his wife lost her child, no longer appeared as the time of renewal. Rather, the incident in the speaker’s life laid bare the fact that even in spring, people continue to suffer and life still in the womb fails to see the first light.
such spring as came to the flintbacked Chenango
Valley thirty years ago, the full force of Siberia
all but swallowing the gelid light, when, suddenly,
I surprised not only myself but my colleague
The speaker carries on with the description of spring. At that time, he lived near Chenango Valley. While he tried to cope with the heart-wrenching event, the “flintbacked” valley sprung anew. The spring that year was last witnessed thirty years back. Besides, the speaker could feel the chilling Siberian wind. It was then his wife had her second miscarriage. She was on the heels of recovery in a local hospital.
The speaker shifts back to the classroom scene, where he sat with the “budding Joyce scholar.” It was around sunset. The classroom darkened and the gelid light seemed to be swallowing the room’s pinewood panels. By painting this pessimistic picture contrasted with the spring in the background, the speaker came up with a reply to his colleague’s remark. It shocked not only his friend but also himself.
by raising my middle finger up to heaven, quid
pro quo, the hardly grand defiant gesture a variant
& that Catholic Tractate called the Summa, was sure
I’d seen enough of God’s erstwhile ways toward man.
The speaker raised his middle finger out of anger and held it right against the sky, pointing at the heaven from where God might have been witnessing his loss. The gesture, “quid pro quo,” was a defiant reply to God’s thoughtful way toward him. Mariani alludes to Vanni Fucci from Dante’s Inferno. Fucci made similar gestures to God after being sent to the eighth circle of Hell. The speaker describes his gesture as a “variant” of Fucci’s figs.
It shocked both the “perpetrator” and the observer at the same time. His friend was shocked as he did not expect that to come from a man who at one point believed in God. Similarly, the speaker was shocked as he did not make the gesture consciously. It was something that came naturally out of his broken heart.
At that time, the speaker was merely twenty-four—a young husband and a would-be father. He was yet to see God’s miraculous ways. However, without turning straight to the religious scriptures, such as Confessions by St. Augustine of Hippo and the Catholic tractate, Summa, he stopped believing in God at all: “I’d seen enough of God’s erstwhile ways toward man.” Thus, a believer became a nascent atheist, stuck between his dampened belief and growing pessimism.
That summer, under a pulsing midnight sky
shimmering with Van Gogh stars, in a creaking,
if need be, lead a whole fleet of canoes down
the turbulent whitewater passages of the Fulton Chain
There is a shift in ‘Quid Pro Quo’ that occurs in this stanza. The speaker remembers the events that took place right after the spring. It was the time of summer. He was in a “creaking, cedarscented cabin” near Lake George. He found a similarity between the midnight sky with stars that he witnessed from his cabin with Van Gogh’s masterpiece The Starry Night. As the speaker suffered from the trauma, the night sky with stars reminded him of Gogh’s painting.
The speaker managed quite well to book the cabin. He lied to the owner of the boy’s camp by saying he knew all about the wilderness and lakes. If there was a need, he could lead a while fleet canoes down the water of the Fulton Chain.
(I who had last been in a rowboat with my parents
at the age of six), my wife and I made love, trying
there on our sagging mattress, my wife & I gazed out
through the broken roof into a sky that seemed
Using an aside, the speaker informs readers about his ignorance of rowing boats. It was at the age of six that he had last been in a rowboat. Besides, he was with his parents. That summer he rented a cabin in the wilderness to have some time with his wife. They made love there, trying hard not to disturb others staying in nearby cabins.
Late that night, they both stayed awake and lay on their sagging mattress in the midst of the stillness created by the Adirondack Mountains. The silence outside somehow resonated with the stillness of the couple’s hearts. They gazed out through the broken roof of the cabin into the starry sky.
somehow to look back down on us, and in that place,
that holy place, she must have conceived again,
to face the sun, the fact of his being there
both terrifying & lifting me at once, this son,
It appeared to the speaker as if the sky looked back down on them. It is God that the speaker is referring to. He compares the cabin to a holy place as it was there his wife conceived again. Nine months later, their son was born: “a little buddha-bellied/ rumplestiltskin runt of a man.” Rumplestiltskin is a character from a German fairy tale who gave gold in exchange for the firstborn of a girl. The speaker compares his son to Rumplestiltskin because he had to lose his two lives before he was born. The birth of his first child was both a terrifying and lifting experience.
this gift, whom I still look upon with joy & awe. Worst,
best, just last year, this same son, grown
with a God like this, who, quid pro quo, ups
the ante each time He answers one sign with another?
In the last stanza of ‘Quid Pro Quo,’ the speaker refers to his son as a gift (from God). He still looks upon him with happiness. In the following lines, the speaker refers to a recent incident that happened last year. His son is now a grown-up. He went to the church and knelt before God to vow everything he had. Ironically, it was the same to whom his father showed his middle finger before he was born.
In the next lines, the speaker with a humorous touch says that it is too hard to bargain with God. He, quid pro quo, raises the ante each time a person stops believing in him. God has his own ways of answering one sign with another. He gives a fulfilling gift in exchange for hatred.
Structure and Form
Mariani’s free-verse poem ‘Quid Pro Quo’ consists of seven stanzas each containing seven lines. Each stanza continues to the next one, except the third stanza, which ends with a full stop. This poem is written in the confessional mode, tapping on the intimate themes of miscarriage, disbelief, and death. Besides, this poem also has a devotional touch as the speaker describes God’s ways of responding to human wishes. Being a free-verse piece, there is no regular rhyme scheme or meter. Mariani incorporates internal rhymings by repeating similar sounds within the lines.
In Mariani’s ‘Quid Pro Quo,’ readers can find the use of the following literary devices:
- Enjambment: The use of this device forces readers to go through the lines by only halting at the commas and continuing until the full stop arrives. Thus, the first three stanzas are enjambed. The second movement occurs in the fourth stanza and continues to the end.
- Alliteration: It occurs in a number of instances, such as in “my wife’s miscarriage,” “empty/ classroom exchanging,” “spring,/ such spring,” “pinewood panels,” “creaking,/ cedarscented cabin,” etc.
- Aside: The speaker uses this dramatic device in order to add the facts that he cannot speak out loud, such as his wife’s miscarriage and his inability to drive a boat.
- Irony: This device is used in “what I thought now/ of God’s ways toward man” and “this same son…knelt before a marble altar to vow/ everything he had to the same God.”
- Imagery: The poet uses visual imagery in order to describe the classroom in the second stanza: “the room’s pinewood panels/ all but swallowing the gelid light.” He uses the same device in the fourth and fifth stanzas to paint the surroundings of the cabin off Lake George.
Paul Mariani’s ‘Quid Pro Quo’ is a confessional poem dealing with the themes of faith, religion, death, and pessimism. This poem is about a twenty-four-year-old husband and would-be father, trying to cope with his wife’s miscarriage. It occurred twice in the span of four months.
The phrase “quid pro quo,” is a Latin term, which is used to express an equal exchange. It means a favor done in return for a favor. Mariani’s poem presents an intelligent and ironic use of this phrase. In this poem, the speaker makes an offending gesture to God as a quid pro quo for His cruel ways toward him. God, in return, does a favor to him that sparks the speaker’s belief again in Him.
Mariani’s ‘Quid Pro Quo’ is a confessional poem in which the speaker shares one personal event of loss (his wife’s series of miscarriages) and its impact on him. It is written in free-verse without a set meter or rhyme scheme. There are a total of seven internally connected stanzas with a line count of seven each.
The poem was first published in 1996 in Paul Mariani’s fifth poetry collection, The Great Wheel: Poems. This poem revolves around the theme of personal loss.
Readers who are touched by the themes present in Paul Mariani’s poem ‘Quid Pro Quo’ will also consider reading the following poems.
- ‘My Life Closed Twice Before Its Close’ by Emily Dickinson — This poem uses heartbreak as a metaphor for death and experiments with the meaning of “closure.”
- ‘Metaphors’ by Sylvia Plath — This autobiographical piece is about the meaning of motherhood and pregnancy to Plath.
- ‘A Sunday Morning Tragedy’ by Thomas Hardy — This poem is about a mother and daughter after the latter becomes pregnant and abandoned by her lover.
- ‘Before the Birth of One of Her Children’ by Anne Bradstreet — In this poem, the speaker shares her opinion on death.
You can also explore these devotional poems about God.