Saturday, February 28, 2009

Dante and Angels and Saints ... Oh, My!

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.


I really thought it depicted heaven:
a picture of the sky entirely filled
with a single gigantic rose shaped
by the wings of countless angels

in Lolo's book. I was five and
didn't know this was Dante's
Paradiso. All I know is I saw
wings everywhere. One evening,

a man with bright feathers
sprouting from his shoulders
to brush the ceiling spoke to me
and my cousin Tony at the bottom

of the stairs in Lolo's house.
A gecko on the wall looked once,
then scurried off. "Sweep the steps,"
the shining man said. "Someone

important will pass here tonight."
As we busied ourselves with brooms,
our Tita Nena quietly died from
the tuberculosis she'd had for years.

But such visions didn't happen only
after I saw the Doré engraving of Dante.
Three years before, when I was two,
Gerardo, my brother born premature,

died after a week in an incubator.
Mama swore she and Papa heard
wings beating near my crib.
I pointed, laughing, "Ahdo, Ahdo,"

my finger tracing an invisible arc
as the sound of flapping slipped out
the window. What does my daughter,
three months old, really see, when

her eyes sweep across the room?
Ah ... but then I laugh at myself.
I'm a computer programmer.
I make pixels fandango onscreen.

Surely I never really saw angels.
I want to believe my cousin and I
simply divined our aunt was dying
and were wishing just as hard

as we could, "Let her go to heaven."
Yet I also recall my college roommate
Bill heard rustling outside our window.
"A trapped bird," I told him, listened

for cooing, some sort of cry for help.
We looked. Nothing. The next day,
a telegram — at the precise moment
we heard wings, my Lolo had died.

   — Vince Gotera, first appeared in the
Mississippi Valley Review (1989)
in a slightly different version.

Click on the images
to see them larger.

Gustave Doré

William Blake

Giovanni Britto (?)
Commissioned by
Alessandro Vellutello

Giovanni di Paolo
Illuminated manuscript

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 . . . and I do mean "glory." The other images are different artists' renditions of heaven's "white rose" in the Paradiso. (Cantos 30 and 31 if you want to read Dante's descriptions.)

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.
Old Version (1989)

. . .] a man with bright feathers
sprouting from his shoulders to brush
the ceiling spoke to me and my cousin Tony
at the bottom of the stairs

in my grandfather's house. The gecko
on the wall looked once,
then scurried off. "Sweep
the steps," the shining angel told us,

"Someone important will pass
here this evening." While we were sweeping,
my Aunt Nena quietly died
from the tuberculosis she'd had for years. [. . .]
New Version (2009)

. . .] a man with bright feathers
sprouting from his shoulders
to brush the ceiling spoke to me
and my cousin Tony at the bottom

of the stairs in Lolo's house.
A gecko on the wall looked once,
then scurried off. "Sweep the steps,"
the shining man said. "Someone

important will pass here tonight."
As we busied ourselves with brooms,
our Tita Nena quietly died from
the tuberculosis she'd had for years. [. . .]
As you compare the two versions, see how more jagged the older version looks: long lines followed by conspicuously shorter ones then vice versa. Not that there's anything intrinsically wrong with such variation. But somehow it just didn't seem as polished to me now.

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 . . . that I am more open to different sorts of line breaks, and thus more able to regularize line length. For example, in the third line above, "the ceiling spoke to me and my cousin Tony," I didn't (or couldn't?) hear the potential break after the word "me" that might set up an intriguing nuance while at the same time keeping line lengths similar.

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 brush / the ceiling." Hmm. What possible advantage was there in calling attention to the word "brush"? Doesn't that line break distract? Make the reader wonder why the line ended there? Is it over-dramatic? Even sentimental? It's certainly sensationalistic.

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 gecko / on the wall" (lines 5-6) or "'Sweep / the steps'" (7-8) or "'will pass / here'" (9-10) — perhaps unnecessarily preoccupied with enjambment, to the disservice of the poem overall. And of the reader. Who doesn't need to have to wonder why "gecko" is out at the end of that long line, gone out on a limb, so to speak.

In the more recent version at the right, I smoothed out the earlier over-the-top enjambments. I set up new, more subtle enjambments that are to my older ear more serviceable. More appropriately dramatic . . . that is, less so. The break at line three of "to me / and my cousin Tony" sets up the "me" as seeing himself in a more elevated position, metaphorically, vis-à-vis the angel; that makes a lot more sense to me narratively (especially with regard to characterization) than the previous emphasis on the action of wings brushing a ceiling. Or, at the end of line eight, the stanza enjambment that highlights "Someone" as opposed to the earlier privileging of "pass[ing]." In other words, in both cases, more focus on character than action.

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.


Anonymous said...

The beginning of your poem seems very Romantic, talking of angels and receiving messages, but turns to more of a Modern poem implying that the sightings cannot be explained. I like the transition between the two. It starts out whimsical and turns out to be more logical. You tried to explain the beating of the wings by saying you had caught a bird when really there was no bird.

Anonymous said...

I love the reference to the Dore art. It is as if you are a part of the imagery. When a loved one dies, it is a very personal experience for him/her to experience, and especially to a small child, it is very romanticized to imagine angels and heaven.
I also recalled another passage to Frank McCourt's "Angela's Ashes." (Young) Frank was trying to reason the passing of yet another sibling, and his father made a reference to the Angel in the Seventh Step, and for the next few years of Frank's youth, he imagined that the angel was always there watching and protecting. A romanticized way to cope with sickness and death.

Vince Gotera said...

Hi, Rachel! Thanks for visiting the blog. I appreciate the comment very much. I like your point about the romantic changing to something more modern. I hadn't realized that. Please come back to the blog and read more. --Vince

Vince Gotera said...

Sara: I really appreciate your comment. The two boys who are "visited" are both quite young ... I don't specify in the poem but they are both under six years old and quite impressionable. I also appreciate your parallel with Frank McCourt, whose writing I like. Thanks! Come back and read more. You should check out the other two Dante-related poems (links above in the opening sentence).

Anonymous said...

Vince- For me what I really enjoyed in this was the romanticized innocence of the youth. When the boys are young they have a romantic kind of innocence in that they lack experience with logic and modern reason and so they accept the angel's appearance. However as the boy grows up and goes to college he no longer has that romantic innocence. It has been replaced with modern reason and logic or even one could say a modern sense of innocence. The boy has experience now (in the area of seeing angels) but he chooses to ignore that experience and so uses logic (trapped bird) to claim a modern version of innocence (choosing to be innocent in the face of experience). I hope that makes sense.

Vince Gotera said...

Hi, Lauren! What you say is very well put. I never saw the poem that way before. Thanks for a whole different viewpoint on it. I like your phrase "choosing to be innocent in the face of experience." That kind of reaction can have positive as well as negative repercussions, can't it? Thanks again. Please come back to the blog some more. I'll have something up in a day or two.

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Viagra Online said...

Dante was one of the greatest artist on history, pretty much because he taught to each country in Europe to write in their own language. Writing "Divine Comedy" on his native language was the biggest decision he ever made... and was a success.

Maja Trochimczyk said...

Giovanni di Paolo's version of Dante's Paradiso is "my" Paradiso. I never cared for 19th century engravings, it is color that speaks to me and that version has some of the most stunning, extraordinary images ever created.

I'm glad that thanks to searching for Dante I came across your blog. Inspirational. On my Chopin with Cherries blog, I write a bit about poetry, more about music, this and that...

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