Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Inferno XVI: The Lover Recalls

Public domain image

The Lover Recalls

The reverberation of water falling,
the rain came to us.
Remember it now. Nature
overtook us visage, neck and feet.
The soft place in ourselves
let us incline along footprints
naked, greater than wisdom
and fame in the world.

Wife, could I have been protected
from embracing sorrow?
Your needs shine
as they used to do,
or they have gone out
with us, with words,
with face uplifted for reply
as one looks at truth.

Therefore, agile legs were wings.
The sound of water was so near us
We called it down into its low bed.

I had a cord around me
unloosed and turned down that abyss
to the new, to this comedy
that returns sometimes or else
is hidden.

Inferno: Canto XVI, Longfellow, tr.

Now was I where was heard the reverberation   Of water falling into the next round,   Like to that humming which the beehives make,  When shadows three together started forth,   Running, from out a company that passed   Beneath the rain of the sharp martyrdom.  Towards us came they, and each one cried out:   "Stop, thou; for by thy garb to us thou seemest   To be some one of our depraved city."  Ah me! what wounds I saw upon their limbs,   Recent and ancient by the flames burnt in!   It pains me still but to remember it.  Unto their cries my Teacher paused attentive;   He turned his face towards me, and "Now wait,"   He said; "to these we should be courteous.  And if it were not for the fire that darts   The nature of this region, I should say   That haste were more becoming thee than them."  As soon as we stood still, they recommenced   The old refrain, and when they overtook us,   Formed of themselves a wheel, all three of them.  As champions stripped and oiled are wont to do,   Watching for their advantage and their hold,   Before they come to blows and thrusts between them,  Thus, wheeling round, did every one his visage   Direct to me, so that in opposite wise   His neck and feet continual journey made.  And, "If the misery of this soft place   Bring in disdain ourselves and our entreaties,"   Began one, "and our aspect black and blistered,  Let the renown of us thy mind incline   To tell us who thou art, who thus securely   Thy living feet dost move along through Hell.  He in whose footprints thou dost see me treading,   Naked and skinless though he now may go,   Was of a greater rank than thou dost think;  He was the grandson of the good Gualdrada;   His name was Guidoguerra, and in life   Much did he with his wisdom and his sword.  The other, who close by me treads the sand,   Tegghiaio Aldobrandi is, whose fame   Above there in the world should welcome be.  And I, who with them on the cross am placed,   Jacopo Rusticucci was; and truly   My savage wife, more than aught else, doth harm me."  Could I have been protected from the fire,   Below I should have thrown myself among them,   And think the Teacher would have suffered it;  But as I should have burned and baked myself,   My terror overmastered my good will,   Which made me greedy of embracing them.  Then I began: "Sorrow and not disdain   Did your condition fix within me so,   That tardily it wholly is stripped off,  As soon as this my Lord said unto me   Words, on account of which I thought within me   That people such as you are were approaching.  I of your city am; and evermore   Your labours and your honourable names   I with affection have retraced and heard.  I leave the gall, and go for the sweet fruits   Promised to me by the veracious Leader;   But to the centre first I needs must plunge."  "So may the soul for a long while conduct   Those limbs of thine," did he make answer then,   "And so may thy renown shine after thee,  Valour and courtesy, say if they dwell   Within our city, as they used to do,   Or if they wholly have gone out of it;  For Guglielmo Borsier, who is in torment   With us of late, and goes there with his comrades,   Doth greatly mortify us with his words."  "The new inhabitants and the sudden gains,   Pride and extravagance have in thee engendered,   Florence, so that thou weep'st thereat already!"  In this wise I exclaimed with face uplifted;   And the three, taking that for my reply,   Looked at each other, as one looks at truth.  "If other times so little it doth cost thee,"   Replied they all, "to satisfy another,   Happy art thou, thus speaking at thy will!  Therefore, if thou escape from these dark places,   And come to rebehold the beauteous stars,   When it shall pleasure thee to say, 'I was,'  See that thou speak of us unto the people."   Then they broke up the wheel, and in their flight   It seemed as if their agile legs were wings.  Not an Amen could possibly be said   So rapidly as they had disappeared;   Wherefore the Master deemed best to depart.  I followed him, and little had we gone,   Before the sound of water was so near us,   That speaking we should hardly have been heard.  Even as that stream which holdeth its own course   The first from Monte Veso tow'rds the East,   Upon the left-hand slope of Apennine,  Which is above called Acquacheta, ere   It down descendeth into its low bed,   And at Forli is vacant of that name,  Reverberates there above San Benedetto   From Alps, by falling at a single leap,   Where for a thousand there were room enough;  Thus downward from a bank precipitate,   We found resounding that dark-tinted water,   So that it soon the ear would have offended.  I had a cord around about me girt,   And therewithal I whilom had designed   To take the panther with the painted skin.  After I this had all from me unloosed,   As my Conductor had commanded me,   I reached it to him, gathered up and coiled,  Whereat he turned himself to the right side,   And at a little distance from the verge,   He cast it down into that deep abyss.  "It must needs be some novelty respond,"   I said within myself, "to the new signal   The Master with his eye is following so."  Ah me! how very cautious men should be   With those who not alone behold the act,   But with their wisdom look into the thoughts!  He said to me: "Soon there will upward come   What I await; and what thy thought is dreaming   Must soon reveal itself unto thy sight."  Aye to that truth which has the face of falsehood,   A man should close his lips as far as may be,   Because without his fault it causes shame;  But here I cannot; and, Reader, by the notes   Of this my Comedy to thee I swear,   So may they not be void of lasting favour,  Athwart that dense and darksome atmosphere   I saw a figure swimming upward come,   Marvellous unto every steadfast heart,  Even as he returns who goeth down   Sometimes to clear an anchor, which has grappled   Reef, or aught else that in the sea is hidden,  Who upward stretches, and draws in his feet.  

Monday, March 24, 2014

Another Comment by Grossman

I myself am not clear--despite the general prestige of the word--what, as a term, "poetry" with its implication of "creativity" can now mean in in the context of the actual human task. What obligations "poetry" requires. What benefit to the human world the obligation, privilege, or competence named "poetry"--the vocation to "poetic work"--implies or promises.... In any case, my avowed unclarity with respect to the "meaning" or the word "poetry" is not, I assure you, a claim of modesty on my part or a gesture of intellectual circumspection, but rather an expression of fear.

--Allen Grossman, emphasis his own, True-Love: Essays on Poetry and Valuing,
University of Chicago Press,
p. 152 (digital) 

Portraits of the Conquered World

This red could not have been the red
of the Sangre De Cristo Mountains--
a keen choice of pigment one evening,
a hue that calls us over to a wall
where the light is low to keep it all from fading--
and so we look too carefully at red
and wonder what the real mountain looked like.

Over here in the intricate gold frame,
the Indian women are well dressed
and burdened with fine jars, lined up,
leaving hills on a winding road,
those hills maybe too calm, and the women
too calm will never go back, their earthen
wares to be broken, to be forgotten and sold,
and so we forget and move to the next exhibit.

I did not know what I was doing. I don't
know how I could tell you, now as the docents
check their watches and prepare to shut this down,
how I thought I could see you and take you and there
would be no harm, that we would talk together
in the orange morning, making breakfast.
I would close my eyes and lose myself, finally,
in the sounds of your words. I can't tell
you now, before this one of Ontario, 1830,
where a finger of gray from the left is a lake
and the landscape brown as any autumn.
It is late afternoon in the painting, and not a touch
of civilization except in the distances where chimneys
draw some smoke in the air to let us know
that in the beginning the end was already promised and sealed.

Note: This is the first in a short series of poems based on exhibits at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. They will receive and "IMA poems" label. Poems based on specific works will include artist and year in the title of the poem.

Saturday, March 22, 2014


A portion of the forest goes white.
On a TV somewhere in Texas:

the eye of a test pattern, the drawn-out tone.
So high you can't hear them

fixed wings chalk the sky. A wrinkled man
stands beneath his lintel.

How small he becomes
in the arc light.

In a hole on the map, near the sector
where all color bleeds,

I hold my knees to my chest and scream.
I hear nothing

as the angel passes by
so shy and scornful.

A face and a voice fill the screen
in Texas. A voice names the province

where green seeps back into the branches
and lizards flick and hide.

I climb into a rain of splinters.
I wipe the blood from my lip.

Morning in Amarillo finds yellow buses
and children in red boots.

They pray on their desks
near the Pantex facility.

Pipers and cranes tear out
crazy from the deadfall.

My friends beg over the radio, squawk,
needing assurance, needing forcasts.

I tell them all is well.
We have destroyed everything.

NOTE: This old poem was once posted then taken down. The title comes from ARCLIGHT, the code name for B-52 air strikes during the Vietnam War. Pantex refers to the facility in Amarillo, Texas, that assembled nuclear weapons during the Cold War. For those who weren't around in 1967, the test pattern was a familiar sight on televisions at late hours before and after station signoff. It was often accompanied by single electronic tone that resembled the one used on TV during civil defense tests. The first draft of this poem was composed entirely in my head in bed after waking up one morning. This is a very unusual process for me, and may account for the hallucinatory nature and its bi-location in Vietnam and Texas. One image is stolen from a William Faulkner novel, too.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Inferno XV: Invasion

Public domain image


The bears fire.
The Paduans guard their villages.
The heat made them so remote
I had to eye a new moon,
sharpen an old needle,
scrutinize a family,
recognize a marvel!

I stretched his arm.
“Are you Brunetto?”

And he: “Let the trail go on.”

I said: “Down with you
a hundred years,
and afterward eternal doom.”

Down the road as one serene
I appeared glorious.
I judged life beautiful
prematurely seeing heaven
and malignant people:
sweet bear fruit.
The world proclaims them
avaricious, envious, proud.
Take heed of their customs.
One party shall be the grass,
litter, the beasts upon their dunghill.

My mind is fixed;
my heart good.
In the world I am grateful
that my language can reach fortune.
I am ready.

Therefore, the mattock
On his right cheek, I:
“Brunetto, I ask who you are.”

He: “Others were silent.”

I say: “Behold! New smoke yonder.
A people live no more.”

Then he turned and seemed to be
one of those, seemed to be among them:
one who loses.

Inferno: Canto XV, Longellow, tr.

Now bears us onward one of the hard margins,   And so the brooklet's mist o'ershadows it,   From fire it saves the water and the dikes.  Even as the Flemings, 'twixt Cadsand and Bruges,   Fearing the flood that tow'rds them hurls itself,   Their bulwarks build to put the sea to flight;  And as the Paduans along the Brenta,   To guard their villas and their villages,   Or ever Chiarentana feel the heat;  In such similitude had those been made,   Albeit not so lofty nor so thick,   Whoever he might be, the master made them.  Now were we from the forest so remote,   I could not have discovered where it was,   Even if backward I had turned myself,  When we a company of souls encountered,   Who came beside the dike, and every one   Gazed at us, as at evening we are wont  To eye each other under a new moon,   And so towards us sharpened they their brows   As an old tailor at the needle's eye.  Thus scrutinised by such a family,   By some one I was recognised, who seized   My garment's hem, and cried out, "What a marvel!"  And I, when he stretched forth his arm to me,   On his baked aspect fastened so mine eyes,   That the scorched countenance prevented not  His recognition by my intellect;   And bowing down my face unto his own,   I made reply, "Are you here, Ser Brunetto?"  And he: "May't not displease thee, O my son,   If a brief space with thee Brunetto Latini   Backward return and let the trail go on."  I said to him: "With all my power I ask it;   And if you wish me to sit down with you,   I will, if he please, for I go with him."  "O son," he said, "whoever of this herd   A moment stops, lies then a hundred years,   Nor fans himself when smiteth him the fire.  Therefore go on; I at thy skirts will come,   And afterward will I rejoin my band,   Which goes lamenting its eternal doom."  I did not dare to go down from the road   Level to walk with him; but my head bowed   I held as one who goeth reverently.  And he began: "What fortune or what fate   Before the last day leadeth thee down here?   And who is this that showeth thee the way?"  "Up there above us in the life serene,"   I answered him, "I lost me in a valley,   Or ever yet my age had been completed.  But yestermorn I turned my back upon it;   This one appeared to me, returning thither,   And homeward leadeth me along this road."  And he to me: "If thou thy star do follow,   Thou canst not fail thee of a glorious port,   If well I judged in the life beautiful.  And if I had not died so prematurely,   Seeing Heaven thus benignant unto thee,   I would have given thee comfort in the work.  But that ungrateful and malignant people,   Which of old time from Fesole descended,   And smacks still of the mountain and the granite,  Will make itself, for thy good deeds, thy foe;   And it is right; for among crabbed sorbs   It ill befits the sweet fig to bear fruit.  Old rumour in the world proclaims them blind;   A people avaricious, envious, proud;   Take heed that of their customs thou do cleanse thee.  Thy fortune so much honour doth reserve thee,   One party and the other shall be hungry   For thee; but far from goat shall be the grass.  Their litter let the beasts of Fesole   Make of themselves, nor let them touch the plant,   If any still upon their dunghill rise,  In which may yet revive the consecrated   Seed of those Romans, who remained there when   The nest of such great malice it became."  "If my entreaty wholly were fulfilled,"   Replied I to him, "not yet would you be   In banishment from human nature placed;  For in my mind is fixed, and touches now   My heart the dear and good paternal image   Of you, when in the world from hour to hour  You taught me how a man becomes eternal;   And how much I am grateful, while I live   Behoves that in my language be discerned.  What you narrate of my career I write,   And keep it to be glossed with other text   By a Lady who can do it, if I reach her.  This much will I have manifest to you;   Provided that my conscience do not chide me,   For whatsoever Fortune I am ready.  Such handsel is not new unto mine ears;   Therefore let Fortune turn her wheel around   As it may please her, and the churl his mattock."  My Master thereupon on his right cheek   Did backward turn himself, and looked at me;   Then said: "He listeneth well who noteth it."  Nor speaking less on that account, I go   With Ser Brunetto, and I ask who are   His most known and most eminent companions.  And he to me: "To know of some is well;   Of others it were laudable to be silent,   For short would be the time for so much speech.  Know them in sum, that all of them were clerks,   And men of letters great and of great fame,   In the world tainted with the selfsame sin.  Priscian goes yonder with that wretched crowd,   And Francis of Accorso; and thou hadst seen there   If thou hadst had a hankering for such scurf,  That one, who by the Servant of the Servants   From Arno was transferred to Bacchiglione,   Where he has left his sin-excited nerves.  More would I say, but coming and discoursing   Can be no longer; for that I behold   New smoke uprising yonder from the sand.  A people comes with whom I may not be;   Commended unto thee be my Tesoro,   In which I still live, and no more I ask."  Then he turned round, and seemed to be of those   Who at Verona run for the Green Mantle   Across the plain; and seemed to be among them  The one who wins, and not the one who loses.  

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Inferno XIV: The Old Poet's Story

Ox Herding Picture 10 by Rinzai Zen monk Shobun,
15th Century
 The Old Poet's Story

"My native place
constrained me.
Then came the confine,
the second where justice
is manifest upon its bed.
About as sad was fashion
made to be dreaded,
that which naked souls beheld
weeping over a law
drawn up about
who were less,
who fall upon the ground

Descending, shaking,
I ripen, become aware,

'Am I dead?
Forge, force, torment, complete me!
Kings own ornaments.
So downward I enter
the gate whose threshold
no one is denied.'

These words I prayed wasted,
king of a moutain
worn out.
a grand old man who shoulders
refined, pure, kiln-baked clay
and stands."

So he narrated,
and I journeyed far
to new amazement and found
silent rain, water
where the burning are extinguished.

Inferno: Canto XIV, Longfellow, tr.

Because the charity of my native place   Constrained me, gathered I the scattered leaves,   And gave them back to him, who now was hoarse.  Then came we to the confine, where disparted   The second round is from the third, and where   A horrible form of Justice is beheld.  Clearly to manifest these novel things,   I say that we arrived upon a plain,   Which from its bed rejecteth every plant;  The dolorous forest is a garland to it   All round about, as the sad moat to that;   There close upon the edge we stayed our feet.  The soil was of an arid and thick sand,   Not of another fashion made than that   Which by the feet of Cato once was pressed.  Vengeance of God, O how much oughtest thou   By each one to be dreaded, who doth read   That which was manifest unto mine eyes!  Of naked souls beheld I many herds,   Who all were weeping very miserably,   And over them seemed set a law diverse.  Supine upon the ground some folk were lying;   And some were sitting all drawn up together,   And others went about continually.  Those who were going round were far the more,   And those were less who lay down to their torment,   But had their tongues more loosed to lamentation.  O'er all the sand-waste, with a gradual fall,   Were raining down dilated flakes of fire,   As of the snow on Alp without a wind.  As Alexander, in those torrid parts   Of India, beheld upon his host   Flames fall unbroken till they reached the ground.  Whence he provided with his phalanxes   To trample down the soil, because the vapour   Better extinguished was while it was single;  Thus was descending the eternal heat,   Whereby the sand was set on fire, like tinder   Beneath the steel, for doubling of the dole.  Without repose forever was the dance   Of miserable hands, now there, now here,   Shaking away from off them the fresh gleeds.  "Master," began I, "thou who overcomest   All things except the demons dire, that issued   Against us at the entrance of the gate,  Who is that mighty one who seems to heed not   The fire, and lieth lowering and disdainful,   So that the rain seems not to ripen him?"  And he himself, who had become aware   That I was questioning my Guide about him,   Cried: "Such as I was living, am I, dead.  If Jove should weary out his smith, from whom   He seized in anger the sharp thunderbolt,   Wherewith upon the last day I was smitten,  And if he wearied out by turns the others   In Mongibello at the swarthy forge,   Vociferating, 'Help, good Vulcan, help!'  Even as he did there at the fight of Phlegra,   And shot his bolts at me with all his might,   He would not have thereby a joyous vengeance."  Then did my Leader speak with such great force,   That I had never heard him speak so loud:   "O Capaneus, in that is not extinguished  Thine arrogance, thou punished art the more;   Not any torment, saving thine own rage,   Would be unto thy fury pain complete."  Then he turned round to me with better lip,   Saying: "One of the Seven Kings was he   Who Thebes besieged, and held, and seems to hold  God in disdain, and little seems to prize him;   But, as I said to him, his own despites   Are for his breast the fittest ornaments.  Now follow me, and mind thou do not place   As yet thy feet upon the burning sand,   But always keep them close unto the wood."  Speaking no word, we came to where there gushes   Forth from the wood a little rivulet,   Whose redness makes my hair still stand on end.  As from the Bulicame springs the brooklet,   The sinful women later share among them,   So downward through the sand it went its way.  The bottom of it, and both sloping banks,   Were made of stone, and the margins at the side;   Whence I perceived that there the passage was.  "In all the rest which I have shown to thee   Since we have entered in within the gate   Whose threshold unto no one is denied,  Nothing has been discovered by thine eyes   So notable as is the present river,   Which all the little flames above it quenches."  These words were of my Leader; whence I prayed him   That he would give me largess of the food,   For which he had given me largess of desire.  "In the mid-sea there sits a wasted land,"   Said he thereafterward, "whose name is Crete,   Under whose king the world of old was chaste.  There is a mountain there, that once was glad   With waters and with leaves, which was called Ida;   Now 'tis deserted, as a thing worn out.  Rhea once chose it for the faithful cradle   Of her own son; and to conceal him better,   Whene'er he cried, she there had clamours made.  A grand old man stands in the mount erect,   Who holds his shoulders turned tow'rds Damietta,   And looks at Rome as if it were his mirror.  His head is fashioned of refined gold,   And of pure silver are the arms and breast;   Then he is brass as far down as the fork.  From that point downward all is chosen iron,   Save that the right foot is of kiln-baked clay,   And more he stands on that than on the other.  Each part, except the gold, is by a fissure   Asunder cleft, that dripping is with tears,   Which gathered together perforate that cavern.  From rock to rock they fall into this valley;   Acheron, Styx, and Phlegethon they form;   Then downward go along this narrow sluice  Unto that point where is no more descending.   They form Cocytus; what that pool may be   Thou shalt behold, so here 'tis not narrated."  And I to him: "If so the present runnel   Doth take its rise in this way from our world,   Why only on this verge appears it to us?"  And he to me: "Thou knowest the place is round,   And notwithstanding thou hast journeyed far,   Still to the left descending to the bottom,  Thou hast not yet through all the circle turned.   Therefore if something new appear to us,   It should not bring amazement to thy face."  And I again: "Master, where shall be found   Lethe and Phlegethon, for of one thou'rt silent,   And sayest the other of this rain is made?"  "In all thy questions truly thou dost please me,"   Replied he; "but the boiling of the red   Water might well solve one of them thou makest.  Thou shalt see Lethe, but outside this moat,   There where the souls repair to lave themselves,   When sin repented of has been removed."  Then said he: "It is time now to abandon   The wood; take heed that thou come after me;   A way the margins make that are not burning,  And over them all vapours are extinguished."