Prose from Poetry Magazine


Poetry as pageantry

Allegory is a pageant of metaphor and simile. Trailing clouds of glory all its own, figurative language comes upon the scenes of our imagining there. No poet writing in English writes pageantry so in-close as does Robert Herrick. Here, in its entirety, is “The Coming of Good Luck”:

So Good-luck came, and on my roof did light,
Like noiseless snow; or as the dew of night:
Not all at once, but gently, as the trees
Are, by the sunbeams, tickled by degrees.

Given substance, shape, and agency, Good-luck enters upon the advent of itself. Notice how it remains itself — not embodied by snow, not portrayed by snow, but given over to a like behavior, a noiselessness. In pageant, then, there are two: Good-luck and snow. Then there are three. “The dew of night” adds to noiseless Space (the snowy rooftop) the quiet Time of night. Given space and time, then, Good-luck is wholly born.

Once born, Good-luck possesses not only similitude, but absolute Being. The enjambment between lines three and four is climacteric. “As the trees” leads us to expect another simile; but suddenly, capitalized and alone, stands the one word “Are.” Snow and night and trees all blend into plural singularity, into the apotheosis of Good-luck. 
Apt to apotheosis, there is radiance; Herrick provides “sunbeams.” Here, “Are” is the instance of Amor, after which the upturn bends, “tickled by degrees” toward home. After the radiance, we are returned to homely simile: “as the trees are tickled by degrees.” But with this difference: an apotheosis added, embedded. Herrick’s figures of speech alone could not have anticipated such a birth.

Out of Allegory they emerge, the words and phrases, into pageants 
great and small. They return home afterward, completing a world in which allegory and fact, allegory and actual experience, are one flesh.

Ek gret effect men write in place lite;
Th’entente is al, and nat the lettres space.
                      — From Troilus and Criseyde, by Geoffrey Chaucer

The storm of flung flowers rises and falls, and in that cloud of beauty ‘donna m’ apparve — a lady appeared to me’ ... it is even permissible to let ‘the flash of a smile’ pass at that phrase, so often noted.... She wore some kind of dress ‘di fiamma viva — of living flame,’ and over it a green mantle; white-veiled, olive-crowned, she paused there, and Dante — 
    The great pageant has been so, and more than so. We may not be able to stay its pace, but Dante could. He has heaped up references and allusions; he has involved doctrine and history and myth, and the central dogma of the twy-natured Christ itself. He has concentrated meanings, and now the living figure for whom all the structure was meant is here.
                           — From The Figure of Beatrice, by Charles Williams

Reverie is at an end. Purgatory might well have been a pilgrim fantasy, and Inferno a gothic nightmare. Dream visions sort very well with vengeance and remorse; they are the pretty conscience of child’s play. But Paradise, upon whose brink the breathing heralds of Allegory welcome Beatrice, is real. Beatrice speaks a name: “Dante.” And Dante writes it down. Allegory is splendid entertainment, but it entertains neither mask nor alias. Dante crosses over. Heir of allusion and son of reference, he crosses over into pageant and Paradise under his given name. He’s wide awake — voi vigilate ne l’eterno die. The story is true. William Blake has painted so many eyes into the picture. There are witnesses.

It’s no accident that upon the verge of Heaven itself, Dante hesitates for eight full cantos. He is all eyes. He is the pageant while the pageant lasts. In Purgatorio, earthly paradise is Eden still, regained through material witness. In states of perfection, all things are exculpatory evidence of themselves. I want to cross over under my own names, all of them, alongside pageantry. Yet it’s not by accident that I hesitate. I like my allegories allegorical. “Better ... to stay cowering / 
Like this in the early lessons, since the promise of learning / Is a delusion,” as John Ashbery writes (“Soonest Mended”) so early and so well. Allegory is safekeeping. It is shield and buckler in the mock-siege of spring 1970, Fort Tryon Park, New York. Boys hurl themselves toward the battlements. Girls, laughing in midair in false miniver, 
urge them on. Simply to remember them, as one amongst them, is to know that Happiness exists: Allegory the shield; Allegory the buckler; Allegory the actual Name, walking away into The Romance of the Rose. Together in eternity now, the authors appear, historically, in ideal sequence. First, Guillaume de Lorris, poet of the opening four thousand lines. His story is true. Happiness is the image of itself. How do I find it?

By keeping steadily before you both the literal and allegorical sense and not treating the one as a mere means to the other but as its imaginative interpretation; by testing for yourself how far the concept really informs the image and how far the image really lends poetic life to the concept.
                       — From The Allegory of Love, by C.S. Lewis

Fort Tryon Park was Eden still. I was a boy. I was there, part and parcel of the tatty materials, and I bear witness to it still. It’s there to be learned forever in the first four thousand lines or so.

Few poets have struck better than Guillaume de Lorris that note which is the peculiar charm of medieval love poetry — that boy-like blending (or so it seems) of innocence and sensuousness which could make us believe for a moment that paradise had never been lost.
                      — From The Allegory of Love

Moments have a way of yielding to the next moment — “some climbing / before the take-off,” as Pound said, speaking also of battlements and Paradise and of voluptuaries turning upward out of pageant, continuing the pageantry. Guillaume de Lorris, poet of courtly love, yields to Jean de Meun, poet, scholar, sceptic, and tireless exegete. Adding eighteen thousand lines of his own, completing The Romance, de Meun takes the Rose by storm, by sheer force of numbers.

It was the misfortune of Jean de Meun to have read and remembered everything: and nothing that he remembered could be kept out of his poem.
                     — From The Allegory of Love

I think that we all, one way or another, become the Jean de Meuns of ourselves. We annotate the finest days again and again. We exhaust our happiness, meaning only to complete the dream. We lay broad waking. The only cure for love, Guillaume, is to love more. As for de Meun, as for ourselves in the long afterglow of the great poems, we must read more. We must travel the allegory the right way round.

Committed to the safekeeping of every name, commodius vicus brings a traveler the right way round. Back from the brink leads back to the brink and also to questions of conduct. What is a fallen man to do in Eden when Eden never fell? Love more. Read more. William Blake painted many eyes into the picture. A man could use them. As a through passenger — 

My head is hands and feet. I feel all my best faculties concentrated in it. My instinct tells me that my head is an organ for burrowing, as some creatures use their snout and fore paws, and with it I would mine and burrow my way through these hills.
                     — From Walden, by Henry David Thoreau

As a tourist — 

You would be so thoroughly prepared to understand what you saw — You would make fewer traveller’s mistakes.
                    — From Henry David Thoreau’s journal, June 12, 1851

As prodigal son — 

Life is not long enough for one success.
                   — From Henry David Thoreau’s journal, July 19, 1851

Return excels itself by virtue of a simple turn. Sing the Shaker hymn. Sing it with Henry.

Here or nowhere is our heaven.
          — From A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, by
 Henry David Thoreau

Is Grasmere just across the verge of Paradise? Does a man, on the far side of pageant, forgive the fathering child he was? Is Paumanok Eden? Is the absconded she-bird forgiven, either by her fathering mate or by the out-setting bard? Loving more, reading more, the painted eyes begin to number the heavens. Is England a green and pleasant one? Is America?

Walt, tell me, Walt Whitman, if infinity
Be still the same as when you walked the beach
Near Paumanok —
                    — From Cape Hatteras, by Hart Crane

Brink and verge and selvage: crossing over, up, and into the pageant, close-reading is close-loving. “My hand / in yours, / Walt Whitman —/ 
so — .” My head is hands and feet: all eyes.

So very close is first a cloud of emblems, images, words. So very close — loving reading, reading loving — the qualities of joy are indistinguishable from objects each possesses. My cloud was on the cover of The Norton Anthology of Poetry, in color. Beatrice Addressing Dante from the Car by William Blake shows an awakening cloud, envisioned as colors blazoned forth with eyes in plumage, eyes in flowers, 

Così dentro una nuvola di fiori
    che dalle mani angeliche saliva
    e ricadeva in giù dentro e di fuori,
Sovra candido vel cinta d’oliva
    donna m’apparve. 
                   — From Purgatorio, by Dante Alighieri

All the loves at once, donna m’apparve, a lady appeared to me — says Dante, says I, says anyone whose name is spoken aloud on the skirt of Heaven. It’s written down. In the spring of 1972, in Professor G’s “Introduction to Literary Analysis,” and on a narrow bridge through flowers and farther, into the mounted policemen surrounding the Pentagon, all the loves at once appeared, una nuvola di fiori, already written down. I fell in love a dozen times. Beatrice Addressing Dante from the Car was a cloud I carried everywhere it carried me. Numbering heavens, 1972 was such a number, each numeral possessed by joy.

How can one joy absorb another? Are not different joys
Holy, eternal, infinite! and each joy is a Love.
                  — From Visions of the Daughters of Albion, by William Blake

The daughters of 1972 appeared to me as gaze in plumage, gaze in flowers, asymptotes of actually beautiful human being touching the curve of my eye. Said curve continues pageant now, for joy. And Blake was right of course. One joy cannot absorb another. Eyes do not absorb the light. They rise to it, pageant-wise. I’m saying nothing about symbols. This is allegory. My college, Harpur College, was then, as now, incorporate with Binghamton University. The school itself, however, was not in the city of Binghamton. More heavily wooded then than now, campus lay to the west, in the town of Vestal. I lived very near, on Vestal Avenue, number 123, upstairs. It was a four-room apartment, to begin with. Sometime in March, one of the rooms came away and fell into the street. The monthly rent remained the same. My weekly writing assignments for Professor G likewise remained the same: five hundred words on “Among School Children.” Yeats’s pages in my Norton were the heavily annotated skirt of the cloud I carried everywhere, and a long schoolroom, too. I am sixty this year, smiling. As I was smiling in 1972 when Professor G invited me to dinner and I saw, for the one and only time, her remarkable daughter. I’ve forgotten her name. She wore a cream-colored dress with intricate bodice. Her only jewelry was a crucifix, silver, set with five red stones. All the air and all the light of that evening belonged to her. She spoke very little. She smiled often. I have never forgotten. There was pretty plumage once. This is the chase! (From among the heaped-up references and allusions, it is proper to choose from The Winter’s Tale; in the fall of ’72 I would take Professor G’s Shakespeare class, and there would come a morning when, staring out a window into the small, first snow, listening to her sing to us a song of Autolycus’s, I was born. There was a mischievous breath between small snow and William Shakespeare I had never breathed before. My life ever since depends upon it.) The daughter’s smile and unaffected elegance, the color of her cheek and hair, made her a daughter of the swan to my close-reading eye. In “Among School Children,” Yeats names no woman’s name, but she goes without saying. “Ledaean” suffices. In pursuit of atonement, not of possession, close-reading is chaste.

In the spring of 1972, I loved them all and was lover to none. Atonement is magical chastity: “a living child”; “yolk and white of the one shell.” Sylvia, an Arcadian by name, was the friend of some friends of mine. One afternoon I saw her fall and tear the seat of her dungarees. The gesture, the nonchalance (to use Whitman’s word) with which she folded the rough tear together and went on speaking to her friends, was unspeakably lovely. I’m saying nothing about symbols. This is allegory. I fell in love, and never spoke to her until an accident of the anti-war movement made a change. In Vietnam, the Easter Offensive — which dragged on well into the autumn — was horrifically underway. Protests and escalations kept steady pace with atrocity on all sides, in all dialects and distortions. Not a single branch or trellis flowered that April and May, in Vestal, in echt Binghamton, in Syracuse (where a strange girl kissed me the softest kiss of my life as a policeman took away my whistle and my flag), in Washington, DC (where I saw Sesame Street for the very first time with two small girls who called me “Mr. Demonstrator” because I was a guest in their parents’ home), and across the river in Northern Virginia (where many ran a gauntlet of bowing branches and rearing horses, 
I with those same two children under my arms, to escape the tear gas), but that branch or that trellis seemed outraged or afraid. It’s hard to smile when all that smile are terrified, even the flowers and small girls. No one is comfortable, and no one lives to grow old beneath a gauntlet.

I had my Norton with me everywhere. I continued writing my weekly assignments “Among School Children” literally, young and old, at play in peril. In the midst of all, “bent / Above a sinking fire” one late night on vigil on a courthouse lawn, I spoke with Sylvia and got to know her, if only a little. Our purpose was solemn presence, round the clock, every day, in quiet protest of the arraignments and convictions of schoolmates subsequent to their arrest at other, more clamorous demonstrations around town. The midnight was damp and chilly; we were a drab contingent huddled around the fire I’d built in a trash barrel. (The police didn’t mind. This was Binghamton, New York, a gentle place. In the morning, they’d bring us buns and coffee.) Drab, except for Sylvia. After forty hours of vigil, we’d looked to be the sullen, bewildered children we mostly were. For once, the heckler’s daylight shout of “dirty hippies” would ring true. But not of Sylvia. Hers was a Ledaean body sure enough, and a face always tilted slightly across the shadow-line where, if you looked closely, a smile began. When she stepped into the circle of firelight, I stood up straight and tried my best to look like a Moses in fatigues, prophetic behind my skimpy beard. She was so nice, so easy in her zeal. She hated the War. She hated the draft. Everyone did, and so we might as well stay close to the fire and talk about music and school and summer plans. There was a long night still ahead. And so we talked, leaning into the warmth together, sometimes laughing. One by one, our companions drifted off to doze on benches, strum guitars, read beneath streetlamps. For a while, Sylvia and I were alone. Then, out of the shadows came a voice, and a man, not much older than ourselves, dressed in a business suit, stood beside us. He asked about the vigil. In the long small talk, he got around to asking if a little break — a hot shower, forty winks in a clean, warm bed — sounded good to us. I must admit that I’d already thought of such things; but a room had only lately fallen away from my apartment on Vestal, and it would offer no refreshment to beautiful Sylvia. The stranger, in town on business, said he’d been given a suite by mistake at the Ramada, and we were welcome to the extra bed and bath if we liked. We liked, bewildered children as we mostly were. Suffice it to say that, back at the Ramada, we found our stranger’s nature to be “but a spume that plays.” Sylvia and I showered (separately, of course). It felt good. And then we were indeed welcome to use the big, clean bed ... provided that our host could, well, watch. Watch what? Sylvia and I ran back to the courthouse lawn, hand in hand. When the sun came up, policemen brought hot coffee and sticky buns. The morning had a festal air, a sunshine purpose with no war in sight. I never saw Sylvia again after that morning. Over the summer, she must have transferred to another school. In my weekly essay, I wondered about that man in the business suit, and what his mother “would think her son, did she but see that shape” squatting beside an empty, unruffled motel bed. All loves at once can sometimes come to naught. But I was among the blessed schoolchildren, studying pageant from the inside, according to the curriculum of pageant — “reading and writing and flaming arithmetic” (John Ashbery, “And You Know”).

I could number the heavens, one by one. Donna m’apparve. I counted by William Blake’s four cardinal numbers for Visions of the Daughters of Albion: one; holy; eternal; infinite. Una nuvola di fiori was everywhere in the spring of 1972, and out of every cloud of those days a Lady appeared to me. Reina was with me, on all roads, and I with her. My eyes in the yearbook 
photograph look toward Reina, behind the camera. She was in my kitchen making tea when a bedroom fell away into the Vestal Avenue traffic. She wasn’t frightened. She still came round to visit me nearly every day or night. She typed my papers for Professor G’s “Introduction to Literary Analysis.” She steadied the horses at the Pentagon and made chaplets for herself and for two small girls from broken branches. She was not my lover, though my friends assumed she was, and I was proud to let them. She had an air so absolutely unique to herself, so acceptable — by which I mean to say that her mere presence made all things welcome, calm, accepting, unfailingly candid. Wherever she stood in her cloud of flowers, she was the flowers, even drifting into mind or midair. This is not symbolism. This is allegory. Goodness appears as herself, in the role of Goodness, and afterward as a great deal more, though I know nothing about it. The “self-born mockers of man’s enterprise” move too fast. I write poems, etc. The Easter Offensive gorged itself all summer and ended before Christmas. Soon it was somebody else’s war. By then, Reina had found a lover. Once, I saw her dancing with him at a concert in the Student Union, February 1973. There is such a thing as Hell. “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” Only by dancing. Donna m’apparve just to say that Youth and Beauty are one and the same, a Heaven secured by pageant evermore, if only. “Guardaci ben! Ben son, ben son Beatrice.”

Hesitation and delay must never be mistaken for rest. “Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees” — Stonewall Jackson’s dying words. Rest is the efflorescence of right action: i.e. the Pageant itself. The brink, the near shore, the selvages, these are places of clamor. Rooms fall away. Branches fall away. No one afterward remembers anything amiss. The spring of 1972 was one heaven to cross, in the direction of Heaven. (Asymptote hardly knows itself until — Guardaci ben!) 1973 was bound to come and bound to go beneath the chariot wheels of Youth and Beauty. “Ben son, ben son Beatrice.” Yeats, in the closing lines of “Among School Children,” resigns himself to a frantic question. “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” But simultaneities are not identities. If they were, symbols would suffice. Allegory leads us quite a dance, but the dancing is real. The role of Love is danced by Love, and “each joy is a Love.” The symbolist eventually runs short of numbers. Allegory goes on. Even Wordsworth, who knew better, having voiced a perfect summa of pageant early in his Intimations Ode — “The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star, / Hath had elsewhere its setting” — runs short of breath and numbers by the end, resigning himself, like Yeats, to a conundrum: “Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.” Hell is deep. Heaven is wide. The true measure, the true account of any motion is the motion itself.

                                          Does his eye behold the beam that brings
Expansion to the eye of pity? Or will he bind himself
Beside the ox to thy hard furrow?
Arise and drink your bliss, for every thing that lives is holy!
                 — From Visions of the Daughters of Albion

Albion is sick. There’s no resigning. Light itself is motion touching 
human eyes. Position, heal thyself. “Position is where you / put it,” says Robert Creeley (“The Window”). Beatrice says, “Guardaci ben!” and suddenly Heaven is wider still. Blake at the very brink, where the brink is Heaven underway. One pageant is one success. Is there a life of mine in there, an America? I’m asking.

In the words of an old Blues standard, “Can I get to you now, Lord, or must I hesitate?” Perhaps it is Dante’s delay and not his devotion I emulate. Am I afraid to cross over the river without my Virgil — my allusions, my heralds and cross-references? I must read more. Am I afraid to die? I must love more. L’antica fiamma, my old flame, is not old. In Heaven, Yeats, excess of love is not bewildered. On Heaven’s brink, more is better. I must read more lovingly, until reading crosses over to rest beneath the shade of words.

Stonewall Jackson must have known which river to cross and 
exactly where, exactly when. Upon the brink of Heaven, so close, precision as to moment, precision as to place, is critical.

                                            So, while the light fails
On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel
History is now and England.
                 — From Little Gidding, by T.S. Eliot

Only an American, most especially a Missourian, could have written those lines as pageant and not palaver. At the brink of Heaven, if you get it wrong, angelic hands cast no flowers — una nuvola di fiori / che dalle mani angeliche saliva. Mermaids do not sing. There is an instance of upturn not to be missed. Our lives are loves, surely. But comes a time we must love rightly. Else we risk the oblivion of love, disappearing back to Limbo. Surely our loves appear in perfect order, in poetry, in pageant. Comes a time we must read rightly. Else we risk the oblivion of metaphor, disappearing back into the anthologies.

Lovely enchanting language, sugar-cane,
Honey of roses, whither wilt thou fly?
                — From The Forerunners, by George Herbert

In the crisis of mortality, Herbert urges his poetry to turn away from metaphor toward perfection. He urges Allegory. He commends the perfection of death-in-love reading the pageant of his own conversion, voluptuaries notwithstanding. Conversion is that instance of upturn in love, in Amor, inside of which loving and reading play a single part. For an instant (it ought to last forever) Pageant knows itself. Small wonder then, at the end of his writing life, Shakespeare should write The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest, tragedies of misreading that, via pageantry on islands, become comedies of redemption from oblivion and metaphor, of love restored to perfections more perfect than before.

In The Winter’s Tale, place and time escape the action of the play until returned by spectacle. Leontes, king of Sicilia, the true island home of pastoral poetry, of Theocritus and Bion, vexes his kingdom to nightmare with jealous, murderous misreading. Courteous words are misread as adulteries. Reading fails. Love fails. Innocents die in prison. Unreality rules. A spotless newborn, Perdita, is abandoned on the nonexistent shore of Shakespeare’s imaginary Bohemia. Only when Time itself, embodied pageant-wise in Chorus, speaks sixteen years of hallucinatory discord, does the healing festival begin. Florizel, a prince disguised as a shepherd, recognizes nobility in the now-grown foundling shepherdess Perdita. Pastoral turns toward home in tender Pastoral transaction. (Love perfects Courtesy; Courtesy perfects Love.) In pageant, to pageant, Pastoral returns to real Sicilia. There, the statue of the falsely convicted Queen Hermione comes to life, escaping oblivion, escaping metaphor, and all may read the truth of sweet reunion. Because of Love, reunion accomplishes more than the sum of its parts. Paradise is more than Paradise Regained. In pageant and allegory, the role of Love is always and only played by Love itself. Perfection shows ever more perfectly in the twinned originals.

In The Tempest, the pageant of Amor rescues not only the shipwrecked, but rescue itself. Come to its appointed moment, Prospero’s magic makes a difference but, for all its mischief and music, no real change. His book must drown before he can read aright. The lovers must tear “the baseless fabric” of his enchantments; only then do they love face to face. We may smile when Miranda, first seeing Ferdinand, declares, “I might call him / A thing divine,” and smile once again when later, in her final speech, she exclaims “How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world / That has such people in’t!” But she’s not wrong. Nor is Prospero right in his bitter rejoinder, 
“’Tis new to thee.” Love is divine in its beatific origins and voluptuous destination, and love makes all things new. There are several pageants within The Tempest; Ariel sees to that. But the play, in its valedictory entirety, is one great Pageant. Prospero misreads until he reads a book greater than his own. That book is sweet reunion. Miranda misreads until she no longer portrays an imago. Only then is she born, into the allegory of real life. Unmistaken love is fitted to fly. As Prospero avows:

                                                             There, sir, stop.
Let us not burden our remembrances with
A heaviness that’s gone.

In love, countless perfections are exchanged, lover to lover. They pass between us. This is the story, and the story is true. Just before she died, my sister took down a picture I’d cut from a magazine and kept on my bedroom wall. She had it beautifully, expensively framed, and hung it back on its crooked nail, without a word. It’s a picture of Heaven — something medieval, a patch of garden in which the Blessed Souls exchange small tokens hand to hand, under the approving gaze of two angels and two deer. Perfections are equal in essence, but there is a hierarchy, too. Cockermouth (“Much favour’d in my birthplace,” says The Prelude), Paumanok, Eden, these are heavens of the original sort: beatific. Trailing clouds of glory, to each an asymptote of his own, we go the transit of loves. We play the pageant. Sometimes Shepherd #2 becomes a King. Kids are equal in essence, but somewhere in the lovely transactions of Amor, actually inside the transactions, happens an upturn and hierarchy. After the shepherd’s festival, Perdita is not simply restored to Sicilia; she will be Queen there, and Queen of Bohemia, too. After enchanted island exile, Miranda is not only restored to the duchy of Milan; she will be Queen of Naples, by and by. There are footsteps upon a Florentine bridge to consider also: donna m’apparve. Clouds are exchanged for crowns; heavens of the eventual sort (the event is Love) are Paradise, unjacketed and voluptuous.

In our real lives, actual events are inseparable, one from another. Each is a passage from a single text: the pageant in which, eventually, we play all parts but one. To read more closely is to love more closely. And if, as near to the Beloved as we can say, words seem to fail, they have not failed. All structuralists are charlatans. “He’s here! He’s over here!” Donna m’apparve. Sometimes, we live and have our being entirely inside the words. Loving so closely, our eyes read into the stars inside of eyes.

The works of the great poets have never yet been read by mankind, for only great poets can read them. They have only been read as the multitude read the stars, at most astrologically, not astronomically.
                        — From Walden

Which is simply to say that poems and stars exist. Greatness consists in the originals. Oothoon, in Visions of the Daughters of Albion, knows how to read. She can never be defiled or distracted, and her perfection (which is astronomical) improves with every word.

How can one joy absorb another? Are not different joys
Holy, eternal, infinite! and each joy is a Love.

It is very tender to know that Oothoon will travel, like Perdita, like Miranda, all the way from cloud to crown.

There is a grain of sand in Lambeth that Satan cannot find
Nor can his Watch-Fiends find it; ’tis translucent & has many angles.
But he who finds it will find Oothoon’s palace, for within
Opening into Beulah, every angle is a lovely heaven.
                        — From Jerusalem by William Blake

Loves remain distinct in their numberless heavens, each one in place, which is One place, never afterward amiss. Which is to say that poems and stars exist and, further, to say “the stars are caught and hived in the sun’s ray.” That was Hart Crane speaking, his last completed poem, “The Broken Tower,” speaking the most intense of Amor’s deep transactions, inside of which perfection turns for home along a ray of sunlight. Staring straight ahead into a black bell tower streaking past, the eyebeam touches the curve of the human eye, descrying 
Paradise. “Slater, let me come home.” That was Robert Creeley speaking, in the role of Hart Crane in the singular pageant. And home they went.

On my table here I have a compact paperback (1966 Anchor Books) of Hart Crane’s poems and selected prose. It’s my favorite, the last one published while New Critics ruled the earth and poems were safe to find friends of their own, and to keep them close for as long as friendship lasted. The book is built for intimacy. Here are poems that Frank O’Hara cherished at the very same hour in a very different Manhattan from that in which Robert Lowell likewise cherished them. These are poems Robert Creeley, in the most beautiful letters he ever wrote, taught Charles Olson how to love, while Allen Tate, a drinking buddy to Crane and to Slater Brown, was yet alive and writing well in his entirely different America. (There’s a letter to Tate in this little book ... “We’re all unconscious evolutionists, I suppose.”)

This is not my original copy; it is a recent gift from a thoughtful graduate student. Thank you, Joseph, for, in your own words, “filling a gap.” My original was left behind on an airplane circa 1989 en route to the MLA convention in Washington, DC. It was already a broke-back and yellowing item; I’d carried it with me on every sort of trip for a dozen years and more. Why? All for the sake of one stanza.

And so it was I entered the broken world
To trace the visionary company of love, its voice
An instant in the wind (I know not whither hurled)
But not for long to hold each desperate choice.
                — From The Broken Tower

Here, in one lyric instant, are all the transactions of Amor perfectly, unguardedly compacted. The newborn seeks and finds a company, a pageantry. The way of affirmation, the visual, touches the via negativa upon auditory, imageless rhymes. Freedom of choice is a foundling 
awaiting the next instant, which must somehow, anyhow reveal image and voice imparadised.

Certainly, over the years there’d been a sense of increment. For a long time, it was only the phrases “broken world” and “visionary company” I loved and, imperfectly, grasped. Mishap and happiness, crisis and rescue — more than enough transit and transport for me. Still, over time it was the calm, the stateliness behind the (in)famous ecstasies of the poem that mattered more and more. The ups and downs, the gatherings and dispatch, the shattering diapasons, are not chaos. There is no delirium. Rather, Crane compacts a turbulence of transactions, all of them loving, into a single instance: “the stars are caught and hived in the sun’s ray.” Follow that ray to its source. There is no regression. Asymptote touches bell curve on the rise. Intimations all prove accurate. Origin is newly destined:

And builds, within, a tower that is not stone
(Not stone can jacket heaven) — but slip
Of pebbles, — visible wings of silence sown
In azure circles, widening as they dip.
                  — From The Broken Tower

Uplift, “visible wings of silence,” fits the affirmation of images like wings onto the auditory imagination. A compact is sealed into pageantry: “The commodious, tall decorum of that sky / Unseals her earth, and lifts love in its shower.”

As one of the epigraphs to Four Quartets, his crowning pageant of instances, T.S. Eliot chose this passage from Heraclitus: “the way up and the way down are one and the same.” As the instantaneous epitaph to a life’s work, “The Broken Tower” ends in a shower of lights raining up through clamor ringing down. No gaps.

I must pass beyond memory to find you, my true Good, my sure Sweetness. But where will the search lead me? Where am I to find you? If I find you beyond my memory, it means that 
I have no memory of you. How, then, am I to find you, if I have no memory of you?
                     — From Confessions, by Saint Augustine

From cloud to crown, what becomes of memory is what comes of it. A secluded chapel for Eliot, a palace for Oothoon, azures for Crane, a brave new world for Prospero’s Miranda, each of these is a voluptuary instance of voices and imagery imparadised, just as they’d been from the beginning, only now aware. It happens often, which is to say all the time When. The pageant cannot remember itself, and then it does. Saint Augustine’s pilgrim anxiety finds a passage from resolution (“I must pass beyond”) to something far beyond 
independence. Still, resolution drifts. It drifts a very long way, into “blank misgivings” as Wordsworth called them, into Dante’s selva oscura where allegory ravens after messes of shadow meat. Sometimes it drifts all the way, as in Whitman, and eventually “the low and delicious word” becomes the death-in-life of “me.” Allegory grows cold this side of Paradise. Vision that misses the upturn, the fording place, the skirt of Heaven, una nuvola di fiori, never prophesies. Grace is a more-than-marvelous gift, but so is grit.

Out of all this beauty something must come.
                — From Canto LXXXIV, by Ezra Pound

Pound’s insistence acts on faith, and faith acts — radiance without let-up all through “Rock-Drill.” By grace or grit, perfection finds the turn for home inside of love, close-reading deep transactions written there. Close-reading prophesies. Prophecy is what becomes of memory, precise as to moment and to place.

Augustine pleads a further concern, as it is the very substance of memory — its essential Goodness and essential Sweetness — he cannot bear to relinquish. There’s nothing to fear. In becoming prophetic, memory relinquishes nothing at all. The voluptuary instance changes everything, forsaking not one thing, not even the shadow or petal or skirt of one. Inside of Love, memory no longer passes, however tenderly, between subject and object. Passages are reunion. Reading is closer than grammar comprehends. Augustine will know the conjugations of his memory forever changed. Conjugal infinitives, as it were, cross over from Eden to Paradise, bringing the entire Garden home. It isn’t a pageant for nothing. Confessions commemorates a God more sweet and good than even His saint remembered. Likewise, toward the end of Purgatorio, Virgil, hitherto Dante’s unperfected memory of the Vision, disappears. He is not gone. He has become the dimensionless point exactly where Beatrice lowers her eyes, lifting the Commedia into Prophecy.

                              Nothing matters but the quality
of the affection — 
in the end — that had carved the trace in the mind
dove sta memoria.
                 — From Canto LXXVI, by Ezra Pound

Dove sta memoria ... where memory liveth. Having taken the upturn, having forded the river, having joined with metaphor in pageant where metaphor is purely itself, memory is a mere agency no longer. It is entity. The God whom Augustine so loved can neither be forgotten nor remembered. God lives, which is to say that all the Goodness and Sweetness dear to the saint freely live and freely act, dove sta memoria. As entity, memory fulfills the now prophetic pageant. Prophetic all along, it had merely been confused with grammars. Entity is transit, not transitive. In Confessions, Augustine’s love of God is perfected, revealed to have been in fact, and from before the beginning, God. In the Commedia, Dante’s love for Beatrice transits an identical dimensionlessness, the eighth day of June 1290 notwithstanding. Reproof, and then a smile distinguish the Beloved in poetry, where memory liveth. That is why “Dante” appears just once in all the hundred cantos; his spoken name is a summons to prophecy, to actual entity. Only then is it written down.

The visionary writes no poetry, only regressions and reprise. Reproof (say that of Beatrice) and a name (say “Dante” written into Purgatorio) are tenderly required. I could mention a voice calling “Child” at the end of George Herbert’s “The Collar.” Or Robert Creeley en route to his own real name in “Heroes” — “That was the Cumaean Sibyl speaking. / This is Robert Creeley, and Virgil.” And then the asymptote curves into a smile, which is also the curve of a human eye, descrying Paradise. You can’t make these things up out of thin air, or out of abandoned nests, or out of blown roses. No one believes you.

                                                        That she is living,
Were it but told you, should be hooted at
Like an old tale; but it appears she lives,
Though yet she speak not. Mark a little while.
[To Perdita] Please you to interpose, fair madam. Kneel
And pray your mother’s blessing. [To Hermione] Turn, good lady.
Our Perdita is found.
                        — From The Winter’s Tale, by William Shakespeare

Hermione alive is the mother Perdita never knew and therefore never had occasion to remember. To Hermione, Perdita is no foundling, but a daughter born full-grown in perfect love. Where memory liveth, memory is an altogether new adventure, an entity among other 
entities, where neither subject nor object appertains. Imparadised, what Pound calls “the quality / of the affection” is a quality no more, not subordinate to humors and nuance. It lives free. Saint Augustine had nothing to fear. His memory lay always just ahead of him, where Goodness is entity and Sweetness is entity. The pageant of Amor answers to each part with all speed.

Lead us from hence, where we may leisurely
Each one demand, and answer to his part
Performed in this wide gap of time since first
We were dissevered. Hastily, lead away. [Exeunt]
                     — From The Winter’s Tale

What becomes of memory is what comes of it. The very first photograph taken of my sister Roberta in Heaven dates from 1948. The cast of the St. Peter’s Church annual Christmas pageant gathers in full costume — a pastorale underneath balloons and mistletoe in the parish hall. The pageant has ended. You can almost hear a late train grinding through the midnight air outside and above. My sister, innkeeper’s wife that year, is the eight-year-old with bangs cut straight across her forehead. She kneels in the first row. She holds a lantern up above her hair. I was born in 1954, and my sister, my dear one, died in 1995. I’d never seen this photograph, now on my desk, before 2001. It appears in a mustard-yellow book, The Beautiful Bronx: 1920–1950, by Lloyd Ultan, cofounder of The Bronx County Historical Society Journal. And I would never have seen the book, I’m certain, save for the fact that my friend John Ashbery sent it to me out of the blue. The pageant cannot remember itself, and then it does. John could not have known that, hidden way in the tall pages, would be a Roberta I’d never seen, exactly as I’d never seen her, really, time out of mind. The affirmation of images has a mind of its own. And you can almost hear the late trains passing by. Transit, not transitive, memory goes ahead of itself and us. Recollection antedates the image whose image is prophetic: in Amor, in Pageant. I never sought to tell my love. Love told Me.

Dove sta memoria ... where memory lives and has its being, its Entity. Paradise in transit, including the Interborough Rapid Transit threading lights through the Christmas midnight air of the beautiful Bronx. Perdita’s memory antedates her birth and her youth as a shepherdess in Bohemia. Hermione proves it. Coming to life, stepping 
down from the cold pedestal and into pageant again, she embodies memory in every direction, moving once more. The way up and the way down from the pedestal: one and the same. A fantastic Bohemia and the actual Sicily: one and the same kingdom, in good time. Beatrice arises from a cloud of flowers, una nuvola di fiori. She simply lowers her eyes and sets the date June 8 of the year 1290 into motion forever. Dante’s memory, addressed to and by Eternity (Guardaci ben!) antedates his Vision and toil. Where the downward gaze of Beatrice finds him alone and raises him into his proper name, proving the truth of his book, in that exact, dimensionless point, all directions unite. Memory is entity, never anguish anymore. Reunion follows reunion. Finding my sister as innkeeper’s wife in a sudden book, exactly as I’d never seen her, six years before I was born and six years after she had died, my pageant remembers itself. The Bronx is beautiful. Long before I was ever a shepherd or a Balthazar, and long afterward, memory lives there.

Our neighborhood was an ethnic jumble and, given the turbulence of the sixties, calm. I’m tempted to say “pastoral,” but you wouldn’t believe me. Still, with the meadows of Pelham Bay Park northward, the waters of Long Island Sound to the south, and a blur of City Island east in the sunrise, it was pastoral to many and to me. By 1965, I’d been a shepherd in St. Peter’s annual pageant two or three times already, with a golden crown in sight. My new school, Henry J. Bruckner Junior High, mirrored the neighborhood perfectly in every way; yet with the teachers counted in, numbers began to favor our Italian-American friends. I knew nothing, walking through the gates on the first school day, of Virgil, Firenze, and the Papacy, but that was soon to change. I hope you’ll believe me. In English class, toward the end of the forty-five-minute hour, we met a visitor. Miss Petrusa was a small woman with closely cropped coppery-colored hair. She seemed, during the teacher’s introduction, literally to vibrate with excitement, although she stood stock-still. We learned that our class had been uniquely honored. Beginning Friday, and continuing every Friday for the next three years we would study, instead of ordinary English, Dante with Miss Petrusa in the school’s small, sunny library: seventh grade, Inferno; eighth grade, Purgatorio; Paradiso in our senior year.

Knowing nothing of Dante, we saw nothing extraordinary or bizarre in the Commedia’s displacing Treasure Island, Warriner’s English Grammar and Composition, and business-letter-writing one day out of every five. We liked the looks of the library; it had tall windows, clean tables, and smelled like Christmas cellophane. Miss Petrusa was always delighted to see us. Never once in our three years, precisely one hundred Fridays, did she become angry or severe. We quickly cherished her. To some of us, she was a doting auntie; to some, myself among them, she was an orphaned gaudy bird. What seemed familiar, we loved. What seemed strange, we intended to protect at all costs from all outsiders.

The ungainly pageant of our damnation, purgation, and bliss went very well. The ceremonies of innocence never drowned, not even among simonists and suicides. The worst that ever happened was that, occasionally, early arrivals would crowd around the illustrated dictionary, parsing genitalia. Miss Petrusa gave no homework. All she asked was that, should an image from the given week’s canto catch fire in our minds, we try to capture it with crayons and colored pencils. “Images, images, images!” she would exclaim. It was from Miss Petrusa, surely, that I learned to honor the Affirmative Way. To this day, I can draw nothing better than stick-figures in red fires or big roses. But heart and mind, I’ve entrusted my salvation to Imagery. I’ve never met an allegory I didn’t like. Even in times of imageless darkness and confusion, the sounds of words lead on to kindly light.

Per te poeta fui, per te Cristiano.
                 — From Purgatorio

Given one hundred Fridays and a happy teacher, I’ve been familiar with eternity quite some time.

In May of 1967, New Critics ruled the earth, and our class was nearing the end of Purgatorio. Accustomed week by week to very close reading and to the vast interiors of our poet’s images (Dante was our poet by then, and the city of Florence a Bronx with funny little bridges), we’d come to the cantos of Earthly Paradise, to the rivers Lethe and Eunoe, and to new trees at Heaven’s brink. It was time for a field trip. On Friday, May 19 we boarded a bus and crossed the river to Manhattan and Fort Tryon Park. Miss Petrusa was taking us to The Cloisters, John D. Rockefeller Jr.’s anthology of medieval stone and gardens staring down the Palisades. I’d never been to the place; none of us had, though crossing the George Washington Bridge en route to the discount houses of New Jersey, we might have seen it — 
a blind church on a rocky outcrop. In the years ahead, I’d often spend my birthdays there. In June 1970, in the cloister called Trie, I wrote my earliest poems. But I’m thinking of the very first visit now. More than the altarpieces, tombs, and tapestries, more than the unicorns and the fruit trees trained to look like candles, what caught my eye was a single wooden bead.

Netherlandish, scarcely two inches wide, opened to the viewer on a hinge, it is not so much carved out of boxwood as into it. Look ever so closely, and there’s far to go. The eye finds, north and south, two concave hemispheres. To the north is every detail of Christ’s nativity — birth and adoration and the flight into Egypt in depth, in intricate relief. The north is Alpha. The south is all Calvary — unimaginable death agony cut in, and cut farther in. Interiors multiply without a vanishing point. The south is Omega. The whole span of Christ’s mortality lies open to view. Then the mind remembers what the eye has seen. Here is a single bead. Close it shut upon its hinge; the Alpha and Omega reunite. Mortality floats in an ocean of limitless space and time, a bubble of boxwood, a bead, just one of many of a scattered strand.

Having taught us to read closely on Dante’s epic scale, Miss Petrusa, on the 19th day of May 1967 taught us to read an image alter idem, inward, and then farther in. It would be impossible to carve or to pray an entire rosary of such beads. Each is a lifetime self-contained. Alpha prior to Alpha, and Omega after the end merely describe a round surface of boxwood. It is a bubble for bursting, like the sun, never seen to burst. The bead snaps shut. Invisible now to one another, creator and creature are one, and one Love. Subject and object, one and the same. Lover and beloved, one and the same. The entire strand must be the span of lifetimes, dimensionless and without end. A pageant cannot read itself, and then it nearly does. It reunites with all the pageants ongoing. Identity trumps awareness. Beatrice looks down from the visionary car and says to Dante, “Fratre,” which is to say, “Brother.” I find my sister gone ahead of me, backward into a book. I see where she has gone, whenever I wish, in the days remaining. Memory is entity. There is a grain of sand in Lambeth that Satan cannot find.

Our time with Miss Petrusa ended one year later. The last of our Fridays was devoted to Paradiso, Canto XXXIII, the finale and periphrasis in Empyrean, a hymn beginning:

Vergine Madre, figlia del tuo figlio.

The phrase itself is a bead of boxwood. The Virgin Mother, daughter of her only son, perfects in detail, in every mortal and divine specific, Alpha prior to Alpha and Omega without end. Our mothers and fathers, along with school administrators from all around the Bronx, were invited to join us for this last meeting. Miss Petrusa planned something special. We’d be dressed in white as best we could: white shirts and blouses, white chinos and pleated skirts, white sneakers. Gathered choir-fashion, facing our guests, and with our backs to the sunny windows, we’d recite the entire canto, from memory. Then we’d exit, in pageant, past the statuette of Dante by the door.

It went well. No one afterward remembered anything amiss. As for myself, I remember only whiteness, and then walking off. In adult life, reading that final canto again — many, many times — I come to line 64:

Così la neve al sol si disigilla.

Like an eternity opened upon its hinge, revealing infinite distances, 
white snow unsealed (disigilla) in the sunlight shows a whiteness without end, the chromatic Union directly before and directly after Dante’s prismatic word. Here is a credible forecast of Hart Crane’s final sky. Here, a “tall decorum” unseals earth, showing no gaps. And still it shows every prophecy and soul between my Florentine and my Bedlamite. Man and boy, I have seen it. Passing by the statuette at the door, I must have seen.

Well, I graduated, so you’ll have to.
                     — From Gorboduc, by John Asbhery

Schooled by overwhelming words and loves — figlia del tuo figlio, my older sister younger than myself in ageless pageant, boxwood, boxwood — I read as closely as I can. Reading should be heroic (Thoreau). Where the point of reading loses dimension, I love. We love. Because of the conjugations, it’s nothing personal (Eliot). It’s prophecy and every soul in between. Every word has a hinge and every footstep a horizon. For Heaven’s sake, these are spiritual entities not structural doodads. Structuralists do not exist. Trailing clouds of glory, existence streams the illustrious transactions. Beatrice, smiling for the last time into mortal eyes, your eyes belong to God, where Dante finds them: e quella ... sorrise e riguardommi. Open a word, Oothoon, and exactly there does knowledge remember itself virginal, unhurt. Hearing footsteps, Perdita, hear the eternal happy shouts of reunion. Little boy in Paumanok, the outsetting bard should outset in. Every word is a ceremony, and every footstep redoubles the horizon of its home. In the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, the inscription reads gnōthi seauton, “know thyself.” Inscribed upon a forecourt, 
it means “go in.” At this point, alphabets bend. Hemispheres close, one upon another, death agony upon Christmas adoration, and the rounded universe is a single bead and the numberless Heaven. If this is boxwood, it is driving me wild (Jack Spicer).

Poems are wild for prophecy, for the quick parlay of vision into reality. Begun ahead of time, visions move more ways than one, yet each way is the pattern of itself and cannot change. If not for the leopard, the lion, and the she-wolf, Dante might have taken the shortcut. Happily, Virgil takes him in hand, and together they go the right way round. In visionary transit, knowledge may hope to find its path to self-knowledge, but only when its vision is unsealed. How so? In “Years of Indiscretion,” John Ashbery offers a beautiful phrase, sotto voce, but in earnest: “vision in the form of a task.” What is the task? To read closely into our loves, remembering each its place in the pageant. Memory unseals a poet’s vision of these, placing the poet in right relation, and then the pageant moves. The movement is Prophecy. “Do this in remembrance of me.” Christ’s imperative, while spoken quietly, tenderly to friends, is epical. They have had their Vision: multifoliate nature has affirmed the images of their inward minds, one and by one. Which is to say that they know and that they love. Now, Christ calls them to a task. Knowledge must go beyond the pagan forecourts, into self-knowledge: I love, and I have a name which the Vision speaks to me, to be written down only then and only by me. Love itself must also move; l’antica fiamma must be lifted and carried high, in visible pageant, along the arc of its homing. Again and again, my poets redouble the use of memory. It is pure theater, with the emphasis on “pure,” as Perdita, Oothoon, and all the voluptuary star-turns of poetry sing. The pageant remembers itself a shepherd and a king.

Originally Published: May 1st, 2015

Born in the Bronx, Donald Revell received his PhD at SUNY Buffalo and is the author of more than a dozen books of poetry, translations, and essays.  His recent books include The English Boat (2018), Drought-Adapted Vine (2015), Tantivy (2012), and the prose work, Read Full Biography

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