September: and I hope this finds you well. First, I want to thank all of you who sent texts and emails or posted FB comments expressing your appreciation of the beauty of last month’s cover art, Black Orchid. How much one wants to say, via an image – a truth, but aslant, as the poet says. Speaking of cover art – segue (imagine if you know the Seth Meyers show, a painted sea captain’s bark) — this month’s comes from Alfredo Lam, hisAnnonciation de Aime Cesaire. While previously unfamiliar, philistine that I am, with the visual artist, I have long been enchanted with the poet’s work: I think – ah, memory — I first encountered Cesaire in the mid-70s seminal work, from Michael Benedikt, The Poetry of Surrealism: An Anthology. The usual suspects, save for Cesaire, whose poetry astonished and delighted me, of course; however, as I followed the breadcrumbs, I learned more: his early examination of the colonial experience in a long poem, Cahier d’un retour au pays natal, and his devastating, moving plays somewhat on similar themes, especially Une Tempête and La Tragédie du roi Christophe. Artist, chronicler of the African diaspora, historian, president of the regional council for the French départements d’outremer, his was a life ennobled (how he would have resisted that moniker) and useful, his work revolutionary and timeless. If you haven’t read him, and I’ve barely scratched the surface, or it’s been a while, I urge you to take a look; you won’t regret it.
Now, we turn, as usual, to Plume Contributing Editor Joseph Campana, and his assay of one Dante’s more famous cantos from The Inferno, and Robin Coste Lewis’s response to it. Enjoy!
September, the month of the beginning of autumn—or so it was where I grew up. Here in Houston, summer usually still intensifies, week by week, until at least October. Then there are the storms, hurricane season running until late November, although Houston usually breathes a sigh of relief much earlier than that. Not this year? Almost this year, would be more accurate, as Laura was one of two storms hurtling toward us. And then the storm curled away. Our good fortune was someone else’s ruin—in this case, Lake Charles, Louisiana. That’s the way of storm, the violence of nature, in the end, arbitrary or at least only partly amenable to human calculation.
I’m thinking of this near-miss as I prepare to write about a poem that has little to do with storm although much to do with nature. Continuing on from last month, I’m thinking again of Robert Rauschenberg’s “Thirty-four Illustrations for Dante’s Inferno” and the Museum of Modern Art catalogue featuring accompanying poems by Kevin Young and Robin Coste Lewis. Last month, Kevin Young’s meditation on the wood of suicides haunted me. This month, it’s the tactics of Robin Coste Lewis that draw my attention in her approach to one of the more controversial and moving of episodes in Dante’s Inferno: the encounter with Dante’s teacher and mentor Brunetto Latini, who Dante finds, to his “surprise” in the circle of the sodomites, those punished for committing violence against nature.
Kevin Young’s re-writings of Dante feature a compressed, lyric tercet that works through distillation. Robin Coste Lewis works on the other end of the spectrum than her magnificent Voyage of the Sable Venus. That award-winning debut builds from the accumulation of the past, the title poem being crafted out of millennia of titles of works of art that feature or refer to black women. If the task of Voyage is to restore and reanimate history, then these Dante poems work through obscuration and erasure, selecting and shaping from John Ciardi’s 1954 translation of The Inferno.
This stone margin: Now.
This shade flaming.
Constant threat of deluge.
The shores drown in spring’s torrent. The plan not so wide nor high.
Who designed this crossing so far from the woods?
The Dark Road pointing us toward the needle’s eye.
Both sides hunger but never reach the grass.
We were all clerks of the one same crime—
If you have any longing, run!
Before I talk about the text erased or the context of the scene, I should say I’m drawn to utterances here that distill what it means to be violent against nature, which, it seems, is to be guilty of overwhelming desire. The flaming shade, the threat of deluge, the shores drowning in rain: all these are images of nature out balance. And they coincide with indications of overwhelming need: “both sides hunger but never reach the grass.” No doubt that’s why we hear the closing injunction, “If you have any longing, run!” The poem seems to suggest a larger amplitude: “we were all clerks of the one same crime.” We all desire and therefore we all experience the violence of nature and do violence to nature. Or so it seems. And isn’t it better to open the door wider? Isn’t it best to acknowledge a more universal tendency?
In Dante’s original, the poet’s meeting with his mentor is a surprise. Neither can believe the other is there, and the two are separate by some height, as the teacher walks below his student who walks atop a wall. The sodomites are forced to run endlessly around a burning plain, their crime against nature being, in the end, a lack of productivity in the form of progeny. Yet this is also the man, in Ciardi’s translation, about whom Dante says:
“Ah, had I all my wish,” I answered then,
“You would not yet be banished from the world
In which you were a radiance among men” Inferno 15.79-81
This is the teacher, Dante says, who “taught me how man makes himself eternal.” High praise, no? The encounter is sweet, which is why it is also so disturbing. If Dante truly admires Latini, why would he also punish him so? “Because he had to no matter the personal cost” seems the insufficient if most common answer. Dante’s dedication to virtue requires Latini suffer the consequences of even one grave sin in an otherwise exemplary life. Also, notable, historically, is the fact that the sole charge of sodomy leveled against this poet and early humanist comes from Dante, which is also the case of several of the other men named in the canto.
Hundreds have pages have been spilled on this canto. What was sodomy in the era? What kind of condemnation are we talking about? Is this a commentary on men who love other men or on something else? Is this a moment when Dante, as so often seem to be the case, acts with blazing hypocrisy or one in which he undercuts the severity of his judgments with the balm of devotion to a charismatic sinner?
More pressing, just now, is the question of what we might call the ethics of erasure. As an exercise in a seminar, I asked my students not to erase Inferno 15 but to re-translate it, based on reading three different English translations of the poem. Two of my students made a choice that resonates with Robin Coste Lewis. They didn’t like the idea that fame—literary or otherwise—should be for men alone, and this is very much a canto of The Inferno in which the desires of men, for good and for ill, are on display. And Dante writes in a moment of history in which humanism is emerging as a devotion to knowledge and teaching that is primarily for, about, and by men.
This is not a judgment Inferno can avoid. And my students who wonder about this episode and who wonder about the role of women in the poem. The history of poetry is and should be for everyone. The doors of this poem, and many others, should open wider. Engaging with the poetry of the past is one way ensuring it happens. But what happened in those translations happens too in Robin Coste Lewis’ erasure. In generalizing the conditions of desire, the specificity disappears. I can only say I appreciate the gesture of opening in an equal proportion to my disappointment in the disappearance of a certain specificity. I say that as a man who loves men and who habitually finds himself wondering where he is located as he reads.
At the end of Inferno 15, Brunetto Latini leaves to rejoin the circle of runners. To Dante he appears “like one of those who run / for the green clth at Verona; and of those, / more like the one who wins, than those who lose.” Dante wants to see his mentor as a winner, which betrays that characteristic sweetness tinged with damnation. I’d like to see every engagement with the poetry of the past as a win of a certain kind. And I do. Erasure is a kind of destructive making—exhilarating, at times, in its results. We cannot, nor should we, hold on to everything from the past, lest we become cultural hoarders rather than curators of the past. And yet, triumphs sing in equal proportion to the losses that sting.
Those seeking more information on Robin Coste Lewis might begin here
For biographical material on Joseph Campana, A Plume Contributing Editor, see the staff page
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.
Our cover art is Alfredo Lam’s Annonciation de Aime Cesaire For more information on the artist and his subject, perhaps start here
Finally, as usual, a few new/recently/forthcoming releases from Plume contributors: