Watching late night television last week, I came across that ridiculous movie, Twister—the screenplay could’ve been written by a computer, circa 1980—but was struck by the brief scene of a woman alone in bed reading Robert Pinsky’s translation of Dante’s Inferno—anyone familiar with this edition would recognize it from afar, by virtue of Michael Mazur’s dramatic cover image, for Canto XXI (Sins of Fraud). . . .

I’ve always liked the propulsive movement of Pinsky’s translation, the way he hears the tension between idiomatic vigor and elevated phrasing; and, among even more recent ones, I admire much of Michael Palma’s rendition, which strictly keeps to the terza rima (as does Ciardi’s, though his results are clunkier albeit sustained over the entire Commedia: Ciardi’s was the first version I read, the first book I read after graduating from college). No doubt the actor or the director of this dumb flick thought Dante’s Inferno was an appropriate literary analog for the hellish experience of a big tornado; I rather think that a twister is a good figure for an aspect of Dante’s verse movement, the way the poetry moves forward with a great deal of narrative velocity & idiomatic force even as it twists back to complete the rhymes that braid through the tercets and across stanza boundaries. Sitting there in the dark, wondering what it would be like to kiss Helen Hunt, my mind happily moved to consider why there are so many translations of the Inferno on the market (a quick count stops at 22). Is there any other foreign work more frequently carried over into English? The political intrigues are remote, the cosmic view antique. Dante’s imagination, however, for transfiguring the sins of earth into the eternal tortures of hell is obviously intensely appealing, richly drawn, dramatic, ingenious; the figure of the journey, too, still carries a great mythic and psychic charge, as does the image of mentorship between Dante and Virgil, and the desire to know an ideal love, figured in Beatrice. And it is a kind of anthology of stories about what it means to be human, like the Bible. The language, when effectively translated, also speaks, perhaps, to an American ear, that delights in the sound of sacred and profane speech rubbing up against each other. Perhaps the Inferno is like the ultimate immigrant experience—I think of my grandfather, Samuel Weiner, orphaned, escaping from Russia as a boy, traversing land and sea to arrive in Winnipeg, to meet older relatives on the other side, who introduced him to a new country, showed him the way, warning him of the pitfalls. A familiar story of carrying over, a translation.

Went to the Cézanne show today at the National Gallery, an exhibit devoted to the painter’s work in Provence. It was somewhat crowded, and I found myself automatically joining a queue that moved from one canvas to the next. I never opt for the headset, and rarely read the walls of text, preferring to just look at stuff, with the idea that if I’m really drawn to something, I’ll find out more about it later. Also, I find it amusing to listen to the inane things people say to each other when they’re looking at art. Some installationist should record this shit for a hermeneutical swirly. It’s unbelievably funny. Anyway, the still lifes look great, and there’s a portrait of a peasant that I love. When we begin moving through the room of landscapes, I’m just not getting it. I can see the technique, the way the brushstrokes atomize the picture, but reality seems washed out, somehow attenuated. Half-way through, I turn around and look across the room and am stunned by how fantastic appear the paintings on the other side; we’re all standing about six feet from the canvases, we’re too fucking close! We should all bunch up in the middle of the room and circle around a shrunken radius in order to seem them properly, allowing Cézanne’s strokes to blend more. I step out of line and wander around, musing on the rugged existential emptiness of the landscapes, devoid of people. I intuit a discrepancy between the real subjects of the paintings and the way they’re being viewed, even consumed, to put a point on it. I wonder about the landscape of Provence in the late nineteenth century, how tough it probably was, and how daring of Cézanne to choose it as a subject; now, as with Tuscany, it is a landscape somehow synonymous with good living, and viewers relate to it as such. I’m not much interested in the bathers, but am taken by the late paintings of mountains and Cézanne’s increasing abstraction. I walk out of the exhibit and into a merchandizing spread of posters, magnets, books, and trinkets.

Once home I pull out a slim volume of letters Rilke wrote to his wife about Cézanne, during the fall of 1907, when he was daily visiting a Paris picture gallery exhibiting the master’s work.

Here’s from an entry of October 12th (trans. Joel Agee):

I recently asked Mathilde Vollmoeller to go through the Salon with me sometime, so that I could see my impression in the presence of someone whom I believe to be calm and not distracted by literature. Yesterday we went there together. Cézanne prevented us from getting to anything else. I notice more and more what an event this is. But imagine my surprise when Miss V., with her painterly training and eye, said: “He sat there in front of it like a dog, just looking, without any nervousness, without any ulterior motive.” And she said some very good things about his manner of working (which one can decipher in an unfinished picture). “Here,” she said pointing to one spot, “this he knew, and now he’s saying it (a part of an apple); right next to it there’s an empty space, because that was something he didn’t know yet. He only made what he knew, nothing else.” “What a good conscience he must have had,” I said. “Oh yes: he was happy, way inside somewhere . . .” And then we looked at “artistic” things which he may have made in Paris, when he was associating with others, and compared them with those that were unmistakably his own; compared them, that is, with regard to color. In the former, color was something in and for itself; later he somehow makes use of it, personally, as no one has ever used color before, simply for making the object. The color is totally expended in its realization; there’s no residue. And Miss V. said significantly; “It’s as if they were placed on a scale: here the thing, there the color; never more, never less than is needed for perfect balance. It might be a lot or a little, that depends, but it’s always the exact equivalent of the object.” I would never have thought of this; but facing the pictures, it is eminently right and revealing. I also noticed yesterday how unselfconsciously different they are, how unconcerned with being original, confident of not getting lost with each approach toward one of nature’s thousand faces; confident, rather, of discovering the inexhaustible nature within by seriously and conscientiously studying her manifold presence outside. All of this is very beautiful . . .

So ends the entry. I am struck by how generous Rilke is, how crafty in giving Miss V. such frontal blocking on the stage of his meditation. Of greater significance, how Rilke highlights the notion of “realization”—Not self-expression! Josef Albers exclaimed, but self-realization, as in Cézanne. Realization of the inside by virtue of working from the outside. The indifference towards stylistic flourish as sign of originality. I thought of this poem, by Thom Gunn:


Tow Head on his skateboard
threads through a crowd
of feet and faces delayed
to a slow stupidity.
Darts, doubles, twists.
You notice how nimbly
the body itself has learned
to assess the relation between
the board, pedestrians,
and immediate sidewalk.
Emblem. Emblem of fashion.
Wearing dirty white
in dishevelment as delicate
as the falling draperies
on a dandyish
Renaissance saint.
Chain round his waist.
One hand gloved.
Hair dyed to show it is dyed,
pale flame spiking from fuel.
Tow Head on Skateboard
perfecting himself:
emblem extraordinary
of the ordinary.

In the sexless face
eyes innocent of feeling
therefore suggest the spirit.

“Never more, never less than is needed for perfect balance,” says Miss V. I think of this poem, by Rilke, in 1907 (trans. Ed Snow):

The Swan

This toil and struggle—passing on, heavy
and as if bound, through things still undone,
is like the makeshift walking of the swan.

And dying—this no longer grasping
of that ground, on which we daily stand,
like his nervous settling himself--:

into the water, which received him gently,
and which, so happy in its passing,
draws back under him, wave after wave;
while he, infinitely still and sure,
ever more confidently and majestically
and serenely deigns to glide.

~ ~

“ . . . confident of not getting lost with each approach toward one of nature’s thousand faces . . .”

Originally Published: March 16th, 2006

Joshua Weiner was born in Boston and grew up in central New Jersey. He is the author of three books of poems, The World’s Room (2001) and From the Book of Giants (2006), and The Figure of a Man Being Swallowed by a Fish (2013).Weiner earned a BA from Northwestern University and a PhD from...