“Weaning” and “The Sleeper”

I’m very pleased to announce the publication of two new poems, “Weaning” and “The Sleeper”, in Antilang no. 10 — emergence. You can read the entire issue here, or skip right to my poems on this page. In either case, hitting the “fullscreen” button in the bottom right will provide the best reading experience.

These poems are about my daughters, though somewhat obliquely in the case of the first. When Perpetua was a toddler, I had to wean her very suddenly, going from nursing frequently throughout the day to nothing at all. That abrupt stop was physically painful, and my body struggled to adjust to the fact that I didn’t need to make milk anymore. “Weaning” captures a little bit of that experience.

I wrote “The Sleeper” about six months into the pandemic. Having a young baby around during most of 2020 was, in some ways, surprisingly grounding. Tertia didn’t care about germs or geopolitics, but only about the simplest aspects of our being: warmth, food in the belly, love, sleep. Tending to her needs became a way to shield myself from the greater worries of the world.

Learn more about the magazine at antilang.ca.

Going Home for Christmas / Going South

Once upon a time, I lived in a city that was a few hours north-east of my hometown. At the time I didn’t have a car (or a driver’s license, for that matter) so visiting my parents usually meant a long Greyhound trip. Sometimes, though, the train tickets went on a big enough sale that I could mentally justify the expense of the much pleasanter rail trip. I loved taking the train — still do, really.

One of the funny things about traveling between these two cities was that winter arrived in them at different times. About a decade ago I took the train home for Christmas, and while it was thoroughly cold and snowy in the city where I lived, it was really still just late fall where I was going. It was so odd to see the scenery change from winter to fall, as if a time-lapse film were playing in reverse.

Naturally, I wrote a poem about the experience. It has just been published by The Scriblerus in their Spring 2021 “travel” issue and you can read it here.

Small spring updates

Garden

The tulips are out.

Kitchen

I made lasagna today for the first time, and so the kids and I also made homemade ricotta following this recipe from America’s Test Kitchen. Dead easy, delicious, and about half the price of a tub from the store. We’ll be doing this again.

Gelatine adventures continue. I’ve been doing teas! Vanilla Rooibos is delicious in jelly form, Jasmine Green Tea a little pretty so-so. I’m thinking my next experiment will be cubed jellied Earl Grey with a sweetened condensed milk pour-over. Also I’m saving bones in the freezer to try my hand at p’tcha. More foods should have names that fun to say. P’tcha!

Words

My poem “Seclusion (A Checklist)” has been published by Jet Fuel Review (issue 21) and can be read online here. It’s part of this issue’s special section featuring golden shovel poems — a relatively new poetic form that is technically challenging and used to pay tribute to another poem or poet. The poet chooses a line by another writer, and each word of the origi line becomes the last word of each line in the new poem — such that the original line may be read down the right-hand side. Confused? I always find it a bit difficult to explain but seeing an example will make it fairly obvious.

In my case, I used a line by Christabel LaMotte, a poet who does not, technically speaking, exist; she’s a character in A. S. Byatt’s remarkable novel Possession (about which I have written here, and which also makes my list of desert island books). I was struck by the line “to drag a long life out in a dark room” in one of LaMotte’s/Byatt’s poems, and — well, click the link above if you would like to see where that took me!

Writing means to try

Right now I am about halfway through reading the first volume of Beverly Cleary’s memoirs, A Girl from Yamhill. It covers her early years, from her first memories of their family’s farm in Yamhill, to her adolescence Portland, Oregon, where her family moved when she was six. As a child, Cleary lived near Klickitat Street — a name you may recognize from the Henry Huggins and Ramona books. She was born in 1916, which makes her a few years older than my oldest grandparent, and A Girl from Yamhill is a wonderful peek into the world of children a century ago.

It’s also given me a lot to think about when I consider the craft of writing. I enjoy catching moments from Cleary’s own life that later made it into her books, like the school play in which she played a soldier, bowled over with her leg in the air after being hit with a basketball cannonball; the same thing happens in Henry’s school play. But more than that, Cleary relates an epiphany she had as a young girl of eight or nine, about the practice of writing:

If I lost something, Mother said, “You’ll have to learn to look after your things.” I did. If I was involved in a neighborhood squabble, I got no sympathy. “What did you do?” Mother always asked, leaving me with the feeling that, no matter what happened, I was to blame. “Try,” Mother often said.

And try I did. When Abendroth’s store across from Fernwood [School] announced a contest sponsored by Keds shoes for the best essay about an animal, many of my class planned to enter. I chose the beaver, because Oregon was known as the Beaver State. On green scratch paper left over from printing checks, which Father brought home from the bank, I wrote my essay and took it to Mr. Abendroth. On the final day of the contest, I ran to the store to learn the results. I had won! Mr. Abendroth handed me two dollars. Then he told me no one else had entered the contest.

This incident was one of the most valuable lessons in writing I ever learned. Try! Others will talk about writing but may never get around to trying. I also wrote a letter to the Shopping News, which published the letter and paid me a dollar.

Beverly Cleary, A Girl from Yamhill, 105.

Try! I’ve been writing poetry for years and years, since I was a girl not much older than Beverly Cleary with her beaver essay. And I’ve wanted since I was a teenager, in a vague sort of way, to be a published poet. I don’t know how I thought that would happen given that I never submitted a single line anywhere, but want it I did. In the middle of the 2010s I started sending things out — barely — just one or two poems to one or two outlets about once a year. My expectations were not realistic; when I wasn’t instantly picked up by the first places I tried, I just stopped trying. This may have soothed my feelings, but it’s not exactly a path to publication.

Last summer, though, I also came to realize that if this was really something I wanted, it meant, well, trying. Now I sit down once a month, browse open calls on submittable, and send out a big batch of poems. This takes me an evening or two; there’s a lot of fiddly work to do in making sure that I’m following each journal/magazine’s particular guidelines, picking poems that I think would be good matches for their themes or style, and the like. Mostly I submit to outlets without reading fees; occasionally I will pay a few dollars if I think I have a particularly good match. Everything goes in a spreadsheet where I keep track of what I have out for consideration, response times, acceptances, rejections, and a page just for nice things people say about my poems that I can read over when I feel like a phony. And you know what? Trying works.

Here are my current numbers:

  • Contest placements: 1
  • Accepted poems: 4
  • Withdrawn from consideration: 8
  • Rejections: 141
  • Still under consideration: 42

There are some things that have become clear to me. One is that this is a numbers game. Perhaps more than any other genre, poetry is highly subjective, and it takes time and a lot of tries to match up what you’ve written with someone who wants to publish it. The second thing is that publishers need writers. Poetry magazines and literary journals could not exist without writers submitting to them; in a way, editors need me just as much as I need them. And the final thing is that rejections are a good sign. I don’t mean that I’m never disappointed when a submission is rejected (although as time goes by this is less and less true), but rather that I can take every rejection as evidence that I’m trying, I’m putting the process in motion, and that’s a good thing.

Of course, all this trying doesn’t necessarily mean that I’ll succeed. I might keep sending things out for the next five years and never publish another poem. I don’t know, and that part of it is out of my control. But I do know this: trying gives me infinite more chances to succeed than not-trying does, and that? That is something I can work with.

Here’s to trying.

Breaditations

I’ve very excited to announce that my poem “Breaditations” has just been published by Understorey Magazine in their “Food Work” Issue (19). I wrote this poem in the early spring of this year, and it conflates my experience trying to process pandemic-related news reports with the process of baking bread. You can click through here to read it, and I encourage you to explore more of what this issue has to offer!

(Note that because of some formatting stuff, my piece will look best either on desktop, or if you turn your phone sideways to access a wider screen.)

Charles Williams on poetry

I am currently struggling through Charles William’s text The Figure of Beatrice: a Study in Dante. Don’t get me wrong; it’s a pleasant struggle, but I am feeling my dearth of a classical education here. I have no Latin, I have no Italian, and I’ve only read The Divine Comedy and none of Dante’s other work. But I’ve had this book on my shelf for a few years now and it felt like the right time to pick it up — especially since I have a hankering to re-read the Comedy, perhaps in the new year.

At any rate, I’ve been wading through Williams’s prose, dredging out such insights as I may. I am not getting as much out of this as others might, perhaps, but that doesn’t mean I’m not getting anything out of it — and last night I found a wonderful gem about poetry:

The poems (in both? certainly in both) have two meanings — literal and ‘allegorical’; he will deal with both. It is perhaps worthwhile pointing out that when a poem is said to have two meanings, both are included in the poem; we have only one set of words. The meanings, that is, are united; and the poem is their union. The poem is an image with many relevancies, and not only so, but it is itself the expressions of the relevancy of its own images to each other. The poem, not the literal or allegorical meanings, is the existing thing, the image we have to deal with; the meanings assist and enrich the line; they do not replace it (which is the danger of all — even necessary, even Dante’s — criticism and comment). One goes outside the poem, in following the meanings, but only to return; only to centre again what, for a good purpose, has been de-centred. (Williams, The Figure of Beatrice, 45)

That is a very helpful image for me, especially when we are talking about the “meaning” of a poem: there is a plain or literal meaning, and there is often a secondary allegorical or figurative meaning, and each is equally what is meant and expressed by the same words. Their meanings are in contrast to each other without being in competition with each other, because it’s the unity-in-tension that they form that is the poem.

There is a paradox here — or something that seems paradoxical to us, at any rate. But it made me think of another paradoxical image, one that surely came to mind because of Williams’s subject matter: Dante’s vision of the Trinity at the very end of Paradise, the concluding volume of The Divine Comedy. In this final canto, Dante has been granted (through the intercession of St. Bernard and the Blessed Virgin Mary, a vision of the Godhead at the centre of the created universe. He writes,

Now, even what I recall will be exprest
More feebly than if I could wield no more
Than a babe’s tongue, yet milky from the breast:

Not that the living light I looked on wore
More semblances than one, which cannot be,
For it is always what it was before;

But as my sight by seeing learned to see,
The transformation which in me took place
Transformed the single changeless form for me.

That light supreme, within its fathomless
Clear substance, showed to me three spheres, which bare
Three hues distinct, and occupied one space;

The first mirrored the next, as though it were
Rainbow from rainbow, and the third seemed flame
Breathed equally from each of the first pair.

How weak are words, and how unfit to frame
My concept — which lags after what was shown
So far, ‘twould flatter it to call it lame!

(Dante, tr. Dorothy L. Sayers and Barbara Reynolds, The Divine Comedy III: Paradise, XXXIII.106-123)

The image of three spheres occupying the same space, and yet distinct, is one which our reason has difficulty grasping — so too the doctrine of the Trinity, so too William’s image of two meanings found united in one set of words. Yet we recognize a truth in these images, even as we grapple with them in our reasoned understanding. They are not anti-reason; they are rather beyond it.

I haven’t gotten far enough along in The Image of Beatrice to get to The Divine Comedy — I just finished Williams’s chapter on the death of Beatrice and am about to start reading about the Convivio — but I am looking forward to further insights and connections when I do!

How to start reading poetry

I like poetry. I read it; I write it. Occasionally I end up talking about poetry with someone of my acquaintance, and what I often hear about it is some variation of “Oh, that’s great. I just don’t get poetry. But good for you, though.” And I think that’s sad; most of the time the impression I get is not that people don’t think poetry is worth their time, but that they think they’re not good enough, smart enough, insightful enough to engage with it. Probably their experience with poetry has been predominantly, or entirely, within the confines of a classroom. And so they conclude: I just don’t get poetry.

But really, that statement should sound as strange to us as saying “I just don’t get novels” or “I just don’t get magazine-length personal essays” or “I just don’t get television shows” — because the content, meaning, message, plot, etc. of each of these varies so widely from one to the next. We don’t watch one or two TV shows and then decide TV just isn’t for us; we recognise how broadly we need to sample before drawing that kind of conclusion. I don’t think I’m not good enough to read novels because I hated The Name of the Rose. All of these genre forms — screenplay, novel, essay, poetry, etc. — are vehicles for meaning, not the meaning itself. Poetry as a form is just one way of conveying meaning, often a highly structured way — but within the bounds of that structure, the poet has the freedom to say anything at all. Really anything: deep or shallow or profound or silly or fantastical or realistic or highly allusive or completely straightforward. I once read a lovely sonnet about mowing the lawn. (What’s more, I managed to find it again, and now you can read it too.)

But poetry has a popular reputation of being obscure, difficult, elitist, and arcane. I think a lot of it must have to do with the way that poetry is taught in schools — at least it was taught this way to me — where the emphasis is very heavily slanted towards academic analysis rather than experience or enjoyment. Now, don’t get me wrong; understanding what a poet is doing in a poem, and how they are doing it, can greatly enhance our appreciation of their work. But it still needs to be a secondary consideration. Before understanding we should be looking simply to experience a poem, to feel it out, to let it shape a response in us. Poetry is art; art is an invitation, not a treatise.

What’s the difference between understanding and experiencing? Consider this excerpt from John Ciardi’s wonderful essay, “How Does A Poem Mean?” (which I highly recommend reading in full):

The point is that the language of experience is not the language of classification. A boy burning with ambition to become a jockey does not study a text on zoology. He watches horses, he listens to what is said by those who have spent their lives around horses, he rides them, trains them, feeds them, curries them, pets them. He lives with intense feelings towards them. He may never learn how many incisors a horse has, nor how many yards of intestines. What does it matter? He is concerned with a feel, a response-to, a sense of the character and reaction of the living animal. And zoology cannot give him that. Not all the anatomizing of all the world’s horses could teach a man horse-sense.

So for poetry. The concern is not to arrive at a definition and to close the book, but to arrive at an experience. There will never be a complete system for “understanding” or for “judging” poetry. Understanding and critical judgment are admirable goals, but neither can take place until the poem has been experienced, and even then there is always some part of every good work of art that can never be fully explained or categorized. It still remains true that the reader who has experienced most fully will finally be the best judge.

When we start in by working to analyze and judge rather than allowing ourselves to simply experience, we get so wrapped up in trying to “figure it out” that we completely miss the point. We forget that it was written to be enjoyed, not dissected. We end up like the students in Billy Collins’s “Introduction to Poetry”:

Introduction to Poetry (by Billy Collins)

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out

or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

Do you think you’re not good enough to read poetry? Would you like to start experiencing it instead of beating it to death? Put down your hose. Relax a little. If you’ve found poetry inaccessible in the past — or if you’ve been inadvertently taught to find it inaccessible — let go of the idea that you have to understand everything that’s going on. Don’t worry about identifying or labeling each discrete element or its function within the poem. Don’t label at all. Just read — broadly, widely, with no expectation other than to receive and respond. Here are a few more tips, in no particular order, about how to get started.

1. Read around. There are hundreds of styles of poems on a million different themes out there, and the best way to find what you like is to sample widely. Go to your local library and look in sections 811 or 821 for anthologies. Try something like The Norton Anthology of Poetry or The Best American Poetry or Good Poems (ed. Garrison Keillor) for a nice broad sampling. If you prefer to read online, head over to poetryfoundation.org or rattle.com or poets.org and click on anything that looks interesting. If you find an author you like, try looking for their “Collected Works” or “Collected Poems” to sample their best.

2. Start with contemporary poets. Poetry loses some of its natural oompf when we are removed from it in time, because we don’t intuitively understand the cultural/political backdrop against which it is being written. But lots of poets are writing about things that are happening right now. A great resource for brand-new poetry is Rattle’s “Poets Respond” section, which collates poetry written in response to events in the past week, every week. As an example, here is Devon Balwit’s poem, “Jew”, responding to the recent shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.

3. Start with poetry written for children. Poetry written for children is less concerned with Imparting Great Meaning and more concerned with the joy of language, rhythm, word, and sound. Try Shel Silverstein or Edward Lear or a nice big collection of nursery rhymes.

4. If you find a poem you like, read it two or three times. Repetition often clarifies meaning (like when a shift or twist at the end changes our impression of what’s come before). Read slowly. Doing this often will help you read more attentively, to start to see what a poem is doing and how it is doing it, without the burden of formal analysis. You will understand more than you thought you could.

5. If you find a poem you don’t like, move on. Read something else. Don’t dismiss the entire genre because of a few bad reading experiences.

6. Start with more “plainspoken” poets. If you’re just venturing into poetry, jumping straight into something like T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” is probably not going to be all that helpful. This past year I have discovered some wonderful poets who write with breathtaking clarity. Try Mary Jo Salter or Billy Collins or Mary Oliver or Ted Kooser or Gwendolyn Brooks.

7. Remember that taste is subjective. You’re not obliged to like any of the poetry “greats”. You’re not even obliged to read them at all. What I like you might think is complete bosh, and vice-versa. All of this is fine. Just as liking novels (in general) doesn’t mean you have to like any particular author, liking poetry (in general) doesn’t mean you have to like any particular poet or poem.

8. Be open to delight. Let poems surprise you. Read with a sense of expectancy. And enjoy!

To the heart of Heaven

After nearly one hundred cantos  my mystical journey with Dante is now complete: having made it through Hell and Purgatory, last month I (finally) finished Paradise as well. I’ve started writing this post about three or four times now, unsure of how to start or which direction to move in, because my reading of Paradise was extremely scattered; it is hard to gather a coherent impression of it in my mind. (What can I say? All that Olympic figure skating wasn’t going to watch itself.) And at this remove, I’m not sure why I flagged all the passages I did. For the moment, in consequence, I think I must give up on coherence — so in no particular order, here are a few notes which will have to do:

1. Very early on, Dante speaks with the soul of Piccarda dei Donati, and questions her as to how she can be satisfied with the little of God she has been given (relative to those who dwell closer / have a larger capacity to be filled): “But tell me, you whose happiness is here, / Have you no hankering to go up higher, / To win more insight or a love more dear?” (III.64-66). I was very much struck by her reply: “Brother, our love has laid our wills to rest, / Making us long only for what is ours, / And by no other thirst to be possessed. […] Nay, ’tis the essence of our blissful fate / To dwell in the divine will’s radius, / Wherein our wills themselves are integrate […] And please the King that here in-willeth us / To His own will; and His will is our peace…” (III. 70-72, 79-81, 84-5). I love that. And His will is our peace.

2. Dante’s passage in Canto VII on God’s means of redemption is both beautiful poetry and beautiful theology:

Either must God, of his sole courtesy, / Remit, or man must pay with all that’s his, / The debt of sin in its entirety.

Within the Eternal Counsel’s deep abyss / Rivent thine eye, and with a heed as good / As thou canst give me, do thou follow this.

Man from his finite assets never could / Make satisfaction; ne’er could he abase him / So low, obey thereafter all he would,

As he’d by disobedience sought to raise him; / And for this cause man might not pay his due / Himself, nor from the debtor’s roll erase him.

Needs then must God, by His own ways, renew / Man’s proper life, and reinstate him so; […]

For God’s self-giving, which made possible / That man should raise himself, showed more largesse / Than if by naked power He’s cancelled all; /

And every other means would have been less / Than justice, if it had not pleased God’s Son / To be humiliate into fleshliness. (VII. 91-104, 115-120)

3. Dorothy L. Sayers died quite suddenly while working on Paradise; she had translated the first twenty cantos, but had not begun any of her introductory or explicatory notes. The work was finished by Dr. Barbara Reynolds, who was both a gifted scholar of Italian and Sayers’s goddaughter. Reynolds’s notes lack that particular Sayersian sparkle that I love so well, but I was interested to see how seamlessly the translation itself progresses between Cantos 1-20 and 21-33. If I hadn’t know there were two translators, I probably would not have guessed.

4. I enjoyed the sarcastic bite of this snippet from Beatrice’s injunction against presumptuous preachers: “Christ His Apostles did not thus address: / Go forth, preach idle stories to all men / But taught them his true doctrine to profess.” (XXIX.109-111)

5. The metaphor department: one of the great puzzles of the Christian faith is how to image/explain the Trinity. I’ve heard some doozies over the years (the Godhead is like an egg! like a clover! like a water molecule!) but I like Dante’s vision here, of three spheres occupying the same space:

But as my sight by seeing learned to see, / The transformation which in me took place / Transformed the single changeless form for me.

That light supreme, within its fathomless / Clear substance, showed to me three spheres, which bare / Three hues distinct, and occupied one space;

The first mirrored the next, as though it were / Rainbow from rainbow, and the third seemed flame / Breathed equally from each of the first pair.

How weak are words, and how unfit to frame / My concept — which lags after what was shown / So far, ‘twould flatter it to call it lame! (XXXIII. 112-123)

And so ends the journey, with Dante’s sense-defying vision of the Trinity. It is interesting to see that Paradise (and indeed, the trilogy as a whole) ends not with a dénouement as we would typically expect, but at the moment of climax. There is no accounting for Dante’s return to earth, the end of his vision, or the like — no sense at all of what happens next. But how, one wonders, could there be? After ninety-nine Cantos, Dante has said all that he will say on the matter — and the poem ends with his will moving in perfect harmony with God’s. Once again we are reminded of Piccarda dei Donati’s statement that “His will is our peace” — and Dante has at last reached this state himself. It is a beautiful and fitting ending.

On Purgatory

I have to admit that the doctrine of purgatory is something I’ve never known much about, except as another item on the long list of Things Catholics Believe But We Don’t. So I was interested to begin Dante’s Purgatory not only to find out what happens in the story, but to get a glimpse of how the medieval mind imagined purgatory — and perhaps a few insights into what modern Catholics believe, as well. To the latter end, I again found Sayers’s notes quite helpful, as she laid out a few common misconceptions about purgatory and their doctrinal corrections:

We may add here a few words to clear up a number of widely current perplexities and misunderstandings about Purgatory.

(1) Purgatory is not a place of probation, from which the soul may go either to Heaven or to Hell. All souls admited to Purgatory are bound for Heaven sooner or later, and are for ever beyond the reach of sin.

(2) Purgatory is not a “second chance” for those who die obstinately unrepentant. The soul’s own choice between God and self, made in the moment of death, is final. (This moment of final choice is known as the “Particular Judgement”.)

(3) Repentance in the moment of death (in articulo mortis) is always accepted. If the movement of the soul is, however feebly, away from the self and towards God, its act of confession and contrition is complete, whether or not it is accompanied by formal confession and absolution; and the soul enters Purgatory.

(4) The Divine acceptance of a repentance in articulo mortis does not mean that the sinner “gets away with it” scot-free. What it does mean is that the soul is now obliged, with prolonged labour and pains, and without the assistance of the body, to accomplish in Purgatory the entire process of satisfaction and purification, the greater part of which should have been carried out on earth.

(5) The souls in Purgatory and the souls on earth are in touch with one another and can aid each other by their prayers. But it is wrong for the living to distract the dead from their task of purgation by egotistical and importune demands for attention. […]

(6) Souls which have so persevered in virtue till the moment of death as to accomplish their whole purgation in this life, are not detained in Purgatory, but pass immediately into the Presence of God. These are the Saints. N.B.: Canonization is not (as Bernard Shaw implies in the Epilogue to St Joan) the award of an earthy honour, but the recognition of a Divine fact. There may be, and undoubtedly are, innumerable saints unrecognized and uncanonized. (59-60)

We note also that the purgations experienced by the souls in Purgatory are meant to be palliative cures, not arbitrary punishments — and even when the method is the same (as the Simoniacs in Hell and the Lustful in Purgatory are both consumed by fire), the attitude of the penitent soul ensures a very different outcome and experience:

It has been well said by a great saint that the fire of Hell is simply the light of God as experienced by those who reject it; to those, that is, who hold fast to their darling illusion of sin, the burning reality of holiness is a thing unbearable. To the penitent, that reality is a torment so long and only so long as any vestige of illusion remains to hamper their assent to it: they welcome the torment, as a sick man welcomes the pains of surgery, in order that the last crippling illusion may be burned away. The whole operation of Purgatory is directed to the freeing of the judgement and the will. […] the resolute breaking-down, at whatever cost, of the prison walls, so that the soul may be able to emerge at last into liberty and endure unscathed the unveiled light to reality. […] There is no difference in the justice; the only difference is in the repudiation or acceptance of judgement. (16)

That is the doctrinal framework through which we are to understand what Dante sees and experiences as he travels through Purgatory, accompanied and guided first by Virgil (as in Hell) and then by Beatrice. The effect of moving from Hell to Purgatory is immediate; it is obvious from the opening lines that this will be a very different book than the first installment. Dante opens Canto I with a second invocation to the muses; the tone and description are a welcome change from the grim miseries of Hell:

For better waters heading with the wind / My ship of genius now shakes out her sail / And leaves that ocean of despair behind; / For to the second realm I tune my tale, / Where human spirits purge themselves, and train / To leap up into joy celestial. / Now from the grave wake poetry again, / O sacred Muses I have served so long! / Now let Calliope uplift her strain / And life my voice up on the mighty song / That smote the miserable Magpies nine / Out of all hope and pardon for their wrong! / Colour unclouded, orient-sapphire, / Softly suffusing from meridian height / Down the still sky to the horizon-line, / Brought to mine eyes renewal of delight / So soon as I came forth from that dead air / Which had oppressed my bosom and my sight. (I.1-18)

This comes as a breath of fresh air for the reader as well as for our stalwart narrator! And the lovely tone continues throughout Purgatory as Dante climbs higher and higher up the mountain to the earthly paradise where Beatrice appears to guide him to Heaven. The souls in Purgatory tell their stories just as others did in Hell — but their attitude is, to a one, one of humble acceptance of their purgation and eagerness to complete each necessary level quickly, so as to gain Heaven with least delay. When a soul finishes its purgation and makes that final leap, the entire mountain quakes as all upon it shout Gloria in Excelsis Deo! The whole thing is surprisingly lovely, really. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed Purgatory (there’s a sentence I never thought I’d write); where Hell had turned into a bit of a grim slog by the end, Purgatory constantly enticed me on.

Now, was this enough to entice me to the doctrine of purgatory itself? No — not quite — and I would have to take a hard look at its actual origins/support/etc. before deciding something like that. But it did convince me that there is a certain logic to it, much more than I would have previously supposed. (After all, the list of Things Catholics Believe But We Don’t seems to have a fairly large overlap with the list of Catholic Beliefs Protestants Misrepresent!) But in any case, Purgatory was a thoroughly enjoyable read, and I am looking forward to finishing the journey in Paradise.

I’ve been going through Hell lately

… with Dante and the shade of Virgil, that is. (I’m fine, Mom.)

The summer that I was doing most of the research for my thesis, I ended up reading all four volumes of Dorothy L. Sayers’s collected letters. I was primarily reading for mentions of my own subject, of course, but Sayers is such an interesting correspondent that I quite enjoyed even the parts that were quite irrelevant to my project. Towards the last decade or so of her life, her letters were nearly all concerned with her massive undertaking for Penguin Books: an entirely new translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy. I had read the first volume (Inferno, as Mark Musa’s translation titles it) as an undergraduate; the course was essentially an introduction to the Western Canon, and so we spent very little time on it, and I hadn’t found it particularly memorable. Sayers’s passion for Dante’s epic, however, made me keen to revisit it, and especially to read the translation to which she dedicated the last years of her life (she died midway through her translation of Paradise, which was completed by her god-daughter, the scholar Dr. Barbara Reynolds). And so I have lately finished Hell, and will shortly start working my way up the mountain of Purgatory towards the heavenly realms.

The experience of reading Hell was most definitely helped by Sayers’s extensive notes, particularly her introductory matter. As she writes herself, the ideal way to read Dante would be simply to pick it up and dive in — but our social and cultural remove from his time means that most of the references that would have been obvious to his contemporaries are opaque to us. The notes, therefore, are a very necessary evil:

Let us suppose that an Englishman were to write a contemporary Divine Comedy on Dante’s model, and that in it, mixed up with a number of scriptural and mythological characters, we were to find, assigned to various circles of Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise, according to the religious and political convictions of the author, the following assortment of people — some referred to by their full names, some by Christian name or surname alone, and some indicated only by a witty or allusive phrase: Chamberlain (“him of the orchid”), Chamberlain (“him of the umbrella”), [Steward Houston] Chamberlain, “Brides-in-the-bath Smith, “Galloper” Smith, Horatio Bottomley, Horatio [Lord Nelson], Fox [Charles or George to be inferred from the Context], the Man who picked up the Bomb in Jermyn Street, Oscar Wilde, Oscar Slater, Oscar Browning, Spencer, Spenser, Lord Castlereagh, Lord Castlerose, Lawrence [of Arabia], [D. H.] Lawrence, […] Dick Sheppard, Jack Sheppard, and “the widow at Windsor”. Let us further suppose that the writer holds strong views on Trade Unionism, the construction of UNO, the “theology of crisis”, Freudian psychology, Einsteinian astronomy, and the art of Mr Jacob Epstein. Let us then suppose that the book is to be read, six hundred years hence, by an intelligent Portuguese with no particular knowledge of English social history. Would he not require a few notes, in order to savour the full pungency of the poet’s pronouncements and thoroughly understand his attitude to the cosmic set-up? (17-18)

Quite so. I need notes myself just to get through Sayers’s paragraph, not living in Britain in the early 1950s; no small wonder that in reading Dante we need not only the language to be translated, but the culture and (perhaps) theology as well.

One of Sayers’s most helpful explanations is to do with the allegorical nature of Dante’s epic. Dante is not expecting us to take it as a literal picture of Hell. We do not need to believe that Satan is imprisoned at the centre of the earth; we do not suppose that suicides really turn into bleeding trees or that there are giants guarding the circle of traitors. But Dante paints a powerful picture of the soul when it sunders itself from God through sin. It is, Sayers writes, “the drama of the soul’s choice … not a fairy story” (11). In approaching the poem, we must “accept the Christian and Catholic view of ourselves as responsible rational beings. We must abandon any ideas that we are the slaves of chance, or environment, or our subconscious; any vague notion that good and evil are merely relative terms, or that conduct and opinion do not really matter; any comfortable persuasion that, however shiftlessly we muddle through life, it will somehow or other all come right on the night. We must try to believe that man’s will is free, that he can consciously exercise choice, and that his choice can be decisive to all eternity” (10-11). What Dante’s Divine Comedy emphasizes for us is that everyone must make a choice to either accept God or reject Him; there is no option beyond those two, and our eternal fate depends on the choice. Dante is unequivocal on this point: “Neither in the story nor in the allegory is Hell a place of punishment to which anybody is arbitrarily sent: it is the condition to which the soul reduces itself by a stubborn determination to evil, and in which is suffers the torment of its own perversion” (68).

That being understood — what of Hell itself? Dante’s imagery is precise and vivid as he depicts the progressive punishments of Hell, from the ever-whirling souls of the lustful (The blast of hell that never rests from whirling / Harries the spirits along in the sweep of its swath, / And vexes them, for ever beating and hurling.” V:31f), to the river of boiling blood in which the Violent against their Neighbours are immersed (“So with this trusty escort, off we set / Along the bank of the bubbling crimson flood, / Whence the shrieks of the boiled rose shrill and desperate. / There I saw some — plunged eyebrow-deep they stood / And the great centaur said to me: ‘Behold / Tyrants, who gave themselves to ravin and blood.’ XII:100f) to the bodily mutilations suffered by the Sowers of Discord (“No cask stove in by cant or middle ever / So gaped as one I saw there, from the chin / Down to the fart-hold split as by a cleaver” XXVII:22f), to the final centre of the earth where Satan perpetually devours Judas Iscariot and other traitors. The images become progressively more and more disturbing as Dante and Virgil travel deeper into the pits of hell (and allegorically, further into sin and away from salvation).

I wouldn’t necessarily recommend Hell for before-bedtime reading! But I would recommend it. Dante takes us on a journey that should disturb us — but all is not grim; he reminds us also that while we are yet living, there is every chance to turn away from this fate. Hell has not been given the final world! I am very much looking forward to continuing this journey with Dante and Sayers, from the mountains of Purgatory to the blessed heights of Paradise itself.