by Jake Willard-Crist
The French poet René Char called the poet a “magician of insecurity.” In this canto, Dante’s insecure magic is on display. The wild beast Geryon is his most anxious conjuration. The beast is born from his own belt, which he has given to Vergil to cast into the abyss, and thus the beast becomes the figurative assurance, at least he hopes so, that he will not be caught with his poetic pants down. Here, Dante meets the exposure of his art head on, and, in a paradoxical act of disguise, appropriates that exposure for a vessel, rides it as a protective vehicle to new depths of truth-seeking.
For the past year and a half I have composed poems for worship services at the Presbyterian Church of Lawrenceville. It’s a slippery business, one of which I’m still untangling the nature and implications. To put it in terms of my own Geryon, pulpit-poetry is a tri-form beast of 1) myth and scripture, 2) homiletic impulses, and 3) my autobiography. Every time I ascend the pulpit I swear, as it were, by the lines of my own poem, that what I have seen I have truly seen. Every time I ascend the pulpit, I will hear, from now on, an embarrassingly accented “Ecco la fiera”—“Behold, the wild beast”—keeping in mind what the Italian fiera contains within its meaning: fiero, one who is proud, bold, intrepid. I risk being exposed as a Phaëton or Icarus: one who has attempted to commandeer the unwieldy conveyance of language for the lofty award of “lunga grazia”, lasting favor (or the more intriguing translation, “long grace.”) I’m reminded of another quote by René Char: “A poem is furious ascension.”
Of course it is no accident that the first time that Dante refers to his own comedia (XVI: 128) Geryon swims up from the abyss. The beast, “fraud’s foul emblem”, is the manifestation of the poet’s craft, his fraudulent vessel, his ship of lies. The insecurity is palpable in the final lines of Canto 16: Halfway there, don’t abandon me now, Reader.
I’ll just point to two more things that I’ve thought about as I’ve mulled over this canto past its due date. First, the landscape, or noticeable absence of definite landscape—we are presented, with the exception of the usurers (who are, however, unrecognizable), with a predominantly sonic atmosphere, the thunderous rush of the falling waters of Phlegethon. And then, in canto 16, we have “the murky air.” It’s worth considering that Geryon, the personification of the poetic enterprise, emerges from an abstract abyss, from “sound and fury” or, as Pinsky has translated, “sheer air” which resonates with Elijah’s theophany of God in the sheer silence. One can’t miss the psychic parallel, the connections with the poet’s unconscious. The poet is a like the diver who releases an anchor from deep shoals and shoots back up to the surface.
Second, I think of Virgil’s work in this canto. It is significant that he’s the one who parleys with Geryon while Dante observes the usurers. Virgil has already won for himself lunga grazia, has already penned his epics to lasting favor. He is Helios, the one secure in his ability to take the reins. Furthermore, he is a safeguard, and perhaps here we have Dante, by placing Virgil where he does on the back of Geryon, representing his own self-consciousness of including the character of Virgil in his commedia: he is a buffer between the poet and the scorpion tail of the fraudulent art.