By Chris Stanzione
When our poetry editor Millie asked me what I look for in great literature, I said that, like all great art, I look for “export,” for pieces of art that, after our interaction with them, change the way we view the world around us. To say the same thing differently: “Export” is the event of interacting with the art alters our future interactions with the world.
Of course, this is (and should be) a challenging event to experience, and is even more challenging to create. In leu of offering some rigid argument or set of definitions as to what such an event may be, or how one may be in a situation to do such a thing, I’d like to examine two poems by two poets who consistently provide such experiences to me: “The Dance” by Wendell Berry, and Canto 26 of Paradiso by Dante. My hope is that this will offer the readers of phoebe some insight into not only the critical process of one of the journal’s editors, but will provide a new entryway into interpersonal artistic discourse as well.
Berry’s poem represents (riddled with changing syntax and tension) an attempt to understand the role of love within the relationship of the self and the other. It’s central metaphor, the titular dance, is a single sentence stretched out over two stanzas, and twelve lines; its core is change. Each person to:
join and unjoin, be lost
in the greater turning
of other couples, woven
in the circle of a dance,
the song of long time flowing
over them, so they may return,
turn again in to themselves
out of desire greater than their own,
belonging to all, to each,
to the dance, and to the song (2-11)
The symbol of the dance is, most obviously, reflected in the duration of the syntax, and adornment of paratactic construction. But what else? The poem calls for the dancers to be lost in not just the dance and the song, but for them to lose themselves as well. “The greater turning” into time, into “desires greater than their own” that “belong to all, to each” and to their actions as partners in this dance suggests an ongoing process of servitude and development in which communal harmony is achieved.
But these are suggestions. How does the poem enforce them? By changing itself. It abandons the flow of unending words for pointed questions “What is fidelity? To what/does it hold?” (13-14) These lines are not the internal dialogue of the dances, nor are the questions separate from the dancing. Rather, these questions complicate the metaphor. What is a partner? What is honesty? What do we owe those in our common life? For my reading, the enjambed “what” seems crucial – not only does it complicate the syntax of the poem further, but it implies a shift into a more meditative mode of thought, as opposed to the demonstrative one heretofore.
That is not all though. The poem goes on to make two potent claims:
First that “For those/ who would not change, time/ is infidelity.” (19-21) and that the speaker, the one who is as much the describer and participant of the dance notes “By silence, so,/ I learn my song. I earn// my sunny fields by absence” (23-5). Here Berry brings the poem further into its material reality. Fidelity is to change with the dance, to recognize that our hold to fidelity is trust in the movement of time with our partners. Therefore, the silence and absence are not those of angst, but rather they are realities (songs and sunny fields) that represent change and understanding of how one is to understand their place in community.
All of this is surmised by Berry in a conclusion that is not only authoritative, but because of the machine of the poem, convincing: “Love changes and in changing is true.” (30)
If there has ever been a single poem to encapsulate the world it exists in, it is The Dive Comedy. Its pages are bound with science, philosophy, theology, and some of the most beautiful verse written in “The West.” Canto 26 of the concluding volume is no different. The pilgrim Dante, blinded in the previous canto ogling the soul of John the Evangelist, proceeds to discourse with Christ’s favorite disciple. Predictably, with an argument inline with the Thomism of the day, sight returns to Dante when he concludes that the origin of all is God, and to return to Him is their goal.
Dante brings the canto to a close with a new interlocutor: Adam. By foresight God’s first son notes of the pilgrim:
You wish to hear how long it is since I
was placed by God in that high garden where
this lady readied you to climb a stair
so long, and just how long it pleased my eyes,
and the true cause of the great anger, and
what idiom I used and shaped. My son,
the cause of my long exile did not lie
within the act of tasting of the tree,
but solely in my trespass of the boundary. (109-17)
Mendelbaum renders Dante’s verse in such a way were get a sense of the original terza rima that is invaluable for our purposes. The music of where and stair, eyes and lie, tree and boundary move us as readers through the poem’s argument. What is the argument? That in the “trespass of the boundary,” (acting in a way that betrays the nature Dante describes earlier in the canto) Adam suffered. It is not the “tasting of the tree” that caused the fall, but rather a personal legalism that betrays the goals set forth by God.
Adam goes on:
During four thousand three hundred and two
re—turnings of the sun, while I was in
that place from which your Lady sent you Virgil,
I longed for this assembly. While on earth,
I saw the sun return to all the lights
along its way, nine hundred thirty times. (118-23)
While this section is one charged with rhymes internally and at its endings, I’d like to point out the way in which Dante moves his argument forward. Adam’s misalignment with his nature has caused a suffering (a longing for God in Limbo) that lasts four and a half times the length of his time in Eden – here in the poem, as in Genesis, representing the ideal state of harmony between man and God. During this time “The tongue [Adam] spoke was all extinct before/ the men of Nimrod set their minds upon/ the unaccomplishable task” (124-6). In Dante’s time, Hebrew was thought to be the first, and thus perfect language. Here, in the absence of God’s intended good, perfect language, language for God, is transmogrified into Babble.
Dante the poet winds down the argument with one last comparison: “Before [Adam] was sent down to Hell’s torments,/ on earth, the Highest Good—from which derives/ the joy that now enfolds me—was called I” (133-5). Adam is not only the first man, but he is also the first pilgrim, the forerunner not only of Christ, but of Dante, and of us as well. The poem has moved away from the argument that occupies the first hundred or so lines, to a prophetic mode of both an indictment of mankind and a reach towards the hope of reuniting with the Ultimate Good.
It’s challenging to imagine two more different poets. Berry is a contemporary writer concerned with community, cows, and coal-mining. Dante has been dead for nearly seven-hundred years, and wrote a daunting masterpiece that is at times offensive, confusing, and always reaching past the cosmos. Yet both poets have created poems that create “export” for they challenge our notions of place, of anthropology, and our roll in nature. Berry through complicated syntax and communitarianism, and Dante through Aquinas and biblical symbolism. In their differences, they have created art that has oriented me as a reader towards the transcendental both within the material reality of the poems, and within the livid reality of my person. Art changes us, and in our changing we are true.