Author Archives: jakewillardcrist

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.