Canto XVII: A Notebook

Wheels within wheels.  Light in light.  The poet dreams inside his dream.  The act of writing is itself, in a way, inscribed on the recorded journey, as the poet records the images given to him in Canto XVII (of Procne, Haman, and Amata).  This is something that could not have happened in hell:  inspiration.  Inspiration:  this is also something that could not happen in paradise.  Only in purgatory, a land of smoke and bleared suns.  A land of scattering fog and a sun obscured by its own excess.

Georg Gudni, Landskap (oil on canvas, 1994)

It reminds me of Celan, whose poetry very often traverses the purgatorial.

THREAD SUNS

above the grey-black wilderness.

A tree-

high thought

tunes in to light’s pitch: there are

still songs to be sung on the other side

of mankind.

(trans. Michael Hamburger)

Thread suns: illumination unspools from above.  (We only ever see the ray shooting out and never the whole spool.)  Here, under a thread sun, a figure falls into the poet’s high fantasy (l’alta fantasia) (XVII: 25-26).  The verb in line 25 is piovve, rained: the crucified figure of Haban rained down in the poet’s high fantasy.  When that image bursts like a bubble, the next image springs up, rises up in the poet’s vision (the verb is surse:  think source, think surge.)  This inspiration, this imaginative generation, happens organically, it rains down and shoots up, if the landscape is right. 

And what about that mole!  His whole skin an eyelid!    

Purgatory is good land for poetic photosynthesis.  I think it’s the land I’ve been searching for.  You find it when you read Celan.  A tree-high thought tunes in to light’s pitch.  The poet, between the sun and the grey-black wilderness, has found the fertile ground where visions grow within him (19).  The poet meets no one in this canto—only his own uncanny imaginativa, which steals him from the sensory world, and has the power to muffle trumpet blasts.  Poets live and die for want of this zone.        

It’s not just the land between the smoke and the sun; it’s the land between wrath and sloth.  The poet, at his best, always negotiates the track between wrath and sloth.  Between love run amok and love run down, between the overkill and the under-lived.  Between those moments when we thirst for vengeance and those moments when our legs move like lead toward the object of our love, there’s a moment, bubble-fragile, of pure innerness, of visionary gift.  It’s as if the poet is at once carried along by smoke and held in place with rays of light, each element capable of dispelling the other, but meeting for an instant, for the space of a canto. 

Not just Celan, but René Char as well.  Here’s a purgatory poem if ever there was one:

THIS SMOKE THAT CARRIED US

This smoke that carried us was sister to the rod that splits the rock and to the cloud that opens the sky.  She didn’t dislike us, took us as we were, scanty rivulets nourished on hope and confusion, with stiff jaws and a mountain in our gaze.

 (trans. Susanne Dubroff)

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