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Live Encounters Poetry & Writing April 2023
Translating Paradiso, guest editorial by David Rigsbee
Dante says it up front: the task exceeds every reach. How do you account for what is beyond a human’s ability to experience in its fullness? How does the temporal account for the eternal? Even as this ambitious poet demurs, he nonetheless invokes help as he turns to Paradise, reupping by way of invocation to the classical muse and his personal inspiration, the spirit of Beatrice. Virgil, the king of poets, had been his guide, and he had acquired the seal of preapproval of the epic poets: Homer, Horace, Ovid, and Lucan. In Paradiso, he even crowns himself with laurel leaves like a soldier fastening his helmet before the coming battle.
During the course of his pilgrimage in the Commedia, he had made promises and predictions; he had hung out with the spirits of writhing madmen and beatified saints, ruthless politicians, sinnerman poets, would-be kings and clueless popes. In the last book he witnesses Jesus, Mary, and God Himself. It’s no surprise to find him caught between self-aggrandizement and shrinking humility. But in the finale, sun-treading as he is, he never passes up an opportunity to signal that the poem to end all poems is a fool’s errand.
And yet, in spite of Wittgenstein’s injunction that we must be silent in the face of what can’t be said, the third part of the Divine Comedy unspools thirty three cantos and 4,758 lines. It is the longest of the three books. Such a loquacious poem spans earth, the solar system, outer space, and heaven itself (at one point, Beatrice reminds Dante, “Don’t you know you are in heaven?”). Of course the universe is Ptolemaic, a series of transparent globes enclosing other globes, but that’s just a technical matter. The spirits and angels we encounter are themselves inside lighted bubbles. To say it is a closed system is to put it mildly. But by the same token it is infinite, as we learn when Dante finally sees the face of God.
The problem lies in telling about the journey and what it means, like a first-year composition student, when he gets home, but that he does and continues to do 700 years after his death. In Canto XXIII, he puts the difficulty this way:
If all the languages that Polyhymnia
and all her sisters, thickened with sweetest
milk, were to come to my help, my song
of the sacred smile illuminating
Beatrice’s look would not reach the truth,
not even to the thousandth part.
And so, in rendering Paradise
in my sacred poem, I must make a leap
like a man who finds his way cut short.
Who thinks on such a ponderous
theme and the mortal who shoulders it
will not blame me, if I tremble
I was aware of the impossibility of Dante’s task when the thought of translating Paradiso first began to take shape, and it was catnip for me from that point on. I had studied Wittgenstein in graduate school and wrote a thesis on him. Although he is noted for his obscurity and his aversion to understanding poetry’s aims, one thing was clear: what you can’t say you mustn’t try. But how do we know what we can’t say? Well, one example was any attempt to express the incompatibility of dimensions: time and eternity. We can say anything within the framework of the former, but the latter is frameless and unframeable.
Poets shake the bars of their cells over this and try all manner of legerdemain to find their way around it. Dante thought he could give us something, an inkling that would entice us to become aware, at least that, even in its inaccessibility, such a dimension exists and matters. And while he did so admitting that he was not able to communicate even “the thousandth part” of his vision, he indeed left us with something that has come to be regarded as the greatest part of the greatest poem of all time.
It was my daughter who came up with the idea. We had been living in New York ten years ago, while she had recently graduated from Trinity College in Dublin with an M.Phil in American literature and a thesis on Nabokov, and was preparing to take the LSAT (which led to Harvard Law). A brilliant, driven girl, Makaiya saw trouble in me, and indeed I had been diagnosed with depression after a separation from her mother. We had thought that living in the same building where the painter Romare Bearden had worked would be, among other things, restorative, and for a time it was.
But as winter set in, she found me moping around, trying to work on my collection, This Much I Can Tell You, and writing poetry reviews for The Cortland Review. I had also begun drinking for the first time in 28 years. I was at the mercy of my regrets, poking around in the dark wood of the mind.
One day, Makaiya said, “Dad, listen, I think you should start a new project.” She added, “Something huge, like translating Dante.” I protested that it had been done. “Not the Paradiso,” she shot back. “Think of it.” And so I did. I had taught the Inferno many times, and before retirement, I had even led a seminar in which we read only two poems, the Aeneid and Inferno. It was a possibility, but a few other things needed to take place before the idea grew into a commitment. Both of these involved poets.
Being in New York reminded me of my visits years ago to Brodsky who lived on Morton St., within walking distance of our apartment. I had also begun meeting friends at Caffe Reggio, Brodsky’s go-to and, like him, always preferred the tables near the back, where large dark paintings hung in the background. I had even written a poem called “Helmets,” which is set at this well-known hangout:
Here I met the great poet frequently,
when I was the junior great poet,
but that was years ago.
We had espressos and ransacked the world
for the seeds of poems so as not
to be cut off like an unfinished sentence.
I ended the poem by trying to bring the darkest of the paintings into focus:
But you can make out a pewter
helmet on one, and then another:
one tilted, one as if looking sideways.
Why were we not expecting this?
What kind of soldiers are we?
He had brought up the subject of Dante many times and once sent me a postcard of the poet in Botticelli’s portrait, in profile, which featured his prominent “Roman” proboscis. Joseph asked me if I had noticed the similarity with my own nose. Another postcard followed on which he wrote, “If you want a rose, follow your nose.” I mentioned this to my daughter, who replied, “See? He was pointing you toward Dante.”
At the same time, I had reanimated my friendship with poet Linda Gregg. It began when I was chewing over some ideas with Ginger Murchison, who edited The Cortland Review, for some possible subjects for video features. I had recently put together a video of my first poetry teacher, Carolyn Kizer, who had already slipped into dementia, prohibiting the usual format in which a camera follows a poet around, and the interviewer engages the poet in conversation along the way. The videos were charming, as well as revealing. Such poets as Philip Levine, Gerald Stern, and Stephen Dunn had already been subjects. So I suggested instead a slide show with musical accompaniment and sidebar reminiscences from fellow writers. Ginger went for the idea, and the video appeared on the website in 2012.
This time I mentioned that I had read that she and Linda Gregg had shared billing at the Miami Poetry Festival, and suggested she would be a good fit for the series. She had recently lost her companion Jack Gilbert, and I had heard she was living in New York as a semi-recluse. Ginger’s reply: no way. Linda had presented difficulties at the festival. She was sour and cantankerous and showed up to workshops drunk; her students had bad things to say. I asked her to let me give it a try anyway, arguing that we could certainly edit the result. I didn’t mention that I had an ulterior motive.
I wanted to resurrect my friendship with Linda after 38 years of silence. In a memoir I am working on, I go into the reasons for this huge gap, which also involved Brodsky. Suffice to say I was apprehensive as I dialed her number, but her immediate reaction (“David? Don’t hang up!”) restored my faith that conversation is life-giving. Soon we were visiting and talking all day at her bare table in St. Mark’s Place, surrounded by boxes of notebooks, both hers and Jack’s.
Our late-night phone conversations typically lasted hours. I considered her to be the purest of American poets, who always took the hardest approach, living for decades in straightened circumstances, impossible romantic entanglements, and general self-sacrifice, except when it came to making her poems, which, simple as they seemed to be, dug down to the find the most sweeping veins of ore. She lived among the classics and bathed in their bright, Mediterranean sunlight.
One day as she sipped from a glass of Evan Williams, I told her about Makaiya’s suggestion that I take up Dante. She said (as she often did), “Let’s pause and think about this.” I added that Joseph had also tried to nudge me in that direction, and her response was that “Passion leads to rapture and that, to Paradise. I get it. It’s the ladder.”
She reminded me of the days, four decades before, when I stood in the doorway and read poems from Lyrics of the Troubadours and Trouveres. She admired the plain-spoken vernacular of Daniel and Cavalcanti, their bragging over who knew best to sing about love. “That’s what I sing about too,” she said. “You try to see how far you can go with the idea of the Beloved, and you can take it really far. Dante comes out of that tradition, but he is so Catholic in the end. I’m a pagan myself. My gods are Greek. What you ought to do is to find a scholar to check your translation and do the notes for you.” I said that I had such a person in mind.
Makaiya had mentioned her advisor at NYU, a professor of medieval Church history and an ordained Episcopalian priest. Linda nodded. “I think it’s a big project, but you can do it. You need to do it. One thing: don’t rhyme. Look for the music elsewhere.”
In was in those early days of our renewed friendship that I began reading versions of the poem, trying to figure out what it would take to turn the original into vernacular English. I wanted to explore how Dante’s tight but eloquent phrasing, full of embedded clauses, mimicked the valences of his universe. One day I realized it might be possible to make a matching rhythm. Before long, I had translated the first third the cantos and read them aloud to Linda at her request. “Isn’t that something? It’s beautiful,” she would say. “Dante likes to go big, and that suits you. I’m the opposite. I want to reduce everything.” By the time I finished it in 2016, I handed the whole manuscript to Linda in a file box.
There was still the matter of the notes. Dante litters heaven with characters lost to modern readers and wars over nuances of orthodoxy and philosophy. To him these were not marginal features, they were the point of his illumination. My collaborator had pulled out, having produced nothing but postponements and citing administrative struggles in which he was now involved at his seminary. I didn’t know where I would find another with his scholarship, but I happened to run into Mark Edmundson, a biographer (of Whitman), memoirist, and cultural critic who had been a professor of mine at UVA.
I was bemoaning the setback when he simply said, “David, you have a Ph.D. from the University of Virginia (he said this stretching out the title). You have the credentials. You can research and write your own notes.” I realized that the ambition of the project didn’t sit well with my timidity when it came to identifying timely battles and important figures now dimmed by the centuries. Mark was right, and I decided to set aside another year to make annotations readers would need. At the time, I was reading W. S. Merwin’s typically masterful translation of Purgatorio, and it wasn’t lost on me that Merwin had provided his own notes. So I did mine, aware that the translation was meant for American ears, and I would provide just enough assistance identifying this and that. Shows of erudition by way of footnotes were beside the point.
I did add a note on the translation, where I picked up again my debt to Brodsky:
It was [he] who first impressed upon me the importance of reading Dante—in translation. Brodsky had a theory that some poets do better in translation than in the original, although Dante was not one of these. Nonetheless, it was all the more incumbent on the translator to be as exacting as possible. It was only a skip from that conjecture to the idea that some others among these same poets intended to wind up in translation, presumably in order to sound removed, in exile, possibly posthumous. In any case, it certified alienation of a closer sort (one’s language) to be more representative of the tone of oneself in a foreign language than in the original.
I wrote a general introduction on the impact of Paradiso among poets that appeared separately in The Cortland Review. When I was satisfied that I had all the pieces as I wanted them, I sent the manuscript off to Salmon Poetry in Ireland. An acceptance followed the next day. Of course, neither Joseph nor Linda lived to see the book, but their spirits suffused the project which stretched out over a decade. As for Makaiya, she is now a graduate student at Stanford working toward a Ph.D. in English. This term she took a course in the epic tradition while bringing up an infant who was given the somehow appropriate name Cleopatra. When she knew the book was about to come out, she asked “Who’s it dedicated to?” Being sly, I simply said, “To the Beloved.”
© David Rigsbee
David Rigsbee is an American poet, critic and translator who has an immense body of published work behind him. Salmon Poetry has just published his translation of Dante’s Paradiso, and Black Lawrence Press will bring out his Watchman in the Knife Factory: New and Selected Poems next year. He is working on a memoir and a new book of essays to be called The Keep of Poetry.