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Canto XXIX by David Rigsbee
David Rigsbee is author of, most recently This Much I Can Tell You and Not Alone in My Dancing: Essays and Reviews, both from Black Lawrence Press. In addition to his eleven collections of poems, he has published critical books on the poetry of Joseph Brodsky and Carolyn Kizer and coedited Invited Guest: An Anthology of Twentieth Century Southern Poetry. Dante: The Paradiso will appear from Salmon Poetry in 2019. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/david-rigsbee
[Beatrice’s face is fixed on God as she explains creation and God’s eternity.
She then explains angelic time, before turning to a denunciation of false teachings.]
When both Latona’s children
sit on the horizon line, the one rising
in Ares, the other setting in Libra,
as long as the zenith fulcrum
holds the scales in balance, until each 5
moves, changing hemispheres,
just so long did Beatrice pause
smiling, her eye fixed on the Point
whose light I could not endure.
Then she began, “I do not ask;10
I say what you wish to hear, for I already
foresaw it where when and where are one.
It is not to acquire more good—
which is impossible—but because
reflected splendor may declare, I am,15
in His eternity outside time,
beyond all limits, as it pleased Him,
Eternal Love into new loves.
Nor was He idle before this;
for neither before nor after was, before 20
God’s going forth upon the waters.
Form and matter, joined or mixed,
came into being flawlessly like three
arrows shot from a three-stringed bow.
As in a glass, in amber or crystal,25
a sunbeam flashes so that no interval
exists between its coming and being,
just so the Sire’s threefold effect:
his beam flashes, with no distinction, no
interval, into existence at once.30
Order was created in the substance
of things, and it was at the top of the world
where these ones were produced by pure act.
The lowest part held pure potential,
the middle tied potential with act,35
a bond that shall never be undone.
Hieronymo wrote you about the stretch
of centuries between the making of angels
and the creation of the rest of the world,
but such is written in many places40
by writers inspired by the Holy Spirit,
and you will find it if you read carefully.
Even reason can grasp it partially:
it cannot concede that angelic powers
could exist so long minus perfection.45
But now you know where and when
and how these Loves came to be, thus
quenching three flames of your desire.
But faster than you could count
to twenty, a party of these angels50
shook the elemental foundations.
The rest remained and began
the dance that you see here with such delight
that their whirling goes on forever.
The reason for the Fall lay55
in the presumption of one you saw below
crushed by the weight of the world.
These others you see humbly
acknowledged the goodness that made
them capable of great understanding,60
so that their vision was raised
to such a degree by God’s enlightening grace
that their will is committed and whole.
Now beyond a doubt it is certain
that this grace is received in proportion65
as the heart is open to receive it.
And now, if you have taken
my word, you should be able to consider
this sacred body without further aid.
But since on earth you teach 70
in school that the angelic nature includes
understanding, memory and will,
I will say more, because you see
the pure truth here that is confounded
below by ambiguous teachings.75
Since they first saw it, these beings
took delight in the face of God, for whom nothing
is hidden, and they never turned away.
As a result, their sight is never
divided by something new; they have80
therefore no need for memory.
So on earth men dream awake
believing or not the truth of what they say
and in the end, more’s the sin and shame.
Your philosophizing does not 85
lead you down a path to certainty: rather,
you find infatuation in appearance and wit.
Yet even this is met here above
with less insult than when the Holy Writ
is greeted with disregard or traduced.90
Men do not seem to care how much
blood is required to plant it in the world,
nor how pleasing is the humble, devoted man.
Each is pretentious, a master
of inventions, which preachers pass on as if95
gospel, while the real Gospel is silent.
This one says the moon went
backwards to eclipse the sun during the Passion
so that it was deprived of light—he lies.
That light hid itself, and hence100
Spaniards and Indians alike, responded
to the same eclipse as the Jews.
Such fables are shouted
from the pulpits left and right, more
in a year than are Lapi and Bindi in Florence!105
So that the sheep, knowing no
better, come from pasture full of wind:
their blindness from harm being no excuse.
Christ did not say to the disciples,
“Go into the the world and preach nonsense”110
but rather gave them a foundation of truth.
With only this on their lips they
went forth fighting to kindle their faith,
having only the Gospel for lance and shield.
Now men go forth to preach jokes,115
anything to make the people laugh,
to puff up their hoods: that’s all they want.
But in the cowl is such a bird
that if the people were to see, they would
know the kind of pardons they had relied on.120
So much folly has grown on earth
that, without testimonial proof, they run
after whatever promise is offered them.
By this is St. Anthony’s pig made fat,
and others, who are worse than swine,125
pay their way with counterfeit money.
But we have digressed. Therefore,
turn your eyes back to the true path
so as to adjust our time to the journey.
This nature multiplies itself in such130
grand numbers that there is no speech
that can keep up, nor human fancy.
If you look at what is said
in the Book of Daniel, you will see that
in his thousands the actual number is hidden.135
The First Light shines and irradiates
them all in as many ways as there
are splendors for it to penetrate.
Thus, since the visual act precedes
the act of love, the sweetness within varies140
accordingly, whether burning or warming.
And now you see the pinnacle
and breadth of Eternal Worth, seeing
itself divided and mirrored, reflecting Itself
as One, as it was before.”145
1, both Latona’s children—Apollo, the sun, and Diana, the moon.
37, Hieronymo—I.e., St. Jerome (ca. 342 – 420), one of the most learned of the Fathers of the Western Church.
105, Lapi and Bindi—Common Florentine names.
118, But in the cowl is such a bird—I.e., Satan.
124, St. Anthony’s pig—St. Anthony the Great (ca. 251–356) was commonly depicted with with a pig, representing the demons with whom he would have struggled in the desert. Here, it represents corrupt clergy.
© David Rigsbee