Author Archives: jakewillardcrist

Paradiso Canto 29: A Notebook

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.

 

 

 

 

 


Paradiso Canto 23: A Notebook

By Jake Willard-Crist

Spring is here.  Certainly here in Ohio where I write.  The forsythia’s twiggy blaze in the backyard and the daffodils poking up around the shed:  it’s the bright scattering of yellow that makes me think of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s description of spring as the time when thrush eggs make ‘little low heavens.’  I also think of the vernal metaphor for the starry sky he places at the conclusion of “The Starlight Night”:

 

  Look! March-bloom, like on mealed-with-yellow sallows!

These are indeed the barn; withindoors house

The shocks. This piece-bright paling shuts the spouse

  Christ home, Christ and his mother and all his hallows.

 

Sallows are pussy willows, and Hopkins wants us to see constellations swaying with a bright powder of blossoms like cornmeal.  And—one of my favorite moments in the poetry of Hopkins—the following two lines use rural puns to encase the divine presence.  We are asked to identify the spread of stars as the walls of ‘the barn’, an image of the tabernacle.  Behind the wall, inside, are stored the shocks—sheaves—of corn; within the tabernacle, the electrifying presence of God.  In a second pun the stars are ‘piece-bright paling’, a paint-chipped fence enclosing Christ, Mary, and the saints.  I love how the other sense of ‘paling’ chimes with ‘piece-bright’: both qualities of a dimmer radiance containing what is too shocking and bright for human senses.

And now the poet has leapt the paling to stand among the fixed stars.  And like Hopkins throwing the barnyard into the heavens to help the reader’s eyes adjust to his enthralling vision, the poet introduces the eighth sphere with an extended natural metaphor.  Beatrice is compared to a bird, which has shielded her young throughout the long night and now waits patiently on the branch for the light of dawn and the moment she can leave the nest to look for food.  Perhaps this is one of the most startling aspects of The Paradiso:  the conveyance of the world below, of bird and branch and dawn, the transport of mortal memory, into the luminous heights.  The poet must use language, planked with memory, as a paling, piece-bright at its best, to house the shocks and hallows.

When the poet has seen—or rather been blinded by—the Radiant Substance, the vision of the triumphant Christ, his poetry again steers toward natural imagery.  But it’s reflexive.  The poet cannot describe what he sees, only what it does to him.  His mind is likened to a thunderhead swelling with so much condensed light that it bursts and erupts bolts of lightning into the ether.  And then, when he is conditioned by the radiant blast of Christ to see Beatrice’s smile for the first time, he cannot find the words to describe it.  Only the poet’s inadequacy stirs up the metaphorical imagination, invoking Polyhymnia and the Muses, and those wonderful images of a traveler leaping a crevice, Atlas shouldering his burden, and the ardent prow of verse plowing the rough seas of the beatific.  These waters are not for frail rafts but a craft that can leap when it wants to.  It’s the old poetic coping:  When words fail, word the failure.

After vaulting the ineffable the poet returns to his paling art, comparing, with the ‘feeble lids’ of memory and imagination, the array of hallows—saints or apostles—as a field of flowers struck by a cloud-breaking ray of sunlight.  Again the perishable world is bootlegged into the imperishable.  Even crowns and sapphires, though they glow ethereally, are earthly contraband, stashed under the poet’s robe to give him a hand with the brilliance of Mary and Gabriel.

In a journal entry for July 5, 1872, Hopkins relates this epiphany:

 

“Stepped into a barn of ours, a great shadowy barn, where the hay had been stacked on either side, and looking at the great rudely arched timberframe—principals (?) and tie-beams, which make them look like bold big A’s with the cross-bar high up—I thought how sadly beauty of inscape was unknown and buried away from simple people and yet how near at hand it was if they had eyes to see it and it could be called out everywhere again…”

 

While Hopkins sees dark alphas in the hayloft, the poet in paradise sees the hayloft in the Alpha.  To me, the beauty of the Commedia, the perception of which is heightened as one ascends into the empyrean, is the poet’s method of reverse inscape.  He doesn’t show heaven on earth, but earth in heaven, even if inadvertently.  He’s not interested in writing about little low heavens or God’s grandeur deep down things.  Brazenly situating himself in heaven, he finds the barn in the tabernacle and flowers in the firmament.  Does he know that he’s smuggled a nest in with the angels?


Paradiso Canto 17: A Notebook

by Jake Willard-Crist

‘Not in dark oracles like those that glued the foolish like limed birds…’ (31-32)

 

In his Natural History Pliny relates the method of making birdlime:  Gather unripe mistletoe berries and dry them, then pound them, put them in water, and leave them to rot.  (Birdlime, according to Pliny, is ‘the only thing to find improvement in decay.’)   After rotting for twelve days, the mistletoe is again pounded with a mallet under running water until the outer coat separates and a thick inner pulp remains.  Now you have birdlime, which can be thinned out with walnut oil.  Smear it on twigs and branches.  The brush of a wing will snare a song thrush.

The poet loves the prophecy of his own banishment.  He writes it himself.  And puts it in the mouth of a crusader and martyr.  Listen to him, composing a retro-prevision of his own exile, like a songbird liming its own capture, enchanted by his own estrangement.

 

Inspired, poets and prophets are full of themselves.  They have a vessel complex.    No wonder so few people listen to them.

 

‘…but in clear words and the punctilious style of ordered thought…’ (35-36)

 

Clear words are limed birds.

Clarity sticks.  Order glues.  Conformity is rarely enforced by lyric utterance.  You’re clearly Guelf, orderly Ghibelline.

Limb-stuck, there’s no branching out.


Paradiso Canto 11: A Notebook

By Jake Willard-Crist

 

Pedant of incandescence, parser of brilliancies—the poet in paradise tunes his eye to gradations of radiance.  Here is the poet as heliologist.  Light steps forward from light, light separates and light dances, dervishes into chandeliers, files into candelabras.  Light is identified, named.  Light speaks.  The poet listens.   The poet sees.

 

It’s easier for the eye to distinguish darknesses, to untangle shadows, and to adjust to night vision.  But staring at the sun who adjusts?  Who does not flinch and turn away with a proliferation of suns burning in front of them, all of which look the same?  Stare at the sun long enough and a garland of souls appears on your eyelid.  Can you name them?

 

Remember Thomas Merton’s Louisville epiphany:  “There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”

 

Solar attentiveness.

 

Oh the insensata cura of mortals!  The senseless strivings, the insensate concerns, the vocations, the careers, the careering of the mortal round!  Why do we do what we do?  Why do we not do what we not do?  O, angelic Aquinas, why can’t we all just rocket up here and be a segment in the resplendent scholastic glowworm?  What kind of sun shall I be?

 

We waver between the Franciscan and the Dominican, between seraphic ardor and cherubic splendor, between fiery action and illuminating reason, between passion and order.  (Are these the tonsured equivalents to Apollo and Dionysius?)  Torn, I ask, “If I agree to give up all of my possessions, does that mean the books, too?”  Torn I ask, “If I agree to illuminate the Word for my fellow men and women, will I be able to preach to the birds, too?”  Will brother wolf bend its knee to a professor?  Will stigmata come to Dominic?

 

All are born a sun rising (XI:50-51).  There’s just a lack of solar attentiveness.


Canto 28 & 29: A Notebook

La divina foresta, la selva antica: the paradise garden is an ancient wood, a divine forest, not some florid menagerie, some viney treasury of orchid and rose.  The poet traverses the space between the selva oscura and the selva antica, and somehow he must see the one in the other.  The poet sneaks his pastorella into paradise, and therein lies his genius; cut loose from his ancient formidable guide, he can’t help but conjure his mysterious shepherdess gathering flowers, his streams, trees, twittering birds, all the “variousness of everblooming May.”  The accomplished poet is an accomplished earth-smuggler.

Because, how strange!  On the mountaintop…a pastoral!

The poet walks through fire, walks onward alone, free of Virgil, yet on the other side of fire what does he encounter but a georgic!  Didactic verse about the Edenic atmosphere.  Even in paradise, the poet will carry the earth within him (an earthly paradise).  What is the poet’s commedia but a well-wrought time-capsule, a golden vessel laden with clay?

Poets are always aspiring meteorologists.

It greens the highest peak, but paradise is still earth.  The moon is still above it.  It’s the fantastic inwardness of the land that distinguishes it from earth, the secret mechanism that makes its vegetation grow, its winds blow, its water flow.  Something in the land pumps differently.  No hoe has broken it; the land has its heart intact.

The poet, king of himself, is still a pauper without Persephone.

The walk through fire and then a discovery, still, of such simplicity.  A breeze, birds, a woman gathering flowers.  This is it right here:  the poet should rest right here, in this locus amoenus, and not venture on toward the griffon and all the marvelous abstraction that follows.

The poet straddles the fork of Lethe and Eunoë—the forgetting of sin and the memory of the good.  Of course, the order matters, from which river you drink—Lethe first and Eunoë second.  But sometimes the poet mixes up his rivers.  He gets his ladles crossed.

How perfect and heartbreaking is the final image of Canto XXVIII!  The backward look to the poet-guides, the gentle affirming smile:  this is the poet’s summit, an apex of restraint and simplicity (here I think of a phrase Wayne Koestenbaum coined for the work of Louise Glück: a poet of the minimalist ecstatic)—only a smile and the basso continuo of the Prime Mover in the trees.

* * *

Ah Helicon!  Ah Urania!  Make way for the procession of footnotes!

From the calm center, after the smooth continuo, the cymbal crash of the grand pageant.  This is what happens if you venture fifty paces farther from Virgil: the poet’s simple radiance, so delicately achieved, refracts, as if through the ‘bejeweled vision’ and ‘geodic skull’ of John the Revelator (phrases from Richard Wilbur’s poem “Icarium Mare”.)  A griffon!

I think the greatest challenge for a poet of faith might be negotiating the borderland between pastoral and apocalyptic.  To skyrocket from the murmuring stream to the cosmic candelabra, from the steady breeze to the roar of a heavenly chariot.  Such a thin membrane between Pan’s pipe and the angelic trumpet.  Let’s go back a bit, Matilda.

The poet moves so quickly from restraint to strain.  Twice he calls attention to the arduous task of presenting these magnificent visions in rhyme.  It’s not that the poet has shifted from description to allegory, from image to symbol, for we’ve never left the realm of symbol.  Instead the poet catapults here into a reservoir of preexisting biblical symbol and that shift in symbolic register, from innovative imagery to hieratic biblical collage, is necessarily abrupt.  The poet leaves Virgil and Statius for Ezekiel and John.  The former guides look on in awe, we’re told, but I think they shake their heads a little bit.

At what point to you stop following the poet.  When do you say, “Let’s bivouac here, big guy, in the leafy tents of the selva antica?”  I fear the Paradiso.  I long to return to the land where a mere shadow caused such a stir.


Canto XXIII: A Notebook

A tree-high thought tuned to light’s pitch (Celan).  The poet begins scanning the leafy branches, but there are no birds in Purgatory.  (Thank God, all we need is another bird poem).  What does the poet hunger for?  He wants to peer through to find out where the voices are coming from.  He is always reaching for the tree-high thought: he’s no ground-picker, no forager intent on filling his basket. 

What does it mean to be a poet in the land of the gluttons?  There’s a story here, in this canto, perhaps, about the poet in the age of information gluttony.  As information becomes less and less nutritious, and more and more conducive to an empty obesity of trivia, the poet must grapple for the tree-high thought, the scent of the apple and pure droplet of dew.  (He must be content with the wheel-barrow, and its redness, its glaze, and not clog it with dirt.)

Is there such a thing as gluttonous poetry?  I’m drawn more and more these days to a more minimalist poetry, one that avoids volubility, that doesn’t brim the margins with chatter.  I want a poetry like the emaciated faces of the gluttons, the skin of feeling taut on the bone of language.  I want to the see the OMO (the homo, the person), the divinely carved glyph in every visage (31-33).

The poet changes register in this canto something like three times, I’ve read.  He begins with the more colloquial medium style (dominant in Purgatory), a language for establishing friendship and trust; Forese, the poet’s friend we encounter here, speaks in a more chummy low style to the pilgrim, using diminutives for his wife Nella and a lot of possessives; and lastly the poet employs his high ‘expressionistic’ style, harkening back to the inferno, as he describes the skeletal and scabrous gluttons.  Some of the best literature is the best literature because of its ability to employ a higher style while describing the most horrific or unusual things, and also the most common.  One goes to poetry because he or she is nauseous with sound bites and status updates. 

The poet does not fatten on bag-of-chips knowledge (though he really loves a bag of kettle-cooked mesquite).  He reaches for the scent of the apple and the spray of water.  Even if, no, because that food is unreachable.  The tree is not climbable.   The branches widen at the peak not the base. 

Today, with so much available at the fingertip, the poet goes thin for the tree-high thought.


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)


Canto XI: A Notebook

By Jake Willard-Crist

…The poet loves that someone loves his shadow: this is the poet’s pride…

All this talk of pride and stone calls to mind an aphorism from Georg Christoph Lichtenberg’s Waste Books:

 Even if one cannot hew a house out of a granite cliff, one could perhaps hew the ruins of a house out of it at no very great expense, so that posterity would be forced to believe a palace had stood there.

The poet is a constructor of ruins (would Eliot like this formulation?).  He may wish to hew a house, to carve his grand project from the raw cliff of the tongue, but the expenses—solipsism, exhaustion, rejection, (madness perhaps)—are too great.  Time is well spent instead on the delicate crafting of shambles.  Let all who hear or read rebuild the world that was never there to begin with. 

As the poet himself implies: the glory goes to whoever can scrap together the best nest.  (XI:99)

Don’t be fooled by all the tiers, the terraces, the cornices.  This is no complete world.  Only a couple of poets climbing a pile of stones and prayers ringing in the air.

Prayer, in the marvelous phrase of the philosopher Jean-Louis Chrétien, is the wounded word.  It is an act that opens a gap, that tears the subject, by putting one in a place that is other than oneself, before God.  Chrétien (in The Ark of Speech) discusses the way in which the voice is the element, in all of speech, which does not belong to us.  It is always out before us, circulating in the world outside of us.  In prayer we offer what we do not possess.  Chrétien: ‘The human voice becomes a place in which the world can return to God.’ 

The canto begins in medias preces—in the thick of prayer.  The prideful, cowed under slabs of rock, offer their paternoster.  In this way they are each an Atlas, hoisting the world up to the sun.  Except it is their voices that bear the world, not their backs.  The prideful must give back what they never had in the first place, and prayer is the vehicle for returning stolen goods.  Another way of saying this—returning stolen goods—is giving thanks. 

It is here, in Canto XI, that I sense a crucial distinction between the poet and the pray-er. 

The poet offers up his carefully hewn ruins and requires posterity to contrive the palace.    The one who prays, at the very first Our Father, shoulders the entire world back to God.

The poet must bring his tiresome chisel to bear (terza, terza, terza) on the granite and wait for posterity to award its laurels; the pray-er heaves the whole slab of his voice in a direct line to the One who has hewn the world and causes all laurels to brown and grass to wither. 

Perhaps this is why the poet stoops down to the level of the prideful supplicant to ‘better know his state’: he wishes to return with a measure of that world-hefting humility.

I fear the poet can never pray and remain a poet.


Canto 5: A Notebook

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.

Andre Kertesz: Place de la Concorde, Paris (1928)

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.


Canto 29: Vulgar Alchemy

Jake Willard-Crist

Two hundred years after Dante wrote canto 29, the Venetian cardinal and literary scholar Pietro Bembo effectively banned the low style of vulgar imagery and sound adopted by Dante in cantos like this one, which teems with festering scabs and scraping claws.  In his most famous work, Prose della volar lingua, Bembo writes:

It would have been far more praiseworthy if he [Dante] had set out to write about a less lofty and wide-ranging subject matter, and kept to its appropriate middle ground; having chosen, however, to range wide and high, he could not help demeaning himself by writing very often about the most base and vulgar things.

(Prose della volgar lingua II, xx, 178)*

Bembo’s criticism reminds us how Dante’s style mirrors his journey’s structure:  the poet must descend into the guttural depths of his language, and do so with technical mastery, in order to ascend to the heights of his project, his “lofty and wide-ranging subject matter.”  To make a work of lasting imprint, Dante cannot dwell only at the Parnassian summits of mythology and theology (with more invocations of Ovid), but must stoop down to earth to the stable and the dock.  The pair of alchemists who are punished here with leprous sores are likened to stableboys, their scratching fingers to the metal teeth of the grooming comb; they are compared also to knives slicing the scales off a carp.  Pinsky’s translation retains some of the consonantal harshness.  Hear the some of the English:  Scabs, scales, skin, scratching, rake, slake, snagging, dragging; and now some of the Italian:  l’unghie, scabbia, scardova, scaglie, dismaglie, talvota tanaglie.  Those g’s and c’s, sounds of cankering clinics and gangrenous sickbeds, are far from the angelic, pillowy Petrarchan melodies that Bembo elevates.

Did anyone else find it amusing that this far into Hell, having just passed through a valley of sinners sliced open, dismembered, and decapitated, that we encounter this jocular moment of the pilgrim and these two scabrous alchemists taking jabs at the Siennese?  “Has there ever been another people as vain as the Siennese?” the pilgrim asks Virgil.  There’s an uncanny sense of relaxation here.  And it’s funny.  It makes we wonder if the usual town gossip and chatter didn’t transpire at the Last Supper?  After the words of institution perhaps, did Christ and a few of the disciples wink on about the buffoonery of the village down the street?

It’s fitting that this canto comes into our reading schedule near Palm Sunday.  On this day, the church celebrates the union of the kingly and the common.  The new Cyrus, the messiah-king, comes riding into town on the colt of an ass.  Moreover, he comes riding to the inverse throne of the cross.  We might call this vulgarized triumph a successful bit of alchemy.  The incarnation (of which Phillipians 3 speaks) is a tale of gold turned to lead so that lead might be gold.  Leaden God, golden man.  Suffering Servant, King of Kings.

*I found this quoted in Lino Pertile’s chapter on this canto in Lectura Dantis (University of California Press, 1998.)


canto 23: painted people

Jake Willard-Crist

Hypocrisy is originally a dramatic term.  It contains the Greek ύπό (hypo), which means ‘under’, and the verb κρίνειη (krinein), to judge, decide, determine, etc.  A hupokrites was a character who spoke out from under a homogenous chorus, and the word gradually came to refer in general to one who plays a part.  Under the guise of another, so to speak, one makes his/her judgments and decisions.  Hypocrites are actors, connoisseurs of pretense:  they are una genta dipinta, in Dante’s words, a painted people.  In canto 23 the contrapasso is spot on.  Those who put the most weight on their exterior are now overburdened by it.  I picture an underdeveloped interior dangling pitifully under the two-ton cowl like the clapper of a bell.

We identify hypocrisy most readily in politics and religion.  Our political leaders and people of faith have chosen to don a mantle of moral rectitude, and it’s easy to find the areas where their unwieldy bodies slip out of the tight costume.  Our preachers and public orators exhort us to follow higher paths, and we are quick to fling our epithets of hypocrisy at them, when they’ve been paparazzied on the lower streets.  However, hypocrisy cannot be boiled down to a simple failure to consistently practice what you preach.  Though the cross weighs a ton, and they drop it as much as we do, our preachers should not stop urging us to bear it.  Our leaders should not give up their clarions to charity and compassion, though they stumble.  Hypocrisy, rather, is deliberate pretense.  It is moral cosmetics.  It is about maintaining power—not just in the Machiavellian (that other famous Florentine) sense of using princely pretense to negotiate the demands of various political interests, but also in the more down-to-earth sense of the political power of standing out in the crowd, like the old Greek hupokrites on stage, separate from the chorus.

The saddled hypocrites in Hell are locked in an eternal procession.  Just as their ceremony has been distended into eternity, their ceremonious vestments are gilded lead.  In the words of Christ from the Sermon on the Mount, “they have their reward.”  Their desire was to be recognized by their outward appearance and act, and now that pretense is their defining characteristic.  The word hypocrite, it is worth noting, is used several times in Matthew 6.  Here Jesus is counseling his audience against ostentatious displays of piety—trumpeting one’s almsgiving, distorting one’s features while fasting, praying in the open streets and sanctuaries.  In short, Jesus exhorts, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven” (Matthew 6:1).  In these verses, public displays of piety are for purposes of self-promotion, of exerting influence over the crowds; but Christ champions a piety of secrecy, one more attuned to the interior than the exterior, to the eschatological reward more than the immediate reward.

Hypocrisy is a political sin.  It is always perpetrated in crowds, in networks of relationships.  It is a sin of thinness, veneer, of lightness.  It is the satin or silk of sins.  In baptism, according to Paul in Galatians, one ‘puts on Christ’.  The water seeps into our skin, and we become Christ-saturated.  But when our bodies are greased with the Christ-mask we’ve painted ourselves, the water beads and remains on the service.  Divine justice, in the Infernal law, says “the surface is all.”  The stole that one wore so lightly on earth is now a leaden horseshoe.  In Paradise, one imagines, the ones who bore la grave stola of the cross (and didn’t, in self-interest and political expediency, like Caiaphas, pawn it off to another) are floating in wonderful lightness, unmoored by the interiors they filled in secret with the Spirit.  There, then, is the true hupokrites, set apart from the crowd, a pure holy drifting.


Canto 17: Ecco la fiera

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.


Canto 11: Smoke Break

By Jake Willard-Crist

Lucky me—assigned to comment on the Inferno’s expository interlude.  I recently, and unfortunately, saw Angels & Demons, the movie based on the Dan Brown novel.  My wife Keri and I snickered each time Tom Hanks, playing the erudite Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon, made good use of the actionless intervals to educate his co-stars and viewers with the intricacies of papal history and occultist lore relevant to the plot.  Dante and Vergil engage in something similar here, resting behind the upturned lid of a heretical pope’s sepulcher, under the pretenses of inuring themselves to the noxious fumes.  “While we’re waiting, Vergil, why not elucidate for us the moral architecture of Hell?” Dante asks.  I sense something like an editorial contingency here (perhaps you might agree, John):  the author needs to pause and lay it out for us, at least to appease all those readers with a cartographic penchant.

Though this canto is, arguably, necessary, I found it to be less exciting reading compared to what we’ve encountered so far.  It wore its contrivance too thick.  Perhaps this is due to my general allergy to taxonomy (which, on a side note, is why I tend to abstain from orthodoxy/heresy conversations)—Aristotle and Aquinas give me hives.  I think my ears perked up twice in my reading: first, the reference to Dis as the “red city”; and second, the closing temporal reference: “above us in the skies the Fish are quivering at the horizon’s edge.”  It’s the perennial tension between the poetry and its undergirding theory, and the manner in which the latter pokes its head out into the former.  How many of us have spaced out when the Exodus narrative breaks into legislation?

I will say that the canto sparked some reflection on the messy science of human morality.  Dante picks here from Aristotle, Cicero, Genesis, and Aquinas to construct his infernal scaffolding, and still he seems to forget about the heretics he just encountered, as well as the souls in Limbo.  This kind of moral anatomizing does not lend itself to exactitude, especially when it involves assumptions about the divine moral imagination.  When lawmakers have pretensions to retributive precision, they seem to get dangerously close to barbarism.  Teeth and eyes for teeth and eyes is not difficult arithmetic; however, when we begin to get into that metaphorical dental and optic territory, then we collapse into subtle casuistries.

I’d be interested to hear from someone more versed in U.S. legal history, who might offer a short-list of influences apparent in our own penal system.  Why doll out 5 to 10 years to one, only 5 years to another, or life to another?  Are modern penitentiaries (note the obvious etymology of that word) adumbrations of hell’s stratifications?  Incidentally, though Pinsky translates stipa in XI.3 as “pen”, many translators have felt that “prison” is the most appropriate English rendering.  All the damned souls in their niches–I wonder how far we’ve come from the infernal hive and the logic that bolsters it…(I mean it when I say “I wonder”–I really don’t know, and would welcome any feedback, even to tell me the association is way off base. )


Inferno Canto 5: Lovebirds

By: Jake Willard-Crist

Five cantos in:  are we in hell yet?  Though we’ve reached the place where no thing gleams, we’re still distinctly flame-less.  I sense that Dante’s art lies in his ability to keep that question ticking in his reader’s brains:  Are we in hell yet? There seem to be several ways in which he holds one of our eyes fixed on the terrible and the other fixed on the terrestrial.  We are never fully unmoored and cast into the shadow; there’s always a creaturely tether, an ardent humanistic vine that keeps us guessing, keeps us reevaluating our coordinates.

Entering the second circle, we get a benvenuto from Minos, that ‘connoisseur of sin’ (aren’t we all!).  As he whirls out his caudate verdicts, we think, “No, no, Toto, we are not in the well-lit, enameled, philosophically opulent Kansas of the first circle anymore; we are in Hell.  Look at that guy!”

Furthermore, just as we pass by the mythological monster we hear the ‘hurricane of Hell’, the wailing winds and ‘blasts of sorrow.’  Just as light has become mute, the relatively mute sighs have been amplified to blasts.  Alas, the weeping and gnashing.  O Hell, Hello!

Yet, just as our eyes adjust to the darkness, the birds come out to play.  Dante invokes winter starlings, cranes, and—most incongruously of all—doves to illustrate the particular kinetic energy of the carnal sinners.  Presumably because passion carried them away beyond reason on earth, these buoyant damned are buffeted by the winds like a flock (though some, mostly literary, are more stately than the masses).  Though Dante describes the air here as ‘malignant’ and ‘black’, the avian similes imbue it with at least a modicum of grace, as the reader envisages the dignified stature of cranes, the starlings’ gloss, and the symbolic treasury of the dove.  In short, even in Hell Dante doesn’t allow us to forget the sky.

This tension reaches its apogee with Francesca and Paolo.  Not surprisingly, the ‘merciless weather’ stills for these two doves.  I don’t know about you, but the image of a tormenting tangle of infernal lovers doesn’t come readily to mind.  I see Chagall:

In a groundbreaking feat of down-to-earthness, Dante gives this woman, a contemporary of his, the literary spotlight over the more lustrous love-lost like Cleopatra, Dido, or Helen.

Francesca’s eloquence and politesse, I’ve read, have driven many commentators to go through the critical pains of exculpating her.  Her short discourse on love (note the triple Amor…Amor…Amor) is a reflection of Dante’s own earlier poetry, the Love poetry of the dolce stil nuovo, so one can really register the earnestness of his pity, and his final swoon can be read as piteous relief that he, unlike the two lovers, did not stop reading the book right there.  That he is still reading…We, in fact, are, in a sense, reading his continued reading.  Are we fully in Hell, yet?  Unlike Minos, we don’t have a reliable adjudicatory appendage to judge what stands before us—like Dante’s pilgrim, we have to keep close to the ground.  And anyway,  more often than not, we’re down there chasing our own tails.