I've posted a couple of poems in the blog so far that refer to Dante's Divine Comedy: "Crosses" and "Newly Released, Papa Tells Me What It's Like Inside." Well, here's a third Dante-influenced poem. I don't think I had realized consciously until doing the blog what an impact Dante's Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso (and particularly Gustave Doré's illustrations of The Divine Comedy) had had on me as a child, as an artist/poet-to-be, on my imagination and on my sensibilities.
With your indulgence, I'll set up first by telling you Lolo means "grandfather" and Tita means "aunt," although probably those Filipino words are reasonably clear in the poem's context. Okay, here we go.
It is literally true that the Doré illustration (top) of Beatrice and Dante marveling at the heavenly host forming a "white rose" in the Empyrean was, in my child's mind, really heaven. At the age of five (or whatever my actual age was), it didn't occur to me to wonder how Dante or Doré could have known. Since the image was between covers, in a lordly-looking tome, that was enough proof for little me that heaven really looked like that. This is one of my earliest and most powerful, most charged memories.
Click on the first image at the top above to see the Doré image (dated 1867) in all its glory
The second image, below Doré, is by poet and printmaker William Blake (c. 1826): a study or sketch showing the white rose as actually looking like a flower, sepals and all, with each petal reserved for a given person or character; Blake died before he could finish the project, so there is no finished art of this subject.
The third image is attributed to the engraver Giovanni Britto, who worked for Francesco Marcolini, the publisher of Alessandro Vellutello's 1544 commentary on the Divine Comedy; Britto — or whoever created this engraving (click on it to see better detail) — renders the rose with a whole multitude of petals that look like thrones with saints and angels and whomever in each one.
The fourth is an illuminated manuscript by Giovanni di Paolo, a Sienese painter (1400s); his rose is smaller in scope than those of the others, but the figures are strikingly rendered. As a child, I only knew the Doré, and it's illuminating (sorry, bad pun) to see these other takes on the white rose image.
The three vignettes involving wings come right out of Gotera family stories, though I've fiddled with them a bit. The middle one, concerning my brother Gerardo, is narrated here just as people in the family tell it. Although I was small enough to sleep in a crib, I evidently knew about Gerardo and pronounced his name as "Ahdo." Narratives of supernatural visits and so on are very common in Philippine contexts; all families have stories like these, passed on from one generation to the next.
In keeping with this kind of family tradition, and the continuation of such traditions, I have tried to keep the language in the poem simple and down-to-earth. Getting the poem ready to post in the blog, in fact, I changed a word in the first stanza. The phrase "countless angels" was originally "innumerable angels," but I thought innumerable now was not in keeping with family scenes of young and old recounting these stories.
As I've posted the 30 or so poems that are on the blog at this moment, I hadn't revised any until now. I wanted the older poems to reflect my style of those other moments, but with "Wings" I felt strongly that the poem really needed revision. And that doing this would give me the opportunity to talk in the blog about revision as a concern of craft.
With that end in mind, here are three stanzas from "Crosses": those on the left, in red, come from the poem as it was published in the Mississippi Valley Review twenty years ago, while those on the right, in blue, are from the version posted above, as revised over the last couple of days.
I think this may come from my practice since maybe 1990 of starting a poem by writing in iambic pentameter while at the same time trying to sense the form that the poem seems to want for itself. The result of this practice evidently is that I began to appreciate lines that are more similar to each other in length. Whereas twenty years ago, apparently, I liked lines to be more leggy, more varied. Perhaps something here of the garden vs. the wilderness?
It may also be that I have gotten better at sensing the possible junctures, the potential breaks, in lines
The more likely possibility, though, is that I was just not as good at lineation in 1989 as I am today. So I tended back then to go for more flash ... in other words, enjambment. For instance, in the second line above, I break like this: "to
In his excellent book The Art of Fiction, John Gardner says that good fiction creates "a vivid and continuous dream" in the mind of the reader, and that the good fiction writer will do whatever it takes not to interrupt that dream. What I'm suggesting in the previous paragraph is that lineating at "brush" breaks up the reader's dream's continuity. Granted there can be good times and reasons to do that, to unbalance and destabilize the reader — Garnder notwithstanding — but it's not necessary in the progress of the narrative at this point in the poem.
I think I was probably similarly preoccupied with enjambment in other line breaks in the earlier version — "the
In the more recent version at the right, I smoothed out the earlier
I've also slightly changed some wording; I think these edits are similarly character-related. For example, I've replaced "grandfather" with "Lolo" and "Aunt" with "Tita"; such usage is more appropriate to these child characters, more personal, as well as more probable in the imagined scene of family storytelling, the imagined language that would be used as these stories are told to nieces and nephews, to grandchildren.
I replaced "While we were sweeping" (line 10) with "As we busied ourselves with brooms" not only to avoid repeating the word "sweep" but also to make a clearer picture (and squeeze in another alliteration, this time on /b/). This alteration also sets up a slant rhyme between "brooms" and "from"; while the poem is essentially unrhymed, there are occasional rhymes created by the new lineation: "feathers" and "shoulders" (lines 1-2) or the distant rhyme of "once" with "Someone" (lines 6 and 8).
There are other small changes, but I think I'll leave off there. Wings are everywhere, people. Angels surround us — if not heavenly, then earthly ones. So many small (and large) kindnesses from all our sisters and brothers.
Note: the Doré illustration above comes from Wikimedia Commons. The Blake image comes from the University of Texas's Danteworlds website. The third image, commissioned by Vellutello, comes from the University of Virginia's The World of Dante website. The di Paolo image comes from a different page on that same website. These last two sources in particular provide a wealth of information and visual imagery connected to Dante and The Divine Comedy.