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BOOK REVIEW

'Rag and Bone' by Peter Manseau

June 20, 2009|Carmela Ciuraru | Ciuraru is a critic and the editor of poetry anthologies, including, most recently, "Poems About Horses."

In "Rag and Bone," author Peter Manseau is on the hunt for human remains, but not just any, and not in a "CSI" way. These are the sacred relics of saints and prophets and the fascinating stories and myths that accompany them. Manseau travels the world to explore how corporeal remnants such as toes, ribs, teeth and hair came to be venerated objects of religious devotion -- and sources of violent religious conflict when they have been bitterly fought over.

Manseau notes that he is moved not "merely by questions of their authenticity, but also simply by the fact of them, the fleshy actuality of what they are." He's awe-struck that, however dubious their provenance, these holy artifacts -- "often frankly repulsive" -- are not just a "what" but a "who." They are, literally, matters of life and death.

"Rag and Bone" begins with a 13th century "blackened and shriveled" tongue (allegedly that of St. Anthony), displayed on the altar of an Italian basilica, where a thousand devout tourists line up daily to kneel and pray before it. (Objects of worship can be secular too; Manseau mentions a museum in Georgia where fans can view "Possibly Elvis's Toenail.")

The whiskers of Muhammad, the jumping heart of a recently dead Tibetan lama, the apocryphal scorched rib of Joan of Arc and the even more putative prepuce of (apologies in advance) Jesus are among the relics with "macabre magnetism" explored by the author. He also delves into the history of plundering, which has played "as much a part of the tradition of relics as veneration has."

Manseau offers plenty of interesting trivia too: Neanderthals first decided to bury the dead about 70,000 years ago. And Jerusalem once boasted the greatest number of relics, but now it falls behind Rome and even, unbelievably, Pittsburgh, second only to the Vatican in its vast collection.

Ultimately, all of these remnants tell a similar story. They reveal the enduring power of faith, regardless of ideology, and the obsessive nature of religious belief -- which, as this entertaining book amply proves, is all too capable of taking peculiar turns.

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