Archive for April 20th, 2014

“It hurts, but you won’t die.” Stanford poet Rodney Koeneke on Dante and omelettes

Sunday, April 20th, 2014
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purgatorio

Purgatorio’s Canto 27: Botticelli’s version

Yesterday’s “Company of Authors” event exceeded expectations – and we can expect a lot. Peter Stansky‘s annual recap of Stanford books was an intellectual shake-up – as he put it afterwards, “I think it is pretty exhilarating to hear what is going on at Stanford in terms of splendid writing.”

koeneke

Not jangly at all.

And what of my little panel on “The Power of Poetry,” which I described a few days ago? I must confess that I had a little trepidation about Rodney Koeneke‘s Etruria (Wave Books, 2014). He is an early member of the Flarf Collective, “a group of poets working in loose collaboration on an email listserve, mining the internet for their work, producing jangly, cut-up textures, speediness, and bizarre trajectories,” as I explained at the event. We at the Book Haven try to be avant-garde, really, but still… so imagine my surprise when out of his mouth rolled this lovely meditation about a subject dear to our hearts, Dante Alighieri – echoing Robert Harrison‘s insistence of movement as a theme of the Divine Comedy in general, and of the Purgatorio, in particular, since it’s the only one of the three realms in which time exists – we wrote about that here

The affinity is not happenstance: Rodney said that reading Stanford’s John Freccero and teaching Purgatorio Stanford students years ago were “two sparks for the poem” – then he added, “so it’s nice to have it come home, as it were, to the Haven.”  Our pleasure. Poem below.

As for the panel itself?  Said Rodney: “Only Peter Stanksy could put a scramble of authors together like that and make it an omelette.”

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La Chevy Nova

Etruria_final_for_website_1024x1024

One of the great pivots in Christian history
occurs near the end of canto 27 of Dante’s Purgatorio, a
canto that opens with the pilgrim comparing the dying sky
to Christ’s vermillion wounds (note the “sun”
deftly figured here as “son”) and the Ebro
and the Ganges, which are rivers,
are empurpled—made royal—by noon
and a glad angel shows up to sing gladly
about the flame that will burn but also purifies,
which our pilgrim by the end of the canto will have to go through
like the muscles behind or just on top of the knee can burn
at the end of a long run, or perhaps (and here’s the pivot)
like the burning some do when they go from a car
at night’s end in a remote parking lot
where nothing is unseemly or sordid
but does in a fashion burn, but also does it purify
as history considered in its Christian dimension must also purify?

Dante, you’ll remember, has spent the preceding cantiche
skillfully working his personal crotchets
into a gargantuan cosmic structure — “I vividly recalled
the human bodies I had once seen burned” —
with his obduracy not once being softened;
yet he manages to nest this ugly effort
in the larger project of turning his passion for the dead Beatrice
into a redemptive program for himself, for time, the reeling stars,
the fishes, the beestes, the air and everything in it
itself and finally, one might point out, for movement itself
which is seen at the end from its center and revealed as an aspect of love.

Structure is on fire, and tercets are on fire, and process
is on fire, and motion is on fire; while the poem has learned
to preen and turn, pivot on, and no longer hurts, or points
at a world, or even at its status as an internally consistent
verbal object, only at the most tiresome conditions
of its own production.
.  .                                   . But I gaze at you and I burn
with a new vernacular; I see you, and I see vermillion,
your color—vermillion in the stoplights
and the stoplights ranged as stars
like the stars could spell out ‘B-E-A-T-R-I-C-E’
and would if they weren’t so dim and talky, stuck
in their orbits where it’s safe to promise love — “it
hurts, but you won’t die”—and you stew in a tepid
amor amicitiae, Socrates spooning
with Alicibiades, warm under sheets
against philosophy’s cold stars:
“It hurts, but you won’t die.”

That even a wound, even now, could make things pure
is enough to count me bitten
returned to the pivoting folds of this world:
count me hurt, count me bitten
Gulls distribute themselves over Oakland’s industrial center
like I leave you, come back to be near you
where I hear their glad song, or watch them scatter gladly
over the beautiful chords of this world;
and beautiful are the chords of this world
with you and everything in it;
Beautiful the Ebro above the phone lines
emitting its fine vermillion into morning
so pleasing to mine and to everybody’s eyes.
So do I live to look at you and so
does everyone: It hurts, but I won’t die —
a little sun, a little wound
“but through that little space I saw the stars.”