by Jake Willard-Crist
As I was reading about the poet-pilgrim gazing at the ranks of angels, and listening to Beatrice explain the order and simultaneity of Creation, I thought of the poem “Oysters” by Seamus Heaney. It begins:
Our shells clacked on the plates.
My tongue was a filling estuary,
My palate hung with starlight:
As I tasted the salty Pleiades
Orion dipped his foot into the water.
In a moment of sensual excess, the poet tastes the heavens. His mouth becomes a microcosmos, containing estuary and starry sky. But in the following stanza the poet’s conscience intervenes and the pleasure of eating dissolves:
Alive and violated
They lay on their beds of ice:
Bivalves: the split bulb
And philandering sigh of ocean.
Millions of them ripped and shucked and scattered.
Violence and rapine curb the hedonistic instant. But not for long, as the poet recalls the pleasant, hopeful motive for traveling to the shore with friends.
We had driven to that coast
Through flowers and limestone
And there we were, toasting friendship,
Laying down a perfect memory
In the cool of thatch and crockery.
With one more turn of guilt the poet recalls how the ancient Romans looted this particular shore of oysters. And, by extension, his attempt at a perfect memory is spoiled by the thought of all those ripped and shucked by the appetites of Empire (and the affluent):
Over the Alps, packed deep in hay and snow,
The Romans hauled their oysters south to Rome:
I saw damp panniers disgorge
The frond-lipped, brine-stung
Glut of privilege
He continues into the final stanza:
And was angry that my trust could not repose
In the clear light, like poetry or freedom
Leaning in from the sea. I ate the day
Deliberately, that its tang
Might quicken me all into verb, pure verb.
Unable to find ease in the convivial meal or slip wholeheartedly into bitter renunciation, the poet’s feeling resolves into a productive admixture of anger and deliberation.
I’ve given the whole poem, but it was the final stanza, particularly the final sentence, that ran through my head as I read this canto. (And thank God, unlike the angels, I have this divided mind that thinks in tangents and veers off focus to recall fantastic poems like this.) Why?
In a single shot of a three-stringed bow, Beatrice tells the pilgrim, God flung forth 1) the pure essence of the angels, 2) the pure matter of the earthly elements and creaturely life, and 3) humankind, that strange concoction of both, a porridge of light and mud (lines 22-24). The angels lovingly ring around the divine One as “pure act”, while humans hold the “lowest ground” in “pure potential” (33-34).
What catches me in Heaney’s poem is that final tentative hope that one might, through a deliberate act, a deliberate art, achieve the angelic state of “pure verb”. Here verb is a noun as it is for the poet who watches the brilliant celestial ranks. We live in a violent muddle of essence and matter, where the least of us are shucked and scattered and the privileged glut on delicacies in their shoreline villas. Beatrice rails on about the earthly preachers playing to crowds, with swelling heads, concerned only for their reputations and not the truths they put forth. Even the supposed holy are corrupted. Just like for Heaney even the ocean is a philanderer. So how can we have that “perfect memory”? We aren’t the un-remembering angels.
Aspiration, then. And hope. Our earthbound trust finds no definitive transcendent rest. We have only the dark-wood business of deliberation. Isn’t that what the Commedia has been about? How it began? To eat the day deliberately, like the speaker in Heaney’s poem, is to acknowledge, with trepidation, that there’s no unshaky repose for trust, only a feeble shuffling along the path, and we have only imperfect memories. But it’s still a matter of taking a bite, slurping the complicated oyster down. Let’s remember that as we break the paschal bread.