Thursday, April 14, 2016

An Apocryphal Canto


Teaching Dante in Core this semester, I decided we'd all had enough with expository papers, so I'm having my students add their own extra circles to Hell. Once they're written, I plan to collect them under the title Hell's Hidden Rooms: The Apocryphal Cantos (though my students prefer Schwartz's Inferno). Here's one I composed as a pilot.

The Eighth Circle, Twelfth Pouch. The Pedants, who cannot keep from spitting into their cups.

  Pushing open the gate that led from the room                      
where unhappy souls had been kept awake                            
by endless paperwork, pointless tasks, gloom,                       
  (having asked for bread, we were given cake             
made from cornstarch and ketchup; wanting sun,                   
we were told to sit still and consume more cake),                 
  my vision opened out to a coffered hall, not outdone         
by the one by the man of Urbino. Sitting, standing,                
conversing, witty, women and men, every one             
  making noises – their discourse – resounding                      
from some kind of horn: oboes, trumpet,                                  
a shawm, clarinets, bassoons, french horns rounding,          
  trombones, a tuba (sometimes they’d thump it),                  
recorders and piccoli and a great flute,                         
every one poking from – where? Not the rump, it                    
  wasn’t like Barbariccia! Alas, if by their fruits                       
ye shall know them, then know that it was – the navel.        
From what seemed a Babel of indiscriminate toots               
  with time there emerged a symphonic fable              
of pride injured, pain at imagined slights                                
decisions made round wooden tables                          
  people’s blindness to extraspeluncular lights.                     
Such sweetness emerged from the conduits umbilical          
and such grace I perceived in their execution of rites
  that I did not notice, at first, their odd habits prandial.      
They seemed to be drinking moonlight, some spirit              
of truth, of wisdom mythico-mystical;                            
 yet each time they quaffed, with slyness implicit                  
their mouths left behind a slight drop, a thin trail,                
a small mucous swirl in the cup, or they’d lick it.                    
  Then, taking a mighty pull, they’d offer the ale                     
to their partner in tippling and tooting, who                            
did the same. In the end – so I thought, and I paled –           
  it must all be one swill; yes, the whole happy crew             
was supping from one keg of beer, not having realized        
its leaven was human. So tasty the brew                                  
  seemed to them that they fed it to smaller-sized                 
tooters, with less fulsome navels from which             
tiny woodwinds and brass had only begun to arise;              
  trying the mug on for size, these soon felt the itch               
to dribble along with the rest. Whereupon,                             
from his flute, one found his pitch                                             
  and declared in doggerel, getting his rhyme on:                   
“To the minnows, I shine like the Ichthus                                  
Heliodiplodokus – Pound’s very paragon                           
  of a poem, by which Louis Agassiz hoped to focus                
the finishing graduate. ‘Here’s a sunfish – look!                    
Please, no more hocus-pocus!                                         
  You cannot possibly make a book                                            
from five book reviews and two                                      
articles. Even allowing you cook                                     
  your data, and stew                                                                     
with a jigger of new theoretical wine,                           
you will still smell vinegar in the brew –                                  
  even packaged by Princeton, it’s brine.’”                                 
Next another strode up with an instrument                              
stuck out from her belly that shimmered in kind;                    
  I could not tell from its strange integument               
was it an oboe, euphonium, drum, an aeolian chime?          
Every moment, it altered its temperament,                               
  not to mention its key and its rhyme.                           
The cup she offered looked sweet, but the backwash           
was bitter. “I can take you to Cocytus for a good time –         
  I got friends there – we can picnic, pack a brioche – “          
But my Master said: “Bite that brioche, and Proserpina         
will pity you. Find something better to nosh.”             
  The last soul I saw wore a concertina                         
that pushed and was pulled without help from the hands;  
his chin in the air, he spat not just in vina,                                
  but everywhere, really – quite into the stands.                      
O wonder! The arcs his drool made formed a mass                
In the air; the product, a castle of strands                                
  that hovered an instant, then slid back into his glass.


Thursday, September 3, 2015

Tinsel and the Torture-Net Artifice



I

The photographs that follow are patently not “authentic,” nor indeed are they photographs.  Both are fictional devices set in place to give the fiction itself the veneer of authenticity.  As far as characterization is concerned, the villains are pantomime cut-outs, and the hero’s only attributes are strength, good looks, compassion, and moral principles that prompt him to take a stand against injustice.  That is as complicated as it gets.  The hero, pitted against ever more morally corrupt antagonists and placed in ever more tangled and ambiguous situations, remains impossibly strong.  You know the type:  you might even, in your more honest moments, detect a strain of it in yourself.  He delights in “doubling.”  The medium can turn things into language and language into a thing.  Mirages, hollow signs of the heat-glow, are taken for objects and people; objects and people are taken for mirages.  The casting and consuming of voices are sometimes done by mouths and ears alone, but mostly they are done through technology.   He has no past, no sexual identity, no complexities.  Their real content may still remain invisible, hiding in the light. 


II

The argument may seem stunningly na├»ve.  Things are never that neat and tidy.  Politics is present, but it is treated with disdain.  What could they have to tell him about the revolution anyway?  All it has meant for them is a change of name on the placard beside their hovels and of the uniform worn by the police who swing their truncheon at them.  Friendship may bring about emotional awakening and cultural enlightenment, but politically it brings cynicism.  The authority may be grounded in the divine, but it is established and consolidated through technology.  Terrified at first, he eventually digs up the floorboards and finds a record player.  The holy world of spirits collapses once we see the mechanisms at work behind it.  But overall these are rearguard actions in a larger losing battle.  The enforcers of the prohibition law get drunk.  Blood falls from the animals not as a libation, but rather “to be made into I don’t know what—food, drugs, jewels, explosives.”  Sometimes the interruptions are innocuous; sometimes they are not.  Full and empty spectacle make move and counter-move against one another, but the empty wins out in the long run.  Too right. 


III

He seems drawn to these places like a dowser’s stick to subterranean water.  Even spaces not designed for burial turn into tombs when he steps into them.  At best this relationship is fraught; at worst it goes disastrously wrong.  In whose name?  Whose legacy demands this?  The secret, once more, has been disguised in a name and transplanted across the world to throw its pursuers off the fact that it was right at home the whole time.  This is the pattern set by the crypt, pulsed out in its coded broadcasts.  To keep it safe he buries it inside his crypt and carries it around for all his life, showing and hiding it, saying it without saying it.  Radio messages shuttle back and forth:  from rocket to moon-surface to ground control and back again.  Here, too, time zones are overlaid.  Here, too, the sun is intensely scrutinized.  Here, too, is abandonment.  We should learn something from this.  What?  Who knows where the signals will end up, or what they will end up meaning?


IV

Let’s believe this for now.   It is as though language, like the microphone, were shying away from the message it is carrying.  The relations here are complex, to say the least.  Those who can discern the rhythms can step into them and operate in their blind spots.  In his zone of near-silence, he injects language into a flower.   It is constructed with a rocket scientist’s skill for routing, plotting elliptical paths of departure and return.  It stacks up layers of meaning like so many pancakes, toy bricks, sheets of acetate.  And yet, as they were last time, they will be disappointed.  The event field is unconsummated; and language fails to deliver.  The voice that carries the secret remains inaudible even as it is amplified.  It may terrorize the heroes, burn their ears, but it stops short of destroying their world by naming the event as event.  The scene is ridiculous and totally implausible.  This stage set sacrifices him on its hollow altar, leaving him trapped inside an empty, perforated drum.  Naming him, her voice removes his name.  Perhaps she is not wrong.


V

Let’s start where we left off:  he is killed.  What happens next?  What became of the original we do not find out.  The home he returns to was not the home he left.  These gifts are all poisoned, booby-trapped.  He may get away with it, but its specter will haunt his line for generations.  Their departures and returns follow the path of time.  It is in his blood.  He must sweat it, because even animals pick it up.  While doing this, he is hit by a car.  “My good deed for the day,” he tells himself.  They decline, but he insists.  The volcano eventually erupts, blowing into the sky a column of smoke more than thirty thousand feet high.  Their memories of it have been absolutely wiped, erased.  Where is this new detour through secrets and sunflowers leading us?  My artifice is as good as nature.  My artifice is better than nature, he is saying now.  For him, everything is a copy.  What lies at its core? 


VI

This process is dark, sometimes shocking, in many respects catastrophic.  It is certainly sad.  When there is duplication, comedy results.  A person being manipulated like an automaton by another person is funny.  Repetition takes place in the field of time.  Here, though, the fall has become more than simply a pratfall.  Time and again he turns his head to tell people to look where they are going and then crashes into whatever is in his path.  That he is always falling, relapsing, messing up, is a sign of his awkward relationship not only with the material world but also with the divine one.  Gravity, like repetition, opens up the dimension of time.  In comedy this option is removed.  An awareness of one’s own fakeness can have disastrous consequences.  The meeting was never going to happen.  Eventually, it gets played out in the field of art, the most self-conscious of all environments.  To turn water into wine would be a miracle.  Some peace and quiet to smoke his pipe would be nice.


VII

Even when parchments have been overlaid and treasure unearthed, significant portions of it remain uncovered.  It divides into three parts which circulate through time and space.  This is more than simply an extended plot device, of course.  “Tomorrow I shall be famous!” he cries.  What about his other descendants?  He had three sons.  This is extremely dubious practice, to say the least.  All literature is pirated.  Every act of reading is its own kind of remaking of a work.  The second scene moves at a quicker pace. 


(after Tom McCarthy)