by Jake Willard-Crist
Suppose there was one whose body allowed light to pass through it, and he or she walked among us. What would our reaction be to a disturbance in the taken-for-granted opacity of normal life? What if light not only passed through the body but also collected there, pooled inside and pressed against the wrapper of the skin? The clothes of such a stranger would be dazzling, as radiant as Christ’s appeared to Peter, James, and John on the Mount of Transfiguration—not because of any pure blanching of the fabric, but because of its transparency, its openness. The body, normally shut, normally in the business of occlusion—blocking light, taking up space, absorbing sound and scent—becomes an open door, or at least, for a fraction of a second, a door ajar.
In Purgatory, where the souls are doors ajar, in states of fluctuating openness, where the souls can at once appear to be bolts of lightning and also wild horses, where the souls slide within luciformity and solidity: here, a body casting a shadow is a Transfiguration. Like Peter who wanted to enshrine the blistering moment on the mountaintop, building tabernacles on the spot, the souls of Purgatory cluster around the living poet, wanting to detain him, to win his favor, to tell their stories, to solicit his assistance in gathering prayers on the other side.
It is the job of the poet to find the bodies of the murdered and give them peace.
No matter what the great poets say, no matter what Virgil says, the poet, though he may be heading to Paradise, should never stop enjoying the distraction of his own shadow.
In the final moments of our death, will we be as concerned about the shape of our blood? Will the manner in which it left us (or clotted within us) become as crucial to the narration of our death as it is for Jacopo and Bonconte of Montefeltro? How it pools out of our veins? How it leaves a trail?
We do not pay enough attention to our blood or our shadows.
The souls of Purgatory are wonderfully sensitive to solidity, to opacity, to corporeality. And, come to think of it, so were the souls of Hell, who noticed the way the poet could move his surroundings, could manipulate, by contact, the physical world of the inferno. What is the root of such fine perception? The souls of purgatory can see the poet’s corporality, his ‘living-ness’, because their perception is completely awash with hope. They are creatures being tuned, warping toward a future in which their Miserere opens into anthem. They know what it means for one who lives to step into their world. Theirs is an overwhelming optimism; they have nowhere to look but forward, and because of the trajectory of their desire, because of the shimmering concentration of their metanoia, they can spot a shadow from a mile away.
We need an anthropology of Purgatory. Someone needs to get in there along with the poets and record the behavior of the dwellers.
We could spot a transfiguration if our senses were circuited with hope.
To Virgil: it’s not enough to be a ‘tower of stone’ or a ‘lofty crown unswayed’. It’s not enough when the poet can be the north face, the tree the lightning loves.
The poet loves that someone loves his shadow; this is the poet’s pride.