July: and among the many current sadnesses, I am afraid I must add another: as his wife the poet Diane Vreuls informed me recently, Stuart Friebert passed away on June 23rd. You can find the obituary here. Stuart was an early and faithful adopter of Plume; I think he wrote to me after our very first issue, offering words of praise (surely unmerited then) and encouragement – and he continued that habit until just weeks before his death. Usually within hours after receiving the Plume Newsletter, I could count on seeing his name in my inbox. As the years rolled on, as with so many others from whom I have heard of late, Stuart became a friend, a guide and mentor, a confessor and father-figure. I won’t bother even to try to list his accomplishments, let alone his interests. Suffice it to say, he was one of the most learned men I’ve ever encountered – and never one to flash that erudition. Simply a joy to know – courteous, generous, and funny as hell. Oh, the stories! In this issue, in partial tribute, we run six of his poems, the last he sent to Plume. Partial, because his former student and great friend (and Plume poet) Dore Kiesselbach is working on a Special Feature dedicated to Stuart, with contributions – and anecdotes of their own, no doubt – from, among others, Wayne Miller, Chris Santiago, David St. John, Linda Gregerson, and Bruce Weigl – and more to come. I’ll keep you apprised of Dore’s progress. – a work of love, a gesture of respect for a great man.
All that said, and still with a skittery, grieving heart, a singular pleasure now to hand the mic to Joseph Campana, who will speak to us of Kevin Young’s poem to accompany a canto from Dante’s Inferno, the first of two installments on the project.
Dante, Rauschenberg, Kevin Young
As poems persist, they change. We are, ourselves, part of that change. The longer a poem lives, the more lives through which it filters, acquiring along the way the scent and taste of peoples and places perhaps unimaginable to the author. This summer, I’ve been teaching Dante whose Inferno has passed through so many tongues, in translation, and through so many hands, in the remaking in a myriad of arts and media. Reading the poem is like living, for a brief time, in a kaleidoscope, dizzying and spectacular. At the end of a long poetic journey of reading, I wonder what it is I’ve left behind in the process.
Of the many, magnificent re-creations of Dante’s Inferno, Robert Rauschenberg’s “Thirty-four Illustrations for Dante’s Inferno” ranks high not least of which because the Museum of Modern Art, in a recent catalogue of the works, asked Kevin Young and Robin Coste Lewis to write poems accompanying each canto. The results are uncanny and spectacular, so this will be the first of two poems I’ll share, this month Kevin Young and next Robin Coste Lewis: one each for the two cantos I find most potent, most harrowing, most undeniable.
By the thirteenth canto readers are, more or less, used to what a journey through hell will be like. Dante the pilgrim keeps expressing surprise at what he sees, which Dante the poet put there (you can see how skepticism about this author might arise along the way). We know he is not surprised but these are the rules of the game. Wandering into a strange and brutal wood, Virgil encourages Dante to break off a branch because he could not believe what will happen. I’ve been teaching Michael Palma’s translation which renders the moment:
break off a little branch, you will soon see
that what you are thinking will be broken too. Inferno 13.28-30
The focus, here, is on Dante’s mindset not on the cost that will come. It is his poem, after all, and Dante the Pilgrim has been brought to hell to have his mind blown. But this is the wood of suicides, and although Dante here remakes an ancient epic trope of a speaking, bleeding tree, featured, also in Virgil’s Aeneid, he does so to even more devastating effect. “Why are you tearing me?” he hears, and “Why are you mangling me? Have you no spirit of pity in your heart?” (Inferno 13.33, 35-6). Punishments in Inferno being what they are, it is no surprise that Kevin Young describes The Inferno as a “revenge fantasy.” Certainly, Dante’s enemies figure prominently in Inferno, but this feels different. Nor does Dante display sympathy, as he did for Francesca da Rimini in canto five, the extravagant force of which caused him to blackout. These bleeding trees offer pain unassimilated, raw and entangling.
Certainly, that was Rauschenberg’s tactic in these layered works. In the image for canto thirteen, little color interrupts a dense patchwork of charcoal suggesting a tangle of forest, although a couple hints of rust, like dried blood, dot the image. Near the bottom, a tree seems to sprout from the back of a ghost-like figure bowed perhaps in pain. And once you see it, you realize a few other figures emerge from the chaos above, fragile emergences of the human in an unmanageable landscape.
With respect to suicide, Dante seems little more than a spokesman for the opinions of his age, which considered it a sin and a betrayal of a divinely created thing: the human body. Even at the final judgment, when, according to medieval theology, the dead would be bodily resurrected, the suicides will not, for “It would not be fit / that what we steal from ourselves we have again.” You feel the weight of bodies in hell, consistently. Here more than perhaps anywhere else.
It’s not enough to say this is upsetting to read, to teach, this part of the poem. Every time I do, I think of my first friend in Houston—a colleague at my university, an Italianist, a lover of Ariosto, and a devoted teacher—who took his own life. I try to remember him, here in this wood despite the grim environs Dante has built around me. Would it were otherwise. I say his name to my students or to anyone who might ask what I’m reading. So, I’m saying his name, here, to you: Edward Milton Anderson, or Ted to his friends. To quote another ancient poem: frater ave atque vale.
And maybe that’s why Kevin Young’s response to the canto is so haunting. It, too, is full of the questions never to be answered, even as attitudes towards suicide and the treatment of the illnesses behind it, are not what they were in Dante’s time.
Why do they do
Why? Yet all I
can think to ask
is how. Enormous
thorn. Bleeding leaf.
other end of the line.
O wounded soul,
For Dante, it’s grim fascination. For most of the rest if us, it’s an unceasing, nagging question. No explanations suffice, no matter how correct they may be. Sometimes loss will not, for anything, yield up its secrets to us. We can only apprehend it obliquely, as a haunting spectacle in a dark wood where trees bleed and speak. No doubt that’s the “how” that Young find’s fascinating in these potently dense lines. And isn’t that the other thing that we ask for in these moments: “O wounded soul, speak.” That the person we’ve lost would have done so earlier. We imagine we would have kept them from the dark woods. It’s not a realistic thought, but like a dream in the woods it is, perhaps, all we have.
Once more: If you enjoyed Joseph Campana’s piece in this newsletter, and last month’s — and how could you not? — all of the Plume newsletters are now archived under, well, Archives, on our homepage.
Ah…this, from Plume’s Leeya Mehta, whose new book of poems is worth celebrating:
Plume’s Associate Editor-at-Large Leeya Mehta’s new collection of poems, A Story of The World Before The Fence is ready for pre-order here. Tim Seibles says, it is “a lush, lyrical study of memory and history.”
Leeya was born into a Parsi Zoroastrian family in Bombay, her great muse. The Zoroastrian Parsis of India trace their descent in different waves from Persia over the last thousand years. There are about a hundred thousand Parsis remaining in the world. Mehta’s collection begins with her prize-winning poem from the Atlanta Review, imagining the journey these imagined ancestors made to 10th Century India to find sanctuary.
From there, we travel across continents to arrive in America, with all its paradoxes. Many of her poems are set in the forests and rivers of contemporary Washington DC, where “magnificent stags, with brown antlers rising up in the fog, / guard the undergrowth, as if it is full of diamond fern.” Washington has inspired Mehta to explore the intimate space of the family and how it relates to the physical geography of cities and nature, giving us the title line of her book, from the series, Fences.
Says fellow Plume contributor, Randi Ward: “Her haunting poems, with their hard-won wisdom and exquisite imagery, serve as ‘a warning that the screws of love sit deep in the bone’ despite—yet, perhaps, because of—the various forms of exile that complicate identities, relationships, and senses of place. A Story of the World Before the Fence acknowledges ‘how barriers can keep / wandering spirits separate from those they love,’ but it nevertheless consoles us with the miracle that is laughter: a universal language that can still anchor us to one another and help us learn to forgive ourselves for what we have lost along the way.”