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.

 

 

 

 

 

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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)