As we continue our pilgrimage together through Lent, using my book The Word in the Wilderness I am once again posting recordings of me reading all of this week’s poems together with the texts of the poems themselves. I am also taking the opportunity to correct one or two errors which crept into the printed book, in transcribing passages from Robin Kirkpatrick’s beautiful translation of Dante, which is used here with permission. The wonderful pilgrim image above is once again kindly provided by Lancia Smith and was taken by her on a recent visit to share in the life the church in South Africa.
As always you can hear me read the poems by clicking on the title or on the ‘play’ button
Not soon, as late as the approach of my ninetieth year
I felt a door opening in me and I entered
the clarity of early morning.
One after another my former lives were departing,
like ships, together with their sorrow.
And the countries, cities, gardens, the bays of seas
assigned to my brush came closer,
ready now to be described better than they were before.
I was not separated from people, grief and pity joined us.
We forget ‒ I kept saying ‒ that we are children of the King.
From where we come there is no division
into Yes and No, into is, was and will be.
Moments from yesterday and from centuries ago ‒
a sword blow, the painting of eyelashes before a mirror
of polished metal, a lethal musket shot, a caravel
staving its hull against a reef ‒ they dwell in us,
waiting for a fulfilment.
I knew, always, that I would be a worker in the vineyard,
as are all men and women living at the same time,
whether they are aware of it or not.
‘There is another road’ Dante
As I went, ruined, rushing to that low,
there had, before my eyes, been offered one
who seemed -long silent- to be faint and dry.
Seeing him near in that great wilderness,
to him I screamed my ‘miserere’: ‘Save me,
whatever – shadow or truly man – you be.’
His answer came to me: ‘No man; a man
I was in times long gone. Of Lombard stock,
my parents both by patria and Mantuan.
And I was born, though late, sub Iulio.
I lived at Rome in good Augustus’ day,
in times when all the gods were lying cheats.
I was a poet then. I sang in praise
of all the virtues of Anchises’ son. From Troy
he came ‒ proud Ilion razed in flame.
But you turn back. Why seek such grief and harm?
Why climb no higher up at lovely hill?
The cause and origin of joy shines there.’
‘So, could it be’, I answered him, (my brow,
in shy respect bent low), ‘you are that Virgil,
whose words flow wide, a river running full?
You are the light and glory of all poets.
May this serve me: my ceaseless care, the love
so great, that made me search your writings through!
You are my teacher. You, my lord and law.
From you alone I took the fine-tuned style
that has, already, brought me so much honour.
See there? That beast! I turned because of that.
Help me ‒ your wisdom’s known ‒ escape from her.
To every pulsing vein, she brings the tremor.
Seeing my tears, he answered me: ‘There is
another road. And that, if you intend
to quit this wilderness, you’re bound to take.’
(The Divine Comedy, I Inferno, lines 61−93)
Begin the song exactly where you are,
For where you are contains where you have been
And holds the vision of your final sphere.
And do not fear the memory of sin;
There is a light that heals, and, where it falls,
Transfigures and redeems the darkest stain
Into translucent colour. Loose the veils
And draw the curtains back, unbar the doors,
Of that dread threshold where your spirit fails,
The hopeless gate that holds in all the fears
That haunt your shadowed city, fling it wide
And open to the light that finds, and fares
Through the dark pathways where you run and hide,
Through all the alleys of your riddled heart,
As pierced and open as his wounded side.
Open the map to Him and make a start,
And down the dizzy spirals, through the dark,
His light will go before you. Let him chart
And name and heal. Expose the hidden ache
To him, the stinging fires and smoke that blind
Your judgement, carry you away, the mirk
And muted gloom in which you cannot find
The love that you once thought worth dying for.
Call him to all you cannot call to mind.
He comes to harrow Hell and now to your
Well-guarded fortress let his love descend.
The icy ego at your frozen core
Can hear his call at last. Will you respond?
Dante and Virgil emerge from hell and begin the ascent of mount purgatory
So now we entered on that hidden Path,
my Lord and I, to move once more towards
a shining world. We did not care to rest.
We climbed, he going first and I behind,
until through some small aperture I saw
the lovely things the skies above us bear.
Now we came out, and once more saw the stars.
To race now over better waves, my ship
of mind -alive again- hoists sail, and leaves
behind its little keel the gulf that proved so cruel.
And I’ll sing, now, about the second realm
where human spirits purge themselves from stain,
becoming worthy to ascend to Heaven.
Here, too, dead poetry will rise again.
for now, you secret Muses, I am yours…
Dawn was defeating now the last hours sung
by night, which fled before it. And far away
I recognised the tremblings of the sea.
Alone, we walked along the open plain,
as though, returning to a path we’d lost,
our steps, until we came to that, were vain.
Then, at a place in shadow where the dew
still fought against the sun and, cooled by breeze,
had scarcely yet been sent out into vapour,
my master placed the palms of both his hands,
spread wide, lighty and gently on the tender grass.
And I, aware of what his purpose was,
offered my tear-stained cheeks to meet his touch.
At which, he made once more entirely clean
the colour that the dark of Hell had hidden.
(The Divine Comedy, I Inferno,canto34 lines 133−end, and II Purgatorio,Canto 1 lines 1−8 and 115−29)
I thank my God I have emerged at last,
Blinking from Hell, to see these quiet stars,
Bewildered by the shadows that I cast.
You set me on this stair, in those rich hours
Pacing your study, chanting poetry.
The Word in you revealed his quickening powers,
Removed the daily veil, and let me see,
As sunlight played along your book-lined walls,
That words are windows onto mystery.
From Eden, whence the living fountain falls
In music, from the tower of ivory,
And from the hidden heart, he calls
In the language of Adam, creating memory
Of unfallen speech. He sets creation
Free from the carapace of history.
His image in us is imagination,
His Spirit is a sacrifice of breath
Upon the letters of his revelation.
In mid-most of the word-wood is a path
That leads back to the springs of truth in speech.
You showed it to me, kneeling on your hearth,
You showed me how my halting words might reach
To the mind’s maker, to the source of Love,
And so you taught me what it means to teach.
Teaching, I have my ardours now to prove,
Climbing with joy the steps of Purgatory.
Teacher and pupil, both are on the move,
As fellow pilgrims on a needful journey
Over my suppliant hands entwined, I leaned
just staring at the fire, imagining
bodies of human beings I’d seen burn.
And both my trusted guides now turned to me.
And Virgil spoke, to say: ‘My dearest son,
here may be agony but never death.
Remember this! Remember! And if I
led you to safety on Geryon’s back,
what will I do when now so close to God?
Believe this. And be sure. Were you to stay
a thousand years or more wombed in this fire,
you’d not been made the balder by one hair.
And if, perhaps, you think I’m tricking you,
approach the fire and reassure yourself,
trying with your own hands your garments hem.
Have done, I say, have done with fearfulness.
Turn this way. Come and enter safely in!’
But I, against all conscience, stood stock still.
And when he saw me stiff and obstinate,
he said, a little troubled: ‘Look my son,
between Beatrice and you there ‘s just this wall….’
Ahead of me, he went to meet the fire,
and begged that Statius, who had walked the road
so long between us, now take up the rear.
And, once within, I could have flung myself ‒
The heat that fire produced was measureless ‒
For coolness, in a vat of boiling glass.
To strengthen me, my sweetest father spoke,
as on he went, of Beatrice always,
saying, it seems I see her eyes already.’
and, guiding us, a voice sang from beyond.
So we, attending only to that voice,
came out and saw where now we could ascend.
‘Venite, benedicti Patris mei!’
sounded within what little light there was.
This overcame me and I could not look.
(The Divine Comedy, II Purgatorio, Canto 27 lines 16−32 and 46−60)
Then stir my love in idleness to flame
To find at last the free refining fire
That guards the hidden garden whence I came.
O do not kill, but quicken my desire,
Better to spur me on than leave me cold.
Not maimed I come to you, I come entire,
Lit by the loves that warm, the lusts that scald,
That you may prove the one, reprove the other,
Though both have been the strength by which I scaled
The steps so far to come where poets gather
And sing such songs as love gives them to sing.
I thank God for the ones who brought me hither
And taught me by example how to bring
The slow growth of a poem to fruition
And let it be itself, a living thing,
Taught me to trust the gifts of intuition
And still to try the tautness of each line,
Taught me to taste the grace of transformation
And trace in dust the face of the divine,
Taught me the truth, as poet and as Christian,
That drawing water turns it into wine.
Now I am drawn through their imagination
To dare to dance with them into the fire,
Harder than any grand renunciation,
To bring to Christ the heart of my desire
Just as it is in every imperfection,
Surrendered to his bright refiner’s fire
That love might have its death and resurrection.