In Memory of Marcus Orr, My Teacher
Late in my life I came to a new place
That wasn’t a dark wood but where the rain falls
In somewhat equal measure with sunlight.
And though in general my mood was bright,
I missed a way that had governed my life
For years of what had been my profession.
And from this thought I quickly derive the lesson
That change is good but always leaves some space
For looking back at what you may have lost.
Though my desires had not been double crossed,
I no longer felt ambition like a whip,
Or maybe I just wanted something to blame
For my hesitation to risk limited fame,
Some minor reputation as a teacher
And author of books hardly anyone read,
To do something different before I’m dead,
Maybe something no one will ever know,
Though a few traces might conceivably last.
But then I heard a voice out of the past,
The formidable teacher who inspired my love
Of history and told me I could write,
And while I doubted the thing appearing in sight,
Thinking to myself I must have lost my mind,
There he was before me in his old wheelchair.
I was out for a walk in the open air
In that far northwest city on Puget Sound
On the top of a hill looking toward the lake.
He sat there with the sly smile of a rake
As if amused by the look of shock on my face,
Since I knew he had left this world behind.
“I wouldn’t have thought you to be so unkind,”
He said, “with that look on your face as if
You’d never seen a paraplegic before.”
I replied, “Forgive me if I sound like a bore,
But dead people don’t often walk with me,
Though you were on my mind not long ago,
Which may explain why I’ve put on this show.
For surely you’re an image in my head
Projected onto the world like a screen.”
He replied, “Don’t worry about places I’ve been
Since the memorial you notably missed
And the question about whether or not you’re sane.
In this sphere I’m in now that all seems inane.
From in your brain or somewhere else I saw
You open the book of Dante’s divine vision,
Though the word divine is subject to misprision
For the masterpiece of political anger
Which for him had the more generic name–“
“Commedia,” I said, “you taught the same
When you had me read Bergin’s translation
In those three beautiful volumes I just found
And decided to go for a second time around,
Which reading, I guess, awakened you in my mind,
Mostly because you were my greatest teacher.”
“And you,” he said, “were a most strange creature,
Halfformed and riddled with selfdoubt and anger,
But something of your raw intelligence,
Something beyond emotional ambivalence,
Told me you would do something of value,
And also I could see you knew how to write.”
“For your faith in me I was so moved despite
My never feeling certain it was true.
I just wanted to be a teacher like you,
But in that art I never did get through
To nearly as many students as yours.
At the end of thirty years I walked away.”
“Forget the past and focus on this day.
Your passion drives you to overcome yourself
And to serve something more than adulation
From those others in your lapsed vocation.
In life no man knows his effect on the world
And in death recognition becomes pointless.
That I exist in some unseen recess
Of your brain continues the trajectory
Of my life and the things it expressed.
Now I’m here to guide you to something blessed
And maybe to discover your true self
Embedded in the thoughts of those others,
Real and intellectual sisters and brothers,
Minds that made your own thought possible
And live transformed by time in your head like me,
Extending through matter to eternity.”
Then my professor stood and left the chair,
Something I never saw him do before.
He grabbed my hand and turned to face a door,
Barely visible while reflecting my present
World like a mirror, and with a swipe of his hand,
It opened onto a strange yet familiar land.
“Surely this is no inferno,” I felt
Obliged to say, but he said nothing back,
Which made me feel the awkwardness of my lack
Of understanding the thing happening to me.
But then the knowledge of this place returned.
It was a place where I had once been burned,
After catching fire with passionate love,
Which nearly drove me down to my own hell,
And I could feel the memory in me swell.
It was a desert in the great southwest,
Miles from nowhere as Cat Stevens said
In the song played over and over in my head,
That once reminded me of things out of reach.
So I asked my professor, “Why is it
This memory I had no desire to visit?
Why this spot where I stood alone
Many years ago and then met the one
Who became in my mind an illusion
That blinded me to the force of militant love
That had surely brought about my redemption?”
“Look in yourself,” he said, “for resolution.
I am not here to sway you with dogma
But give form to your own force of will
That keeps you from sliding back downhill
Like Sisyphus who represents futile
Action without meaning or consequence.”
I asked: “Is this empty ground without sense
Or life the gate to my personal hell?”
He answered: “What is hell but experience,
The content of everyday existence?
And purgatory is thought as process,
The long spiral road of infinite truth.”
“I’d been inclined to think hell was my youth,
But I’ll accept your judgement on this point.
So what is paradise if I may ask?”
“To answer that may be our final task,
But to anticipate on what may come,
Heaven is imagination or love,
A force neither from below nor above,
That circumscribes thought and experience
With a vision of the possible in time.”
“To me your words sound rather too sublime,
But before going forward one more question.
How is it that suddenly you can walk?”
“In life my injury became my talk,
The voice that was my true publication,
And I never felt the lack of movement
As requiring some physical improvement.
What you see is what I always was,
What by intuition you must have known.”
Then I heard in the distance something moan
And turned my head to see where it came from.
It was a woman sitting on the ground.
I approached to learn the meaning of her sound.
She was bent toward this hardened lifeless earth,
As if she watered the dryness with her tears,
But when she looked up I knew her as no other
Than one long ago lost to me, my mother.
I couldn’t bear the sight of her so sad
Though also feeling at the same time glad
To see her again in the form she had
When I took her existence for granted.
In my ambivalence I turned to my teacher,
Who said, “Don’t be afraid, quickly speak to her.
Her sorrow is what in you she has become
In the stream of infinite thought in which she’s caught.
This trace is just as real as if you brought
Her back to life since her mental being
Is the spirit of her life that entered your soul.”
His word instantly took from me a comic toll,
For I wasn’t certain I could believe
In some immaterial transcendent thing
That lived inside my physical being.
But he knew my thought before I could speak.
And said, “I mean what Germans mean by Geist,
And from your own knowledge you should think twice
About assuming I intend something
Inconsistent with our human flesh and blood.
This woman’s tears mingling with dirt make mud
That like everyday experience can be shaped
Into a form with which you could express
A truth that cracks open time’s track no less
Than some transcendent force that we have dreamed
Like that ancient God on a mountain top
Writing law with fire as spiritual prop.
Shakespeare was right, there’s more between heaven
And earth than philosophy can express.”
Taking the meaning his words seemed to possess,
I turned to my mother who looked quizzically
Into my face but somehow didn’t see.
“I wonder if your face could possibly be,”
She said, “the one my son wore in my life.
You seem the same but somehow different.”
“I am your son, you can be confident,
But I am older than you were when you
Departed from a world not always kind,
Neither to you nor those you left behind.”
With my words her tears ceased flowing and she looked
Around while I followed the path of her gaze.
No longer the desert of my younger days,
This place seemed like an infinite nothing
That displayed in all directions a pure white
That contained all colors in its spectral light.
She spoke as she laid her eyes on me again,
“This place could be the womb of new creation,
Or perhaps what’s left after the devastation
Of my illness that stole me from my children.”
I had to ask, “Mom, do you feel such pain?
What in a place like this can you hope to gain,
Since your tears seem to have transformed the desert
Into something that invites images of desire
Like projections that could set the mind on fire.
Are you in heaven or hell?” She answered,
“Those places don’t exist, the truth to tell,
Except in minds that have some need to expel
Joyful or unpleasant memories into
Categorical spaces like little prisons
In which the god in us remains unrisen,
Unable to give expression to our truth.”
“These words,” I said, “I never heard you use
In a life in which you felt so much abuse–“
“And also abused,” she said, “which is why I weep
For the daughters and sons I left alone and betrayed.
Oh, if only my death had somehow been delayed,
So that I could have lifted my understanding
Beyond the morality I served like a slave,
And all my children could say, yes, she forgave
Us as we forgave her when she could not see
What we were beyond her limited vision.
If my voice sounds like some weak rendition,
That comes from the stream of thought through which it passes
Intermixed with your thoughts and those that compose
Them coming from all the minds that seem to oppose
What you imagine as your inner essence.
Your voice was never yours alone but mine
Conditioned what you thought as if to combine
With it and all the others you’ve absorbed.
So in your voice my voice shelters and survives,
And through expansion meets with other lives,
Your brother and sisters and those you’ve read
And seen and heard and they in turn are each
Like stars appearing far beyond our reach,
Lights that are reflected in each other
And across the world their mental vision spreads,
Each of us one of the infinitesimal threads
That constitute the unfinished whole of truth.
The living and the dead together share
One great intellect bound by mutual care,
And even the greatest minds cannot compare
To the multitude that thinks through human flesh
And the not human woven into this mesh.
Also understand sadness is not my hell,
It simply expresses knowledge of my acts.
The truth when confronted never detracts
From the joy of understanding who I was,
Though even in our heavens we feel pain
Without which even our joys would be in vain,
Because you can’t have one without the other.
Like when your student thought you must be sad
To think the terrible things she thought were bad.
Things that seemed that way to her were comforts
That gave you rest from the lies people adore
And turn the mind itself into a whore.”
“I have to know, Mother, what about God?
Sometimes I thought your faith drove you insane
And pushed you to the acts that left a stain
On the hearts that loved you without reservation.”
She was silent for a moment and then said,
“I still believe, for me God is not dead,
But that doesn’t mean I judge any others
Or think there is one church, one way, to believe
In a God no human can perceive.
Morality expresses human will
And the violence and cruelty it has made
When we imagine God can be conveyed
Into our limited understanding
Has turned our life on earth into a hell.
But the time has come for me to say farewell.
Though you may not use the same words as me,
On things that matter we are surely agreed.
In another space as you faithfully proceed
On this visionary walk we’ll meet again.”
Then she rose up in a robe dark as the night
And silently disappeared into the light.
My teacher read the confusion on my face
As I turned to him as if for some direction,
But his silence in response to that detection
Told me the answer lay in the way ahead.
I followed him across that boundless room
That I began to think might be a tomb.
Into nothingness we continued to walk,
But my teacher must have noted sadness
In my face when he touched my shoulder to pause
Our movement and then asked what was the cause
Of this sudden transformation of mood.
“Is it thinking you’ve grasped your mother’s plight?
Faced with a truth, don’t trust your limited sight
Or imagine you’ve taken in the whole.
You saw the image without the essence
And take that for the fullness of her presence.
You experienced a reflection of her life,
But there is so much you will need to know
Before such an image can let you go.”
Though I knew his words were meant to comfort,
It was the emptiness of this strange place
That made me feel the loss of any grace
And wonder why my mother should be here.
“If this isn’t hell,” I said, “it comes close,
And my mother deserves something less morose
Than this empty stage like in some theater
Of the absurd, a place without exit,
That could have been made by Samuel Beckett.
The image of her weeping brought back words
Of those close to me and her whom she hurt
And left behind in their own private desert.
I know they forgive her sins of omission,
We’ve all made our private acts of contrition,
But at the risk of familial sedition,
I wish they had seen the mother she had been
Before schizophrenia seized her brain
And fixed it so she’d never be the same.
For me she was the first philosopher,
The one who showed me space and time in the stars,
And against her vision of things there were no bars.
Without fear she reached toward the unsayable,
And lit the fuse of my unstoppable quest,
Which I had hoped would give her soul some rest.
I thought I could save the one who saved me
From a violence that shuns my own memory,
Though I’ve forced my knowledge of that history,
Something that involved paternal tyranny,
But she suffered most from a man’s self-hate.
Still there were times she would free herself from that fate,
And let her mind meditate on human creation
And the gifts of a democratic nation,
Which she knew was always in formation
And far from anything you’d call complete.
So in her name I vowed never to retreat
Or accept in the fight against injustice defeat,
And by remaining faithful to that goal
I also thought I could destroy the voices
That seized her brain and took hold of her choices.
But the beings in her head spoke louder than me,
Louder than anyone in our family could,
Which led to events that were misunderstood,
By inculcating in her a harsh dogma,
Covering her true emotions with cruel
Words that could be to her loved ones brutal,
Assaulting their fragile sense of self-love.
Still this voice, this face, masked her true nature,
Which sometimes came back in gentle rapture,
A madness that could face truth that others
Shunned and embrace those souls people ignored.
But it’s not my purpose to make her adored.
Her children testify to everything good
In her through their own ethical striving
Though in our daily acts of surviving,
We’ve all been tarnished by imperfection.”
With that word my teacher noted our direction
Induced in us by sight of a new erection.
The white space all round us was now fractured
By the appearance of a dull gray wall
That to my senses seemed infinitely tall
And its equally monotonous expanse
Broken by sliding elevator doors
Which my teacher and I headed towards
As if this was only to be expected,
Moving me to laugh and say, “Up or down?”
In response my companion gave me a frown
And said, “You may want to act like a clown,
And I don’t mean to turn your head around,
When I say this wall reflects the outward bound
Of your brain, neither thicker nor less so
Than the bone imprisoning your anxious soul,
That weapon you’d use to achieve some goal,
Determination or negation of things
That on your life have left the mark of Cain,
Inspiring you to want to do the same.
To understand yourself the past you’ll see
And things that haven’t passed will be foretold,
Though not in fixed form or guaranteed mold,
But as what follows from present actions
If nothing hinders their course with reaction.
Now step inside and press the lowest button
And this lift will descend to a place where some await
Whose thought has spoken often to your own.
You’ll seem to go down but in truth you won’t.
Like your skull the path is curved and up or down
Will lead you back to where you started from.”
Above the doors was displayed the word “Aufhebung”
Which made me suspect an unexpected change
Before I would finish what I now began.
Into the lift we went while my eyes made scan
Of the seemingly transparent sides that disclosed
Visions of different worlds–with deserts in one,
Mountains in another, and a place without sun
Submerged beneath the sea and illuminated
Only by phosphorescent life, while the floor
Below reflected the white sand of a shore
And the ceiling above a vast blackness punctured
By as many stars as there were grains of sand
Below, and here we took our novel stand
As I turned around and with my outstretched hand
Hit the button to set this thing in motion.
We dropped as if into an abysmal ocean
And the discomfort on my face prompted
My companion to convey to me a word
About the meaning of what had just occurred.
“These images express infinity
Which all finite existence strives to do.
In this contradiction lies something true,
As you will learn in the journey ahead of us.
But for now I must rely upon your trust.”
And I replied, “There’s no need to discuss
My faith in your judgment since your mind has
Been a force that drove me to become what I
Am and may yet be if I learn to fly
Beyond the nets of my own ignorance.”
The elevator plunged with terrific force
Before abruptly halting its downward course.
When the doors opened, we walked into the space,
Somber and serene, of a library that ascended
Beyond where my vision could possibly reach.
I looked once more to my guide in hope he’d teach
Me the meaning of this projection that I
Could no longer derive from my own head.
For a second time I thought I might be dead,
But on that score he quickly set me straight.
“What other image of plenitude beyond
Mortality, which would not be a con,
Could you imagine better than this one,
An infinite tower of learning with all that’s known,
Written or to be written though not in stone,
Because one thought leads to another and
Brings with each connection perpetual change
Without boundaries to limit the extent of its range.
The circles of learning that rise above us go
Beyond what you know but can at least imagine
As this structure dreamed to express your own passion.
Look up now and see this architectural
Wonder like an inverted cone with each band
Over the one below it increased in span,
Until the whole exceeds human perception.
But there’s one above us who can explain
The meaning of this intellectual chain
better than me.” The bottom floor contained
A single desk with piles of books stacked high
From behind which there slowly rose up an eye
Whose intellectual gaze showed some surprise
To see me as I her there all alone.
It was the face of a gentle scholar known
To me, who for years had an office next to mine
Until the day on a cruel highway she died,
But before swerved her car to expose a side
To the one that crossed over, taking the impact
On herself to save the son who sat beside her.
I had to turn and say something to my teacher.
“I know this woman as one you’d have admired,
Who like you studied that world from Dante to Shakespeare.”
He replied, “How appropriate you should find her here
At this gateway to human knowledge and thought
Where to us everything we teach is taught.”
When I embraced her I felt almost overwrought
And said, “Jo, it was always my regret not
To have known you better, more as a friend
Than a colleague whose learning I could not pretend
To match, but at least I can introduce this man
Whom you would have easily considered your equal.”
Her reply, “That the two of you are here is prequel
To events that renew my life in your memory.
But my job is now to send you up these steps
And warn that as you move through this complex
Stay to your left and keep your minds open
To the interconnection of minds in historical time.
Now you must leave me and continue the climb.”
She retreated and so we moved to the left
And ascended some steps like in a stadium
To a circle that seemed before printed medium
Where old men bent over tables crowded with
Parchments and scrolls they compared and transcribed
Onto small screens that I quickly realized
Were some kind of computerized tablets.
While I could see the stream of copied text
On the digital surface, I was quite perplexed
By the mechanics of this thought transfer
Which seemed to flow from the head that turned and glanced.
By these acts I was naturally entranced
And suspected these were the minds of ancient men
Though their style of dress was no different from my own.
My teacher explained, “To me your thought is known
Before you think it, and what you see here
Is more confluence of body and soul,
But let’s not waste time on a pointless goal.
This vision neither you nor I can fully
Grasp, except to describe their mental task.
These ancients live in the present as the past
That they themselves continually revise
As minds folded into the minds of others.
They dress like you and me because those covers
Are no longer shaped by the temporal frame
Of their original fame, and their language
Is translated so that we can manage
With our modern ears to follow the flow
Of ideas like rivers coming from these sources.”
I asked, “Why revise their own discourses
Which have been monuments of timeless truth?”
“Ask this spirit,” he replied, “before you now,
Behind whose formidable gaze and impassive brow
Is a mind you’ve long since admired and named Plato.”
The ancient man ceased from his work and turned
To face us with a look whose truth could burn
The lies that find safe haven in human hearts,
And I stood silent to hear the words he spoke.
“I know the question my presence would provoke
In you and I would have you understand
Why I revise the words I wrote without
Any hesitation or prideful doubt
About the necessity of this process.
As Socrates lived in me so in Badiou
And Derrida, the two best known to you,
I live, but there are many others beyond
Count, which is why I work in such fury–
But more out of joy than need to hurry–
To reshape and redirect my thought forward
Through a process in which I am only a step
On the narrow path through which all thought is swept,
Though even the image of this place you see
Can do nothing more than barely imitate
The being in which all minds participate.
My advice is not to linger in this space
But move upward to higher ground where you’ll meet
The one who may enable you to complete
This stage of your self-examination,
Which may set you on a path you don’t expect.”
Still dumb with awe I felt compelled by respect
To pose at least one question that might cast
A shadow on such universal renown.
“Though I have no desire to make you frown,
I can’t help but wonder how you justify
Your concept of ideas as things more real
Than what the material world seems to reveal.
Can you now sustain the view you once proposed?”
“You talk as if I were still some ancient Greek,
And not a reflection of that very critique
That inspires you to question the dominance
Of mind over matter in the visible world.
When dichotomies like these have been unfurled
It can be shown that such a distinction is
Only a fold in the fabric that we create
Through interweaving idea and the physical state.
But neither takes precedence over the other
Except when ideas become deadened in matter,
By common sense reduced to idle chatter,
Though such a loss of thought destroys our vision
And what we see becomes some mere illusion.
But don’t let my words in such profusion
Hold you back from your quest to understand.
Our expression and our philosophy can’t say
The whole of truth passing silently through each day
Without knowable end, but as your Blake said,
‘Every thing possible to be believ’d
Is an image of truth.’ So you have conceived
This odyssey as one possible approach
To the thing your whole life has forced you to find.
Now go and leave my inadequate speech behind.”
As my professor pointed our way to the left,
I gazed to my right at a man pacing back and forth
Nervously before a table that seemed on fire
With flames that sang out almost like a choir,
Yet I could see nothing that burned and fed
The blaze, so asked the question of who he was.
The answer, “That is the ancient Heraclitus.
You are free to make a detour to speak to him
If you wish.” Full of curiosity I moved
Toward this man who perhaps would have improved
My quest, if he had not been so obsessed
With posing a question of which he never tired,
Though his pacing made the truth seem undesired.
“If I am I but not I the moment
That I say that I am, what could I be?
Fire at variance with itself must still agree
In attuning life and death like the self I search
And always have and always will until
I stop imagining things that change as ill
From the weariness of always beginning.
You’re alive, I see, and wonder why I pace
So anxiously as if I’m in a race,
And yes I am, though it is against myself,
Or selves since in thought there is no singular.”
I spoke, “You once said, thinking is never peculiar
Or private but shared by all, and my question
Is, in this place where everything is revealed,
Though even everything leaves something concealed,
Since I cannot see the end of infinity,
Who are those whose thought with yours intertwines?”
His reply: “You suggest no beginning or ending to lines
Of thinking, because that’s the way of things that flow.
Some say I cry while Democritus laughs,
But such mythologies are rather crass.
If you look behind you, you’ll see his niche,
Where he studies future physics unknown in your time.
He laughs, he cries, and sometimes our sighs chime,
Because everything overlaps and rhymes
Since our differences connect as well as divide.
Who are those in whom my truth has not died?
Many voices come together in this river,
But if there’s one in whom my life rejoices,
Even more than Hegel’s circular neuroses,
It would be Nietzsche whose eternal recurrence
Inverts even as it lifts up what I said,
And drags my being out of my own dread
Of always becoming the other of what I am,
As I pace endlessly before this flame
And somehow make my truth into my shame.
And there’s another whose tragic humor
In prose captures my essence to the letter
When from failed beginnings he says, ‘Fail better.’
This is why I dance before my own fire
To force myself to go always higher
And transmute melancholy into desire.
Now forgive me if I end this pointless talk
And leave you to search for your own echoes
In the confrontation of your predestined kairos.”
As I walked away, I could hear his footsteps
And the music of the fire dissonant and taut
And wondered why he could be so distraught
With the truth his whole being had unraveled.
As I neared my guide, I said, “This man’s hunger
For knowledge seems to have driven him under
The wild river of his thought in which he drowns
For fear he can never reach the open sea.
Why must we always seek some higher degree
If it’s only a point from which we begin again?”
He replied, “You know as well as I the joy
Lies in the making which nothing can destroy.
The true death lies in the fantasy of ending
And the glory of hearing yourself proclaimed a master,
On which path lies inevitable disaster.
Plato may seem calm and the one who came
Before him riddled with fear and anxious doubt,
But as images of truth they are without
Strict boundaries that make it necessary
To choose one over the other to follow
As if truth could be a simple thing so hollow
That it would not incorporate all affects
And all the mental states that time produces.”
I replied, “Do all past thinkers have their uses?
What about Buddha? Is he somewhere in this circle?
What about all the religions of this earth?”
He smiled and said, “Every thought has its worth,
But when religions sometimes go astray,
Usually it’s their own tenets they betray,
For fear some other vision may have a say,
And the principle most frequently broken
Is Blake’s insight, ‘All religions are one.’
Fascades and rituals are easily undone,
But the truth in time will resurrect itself,
No matter how many lies try to defame
Those who go forward faithfully in its name.
Buddha is on the other side of this circle,
But we must continue on these steps to our right.”
We took those steps and then another flight,
And came to a circle that seemed almost like night.
A tall man with a broom approached as he swept
The dust fallen from shelves of volumes kept
In what I quickly grasped was the medieval
Section. Then the man looked up from his labor
And I was shocked to know this old curator
As one who had been not a friend when I started
Teaching at a university down south.
He sometimes spoke out of two sides of his mouth.
Catching his eye, I said, “This place shadowed
By religion seems right for a former Jesuit,
And where I, disposing your image, would bury it
In the convolutions of my brain which can’t forget
Your lies to me and to some I called my friends.”
He answered, “How you see me surely depends
On memories excluding the later phase of my life,
When age taught me some belated humility.
So please forgive me if I failed to see
And if my pride convinced me to act unwisely
For neither you nor I are paragons
And sometimes when things happen one responds
Injudiciously and shame can make us fools
Of our human nature.” These words made me recall
The harmless old man who wandered the hall
And seemed so unlike the one who damaged lives,
Especially one who died before his elder.
“Your supposed faith should have given shelter
To minds whose only goal was understanding,
And when herd mentality seized those in your charge,
You should have tried to get them to enlarge
Their tolerance. Instead you used their blindness
To hide your incompetence and endorsed error,
And to one you applied the inept rule of terror.
But there’s nothing we can do to change the past,
And I hope the hell you made for yourself won’t last.”
I turned back to my companion whose contrast
To the one we left could not have been greater.
I looked down the concentric path and saw
Something that filled my mind with a sense of awe.
From out of the darkness in our path forward
Bright lights shot forth in a rainbow of colors
From a recess into which I could not see.
I didn’t wonder long who this could be
As my guide turned to me with a smile that filled
Me with warmth like the white beach in Navarre one day,
And said, “Prepare yourself to meet Dante.”
With that name warmth abruptly became cold terror.
My teacher’s gaze showed surprise at my fear
And I thought his judgment of me might be severe,
But still I turned to him and said, “Old friend,
It may seem strange after my blunt address
To Plato that I might feel some distress
In meeting one whose immortal vision I
Have admired since by you I was inspired
And by one whose work, I suspect, you must have acquired,
A translator of Dante’s literal sense in prose,
And after you one of my greatest teachers,
Whose pedagogy through labyrinthine procedures–
That circled truth without forcing conclusions,
Insisting on process over rigid meaning–
Propelled the direction in which my own work was leaning.
I should add, this man’s unexpected betrayal
In a letter seemed meant to destroy my career
Was a wound the memory of which won’t disappear.
Forget that and simply understand my fear
To meet someone whose greatness is beyond
Words, while his world with mine won’t correspond,
And giving his text meaning in a different time
Forces me to bring his vision into line
With concepts and values he must surely decline
To see related to his seemingly doctrinal
Understanding, which might cause him to take offense.”
The man whose thought exceeded mine in good sense
Gently put his hand on my shoulder as he said,
“You have shown something universal in your own act,
When you confronted with your knowledge of fact
A custodian of this round who in life betrayed
An ethical truth he knew all too well to obey.
You judged but did not wish infinite delay
Of forgiveness or permanent punishment in some hell,
Which means you chose truth not mindless vengeance.
Dante’s hell is more than a death sentence,
Even if his truth was not fully intended.
To be released from the mental prisons we make,
We must first recognize the lies we need to forsake,
And our self-imposed hells force on us that knowledge,
Which thought is Dante’s gift to the human race.
Perhaps in his own time he lacked the grace,
I mean the power of collective thought,
To see the infinite process he began.
Dante did not have Dante at his command,
As you and I have had the good fortune
To learn from such a master the human plight,
That only through darkness can we reach the light.”
His words moved me to ponder my action to one
Whom perhaps I might have chosen to forgive
Since none of us has the privilege to outlive
The bad we do to others in our days–
And who is innocent of cowardly acts
When for our own comfort we choose to relax
Our understanding and pretend not to see
The injustice that violates someone’s liberty?
My guide recognized my negativity
And calmly said, “Do not punish yourself
For speaking up for those without a voice.
In life the man you condemned gave you no choice,
But you can’t hurt him now and he will transcend
The hell he made for himself and also the good,
For good and bad are equally misunderstood
If we think one exists without the other
Or that we can measure humans with such a code.
No man exists in a purely singular mode,
And forgiveness doesn’t erase a truth but gives
Ground to what lies beyond good and evil.”
His words caused in me some mental upheaval,
But I felt perseverance on this path would resolve
My confusion and illumine the dark in my mind.
As we approached the rainbow we left behind
That shadowy corridor but were blinded by shafts
Of light that seemed to drag us into a vortex
Of swirling colors that left me quite perplexed
Until the chaos fused into one white light,
And as our eyes adjusted the brightness congealed
Into a human form no longer concealed.
He stood facing us with the most benign
Face I’d ever seen and then he laughed,
And that spontaneous joy made me go daft
As I started laughing in response to him,
And soon the three of us were almost in tears
With hilarity that might have awakened my fears
Had I not witnessed in his gaze such kind
Welcome as if this were a meeting of peers.
Finally I spoke, “It may be my humor appears
As a sign of disrespect to one so far
Above my insignificant place in human
History, but I was surprised by your own effusion
Of good will and apparent joy, which I did not
Expect from the author of such a grave masterpiece,
Though you called it a comedy, which should at least
Suggest you were not blind to something absurd
In that vision of methodical torment and torture.
Was it God’s justice or were you a mourner
For the tragic cruelty of human existence that
Strives to make this world a rotten place,
Without the slightest trace of social grace,
Much less the intervention of divine
Providence guiding us to a real paradise,
Whose concrete existence escaped even your eyes,
For your heaven, unlike your hell, is almost abstract,
Though at least, unlike Milton, you did not make God
Into a fatuous authoritarian sod.
Forgive me if I speak above my station–
I mean my intellectual class–but my nation
Has recently forsaken all inspiration
To worship a maudlin fool who hates everything
Democratic and has made truth itself a lie
And would like to force all forms of thought to die,
And so for me all hierarchy smells foul,
And I”–but then my guide grabbed my shoulder
And pulled me back to say, “Don’t be any bolder,
You need to listen if you would understand.”
My silence then expressed shame that my speech
Must have exceeded my own intellectual reach,
But when I turned again to look on this man
Of such renown I only saw the light
That emanated from his eyes so bright.
“My laughter seems to have left you somewhat confused
And I have to admit to being quite amused
By the way your brain has given me new life,
But you must know in so many heads I survive,
In forms and concrete visions that surprise
And force me to see my own work with different eyes.
Already you see nothing true ever dies,
But this passage through other minds means endless change
And nothing we write will ever stay the same.
Original intentions are not the frame
That keeps meaning a prisoner in its cell
For which only someone dead has the key.
Art is not a crossword puzzle mystery,
But a living force that tears down its own form
To express not one man or age but multitude
Of beings, some noble, others quite crude
In their imagination of what truth could
Be and others who see only their own
Self and resent what they themselves have not sown.
Don’t think I mean there’s no truth or absolute,
But the true form of this whole is infinite
Process that leaves a wake strewn with definite
Propositions that express partial images
That can never add up to one singular thing.
It’s not that all is mystery or nothing,
But every vision is a fragment without
A whole that would only limit its force
And disallow events that alter a course
To reveal some new dimension unforeseen,
Something always there but behind a screen
Of false opinions that put themselves between
The thing before our eyes and conscious knowing.
In my time I named my poem Commedia
To proclaim a celebratory hallelujah
For the dream of another world where truth resides
And the purity of love unblemished abides,
But I failed to see how this ideal divides
The heart of human passion in the flesh
From the thought with which its affects intertwine,
As if the body were only a sign,
An accident or second thought of God,
As if creation produced this colossal flaw,
And not the thing that should inspire our awe.
In life my wife possessed my love in form
But the desire in my heart belonged to Beatrice,
And yet I betrayed them both and went astray,
Locking one in the prison of convention
And the other in a holy tabernacle
That might as well have been an iron shackle.
Perhaps Beatrice never knew the depth
Of my desire–” “But you gave her a voice,”
My teacher interrupted, “a cause to rejoice.
So few women in your world could speak their truth,
And she became for you the voice of reason
And expressed the science at that time in season.
Christine, not many years later, admired
Your poem for the vision of women it inspired,
A lifeline to her in a world that almost conspired
To confine women to images of harlots
Unless married to kings or to God a mother.
Women were always the eternal other.”
“You must understand,” the poet replied tenderly,
“The truth for me is not a cause for shame,
Nor am I looking for a new kind of fame.
In the world of this one with you some would say
I want to be politically correct,
An empty phrase from those who always object
To the force in art or thought that will not stand still.
I only regret I never caressed her flesh
But succumbed to a social will that would suppress
The body like dirt clinging to spirit,
Though in that time and place she would not have had
Me in that way, for which we both feel sad.
Still understand we are eternally bound
To one another and feel joy in the union
Of others for whom physical desire is human
And not some sin meant to test our submission.
But you speak of Christine, now my dear friend,
You shall see her before our talk must end.
Now I would hear more from this friend you bring
who knows my art not so well as you it seems
But may yet advance my truth in the way he dreams.”
I knew my turn had come but most questions
Had been answered except for something political
About our different worlds that was critical,
I felt, to the meaning of the journey I’d
Begun, which from him I could no longer hide.
“Dear Master, to you I know I must confide,
In your work already I found what you have said
Since for me yours is not a book of the dead,
But a complex thought through which there runs a thread
Of the universal which translates to every
Age when with your vision our lives intersect,
Like a screen onto which we inevitably project
Our own vision and limited knowledge.
For me physical touch never could degrade
The love for one whom in my heart is made
The only paradise I’ll ever know,
Eternal because it voids the prison of time,
And raises me up into a place sublime.
That’s how I make sense of your Paradiso
As the joyous union with another soul
When hours are forgotten, when flesh becomes whole,
Because thought no longer bisects common being
Into sense and transcendence but through love alone
Something divine makes the earth wholly our own.
I would call this the allegorical sense,
Which every age recreates with its own contents.
Perhaps you think my truth falsely circumvents
The doctrine you held so dear–” “Not at all, my friend.
I know the philosophies that have informed you,
And nothing past or present is all that’s true.
But in you I feel your world and know another
Question has force that must find in you its speech.
Don’t fear that I will find some cause to impeach
What your understanding has honestly composed.
Tell me what concerns you in your here and now.”
“What I say, those who know you best may disallow–
I mean the scholars who struggle to preserve
The context from which your text must have evolved–
But that leaves the force of your work through time unresolved,
The reason why your path from hell to heaven
Speaks to someone opposed to all hierarchy,
Who rejects all your arguments for monarchy,
Though I could see the reason you would seek
This solution to a world as fractious as yours.
Today mine under the leadership of boors–
Who hold weapons that could mean the death of all
And make the name of God a political football–
May be tottering toward its ultimate fall.
For me there is no God but the multitude
With all that this world contains however rude.
Nature is God as one great mind construed,
But nature is everything that is or can be
Including the sources of all our misery.
How do you understand such a history
That can’t be explained as some divine mystery?
Do you see the path in my world that offers hope,
Or do you have advice on how to cope?”
Again his laughter punctuated my speech,
Dissolving my fear of having overreached,
As I waited for what he might be willing to teach.
“In my time the world was divided between and within
States led by men without vision or knowledge—
Not so different, you see, from your time and place,
As greed and self-interest drive the human race.
Some are better than others and some abase
The dignity of what it means to think
While they use their power to drag us to the brink
Of chaos and subvert the good of the many,
Which is why I made such acts the foundation of hell,
Though in my understanding my thought fell
Down because I could not see where power
Resides, or rather where it seems to hide,
For even the multitude suffers from pride
That divides it against itself and allows such fools
To manipulate these divisions and so rule
Over the many who become the tool
Of their own defeat as they admire deceit
And fantasize victory in groveling retreat.
But history as process remains incomplete,
With time and experience our great teachers.
If I dreamed of one over all, a king
Or emperor, who as sole ruler would bring
Unity without enemies, who would have no greed
Because having all he would have no need,
And freedom from corruption would be guaranteed,
My error was in thinking all power
Comes from above, and empire reflects divine
Order, a work of art perfect in design.
There is no thought without some form of faith,
And even you have had to make some leaps
Beyond common reason that often sweeps
Up truths along with lies in clearing the path
Toward a future everyman may desire,
At least as the dream of something taking us higher,
Though only vaguely imagined it can lead
In a false direction and cause us to betray
The end to which we thought we’d paved the way.
This is why you don’t so much follow as heed
The teachings of one who understood that values
Only transcend something that has a use
Through a process of abstraction from concrete
Things and this becomes reality because
We believe and make our fantasies into laws
That turn us against our desires and humankind
And that way the multitude makes itself blind.
So it is in your world and so it was in mine.
But if you look closely at what I wrote,
You’ll see how truth nonetheless insinuates
Its presence and then in calm silence awaits
Its resurrection in brains that time prepares.
Per quanti si dice più lì ’nostro,’
Tanto possiede più di ben ciascuno.
Virgil says this to me and in your tongue
It means, the more we say “our” as we should,
The more we each possess of all that’s good.
I add “should” since paradise is what Virgil
Describes, which must be our truest vision,
Something dismissed by every politician,
Or misrepresented by shallow religion.
It is simply what we think and understand—
But also love which amounts to a command
To be faithful not only to our common sense
But to the minds of others from which our descent
Becomes the condition of mental ascent
Into transindividual space where we
Find something divine in our own material line.
Whatever truth lay in my own design
Slowly unfolds itself in the stream of time,
And though to me monarchy seemed the best fit
For the good of all, such kings would have to submit
To the will of all or their power would lose
All force and sooner or later they would fall.
History has answered to a different call
And revealed something beyond what I could imagine
That found its pure expression in William Blake
Who went beyond my own vision to awake
Humanity to the truth of its own essence
When he made Jesus into a living presence
Incorporating into that quintessence
The multitude from every time and place.
God is not above or below but is
What is, the force of everything that lives.
Forgive what I could not have understood
But recognize what I did that was good.
To describe human evil as best I could,
Along with our struggle to become something
More, and the joys to which it can lead us,
I evoked the being of those who had become dust,
Humans whose concrete history left its trace
As a force that no amount of time could erase.
But as I said the truth will make its case
No matter what our own intentions may be,
And so when I saw in Beatrice’s eyes
Mio Paradiso, you may easily surmise
That my heaven was love of material life—
Of things that were, that are and that will be.
Only in love do we find the way to be free.
You will learn this and more from others to whom
My words descended and who reshaped their message,
But now I’ll guide you further down the passage
You follow and introduce you to someone
Who embodies the things that I misunderstood,
Whose intellectual beauty if you would
Allow it to pass through your mental vision
And rest inside your ever searching brain
Will enable you to expand the domain
Of what you know and owe to minds long gone,
Which should also give you the strength to go on
When there is not much recognition upon
Which you can rely to carry you forward
On this quest whose end you can’t fully foresee.”
Enveloped in the light he freely shed, we three
Followed the curved corridor past rows of shelves
Bearing books and manuscripts and here and there
Desks with computer screens, and I can swear
Men sat before them and transferred data,
Words and images, with only the power of thought.
Soon I saw a light suffused with blue and caught
Glimpse of a beauty I cannot describe,
The face of a woman in whom lies could not exist,
And heard a voice no honest man should resist.
“I already know of this man on his final quest
To find some ultimate joy that would make him blessed,
And it pleases me to invite you here as my guest,
Though in truth this place where I live belongs to all,
The universal archive that has branched
Into your head from those who have advanced
Knowledge like a message passed down to your time,
From head to head as from post to post, and makes
The process of truth create a force that quakes
The walls built with the bricks of moral laws,
Which in my own time were so often the cause
Of injustice and the cruelty that led to loss
Of so much divine intellectual power.
But let me raise my head from its oblivion,
So that I can say, I am Christine de Pizan.”
From behind her desk this woman slowly rose up
And I cannot describe the beauty that transfigured
My vision except to say that it was not
Purely physical or spiritual but brought
These aspects of being into union
So that each became indistinguishable from the other,
Which made me feel instantly that I must love her,
Though it was not a love that sought to possess
But rather inspired in me the need to confess
The inadequacy of my mind that failed to digest
The presence in her of multitudes of women,
Some known to me and others barely glimpsed,
And some the memory of whom caused me to wince,
Because of some unkindness I may have shown
Or of love ineptly expressed though never shared,
For which I feared she thought I hadn’t cared.
But her smile and her eyes dug deep into my heart
And conveyed a warmth that taught me how to start.
“Dear Lady,” I said, “I have not the art
To express the truth that your image inspires,
And in my world I would not even address
You in this way that some would call excess,
A kind of respect that leads to its opposite
By forcing women into a distant place
And treating them as if they were a race
Separate from humankind and judged by rules
To which no man would ever choose to submit.”
“You worry too much about how to acquit
Yourself in this situation,” she answered.
“I can’t judge you more than you judge your own
Actions, which are to me already known,
And surely you know I am no innocent
But gave back some of what I was given,
And like you I was obsessively driven
To resist and remove all the obstacles placed on
My path, which sometimes overwhelmed my mind
And led me to write things not altogether kind
As when I named the rebellious jacquerie
Worms and vermin and ignored their plight and desire,
Imagining that I stood on a plane much higher.
But I make no apologies for my defense
Of women who more than most have endured
The lies of men and even of women inured
To masculine power and sadly their own
Vulnerability, down to your own day.
A monstrous ass now leads your nation astray,
A clown whose relation to truth is upside down,
Who would send women back to my world
But without the honor that sometimes impearled
The courts of privileged men and graced the minds
Of wealthy women, yet even then as I wrote,
The rich dwelled in realms of fantasy remote
From the experience of the multitude,
To use the word that you derive from a man
Who came long after me but whose word began
A new understanding of democracy,
A word in my time impossible to say.
Yet looking back at what I wrote then today,
I see the force in my words for which I had
No strict concept except the things I felt
Were true about how people should have dealt
With one another, condemning greed and praising
The common good as supreme which also must mean
Protecting the poor and the innocent who have been
Always the victims of power’s delusions.
I could not see then what now seems obvious,
That the many must remain oblivious
To their own power as the condition
Of their domination by men so often to blame,
And your world shows women can share in this shame.
When I wrote no woman should be a servant,
I didn’t see how it implied no one
Should be the tool or toy of another human,
But inequality seemed a natural order,
And the image of something else was like a dream,
Though my city of women revealed another regime
Of what might have been and what could yet be
If men could see beyond the lies they’ve told.”
“Christine, in using your name may I be so bold,
But also ask how history appears to you.
Has any part of your vision by now come true?”
“So much has changed in what women must go through,
But who would believe what men still think they can do?
Yet in your world what gives me greatest hope
Are so many women writers whose scope
And imagination can finally contest
The male fantasy that only they can think.
But not expecting men to go extinct,
And knowing one liberation inspires another,
Women and men from up and down the scale
Of class will come together to assail
All the phony elites that continue to thrive
But will soon inevitably take a dive
As the sleeping human form starts to revive.”
“I pray,” I had to say, “your vision comes true,
But what will the genders become in your city?”
“Forms for which there will be no cause for pity,
Since such differences then will hardly seem
To matter as the old relations shatter
And humans move on to another chapter.
Still not gender alone will undergo
The change but this fuse will light other fires
And unleash the multitude of human desires.
In my day I had a husband whom I loved
Though that relation was not freely chosen
And only chance saved me from the bitter emotion
Too often derived from marriage that feels like slavery.
Women, like men, have bodies that long for passion,
Not holy shrines that leave men free to fashion
Some moral fantasy that would be their other,
Negating in us the very drives that make
Them human, while we are supposed to forsake
Our bodies to become walking monuments
To the immoral morality that power,
Not love, dictates, leaving something sour
In the human heart. From my time to your present
Women have struggled against the chains that bound
Them to laws they did not write but which they found
Seemed to have no other purpose but to keep
Them down, but now that women play their part,
And have enthralled the world with the truth of their art,
A great change is about to cast its shadow
Over the world, and from out of this eclipse
Will be written for us all wholly new scripts,
Creating a new man and a new woman
And new relations that will transform marriage
More than the changes some have already disparaged.
My own being had remained buried in the minds
Of generations of women who forgot
Or never knew my name but through this knot
Of impressions and incomplete understanding
A truth evolved that I anticipated,
Though what I thought had to be updated.
I once saw God as some great transcendent male,
But didn’t see how I helped to build my own jail
By making God into the great white whale
That your Melville perhaps saw as the screen
Onto which we project our own image,
That we worship as something distant envisaged,
Until it drags us under and we drown.
No, God is not above or below the waves
And only humans can other humans save,
But everything that lives is holy and that
Means human when thought gives form to its essence.
Now the time has come for you to leave my presence,
For you have more steps to climb and intellects
To confront and interrogate inside your brain.”
Then I fainted from intellectual strain.
When I came back to consciousness I looked
Into the eyes of my old friend and behind
Him stood Dante whose face showed some concern,
But I could only think, how could I learn
The truth about myself and the world’s meaning
In this time in which I live if I could not
Deal with emotions that were somehow fraught
With traces of my past that if I forgot
Would only hide the essence of who I
Was and through self-deception misapply
Desire and turn my life into a lie?
Then my teacher’s expression turned suddenly stern,
And he said, “You’ve come too far to abruptly return,
And though I know what reservations hold
You back, you might as well say them aloud.
It serves no purpose for you to be too proud.”
Rising to my feet, I spoke with hesitation,
“Is it possible for a man to love too much?
Can feelings for others become an emotional crutch?
For me love and desire have never been
Separate but every passion leaves a stain,
Some sense of guilt always seems to remain,
Because my love may have caused others pain,
Especially the one I have loved and love above
All others, whose soul fits my desire like a glove,
Though I still feel I’ve failed her and everyone else
Whose heart I’ve touched and may have cruelly damaged,
As if I were some kind of amorous savage.
I saw my own mother suffer for years
From the words and acts of a man who couldn’t believe
In himself and only in death was there some reprieve
For both of them, though I don’t doubt the bond
That held them together was some kind of affection.
In my own life I sought a different direction
And was not convinced that marriage was so holy,
And transgressed boundaries laid down by the world of men
And frankly never thought this was a sin,
But then the pain I caused myself and others
Taught me to know the limit of desire.
Still is there a moral code that would require
My submission to decisions made for me
That erase the need for responsibility
In the face of some elective affinity?”
“Stop talking,” my teacher interrupted, “even
As a young man you sometimes went wild and were prone
To fits of insanity in which you disown
The guidance of your own rational understanding,
Though death itself taught me that reason alone
Cannot account for what in the heart has grown.
You feel guilt, the most useless emotion,
Because it absolves you of the need for thought
And reduces the undecidable force of what ought
To be to some absurd moral principle
That people imagine makes them invincible
And their unquestioned judgments defensible
Through reference to the authority of dogma.”
At this point Dante stepped forward to speak,
And the legs that held me up grew suddenly weak
Though I held my face up to his and would not retreat.
“Responsibility,” he said, “is not shame
Or guilt, but if love has some cause to blame
Someone for injuries to the heart and the mind,
Then take that on yourself as the lesson of error,
And make up your mind to do or fail better.
If someone seeks to punish your unintended fault,
Accept it as the consequence and trial
Of love, and submit to it as if this reprisal
Were a gift that purified your own desire.
But I must ask, what forced to your mind’s surface
These feelings that seem to have made you so nervous?”
“Before I answer,” I said, “where did Christine
Go?” “She understood the thing that caused you to faint,
And felt it best to leave you without the constraint
Of her presence. She has withdrawn to an annex
Of this place where she witnesses the trials women
Endure to your own time and lends to them
Her spirit to strengthen their resolution
To sustain their unfinished revolution.”
“I can only speculate about the confusion
That overwhelmed me in my vision of her.
My mind was flooded by feelings of tenderness
For all the women by whose love I was blessed,
And I could see each one distinctly in
Her face and felt their will to persevere,
But I also felt their judgment on men so severe,
And I became all men bearing their collective
Guilt, though my faults alone justified the blame.
Only now I see how useless it is to defame
Myself when the point is to move forward
To a world about to undergo such a change
Beyond good and evil that will estrange
Minds clinging to their fantasies of a past
In which men and women were forced to hide
Their most intimate desires and that way abide
By the laws of men who didn’t even know
Themselves in substituting the love of power
For the love of each other, which now can flower
Between genders and sexes in the open
And nothing can stop the multitude in motion
Or put back to sleep what has awoken.”
On that word Dante embraced me tenderly
And said, “Go on with your self-examination
And make this act a work of self-creation.
Now I must return to my own line of being
And the struggle to keep up with the becoming
Of my truth, always exceeding me as something
In which every reader participates
And continually renews in the flux of time.”
As he walked away shrouded in his light sublime,
I had to wonder about what I had witnessed.
Was this man a dream, a fantasy, or a ghost?
But turning around I saw my teacher engrossed
In some idea that quickly found its voice.
“Would you deny the forces that you summon,
The riverrun life we share with you in common
With multitudes whose expression lies in us all?
Bodies may perish but not physical life.
Traces of ourselves in other bodies survive,
And if your imagination gives them form,
Is that not a living force of nature?
As real as any other product of labor,
Through which multitude itself becomes creator?
And even if one day all bodies perish
And all the physical world we so cherish,
Will the truth of what we were exist no more?
Is the human brain greater than the truth it bears?
This vision you project in reality shares
What you have gained through union with others
And none of it belongs to you alone.
In this flood you’re not an isolated stone.”
I pondered his words as we walked along the edge
Of the corridor when suddenly I stopped,
And by my own vertiginous gaze was shocked
By how far we had come from where we started below.
I could not count the levels we had climbed,
Yet with my experience this sight did not chime.
I looked to my companion whose ironic
Smile suggested the gift of a new surprise
As he took my hand and caused us both to rise
Into the air and up over multiple
Floors until we came to rest somewhere aloft.
For a brief moment I felt like I’d been crossed.
In Memory of Jane Stegemann, My Other Teacher
My old professor sensed my irritation,
But only smiled which led me to expect
From him some forthcoming explanation
In this my continuing education.
He said, “What you call the real world is plastic
And words and thought make being quite elastic,
So don’t be surprised at your mind’s own fantastic
Modes of expression or think they contradict
The real that always seems just out of reach.
Everything you see here is meant to teach
You something from the archive in your head,
But the spatial makeup of this place adapts
To the motions in your brain where truth impacts
Mental impressions there like electric currents
Recharging with new life what you have known.
There are no strict measurements of things in this zone,
Nor will the laws of physics always apply,
Which you should already have recognized.”
“My own memory comes back to me disguised,”
I said, “though none of it seems unfamiliar,
As if what I did not know I’d always known.”
“Nothing comes from ground where nothing has been sown,
But every fragment of truth connects to the whole,
Which itself expands without closure to bound
It in and so the motion of truth moves round,
Not like a circle self-enclosed but a gyre
That twists and turns but always going higher,
To the music of your own infinite desire.
No one knows everything but everyone
Knows enough to join in the eternal dance,
If they would only give their minds a chance
To follow the clues that bits of knowledge disclose.”
“Forgive my confusion,” I replied, “but I
Never expected to be able to fly.
Still I suppose if Dante can fly, so can I,
In this strange place imagination creates,
But to me this situation now dictates
Other questions that have my mind perplexed
About why these particular spirits speak
To me as opposed to others I might seek
Whose fame might have inspired my desire to see.”
“This is no museum of the dead you’re in,
He said, “but the ground where you begin again.
Those appearing here form a constellation
With others in navigating your way forward
As living forces which you yourself have ordered,
Though the singular you is without strict boundaries.”
I looked around at this new level and said,
I see more books here than I could ever have read,
More than on any other floor visited.
I’m guessing some great change is taking place,
Something that will transform the human race.”
His reply: “I once taught you about the invention
Of the holy, but this space is about its demise,
Though some say the new is only a different guise,
And the power above became the power below.
Just as mankind once projected its image on high,
Now they worship humans who help them deny
Their own complicity in the creation
Of this world, I mean kings and queens and wealth
And other forces that make themselves through stealth
Into substitutes for the multitude that fails
To know its own power and take command
Of its essence, which would enable it to withstand
The perversion of its mental revolution
Whose goal remains this age’s devolution
Of sovereign power that makes a world of illusion.”
As we stood there, I saw a woman approach,
Whose white hair and tainted complexion seemed
At first to suggest a soul whom life had demeaned,
But drawing closer her face suddenly beamed
With a smile and luminous eyes that could not be dreamed,
And I recognized someone I greatly esteemed,
My other teacher who had opened doors
To understanding the force of words and ideas
And showed how mental combat could free us
From the very lies that make our lives so grievous.
“Jane,” I said, “I am both overjoyed and ashamed
By the presence here of your mind that remained untamed
When your peers’ cruelty took steps to punish you
For the fears your voice instilled in their shallow brains
Which transformed written words into mental chains
They would twist through the heads of generations,
Except you broke the lock for the happy few
And brought landscapes of truth clearly into view.
But after they banned and exiled your teaching,
I followed a path that seemed more farreaching
At the time, which led to my thoughtless breaching
Of the obligation I owed to your expansive
Thought without whose guidance and inspiration
I would never have had the motivation
To become what I am through slow regeneration.”
The voice that responded betrayed a tender heart,
“Patrick, the effort you make to learn this art
That has been driven by the passion for truth
And not by some silly desire for social acclaim
Is a greater reward to me than trivial fame
I might have had, had I been willing to bend
My intellectual practice toward the custom
Of my colleagues, but I didn’t trust them
Or the things they wrote that read like nonsense to me.
Not that I take a stand against critique,
But compiling lists of birds seemed no great feat,
The absence of which justified my banishment
From the students who sought something beyond routine.
But rather than sound like someone bitter and mean,
Know that in the years of my forced retirement I
Learned to love the freedom it made possible
And to laugh at the institution so voluble
With so little substance to its mighty rush
Of words, and I welcomed the revolution in theory
That became the engine of your personal inquiry
And quest for truth in those books in which I feel
Some of my voice has been passed on to others
Even if no one knows me or discovers
What I thought or said now that I am dead.”
“To me,” I had to say, “you have not died,
Like this great soul who travels by my side,
So many of your words still feed my thought,
And especially what you said about Milton
One day has become a foundation I’ve built on.
About his concept of chastity you stressed
It was not a denial of the body’s passions
That means to enforce the cruelty of moral sanctions,
But chastity is choice and the freedom to choose,
And if someone violates the will of another
Or ignores their choice and causes them to suffer,
They have betrayed the truth of human desire
And made a thing hellish of love’s paradise.
But those who use moral law to terrorize
Those who freely give themselves to one another
Are the unchaste who bring sin into being.”
“We both know,” she said, “sin is a bogus feeling,
The lie of those who fear human creation,
And don’t know the art of mutual forgiveness,
For love’s trajectories can be seditious
And cause as much pain for some as joy for others,
But respecting choice requires self-examination
To distinguish between love and infatuation.
Still the path through life for those who seek the truth
Will never be without some degree of pain,
And no one achieves perfection except the insane.
Now I would ask permission to walk some way
With you along this corridor of art
To show you some things before you both depart.”
We walked between the banister of the floor
And rows on rows of books, quartos and folios,
Until I heard the faint sound of a guitar,
Which struck me as both familiar and bizarre,
Because it was from the greatest rock and roll
Band from back in the lost days of my youth,
And my teacher Jane did not remain aloof
But smiling said with a wry expression, “Yes,
From behind closed doors it’s The Beatles that you hear
In the workshop of Mister William Shakespeare.”
Now the thought of the great bard listening to the Fab
Four was more than I could reasonably take,
Which made me say to my guides, “Give me a break!”
The professor looked to Jane as if to say,
It’s your turn, I’ve already done my share.
And then she spoke, “You can’t be so unaware,
Since you have written of art immeasurable,
Which is to say there is no absolute rule
Beyond convention and what you learned in school
That empowers you to say what is and is not
Art through judgements that are just a lot of rot
By people who think they have what they haven’t got,
Some inborn sensibility to know
What artists can never fully guarantee
Results from their own creativity.
For the essence of art as process is always risk
That the vision or the words will go amiss
And the work fall into oblivion’s abyss,
For only time can say what lasts a day
Or more when later generations will
Judge the value of this thing as something real.
But the deeper truth that men like Shakespeare know—
Art never stands still in itself but flows
Through different generations from which it grows
In directions no one could have predicted.
The bard’s imitators don’t interest him much
But rather the force unforeseeable with that touch
Of genius, which only means what can’t be explained.
He sees more innovation of his own art
In popular works that made themselves a part
Of the musical revolution which made a start
On a social transformation that gave back
To the multitude the poetry it lacked.
Shakespeare in his time was no Sidney or Donne
But the man whose words belonged to everyone
And perhaps initiated a new communion
Of minds that continued to evolve from then
Until the present where we begin to see
That every human being has poetry.
Lucy in the sky with diamonds or sympathy
For the devil are images that time won’t erase,
And they might as well have come from outer space.
Like meteors that crash and disrupt and change the face
Of our world, they redefine a force divine
In the human form that no one can confine
To the antiquated and vicious concept of class,
Which in your current context has become more crass.
If Shakespeare’s creations were not confined to the past,
He would be writing songs or making films
Like Scorsese, Lee, Spielberg, Bigelow, Tarantino
In this age in which multitude fights to say no
To constraints that have barred the imagination.
Poetry is reborn in new forms like Hip-Hop
That no aesthetic elite is able to stop
From evolving into the incredible run
Of a musical sensation like Hamilton,
A work Shakespeare saw no reason to shun
And found inspiration in its innovation.”
I interrupted, “The birth of aesthetic nations
May give a new face to unborn generations
If only resistance can lift the blockade
On truth and the vision of futures that could come
If we learn that our differences add up to one,
Not identity or culture but multitude
Itself that has survived the death of God
So that our common soul is no longer a clod
Of dirty matter but intellect expressed
In physical forms that do more than transcend
But incorporate all minds that apprehend
Jointly the truth that material existence
Is spirit through the power of its thought.”
Then my first teacher spoke, “You say what you ought,
And I must confess it was not something I taught,
But you know we are all parts of a work in progress
And what we say means more than we can guess
In the span of time in which we live and die,
Though death in one body is no cause to sigh
Because mind transfers to new bodies that defy
The mortality of flesh without transcendence
Since the essence of self lies in the immanence
Of thought to the movement of physical existence.
We are coming closer to one who sheds his light
On the truth of what we say, but now you must
Make a decision that requires some trust
In the direction you have chosen for this quest.
Down the aisle between books to your right there stands
A green door behind which Shakespeare expands
The circumference of his mind with visions of future
Creations, and you can meet him if you choose,
But remember, in every choice we make we lose
Some other chance we had in the path forward.
So what is your choice about which way to go?”
In responding to this request my brain was slow,
For though I had a sense of purpose to guide
Me, I didn’t want anything denied
Me for which someone might later find cause to deride
Me, and so it was all a matter of pride.
But then I recalled all the times when I had the chance
To meet someone whose connection would enhance
My own reputation, and yet I chose by instinct
Not to because I knew nothing would be gained
Except an appearance altogether feigned
Of camaraderie and equality
That to my progress would not be answerable
Since the truth was something incommensurable.
So I said, “Despite my boundless admiration,
I guess on this particular occasion
I will simply express my appreciation
For the man who inspires all those who put words to page,
For our meeting would be unseemly propaganda
And I would learn more from Lin Manuel Miranda,
Or others who speak to the multitude of our time.
To the author of Hamilton I have questions about
The founder who put democracy in doubt,
But it is sadly more difficult to address
The living than the dead who, despite their fame,
Through works available to all, remain
A force that exceeds reputation and glory
And can be inserted into a new story,
But in the present art is often the quarry
Of those who have money and would limit
Access until they have drained all the force
Of subversion from the work and in due course
Have made it safe for popular consumption.
So for now I would continue without interruption,
For I sense something approaching for my instruction
That will empower my own critical vision.
So let’s continue on our way to the left
And I know none of us will feel bereft.”
As we followed the curved space before us,
I could hear sometimes laughter, sometimes anguished
Cries which made me remember Shakespeare’s stage,
And I pondered the ambivalence of that age
In which multitude first made itself visible
Through actions at times glorious, at times brutal,
And beginning with revolutions almost futile,
When a king first lost his head and then a dread
Dictator rolled over mountains of the dead,
Staining the green island with the color red,
The world began the process of turning upside
Down, which caused one thinker to express his fear
That the many might step outside their class sphere
And demanding equality become a monstrous
Force that only a monstrous state could control.
But then, reading my mind, Jane said, “Your soul,
By which I mean your intellect, senses
This space as the time that would begin to recast
The world into a form in stark contrast
To everything that had been up to this point.
Already we have passed the studies of poets
Whose tragicomic vision gave the age its
Defining expression so that even Milton
Could not help making the fall of his Satan
Seem like a revolt against the flawed creation
Of a God whose arbitrary administration
Imposed the law through which he invented sin
To make humankind stay inside the pen
Of moral sanctions that free them from the burden
Of having to think for themselves and know their own
Power to create a world through will alone
Just as Milton created a God who mirrored himself.
But don’t expect to find that poet here
Somewhere within these many aisles so near.
He left this place long ago for his own sake
And climbed upwards to stay near William Blake.
You’ll find him there alive and fully awake
Along with other souls who surround that light,
I mean the poet whose spirit burned so bright.
But now we must take those steps to your right
To the next level where philosophers abide
Who through their mental actions turned the tide
And led human understanding to a divide
That bound religion to capital and truth
To science.” On that word we started to ascend
When I heard from above the voices of three men.
Three priests, draped in black, who were known to me—
Fathers Batson, Fisher, and Morris—awaited
Us, and my surprise cannot be overstated.
Morris, who bore the greater authority, spoke
First as we rose up, “We fear the end of your quest,
The culmination of a lifelong test,
Which may put the final touch to your loss of faith,
So we’re here to give you one last chance to repent
And accept our vision of God as heaven sent.”
This priest, ever serious, grave, and almost
Dour, cast a dark shadow over us
As we came to stand before his ominous
Presence, but the two with me stepped to the side
And moved away to allow me some time to confide
With these spiritual directors who had died
Long after the mentioned faith had been cast aside.
“Father,” I said, “in my youth you taught me to be
Ethical, though in time I came to disagree
With the particular rules your church would decree,
And in truth no religion can speak for me
Since no dogma shows me how to be free.
But your kindness exemplified how one should behave
Toward others and how love alone can liberate
The mind and empower it to imitate
What I took the life of Jesus Christ to mean.”
“And what does it mean?” the priest made to reply.
I said, “Live without fear of having to die.”
“This rapscallion thinks he can dictate his own law,”
Father Fisher abruptly shouted out.
“Your silly brain creates nothing but doubt.
I’ve read those incomprehensible books you write,
They gave me a headache and turned my day to night.
Why do you make your brain into a blight
On God’s creation when faith alone gives joy
To so many good souls while you swim with the sharks,
Even heeding the teachings of one Karl Marx.
Is that not a dogma you follow blindly
When you could submit to the love of Jesus sublimely?
What could the purpose of all your writing be
If it does not inspire wonder at the great mystery?
When I slammed my stick hard against your shoulder,
I should have aimed for the head and been bolder.
I might have knocked some doubts loose in your brain.
Who knows? You might not have become insane
And the circumlocutions of your brain so inane.”
“Father Fisher, please!” Morris intervened,
“You know that violence is no longer deemed
A good method of teaching or esteemed
The best way to convey God’s love to those led astray.”
I could not help but look on these men with affection,
Even if I could not submit to their direction.
But still I felt I owed them some explanation.
“Dear Fathers, I will always be in your debt,
And you should not imagine I will ever forget
The lessons you taught me on how to be human,
And though punishment is not the way to instill
Ideas in the young, in teaching there always will
Be some violence, symbolic but just as real
As Father Fisher’s stick that made us feel
In his ferocious pedagogy a zeal
Driven by compassion and desire for our good,
In which purpose he did the best he could.
I came to you scarred by a confused childhood
From which my sense of self barely survived,
And through your ministrations you revived
Enough self-love that from then until now I’ve strived
To fuse that self with transindividual being,
Though understanding how this could be took time
And only lately have I grasped my life’s design.
But to you, Father Batson, I owe more than to others—”
“Please forgive me for something I once said,”
He interrupted, “that haunts me now I’m dead.
You came to me in some desperation,
And thought you’d lost the chance for education,
And I responded with a foolish evasion,
Advising you to give up and become your father.
I could not see what you could be ultimately.”
“Neither did I, so on that we can agree,
And I’m still not sure about my destiny.
But you were the first person to listen to me
As I tried to explain the truth about my family.
After you there was Schreck and then another,
Teachers who saved me from self-destruction.
As a teacher myself I learned our true function.
It isn’t what we intend that changes the world
But the accidental things we hardly know
We’ve done with which we inadvertently throw
A lifeline to someone who may be drowning.
Please forgive me for my aberrations,
And I’ll forgive you for your reservations
About a future neither of us could predict.
And let’s face it, I am not someone important
Whose fame and glory would give you some warrant
To judge yourself for having misperceived,
But in truth the interest you showed in me relieved
So much anxiety and then reprieved
Me from self-condemnation that would have
Eaten away my spirit with prohibitions
Derived from my legislated inhibitions,
For our worst enemy is the one we grow inside,
The one who passes judgment and claims to preside
Over our essence which it will deride
Like a devil whose mockery steals away pride.
I did not defeat this creature overnight
But over decades I continued the fight
And even today I must keep the demon in sight.”
“I know for you God cannot be what we taught,”
Was Father Batson’s reply. “Still you have sought
A truth greater than yourself and move closer
To it now, which is why we have appeared,
Not to save you from something we have feared,
But to remind you of why you have persevered.
There was some truth in the things you learned from us,
But faithfulness to it required some trust
In your power to think for yourself and go forward
To reach a goal beyond what we would desire.
If God exists he forgives those who never tire
In the search for understanding that brings them nearer
The universal thing no one can own
Or claim it can only be found in ideas they’ve sown.”
The three surrounded me and together smiled
As if they would incite me to go on,
And for once I felt as if I were their son.
I left those priests behind and moved to my left
Where I joined those secular spirits who had been,
Whether living or dead, my truest guides,
And looking around at this new level on all sides,
I was struck by how wide and vast the archive
Had become with stacks of books and displays of maps,
It made me wonder if the floor would collapse.
“Don’t worry,” Jane once again addressed me,
“This storehouse of all that has been said or thought
Has its own inner resilience that has wrought
This structure out of itself and lends it the force
To sustain its burden through infinite space and time.”
This inspired another question about our climb.
“Philosophy, literature and science are here,
But why do the visual arts not appear?”
“Visual language,” she said, “has a different sphere.
You will come to it after working through
These mental rounds that have reinvented you
And exposed the path on which you can’t misconstrue
The meaning of what has occupied your brain
For many years and led you on this reflective
Journey that is both forward and retrospective
As time is bent into a Möbius strip
On which at each point you begin and end
But through these constant changes never transcend
The essence of who you are, which is something
More than you, something infinitely becoming,
To which all forms of life are succumbing,
Not as brutal fate sweeping away free will,
Though what that is, is not something that we’ll
Resolve through some simple phrase that would congeal
This expansive truth into the currency
Of common sense, but for now I ask you to please
Reserve your questions for one whose expertise
In thought exceeds my own as far as the speed
Of light exceeds the measure of our vision.”
In those words I felt the strength of my coalition
With minds that had long cohabited in my head.
But then I sensed a new spiritual presence
That seemed to disturb the momentary quiescence
Into which I would have subsided had I not seen
Ahead of us another man in black
Who appeared wanting to stop us on our track,
But who in astonishment I quickly knew
As yet another teacher from that school
That had imposed on my youth some kind of rule,
But this man had given me a special gift
Which had been to my self-esteem a transformative lift
Though misunderstanding then cast my mind adrift
Until years restored a better perception of his
Friendship and the strength he had given me to survive.
This shadow approached us to say, “No longer alive,
I’ve learned everything I was can still thrive
In the hearts of those who felt the truth of my love,
And back then you were one I was most fond of,
Though I never meant to cause you any pain
Or put your sense of self under some strain
That might have felt to you like an iron chain.
I looked at you and saw something others
Did not see and wanted to let it out
Of the prison you had made out of self-doubt
About what you could be if you were free
From some negative force that weighed on your soul.
I didn’t know what kept you from being whole,
But felt you and I had something in common
And my love might be something you could rely on,
Which led me to show you too openly my affection.
I thought I had won the war against the direction
Of my human desire, but I had deceived
Myself and for you unwittingly conceived
A life that would imitate my confusion
By drawing you into my religious delusion,
But you evaded that unintended intrusion
Into your head and came to dread my love,
Which I must confess caused me heartfelt anguish.
Later, for other reasons, I tried to banish
My self from my body but soon came to recognize
I had built a life on a foundation of lies
Which caused me to give up the religious disguise
And to find joy and a spiritual purpose
In creating the image of others on the stage
And to trace that vision on the written page.
I don’t know who will read or perform my plays
In the future but they represent the ways
I have lived my life in search of some saving grace,
Whether it comes from an invisible God
Or the visible actions of all the human beings
Whose paths have crossed with mine and whose feelings
Were the mirror in which I found myself.”
Then silence fell upon our reunion
Like an invitation to deeper communion,
So I took this chance to say things I had stored
Away for decades but now begged for expression.
“Though religion is no longer your vocation,
I see you in black as you were back then,
Since for me your appearance still corresponds to
The Catholic rebel who staged a holy coup
Against dogmas too ethereal to be true—
I owe you a debt I can’t possibly repay
Except to preserve it from eternal decay,
If what I write survives more than a day,
Though you probably don’t need my help in that way.
I was young back then and something of a cliché
When confronted by a man I realized was gay.
I was so moved by your kindness to me and yet
I took your expressions of care as a subtle threat
And feared putting myself too much in your debt.
So I foolishly decided to withdraw
My friendship and trust as if there were some law
I had violated, though I put the blame
On you and then later felt my own shame
And wanted to reach out to you and reclaim
The feelings of self-worth I’d derived from your gaze—
For no one else believed in me in those days—
And so I surrendered to a profound malaise
Like someone who loses direction in a haze.
Then as the years passed I came to understand
How the fact of your love enabled me to withstand
The doors that closed and the walls that obstructed my path,
And the memory of you and others converted despair
Into the recognition that love and care
Can do more than vengeance to undo injustice
And to create the fertile ground of hope
So that you can fight on against each stroke
Of mindless indifference and the blindness of masters
Who see the world as a mirror that only reflects
Themselves and regard the rest of us as defects
In the eye of a god who exists only for them.”
The man before me who appeared the younger
Smiled and said, “You always had a hunger
For knowledge and beauty, and I remember your passion
For the Shakespeare I taught you, which this woman
With you nurtured and brought to greater fruition.
This meeting has brought to us some resolution,
But now you must leave me behind and go on
To the one whose word to you means revolution.”
Once again I joined my two mentors who
Had patiently waited for the end of my
Conversation with the man in black who descended
To the level below where he probably intended
To join Shakespeare’s timeless company of players.
Turning away from him to look before us,
I suddenly had the vision of something glorious.
A break in the rows of books revealed a structure
Towering above, whose mirror-like surface
Gleamed with reflected light that almost hurt us,
Rays so intense I wondered I had not noticed
This monument before it was upon me.
“There are bright lights here you can only see,”
My first guide spoke, “with the eyes of your intellect,
And only when your thought chooses to direct
Your steps toward what may be an object
Critical to the path you have undertaken.
Yet even things that shine can be mistaken,
So keep your mind focused and unshaken.”
Looking more closely at this silver erection,
Shaped like a campanile, I saw bridges
Extending from the structure to the edges
Of the superior floors, each one longer
Than the one below it as each level swung
Its arc wider, but the higher seemed so far strung
That they might collapse from the stress of overreaching.
As I wondered what this vision might be teaching,
My intellectual father started speaking,
“This tower arises from the mind of Descartes,
Who gave to modern science its great false start,
So that even Newton would keep apart
The material world from a force that would transcend it
And make all that lives and breathes dependent
On abstraction that covers what is resplendent
In nature because beauty is immanent
And shines forth from the physical form of things.
Those bridges that higher up seem like strings
Are channels to different eras of Cartesian
Thinking, through different voices and forms of reason,
Always keeping duality in season.”
Yet while he spoke we had progressed further
Along the floor and another construction appeared
Beyond the tower, and this one seemed engineered
For purposes of war and reflected nothing
From its dull iron walls that shut out the light
As if to threaten outsiders with the might
Of what lay inside, but without the looming height
Of the other, it conveyed not force but fright
That had driven one to embrace an endless night.
“This ugly thing that captures your gaze is the mind
Of Thomas Hobbes,” my teacher said, “who inverts
The luminous Descartes and yet concerts
With him by exposing the darkness in the light,
Two sides of one metaphysical illusion.
This iron box contains nothing but confusion
For its intention is nothing but exclusion
Of multitude that subverts the dream of transcendence
Which conditions earthly claims of omnipotence,
Whether attributed to one man or
To groups who fancy themselves above all others
And don’t care if their self-adoration smothers
The lives of those on whom their lives depend.
But don’t imagine that these two comprehend
All the possibilities from which we descend.
Look up and note how stressed the lines become
That bind Descartes’ soul to later generations,
And as Hobbes’ paranoia conquers all nations,
Or individuals since Leibniz’s monad
Contaminated all being with psychosis,
The multitude refines its own prognosis,
For the only cure lies in the way it thinks
Even when it does not know the force that links
Each one to all across the series of brinks
That create the illusion of separation.”
At that moment another structure caught my eye
That seemed to my vision somewhat awry
And uncanny as it reminded me of Rotwang’s
House in the underground world of Fritz Lang’s
Metropolis, though unlike the dark that hangs
Over that place this one was bathed in light,
Which the other structures made seem less bright
Because of their enormous breadth or height.
I asked, “What is this strange shelter that I see
That seems both familiar and alien to me?”
“‘Shelter’ is a word you have chosen most wisely,”
Jane answered me, “for that is what Spinoza
Has become in your mind, a thought that would expose a
Fundamental truth that would enclose a
Key to a vision of democracy
That will survive the lies of plutocracy
And the mob fury that wants autocracy.
In truth his words occupy a simple space
In the history of thought, though they hit like rocks in the face
The holy hierarchs whom they subtly displace—
The absent God, the divine king, and the elites
Who detach themselves from the multitude through feats
Of self-delusion that become deceits
Laid like traps in the minds of the many who
Struggle to free themselves from that zany crew
Whose leadership makes reason run askew.”
My guides brought me to the entrance of that strange
Gothic wonder in which I expected to find
The infinite presence of a mind unconfined
By space and time, but as I opened the door
I turned to see my teachers moving away
From me and I didn’t know what to obey,
My impulse to go further inside or to stay
Behind with those who had shown me the way,
And so I faced them to hear what they would say.
Jane spoke first, “I must leave you and return
To the place where my intellect found its true home,
Since my spirit has no desire to endlessly roam.
Shakespeare, Milton and the metaphysical
Poets need my active mind to translate
Their words to generations who await
The resurrection of these visionaries.
Though I no longer speak to them in the flesh,
My thoughts in other bodies can still refresh
The understanding, but the seeds I planted
Require my intellectual perseverance,
Which for you at this spot means my disappearance.”
In an instant she was gone—had I done wrong
To her somehow? But my other guide could see
My displeasure and he put these words to me.
“She commited herself long ago to kindred
Spirits whose truths she swore to bear and spread.
No one is everything—not even the dead.
Let her go back to what she loves the most.
But at this gate I too must take my leave,
Though in another place you will reconceive
Our connection since there is another spirit
In your head with whom I have longed to converse.
But now is not the time for you to reverse
Your track, but go forward to this encounter
That will define your own singularity.
Perhaps it will give you greater clarity.”
As I entered the strange space the door closed
Behind me, seemingly of its own accord.
Looking before me I saw multiple doors
But didn’t know through which one lay my course.
Then one door opened as if inviting me in,
And from there I could hear a high-pitched sound
Like metal on metal that would be spinning round.
I moved closer to see what I could see
And gazed inside at what seemed to be a workshop
In which a man before a machine sat propped
With his right leg moving rhythmically up
And down, while his left hand held something against
The machine, which made his arm seem firmly tensed.
As I quietly entered the room, he stopped
The strange mechanism and lowered his arm,
While turning to glance at me without alarm,
As if he had expected my appearance.
I stood in frozen awe as I saw him rise
And when he moved toward me, I saw in his eyes
Such depth of compassion without any disguise
That I knew there could be no falsehood in this gaze.
He grabbed my hand and spoke, “This apparent daze
You’re in is not something you need to feel.
I’m not a god and the thing in me most real
Is not a force before which you should kneel,
Since without your brain and the brains of others it
Would not have survived the end of my mortal part
Or entered the stream of time where it can restart
Through acts of infinite thought that will go on
Long after my name’s forgotten and we’re both gone
From this world, but not to some fantasy beyond.
Only the truths we’ve learned and shared with others
Have eternal life, with or without our names.
So let’s not waste time playing silly games
But you should pose the questions for which you seek
The answers and we will reason together
And produce a kind of intellectual pleasure.”
It was an effort for me to overcome
The feelings that virtually strangled my voice
And seemed hardly to give me any choice
About what I could say until my eye
Fell on the machine at which he had labored
And in an instant my mind mind ceased to be wayward,
As I knew what this device must be and spoke,
“Some would say that grinding glass is what killed
You in this practice at which you were most skilled,
Yet here you are still at it in this place,
Which makes me think this act must be a sign
Or have some meaning in a larger design.”
“The design is in your brain,” he said, “but yes
The whole of my life was learning to see beyond
Or through the images that so often have conned
Our understanding with surfaces that hide
The real with ornaments of desire and so
I made lenses that enabled me to know
More and penetrate deeper into the fabric
Of vision and force the physical eye to align
Itself more closely with the eyes of the mind.
Not that I believe they are absolutely distinct,
For even now my sight requires your brain,
A body without which no thought can sustain
Itself, passing through time like links in a chain—
Idea to idea, head to head, though I’m dead,
Something that never caused me any dread,
Since for all, death is the consequence of life.
I have no memory or vision of my own,
Yet in you lies the imprint of what is known
Of me and resurrects subjectivity,
Which no longer strictly belongs to me,
But in you and others becomes common property.
Thought lives through us and between us, not in us,
At least not in the way we imagine it must.
But now in your understanding I must trust,
And we will guide each other to the next
Level in your quest to become unperplexed
And learn how different minds can intersect.
Now I see the question that burns the surface
Of your thought with a demand that should concern us.”
I replied, “Your words already make me nervous,
Which I fear will lead us to a pointless excursus.
Too many questions, but one presses to the front
In words that may appear to be quite blunt.
Is the will ever free in your system or does
Everything depend on a preceding cause
So that in the chain of events there can be no pause
Or deviation that would allow some decision.
For if the individual will is not free,
How can there be any kind of liberty?
What sense does it make to postulate the power
Of multitude and the force of democracy
If everything’s fixed and nothing else can be,
Except some divine immanence that incorporates
All through an uncountable infinite process
That makes the singular into something less.”
His answer: “This paradox has caused you distress,
But in thought there is no final place of rest.
So to give you an answer I will do my best.
I wrote, as you know, we can only achieve
What we imagine to be within our reach
And so we assume some freedom belongs to each
Mind to make its own decisions and act
As if the will were free necessarily,
But this state of mind derives incrementally
From an infinite chain of causes and effects
That determines the force we imagine ourselves to be.
Does this mean free will is just a fantasy?
Everything is determined except for God,
But God is only a word for everything.
Free will expresses the nature of such being
That speaks through our determined acts and words.
It is both a fiction and something real,
But this paradox should not cause you to feel
Like a puppet on a string without a choice
In its movements and in the meaning of its voice.
Determination should be a cause to rejoice
For it is the condition of what is real in existence.
We are free because we are determined to know
That we are determined by the infinite flow
Of what is of which we are only the effects
Like sunlight dancing on the crest of a wave.
In my life, in my body, I felt I was the slave
Of words that never could fully express the truths
So apparent to my intellectual vision,
Which even I would subject to derision,
Because I knew my work was incomplete,
That thought itself was always in retreat
From words I knew were instantly obsolete.
But I took faith from the knowledge that others
Would resurrect the process and then begin
To play the ideas like the strings of a violin,
Like a line of music that can never end.
So I encounter you now as a friend
And together we will pass through the next bend
In time to find a thought that might rhyme with mine
And yours and everyone’s because no one’s
Understanding belongs to them alone.
Now I must leave behind my antique lathe
And ask you to give me some part of your trust
Since your professor left and now I must
Show you another way through this archive.”
“It’s true,” I said, “his exit caused me concern,
For he’s the man from whom I had most to learn.”
The other spoke: “Your two tracks in life diverged,
And he felt your path forward would be best urged
By one whose mind with yours has lately merged.”
With these words I felt almost embarrassed,
For how could my thought join what was rarest
In that history of which I had the barest
Understanding, but the glow in his eyes seduced
My fears away as I followed him out the door
And refused to doubt the right way anymore.
In the vestibule we stood before five doors,
Having exited from the last one on the right.
I wondered why we didn’t turn back to
The door which to get here I had to come through.
Spinoza, sensing my confusion, explained:
“This space, this place, is not what you imagine,
And to understand you will have to re-examine
The images you brought with you and projected
Into a mental space that is pliable,
That can be bent and stretched into multiple
Shapes that you can fill with images of truth,
For its essence is its process, and its proof
Is not something you can simply induce
From everyday experience, which can
Deceive through its own concrete appearance
If the eyes of the mind do not run interference
And empower you to distinguish what is true
From the false that derives from making the incomplete
Into a whole, which makes truth indiscreet
Since it has the force to make each whole obsolete.
You’ve seen this archive as an inverted cone,
But now, to move forward, you will have to disown
That structure with its closed circles and steps
Linking them together through linear transitions,
For these matters are subject to other conditions.
Each level is a self-contained circle
Only if that is where understanding resides,
But as your thought expands through mental strides,
The shape of being itself, in minute steps,
Reveals its plastic nature and complex
Forms emerge that push you toward new projects,
New ways of going out of the self you were
And forming constellations with other selves
To produce a larger mind which then impels
You to the truth of your own singular essence.
We are not individual by standing alone,
As if our truth were the same as that of a stone,
Impervious to the existence of others,
With no inner life to register the outside,
Immovable unless swept up by the tide
Of popular forces that wear down the surface
Until it can only reflect the world like a mirror
With nothing inside to make its meaning clearer.
These five doors are gateways to paths forward
And they bear four names after mine—Leibniz, Hume,
Kant and Blake. Only you can say toward whom
We should move from where we stand in this space.”
Though I knew my choice was not strictly logical,
Since I chose the door less philosophical,
At least from the common point of view, I directed
My philosopher and myself the way to Blake.
He went through the door first and I in his wake.
With those few steps we were swept into a whirlpool
Of colors in which I felt myself spin round
And could not tell if I flew up or fell down,
Until I knew my feet were touching some ground,
While Spinoza took my hand in his and said,
“Focus your eyes and give form to what’s ahead.”
Out of the kaleidoscope and rush of rainbows
Slowly congealed the form of a small cottage
In the midst of a luminously green plottage
And in the distance sounded the murmuring rage
Of pounding waves, but as I turned to look
Something appeared above the sea that shook
Me with horror, it was such a monstrosity,
And yet I knew it was a thing in me,
Which I would not normally be able to see,
The conjunction of everything I had ever feared,
Like monsters from movies, images so weird,
Kong and Godzilla, but from the eyes that leered
Into my trembling soul I knew it was
Myself who stood condemning my own essence,
Until my ear detected another cadence
From a voice so gentle I had to give credence
To a force that expressed infinite forgiveness, and so
I turned away from my own evil to know
Who had the power to make these visions real,
And saw a man whose eyes could not conceal
The scope of mind that had no need to appeal
To reputation that in life was ignored.
He said, “Please, my friend, leave these visions so dark.
In every soul evil has left its mark,
And the Satan we become we have to forgive.
You travel with one who in life I hardly knew,
But death regenerates our thought into
Something more than either of us could construe
From our own time and place, and now we find
Our mental lives in your brain somehow aligned.
Enter this place and meet my feminine
Counterpart, who shared my imagination
More than ever could be known by your generation.
Though our essences differ we are like two
Stars conjoined, singular but to each other true,
Like the image of love your D. H. Lawrence drew.
Some call it fantasy, but it was for you
A form of redemption that turned the monsters in
Your head into angels who stamped out the sin
That had placed a shroud over the light within
Your body, teaching you that soul is flesh.
Now come into my house where you can refresh
Your vision and hear the dialogue you’ve dreamed
Would one day become a force that would be deemed
A truth through which humankind might be redeemed.”
He held the door open to us and Spinoza
Entered first, which seemed right, while I followed,
And as Blake closed the door I felt a load
Lifted from me, the weight of my own misery,
Which I had not realized was in me,
Until now when I could see a new liberty,
A state of mind free from the fear of death.
Then I looked up to see a woman of such
Amazing beauty, but not something you could touch.
A ray beamed from her eyes without disguise
That would melt away any pretense or lies,
And her gaze filled my mind with blessed surprise,
For I saw in her every woman whose imprint
Lived on in my heart, forces that had twisted and bent
My love into a form that could never resent
What had been gained or lost, for even the pain
That love could cause was no reason to refrain
From a process that was the only way to regain
The place that Blake would call Jerusalem.
Then the poet spoke, “It pleases me that you see
The light that this woman always was for me,
For without her my vision would not have been
And my existence by now would be forgotten.
But that may not matter since it is the common
Fate of all, yet with my Catherine I channeled
The being of multitudes and showed them the God
They are, not the one who raises his rod
To punish and lay down the law on the innocent,
Who teaches them that human desire is sin,
Because that one is not God but Satan.”
Then Catherine herself spoke, “Dear friends, please sit down
At this table and we will drink wine pressed from matter,
Its true spirit that has the force to shatter
The complacence of those who misperceive what is
In front of them and only love the hidden,
The mystery with which the world is overridden.”
We four sat down while Blake poured each of us
A glass of wine and even Spinoza drank,
And looked at Blake as one of greater rank.
Spinoza said to Blake: “Had I known someone
Like you in my first life, I might not have
Understood the meaning of their vision,
Or might even have subjected it to misprision
By simply ignoring what seemed outside of reason.
But death empowers us to begin again
And takes intellect to the place it could not imagine.
So I bow to you as to one who went further
And unconsciously made me a precursor
To a force that can only inspire my fervor.”
Blake laughed and seemed possessed by a playful demon.
“There is no greater or lesser, before or after
In true understanding,” he said. “My laughter
Only expresses my joy in meeting one
Who opened the door to something more to be won
For divine matter that men so often shun,
Blinding themselves to miraculous being
When they turn the eye into a reflecting screen
On which they project images cruel and mean
And attribute them to a God no one has seen,
Who makes suffering the sign of what is good,
While denying the holiness of multitude.”
Though I felt myself unworthy to address
Such giant intellects, a sense of unrest
Forced me to overcome myself and express
A question that had long weighed on my mind.
“I hardly know how to address the two
Of you, since the name ‘fathers’ some might misconstrue
As implying more than I can claim to be,
But your expressions and those of others, both read
And heard, redeemed the negation of self that was bred
Into me by one whose hatred of himself
Compelled his cruelty toward his own progeny
And left scars as signs of his ferocity
In all of us, but let me set that aside.
My question now concerns the name of God
That you both deploy in ways that seem quite odd,
Leading some to call one of you atheist
While religions appropriate the other’s verses
For their reverent theological purposes,
Which seem to contradict the meaning of what
He wrote, as if he were of a priestly cast.
I’ll be silent now, since you must know why I’ve asked.”
I lifted my glass and drank the wine while I
Watched to see who would be the first to reply.
Though I thought it would be Spinoza, Blake, with a sigh,
Said, “People always want to incorporate
Into their common sense, to incarcerate
Ideas that threaten their current mental state
By building walls out of categories,
Prisons in which they can confine and constrain
Something whose true meaning they deem profane.
So the singularity of my vision,
Which had the power to subvert convention,
Gets locked away in dungeons of religion.
But you’ve read what I said about Jesus—
He’s God but ‘so am I and so are you.’
This man can explain in what sense this must be true.”
Blake’s gaze fell upon the philosopher
Who after some hesitation started to speak:
“The meaning you allude to seemed oblique
To the rule of dogma for several generations
That followed me, and it is fair to question
Why I chose the word ‘God’ to express the one
Who is not one, when surely I knew it would seem
To conventional minds something meant to blaspheme
What men have proclaimed a transcendent and holy scheme,
Which it would make into an unholy dream.
My intention was never to offend or subvert
But to show that what we call God is a concert
Of forces of which each one of us is a part,
And the thought from above is not where we should start
To look for understanding but in the heart
Of everything that thinks, for through each brain
God’s thought proceeds as the glory of the mundane
That the love of truth alone can ever sustain.
God thinks when we think and loves when we love,
For it is not a person but all persons
And all thoughts, so that all our mental exertions
And physical forms are not merely expressions
But the essence of this force that is more than we are
Because it is everything we know and are.
The love of others and things and the earth itself
Is the love of God and God loves God through
That love that aligns each mind with things that are true.
So you see God is simply the multitude,
And I chose to retain that name that may seem rude
To those who feel a lack of similitude
To what they have worshipped as the mystery transcendent,
But the face of God is apparent and immanent
In the crystal blue of a sky translucent
Or the gaze of a lover caressing and intimate.
This man wrote we are in God and God in us,
But subjectivity is the human trust
And belongs to each minute particular
That joins with others to form the singular
Perspective that constitutes the holy secular
That Blake would name the Human Form Divine.”
Though I listened carefully I could not say
That my understanding felt no dismay
From uncertainty as to what he meant to convey.
“Forgive me,” I said, “while this argument makes sense,
For me to explain why would involve some pretense
On my part, but at least from here I can make a start.”
Spinoza responded, “Perhaps you intuit
Something but can’t find the right words to express it.
This is a problem with all philosophy
And may be one of the reasons why poetry
Will sometimes break through the ambiguity
With a force that exceeds philosophical expression.”
Then I turned to Blake with a question I had
About why so many who knew him said he was mad.
Again he laughed, then drank some wine and spoke:
“I know why this thought concerns you, your mother
And I in your mind have found one another,
When words of mine echoed what you learned from her,
For from what people called her insanity
Came something beyond everyday inanity—
From the lies, false perceptions, and vanity
That keep the multitude locked in a prison
House that sometimes bears the name of religion
Or wears the face of some stupid politician,
Whatever it takes to hide the one man Jesus—
Who is the combined power of all of us—
From knowing itself for what it truly is.
Your mother heard voices and I spoke to
Angels and heard the voice of my brother who
Lives in me as concretely as I in you.
Your mother’s vision of history and human suffering
Derived from a force in her that was hungering
For truth and human redemption from false love
That smiles sweetly and points to a world above
But wants to give righteous passion a shove
Into oblivion or call out as monsters
Anyone who would expose the gangs of imposters,
Those archons with hearts of stone whose lying postures
Cover the existence of political monsters
Who crucify the multitude with their laws
And equate their imagination with the loss
Of reason instead of the intellectual cause
Of the light shining forth from the human eye
That passes from head to head and can never die.”
These words moved me but inside I could hear the cries
Of forgotten voices that told me to be wise
And hold back emotion for a greater prize.