“You cannot come to unity and remain material,” wrote A.R. Ammons in his poem “Guide,” as concise a statement of the dilemma that shapes Dante’s final installment of his Divine Comedy as you’re likely to find. It is no surprise that a contemporary poet, David Rigsbee, who has spent a long and varied career as a poet and critic investigating the ways in which, as he puts in in a recent poem, “A Thousand Acres,” “philosophy routs the striving poem,” should be drawn to a vast structure that begins by announcing its own partial failure:
I was in the part of heaven that receives
most. Whoever descends from there
can neither know nor say what he has seen
because approaching its desire
our intellect becomes so weighty
that the memory can’t follow.
Still, as much of the holy kingdom
as I could take away as treasure
will become the matter of my song.
(Canto 1, l. 4-12)
Despite the next stanza’s archaic invocation of Apollo, this is a dilemma that haunts poetry still. It’s not much of a leap from Dante’s “memory can’t follow” to Wyatt’s “in a net I seek to hold the wind” to Frost’s “who only has at heart your getting lost,” to that keen complaint of Robert Hass, “a word is elegy to what it signifies.”
In his carefully reasoned and useful introduction which anticipates and thoughtfully resolves many of the reader’s possible objections to the rarefications of the Paradiso, Rigsbee is careful to ground this quarrel with language in common experience rather than theory, writing that Dante calls upon “the most stringent resources of language to bring to account something that lies beyond language. He reminds us of the problems with his translation of this experience, reminding us what it is like to wake from a dream, then partially forgetting the details of the dream, and yet still to acknowledge the impact, which is undoubted and profound.” Such profundity resembles pleasure in its intensity, a quality and a comparison that recur in the text, as Dante is filled with joy at what he learns and finds this reciprocated in the pleased aspect of his interlocutors, especially Beatrice, who says:
“If in love’s warmth my flame swells
with a radiance never seen on earth
beyond vision’s capacity to perceive
don’t marvel; it comes from perfected
vision that sees the good, and the more
it sees, the more it is drawn there.
Already I see your intellect
shines with Eternal Light, which, once
seen, forever shines and ignites love.”
(Canto V, l. 1-9)
While the erotics of sight and the conflation of passion and devotion in this and similar passages hardly require comment, they do follow a reminder that:
I speak using such signs
because your mind must first make out
by the senses what it then renders intellectually.
(Canto IV, l. 40-42)
Heaven is a fine and abstract place. If the Inferno maps the pain of which the sinful body is capable, the topology of the Paradiso is notional, its meanings and pleasures beyond embodiment. If the metaphors that are hell’s punishments are predicated on the impossibility that all this well-deserved, eternal agony might somehow stop; the pleasures of heaven, which include passionate discourse, sometimes laced with invective against those dissatisfied with the rightness of the divine, are beyond any experience of time. And if the structure of the infernal regions closes the sinner in a circuit defined by justice and torment at once, the logic of paradise is also circular. Divine justice is beyond human justice; being its own answer, it is beyond any human question:
Only what accords to it is just;
it is swayed by no created good
but, beaming forth, causes good.
(Canto XIX, l. 88-90)
The pilgrim need not challenge the fairness of excluding the virtuous pagans from heaven nor advocate for those who, compelled by force to violate their vows, are kept from the highest ranks of the blessed because they did not reach the loftiest standards of martyrdom, since with understanding comes reconciliation to the divine will. The reciprocal passion of Dante and Beatrice is charged with the language and figures of the poetry of love, but these point beyond themselves, as do all the wonders of heaven’s light show:
Like a lark that ranges through
the air, at first singing, then falling silent,
satisfied with its last sweet notes
so the emblem seemed to me
the image of eternal pleasure, by whose
will all things become what they are.
(Canto XX, l. 73-78)
Rigsbee’s translation is a welcome guide through these conundrums, with its clear diction and carefully shaped stanzas, its minimal but essential notes, and its ability to shift from elevated discourse to down-to-earth bemusement as Dante’s narrator switches from a troubadour’s passion to a theologian’s logic to a poet baffled by the task he has set himself:
From this point I admit myself beat:
never was there a comic or a tragic poet
who was so undone by his theme.
(Canto XXX, l. 22-24)
This moment of aporia will lead to revelation; in a place that is no place, where memory is unanchored and there is no genealogy for the muses, where the specificity of the lover’s vision is lost in “the pinnacle / and breadth of Eternal Worth, seeing / itself divided and mirrored, reflecting Itself // as One…,” (Canto XXIX, l. 142-45), the poet’s earlier invocation to Apollo must give way to another form of prayer. “O splendor of God…” the poet cries, appealing for the gift of speech while replacing poetry’s lord with one beyond words, “Grant me the power to say what I saw.” (Canto XXX, l. 97-99)
“In that perception,” Ammons’ poem continues, “is no perceiver.” And in this conception of poetry, that it must approach the unapproachable even if all it can manage is to record the journey, we have both the failure of poetry’s “high fantasy” and the reason we keep writing, “desire and will impelled by that // Love that moves the sun and the other stars.” (Canto XXXIII, l 149-150) Rigsbee has followed this imperative through a score of published volumes extending the capacity of our language to account for the sharpness of our hope for such a love, even as it is obscured by the split spectrum of experience. In this translation, he has arrived where refraction becomes the reflection in mirror that catches the sun, where what we can’t bear to see is exactly what we get.