Fifty Gestures of Love, in honor of William Gass.

25 now, 25 to follow, with many thanks

1) In The Odyssey, there’s Penelope’s more intimate test of this stranger who claims to be her husband — after he’s gotten through the messy, public business of slaughtering all her suitors down in the castle hall.

2) Of course Penelope has enacted some significant gestures of love herself, during the course of her man’s wanderings, most especially the way she’s undone, every night, the shroud she’s been weaving every day, the funeral shroud for the former king, while meantime promising the suitors: just as soon as the shroud’s done…

3) But now this fellow claims to be the once and future king, and he’s proven pretty impressive, plus their son Telemachus accepts the story, the boy’s helped to cut all the pretenders to ribbons, and now the stranger stands in the bedroom, and so it’s time she too sprang a test on him. Continue reading


Dante 2020-6: Tower, Tree, Candle, & the Triumph of the Fragile.

The Divine Comedy has its end, after 3X9 spirals rendered in 100 evenly distributed cantos, and it’s about time my posts about the Poem wrap up too.   The big question that’s kept me on BIG OTHER: why should so complex a work, about places and beliefs that have long since ceased to matter, actually continue growing in impact, now nearly 700 years after it was completed?  Earlier posts have raised that question, then looked at Inferno, then Purgatory,  then Paradiso, and after that begun to provide an answer.  Now, (with a last salute to Southwest Review, where all this appeared in very different form) I reach final conclusions.

My Universal Field Theory for the Poem’s continuing appeal hardly springs, full-grown, from my brow alone.   Continue reading

Dante 2020-5: the Intimate Erases the Monolith.

BIG OTHER, gracious blog, has been letting me post my ideas about Dante’s Divine Comedy.  The basic question: Why should so long and formal a piece of work, coming up on its 700th birthday and all about notions of faith hardly anyone believes in, still enjoy enormous contemporary impact?  Earlier stages of my investigation have laid out the problem,  then looked at Inferno, then Purgatory, then Paradise.  Also I have to thank Southwest Review, where this material appeared in considerably different form.  Now, I begin to see what I can make of the whole.

The core of my Comedy, then, resides in these three end-of-the-road images: the the slum-tower, the the garden-tree, and softer lights of Heaven.  In concert, I would argue, they enact something more ambivalent than a “conversion narrative.” Continue reading

Dante 2020-4: Big Lights & Small Grapple in Paradise.

Three times, recently, I’ve posted my ideas about Dante’s Divine Comedy.  I’m exploring why a long poem coming up on its 700th birthday, one with a form and a theology that few people care about any longer, should have such enormous contemporary impact. The earlier stages of my investigation are here, here, and here, and again I have to thank Southwest Review, where these ideas appeared in a different form.  Now, Paradise, with a sketch from Sandro Botticelli to begin with.

The Comedy’s last canticle demands a move away from the familiar.  The realm of the Blest must come across as something else again, and it does, with glowing cross-galaxy swoops and landings that suggest computer animation, centuries ahead of its time.  But then the subject has no truck with time; it exists outside time.  Nor should anybody confuse actual Paradise with its faint simulacrum, the Earthly Paradise.  The flowers and waters of the Empyrean, in the final cantos, recall the peak of Purgatory, but they’ve gone unearthly.

A key example, both for what’s special about Paradise and for my larger argument, is the “stream” that forms the border to Highest Heaven, in Canto XXX.  In keeping with the mad experiment Dante conducts throughout the canticle, this stream is not a stream.  Rather it’s a ribbon of mosaic, now jewels and now flames, an infinite flow of innocent sensuality and envy-free abundance.  All this has been distilled, somehow, from the Celestial Rose beyond. Continue reading

Dante 2020-3: Cleansing as Carnival, Tree as Anchor.

Twice in recent days, I’ve posted stages in a developing idea about Dante’s Divine Comedy.  The work is coming up on its 700th birthday, yet its impact seems greater than ever, and we have to ask why.  My own answer appeared first, in different form, in Southwest Review.  Now, we climb towards salvation, led on by William Blake’s depiction of a bizarre parade from Purgatory .

The closing of this canticle offers no small assortment of the strange.  The phantasmagoric charade up in the Earthly Paradise, in Cantos XXIX, XXX, and XXXII, present Christianity as acid trip, the faith in hallucinatory allegory.  Continue reading

Dante 2020, or How Does That Guy Get Away with a Fedora?

Struggling to deliver for BIG OTHER, I’ve kept coming back to the following, on Dante and his Divine Comedy. In different form, longer, the essay first appeared in Southwest Review.  My thanks to the editor, Willard Spiegelman, for allowing me to adapt the piece, and to John M. and other OTHERs, for urging me on.  I’ll put up what I’ve got to say up in portions, one every two or three days.  For starters:

I crown and miter you lord of yourself!

— Virgil to Dante, as they exit Purgatory
(Musa translation, Canto XXVII, line 142)

Those who read this will likely participate in the eighth century of discussion concerning The Divine Comedy.  Clean copies of the finished canticles, with all their intellectual sizzle and range, their right-on humanity and intertextual strutwork, and above all their poetic command, flexible, profound, precise — with all that intact already, the completed work began to circulate in 1320, the last year of its author’s life.  Yet with 2020 less than a decade off, in every creative arena, “the Poem” (as the scholar Charles Singleton liked to call it) looms as an ever-more-common referent.

I’m not the only one to have noticed.  Joan Acocella, in The New Yorker, beefed up her ’07 review of the Hollander translation of Paradiso (with commentary, 742 pages) with a look at  20th Century Dante criticism.  She assumed that readers would go along.  Continue reading