COMEDY (current cantos)

COMEDY

 

CANTO 1

 

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.

 

CANTO 2

 

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.

 

CANTO 3

 

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,

 

But I’ve forced my knowledge of that history,

Something that involved paternal tyranny,

Though 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.

 

CANTO 4

 

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.”

 

CANTO 5

 

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.

 

CANTO 6

 

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.

 

CANTO 7

 

“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.

 

CANTO 8

 

“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.”

 

CANTO 9

 

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.

 

CANTO 10

 

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.

 

CANTO 11

 

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.”

 

CANTO 12

 

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.”

 

CANTO 13

 

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.

 

CANTO 14

 

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.”

 

CANTO 15

 

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.”

 

CANTO 16

 

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.

 

CANTO 17

 

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.

 

CANTO 18

 

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 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’ve 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.

 

CANTO 19

 

“How can Jesus be both one and many, 

As you seem to say—how can he be multitude?

This is something I have never understood?

 

Is he only a metaphor that should

Not be taken in the literal sense, or would

You translate his historical being into

 

Some transcendent force that embraces humanity through

The singular incarnation of one man who

Embodies the impossible desire

 

To which all humans in frustration aspire—

I mean to live one’s life without the fear

Of death that keeps us in submission from year 

 

To year so that we fail to persevere

In the convictions that the human mind

Reaches through its own autonomous action

 

But then betrays in cowardly stupefaction—”

I could not find the words to finish what

I wanted to say, but Blake knew how to construct

 

A meaning from my lack and to conduct

Our dialogue toward a new revelation.

“The answer lies embedded in your question,

 

But what I have to say will not lessen

The light your brain already magnifies.

Jesus was a man and his sacrifice 

 

Was a choice that from human intellect can arise

When individual convictions overcome

Fear, to which we all so easily succumb.

 

Was his crucifixion proof that he was the son

Of God who had to die so that everyone 

Could be redeemed from some spiritual stain

 

That mars creation and binds us with a chain

Unless we submit to the power above, restrain

Our material desires, despise the life

 

Of our bodies, and believe pleasure, like a knife,

Cuts the fibers woven together between

Us all, making something beautiful obscene?

 

Jesus did not die for something so mean,

And he did not have to die to fulfill a dream

That he alone would humankind redeem.

 

He died because his mind reflected the gleam

Of an idea to which he gave himself

Without reservation, whether it was the faith

 

Of Abraham or freedom from Rome he embraced,

He asked for nothing in return and feared

Nothing because he knew human intellect

 

Would sustain over place and time his project

And from his acts and words thought would select

The truth and discard the parts that hardly matter.

 

His divinity is not some idle chatter,

But it does not come from some holy realm beyond

Experience by which so many have been conned

 

But from fearless conviction that would correspond

To a power that all thinking beings possess,

Though no singularity can fully express 

 

The complete revelation however blessed

They may be, for truth is the only eternity.

I wrote we worship God when we recognize

 

The gifts of other men that some would despise

Because they look not through but with their eyes.

The greatest men are the image of us all,

 

For through their acts and words they only recall

The acts and words of millions who came before

And the billions who will come later to restore 

 

Human dignity that is the only door

Through which mortals enter the kingdom of God.

Jesus is the greatest to some and not

 

To others, but no person or group has got

The only vision of divine immanence.

Jesus did not die to do some penance

 

For our sins but to instill in us remembrance

Of who we are and what we can become

When we liberate our minds and refuse to be

 

The slaves of fear, which hides our humanity.”

As Blake paused, I turned to Spinoza to see

If he would add something more to explain

 

His own words about Christ that for me remain

Confusing and even rather sophistical

In portraying Christ as neither mystical 

 

Nor a prophet, but in words jesuitical,

He said God communicated to Christ as mind

To mind, and to no other for all time.

 

“Perhaps words of mine have put you in a bind,”

He finally spoke looking intently at me.

“In writing of Christ I chose my words gingerly,

 

Though I meant them to be understood not literally,

But as what I construe solely from scripture.

It served no purpose to produce a stricture

 

That would undermine or try to rupture

The authority of that text except to say

We should read it without excessive cliché

 

By which too often people conjure away

What resonates with truth just to satisfy

Some desire to make humankind comply

 

With a politically useful lie

That keeps the multitude’s power in the hand

Of those who take on themselves the right to command

 

All others by preaching truth as a brand 

That you might as well stuff into a can

And then sell it wherever there’s a demand.

 

I imagine Jesus to have been a man

And in his own way a philosopher.

In thought he had the power to decipher 

 

The truth that one should live as if death were,

As Blake could see, a door through which we pass—

Not on the way to the places where at last, 

 

According to how we have behaved in the past,

We eternally feel pleasure or suffer the pain

That comes from inability to restrain

 

Our desires for things that churches deem profane—

No, we enter into other intellects,

Which are bodies that virtually resurrect

 

The truths our lives signify and so connect

That essence to a future that will be blessed

As a force no man can kill or dispossess, 

 

This human form in which we all coalesce.

Jesus somehow came to manifest this state

That religions too often strive to conflate

 

With petty moral systems that desecrate

The meaning to which his life and death gave weight.”

I had to respond to these mind-bending lessons

 

But felt all I could add were more questions.

Still I spoke, “If Jesus is the power of all

Humanity, then his image must be the call

 

To conquer the lie to which we are in thrall

When we submit to the foolish hypocrisy 

Of those who pretend to love democracy 

 

While they celebrate a new aristocracy 

That is founded on nothing more than money,

The lack of which today is seen as death,

 

So that people are afraid to take a breath

Of freedom for fear of masters who might not agree

To emboldened displays of human liberty.

 

And now in my own country you can see

The multitude’s usurper and anti-Christ

Whose worshippers suck our blood like filthy lice—”

 

Spinoza interrupted, “You may despise

Those who feed on that man’s mental aberration

Out of your own righteous indignation,

 

But you will have to accept with resignation 

That from this process something better may

Result, for though multitude may turn away

 

From the light that promises a greater day,

They still participate in the human form.

If their crooked path you would seek to straighten,

 

Look inside and learn to forgive our Satan.”

 

CANTO 20

 

Blake poured me another glass of red wine

And I must confess it was going to my head.

His proverb about where the road of excess

 

Leads came to me but I feared drunkenness

Would only bring me shame and not impress

These intellectual fathers as to my worth.

 

And yet such concern seemed to me absurd,

For wasn’t all of this my imagination

And somehow this company my own creation,

 

And why should I resist jubilation?

So I raised my glass and took a deep drink

And felt so elated that I had to think

 

I might be pushing my consciousness to the brink

Of delirium when Blake laughed at me and said,

“This wine has been crushed from the great vintage

 

Of the multitude arising from every age.

The joy you feel can only expand your senses

And understanding, and with such force it cleanses

 

Your perception of mystery and false images

Which cloud the mind and turn the many against

One another feeling they can dispense

 

Judgement on those who refuse to give their assent

To lies that give comfort to their tortured souls.

This wine contains an essence that through time flows

 

And no singular expression you can propose

Will force the infinite truth to congeal and close,

And so to love and to think means to forgive

 

Continually, and though to be combative

Conditions true dialogue and makes it progress,

It will quickly undermine its own process

 

Without the risk of continual forgiveness.”

These words spurred me to ask another question:

“What or who do you mean by the phrase ‘our Satan’?

 

Surely not that horned monster, or the one Milton

Created, whose fall seemed like self-deception,

Yet somehow noble or at least so human

 

That, yes, it doesn’t take that much acumen

To say he is not so different from me,

Though he devolves into something ghastly.”

 

Blake then replied, “Milton and Dante agree—

He becomes the father of lies or at least obscures

His own understanding in such a way that he lures

 

Himself into a prisonhouse that endures

Through time in all our minds whenever we force

Infinity to take a finite course

 

That transforms truth into a rotting corpse

And leaves behind a skeleton called law,

Which we worship and desire to impose on all

 

For fear some individual will may appall

Our faith by exposing darkness to the light

That shocks us because it shines so very bright

 

When we would rather stay hidden in the night.

For Milton’s God and his Satan are one

And the same, since they coexist in a union

 

Between law and the necessity of transgression

Without which there would be no progression,

The prophet’s talk would be idle chatter,

 

The poets and artists would no longer matter.

Satan’s self-deception was his invention of God,

His projection of himself as mental facade

 

That covers the real divinity of this clod

Of being that is material human existence,

Which discloses its own truth through its persistence

 

In time and the force of its creative resistance

To self-subversion through which we become the prey

To our own Satan when we would enslave

 

Our minds to fear of death that digs a grave

When it uses the law to condemn human desires

And suffocate the intellectual fires

 

That clear the human path of thorns and briars.

Since Satan is all of us, to forgive him is

To forgive ourselves and push beyond boundaries,

 

Those necessary laws that become a disease

If we put them before universal justice.

To live a life that is truly ethical

 

Means never to lose sight of the principle

That truth is both one and multiple—one in

Its process but multiple in its expression,

 

Which in time is refined through the lesson

That history, through brutal events, must teach.”

Spinoza interrupted to say, “You reach

 

A point that I myself wanted to impeach

When I saw the masses become a mob

And witnessed their brutality and the job

 

They did when they mindlessly chose to rob

Humans of life and limb, men who were no

Saints, but when the multitude falls so low,

 

Only to surrender their power to some show

Of divine right, which makes inevitable their loss

Of self-understanding and transforms the laws

 

Into chains that bind them to a false cause,

They seem to be their own worst enemy,

Hell bent on destroying their own unity,

 

Parading betrayal with blind solemnity.

Still the lame and broken multitude thinks through

The errors of some that force others to renew

 

Their vision and through mental war to undo

The knots with which humanity has bound

Itself to a lie and to turn the mob around

 

To face the light and their blindness astound,

Which slowly forces them to adjust their sight.

For without error no one would see the light,

 

No one would know to fight for what is right,

Since the greatest enemy of truth is self-

Satisfaction in which the mind dwells

 

On itself alone and from ignorance expels

The being of other minds that found shelter

There and projects onto the helter-skelter

 

Of everyday discourse the monstrous specter

Of a witless mob that demands a superior

That can master its thought so inferior.

 

In this way delusion conditions the theory of

Absolute power in the hands of a few

Wise men, though one usually heads the crew

 

And assumes he knows more than the others do,

Which leads to an infinite game of in and out

As there’s always someone who puts in doubt

 

Someone’s right to master the popular rout.

I have no faith in elites and place my trust

In equality and the uncountable Us

 

Where each mind to its other must adjust

Through a process that may seem reckless and crude

Like a river that meanders and obtrudes

 

Beyond its border and through force extrudes

Itself in carving out a new channel

Whose destructive creation is nature’s scandal

 

The end of which may seem like a gamble

Before it reaches its goal in the infinite sea,

Which in retrospect we had to foresee,

 

Though that takes nothing away from the mystery

Our perception succumbs to through its own ignorance,

The void that exceeds singular intelligence.

 

So each individual measured by their stance

To all that humankind has known and all

We have yet to know as we painfully crawl

 

To the light—each mind so perceived is equal

In that their difference is inconsequential

With regard to what the human brain can attain,

 

Which is why we should treat no one with disdain.”

 

CANTO 21

 

Catherine, who sat opposite me at the table’s

Head, while Blake and Spinoza faced each other

At her sides, suddenly spoke with an ironic smile,

 

“Since you both will refrain from disdain for a while,

Let me give your democracy a trial.”

Then with a gleam in her eye, she looked at me

 

And said, “Women have forgiven men easily

Since forever because without such acts life would

Have been an endless war of the sexes that could

 

Have ended human history that has endured

Until a time that finally forces a change

As both genders begin to rearrange

 

Their relations so that men will not shortchange

The gifts women bring to human intellect.

William taught me to read and not to neglect

 

My own imagination but to direct

My desire toward overcoming my own self,

But though he was the best of men, I felt

 

At times as if I were an image that dwelt

Inside his brain and had no life of my own.

He taught me to write and to engrave his visions,

 

But where were my words when I made those incisions?

When I brushed color inside his lines, did I paint

The surface of my eyes and place constraint

 

On them until the world I saw grew faint

Because nothing of my own creation remained.

But then the voices of other women came

 

To me, and my life would never be the same.

When I read and heard the voice of Mary,

I must admit at first she made me wary,

 

Since she might seem in William’s eye contrary

To everything I was. Her mind enraptured

Him and I feared her intent was to capture

 

His love and then to cause our bond to fracture,

But in time I came to recognize the force

Of my own desire that could divert the course

 

Of our love away from what could be coerced

By social laws and petty moralities.

Yes, I loved other men because I was free

 

But never did I surrender my loyalty

To this man who taught me what love could be.

Mary wrote that if men seem wise and strong,

 

They were also allowed to be in the wrong,

To follow their passions when they went astray,

From which they learned more than just how to obey

 

And emptied their minds of so much moral cliché.

While women were doubly punished should they betray

A code that only men could have written

 

Since the things women want were strictly forbidden.

After Mary, there was Jane who practiced

The art of insinuation by saying less

 

In order to say more about social class

And the way it regulates feminine desire,

For who can set the intellect on fire

 

Who has no place to which they can retire

But must struggle each day to make ends meet.

Though her representations may seem discreet,

 

They attack the pretensions of masculine elites.

Mary’s daughter Mary unearthed the monster,

Who is both the servant and the master,

 

For if knowledge without truth brings on disaster,

It may also give birth to a new idea

That seems monstrous to those who only see the

 

World as self-reflection that becomes a

Barrier against any new human form.

For women become monsters and their voices a storm

 

When they threaten those men who fear what might be born

From consciousness they have locked away for so long.

Charlotte and Emily saw both genders wronged

 

By the violence of social laws that spawned

Monstrosity as the image of its truth,

And only on the heath were they free to choose

 

Wild love that redeemed what others would accuse.

My third Mary, who signed herself as George

Read our Spinoza whom she worked to restore

 

To generations who long had ignored

His words and she also resurrected my Blake,

Though in reading them she made a few mistakes,

 

Yet gave their words a force that would awake

A future where their writings now resonate.

Into this transindividual voice my own

 

Is woven and the truths I learned are sown

By time which can no true conviction disown.

On and on in varied tongues women write

 

Themselves into history and burn so bright

That men almost fear to look into the light,

But our fight for what’s right does not end overnight

 

So even up to your own time things are not quite

Done as we continue to seek liberation—”

At that moment as I sat in stupefaction,

 

A knock on the door vanquished my abstraction

And stopped Catherine in the middle of her speech,

Though I knew there was more she had to teach

 

Me, but Blake arose and before he had reached

The door he said, “You will hear more from her,

And then she will bring you to another—

 

There are so many voices to rediscover

Or with imagination to reinvent.”

Then he opened the door to give entrance

 

To founders of my own country’s independence.

Thomas Jefferson appeared to us first and then

Alexander Hamilton followed after him.

 

How I knew it was those two I could not begin

To say, for they were dressed like you or me

With faces not on the surface of my memory.

 

Blake invited them to sit down politely,

Though he seemed at their presence somewhat bemused.

As he fetched them some wine, I looked for some clues

 

As to whether he thought their presence would enthuse

Me and if this meeting was by his own design.

Jefferson spoke first: “We’ve crossed the chasm of brine,

 

And all the barriers and illusions of time

To join this discussion with the desire to correct

Things we did and said that led to neglect

 

Of a principle that we both meant to protect.

Despite the vagaries of our hypocrisy,

The idea behind our acts was democracy

 

And not the arrogant plutocracy,

Those cunning conartists who act like pirates

And spread throughout our nation like a virus.

 

They call themselves statesmen but don’t inspire us

With knowledge that points the way to progress,

By which I don’t mean a predetermined goal

 

But the movment that expands the human soul,

Or the general intellect in which we all

Participate when we answer the call

 

Of truth, the avoidance of which keeps us in thrall

To our blind resentments and self-betrayals.

This man and I became political foes,

 

On nearly every issue we were opposed,

And yet we both subverted our own conviction,

Our lives became models of contradiction,

 

For though I condemned slavery, it was my addiction,

And now I beg for historical redemption.”

Hamilton then spoke, “On Broadway they sing my praises,

 

Call me self-made, but ignore the different faces

I showed to the world when I turned on others like me,

Immigrants with nothing to leave to posterity.

 

Yes, I could never tolerate slavery,

But because I thought I was such a rarity,

I turned a cold eye on the multitude.”

 

I had questions but feared they might be too rude,

But then I looked at Catherine whose face was imbued

With such tenderness, I knew I had nothing to lose.

 

We do not show respect when we refuse

To confront the illusions of history’s ruse.

I would question these fathers and then forgive,

 

For only the truth will any of us outlive.

 

CANTO 22

 

“Mister Hamilton, I know you see the world

Today and I wonder what you have to say

About the rich in whom you placed such faith,

 

For from where I look they have only displayed

Stupid self-adoration that has caused our nation

To lose its way in misguided celebration

 

Of those who enjoy privilege without obligation,

Despite the alibi they sometimes create

When they publicly put on a show and donate

 

Some part of what they have in excess to placate

The fury of the masses whose lives seem desperate,

Which may one day move them to incite a backlash,

 

Causing the enchanted world of the rich to crash.

Parts of the multitude can be stupid as well

When they let resentment become a self-made hell

 

And against reason they decide to rebel—

Not against the masters who use their wealth

To control the masses by deception and stealth

 

And sometimes come to believe their lies themselves—

But against those who may look different or come

From elsewhere or have even less than them,

 

And then through division and despair they condemn

The multitude and through it their own power

To create a world in which each particular

 

Human form could realize its singular

Essence and become what they have in themselves to be.”

I stopped because I felt I had been too free

 

With my words in addressing this father of liberty.

But in his gaze I could see his sincerity

And hear something painful in his voice as he spoke:

 

“The afterlife of thought that you provoke

Is more real than the fanciful heaven and hell

That guided my vision when I said farewell

 

To the world and out of simple arrogance fell

At the hand of someone I should have ignored.

Don’t think I have not judged myself and deplored

 

The lack of faith back then I displayed toward

The multitude which was to me a horde—

Like the one that terrified old Hobbes and Burke—

 

Whose only God-ordained purpose is work,

While those like myself seemed destined to think for all

Because I could not imagine majority rule

 

Derived from those who had never been to school.

But though I came not from wealth as you know,

I was not self-made since many did bestow

 

On me the gifts others had to forgo.

In your voice I hear the anger of your time,

Since wealth has proven to be an ambiguous sign

 

Of social vision and soundness of mind.

Still the rich are not one and some are even good,

For they too are part of the multitude.

 

The consequences of my acts you should

Criticize, but I will not apologize

For unleashing the power of capital, as unwise

 

As some of its agents have been in my own eyes.

Though I now concede Jefferson every honor,

The idea that every man could be a farmer

 

Was not one that would be able to garner

The powers of everyone into a form

That could wipe out autocracy like a storm,

 

Though his passion for democracy set the norm

To which this nation still struggles to conform.

Slavery to me was a sin against God’s will.

 

But how from experience could I distill

The essence of multitude that thinks as one

Though no singularity ever comes undone

 

Since between each brain a web of thought is spun

That enhances the autonomy of each

And every one who together can reach

 

A universal no individual can teach?”

He paused and gave Jefferson his chance to speak.

“We were not such original minds as this poet

 

And this philosopher and didn’t know what

Democracy might be or might become.

You made the effort earlier to plumb

 

The meaning of hell, but isn’t it the sum

Of all our self-deceptions and failures

When we know a truth but nonetheless waver

 

Because it might incite someone’s disfavor?

Trust me, the lies we tell ourselves are a chain

That we drag through history from brain to brain,

 

Though happy memories coexist with the pain.

We are what we do and to those acts remain

Forever bound unless someone redeems

 

Them by forcing the truths that were our dreams.

I knew slavery was evil or simply wrong,

But I liked my life and wanted to belong

 

To the class of masters whom I served like a pawn

And used my literary skill to make

A plain untruth somehow legitimate.

 

This lie infected my life intimate,

For I loved where I could not expose my love

And never recognized the children of

 

That union I thought not blessed from above,

Which was the purest hypocrisy since I

Didn’t believe in divinity on high,

 

Just in the clockwork order beyond the sky.

Democracy I thought I understood

To mean a little revolution was good,

 

Now and then, to limit power that could

Threaten liberty if concentrated away

From where common people live day to day,

 

But I never meant to make the union prey

To the oligarchies of states that used their slaves

To enhance not only their wealth but their power

 

To install slavery as the foundation of our

Nation until from the multitude Lincoln

Arose, a man without wealth or distinction,

 

Who helped lead the way to slavery’s extinction.

He understood the power of the common,

And his strength did not derive from his transcendence

 

 Of the multitude but from his submergence

In their everyday lives and common language.

He heard the contradictions, sometimes savage,

 

In their voices and found the narrow passage

Between social desire and presumptions of class

That might bring forth a union that would surpass

 

The one we began that had reached a fatal impass.

He never idealized the multitude as all

Goodness or all stupidity but in them saw

 

Himself as the human form with the power to cause

A transformation of our life and laws,

And though with patience he subdued his will

 

And compromised in order to instill

In himself and in the multitude he served

A new meaning of equality that swerved

 

Away from the false reasons that had reserved

The word’s truth to one class, one sex, one race—

His gift to the world was the economics of grace

 

That neither Hamilton nor I could embrace

In our lifetime but in death we travel in its wake.

Lincoln knew that slavery was wrong but the door

 

He opened in time would lead to so much more.

Resistance and betrayal may have blocked

The way forward, but nothing can have stopped

 

The movement toward liberation that has rocked

The status quo from my time until yours.

I know new evils have created more

 

Detours—such as the man we cannot ignore

Who has misconstrued the nature of our nation,

Which he seems to think is about his own elevation

 

To the status of a king, though this degradation

Of democracy will be of short duration.

Even if the path of truth may not be straight,

 

It is not something one simpleton can negate.

The multitude will find its way again

And learn what not to know is the only sin—

 

That on the grace of others we all depend.”

 

CANTO 23

 

A silence fell over the room and I

Looked into the faces of the two Founders

That expressed such a profound sorrow that bled

 

Into the space between us and in my head

I was overwhelmed by a sense of dread.

Then my eye fell on Spinoza who could read

 

My state and quickly responded to my need.

“History leaves in its wake a trail of error

And those who make it become icons who bear

 

Into the present the force to make us care

Unless stone cold monuments imprison them

In fantasies of the national origin

 

That regulate the past and make forbidden

The sight of painful truths and contradictions.

You must harvest the essence their lives expressed

 

And in that way you will put their memory to rest.”

He turned to look at Jefferson at his side.

“This one wrote his declaration to be a guide

 

To the revolution in which he took some pride.

He knew the phrase, ‘All men are created equal,’

Approached a thought that must be universal

 

And that his own words were just a rehearsal

Of meanings other men would have to complete.

In time the words themselves may become obsolete,

 

But the truth they bear no age can ever deplete.

The suffering you see in their faces derives

From the recognition of how many lives

 

Were sacrificed so that what they began survives

Into a future that will realize

Better than they could what equality is.

 

Think of Lincoln’s face in which is traced his

Pain when confronted with so many slain

For decisions from which he could not refrain

 

And the balance of forces he had to maintain

In order to expand what it means to be free.”

With that word Catherine stood and came over to me.

 

“Come,” she said, “there’s someone I want you to see.”

I followed her out the door and then to the shore

That appeared not too distant from where we were,

 

And as we approached the beach I saw a figure

All in black standing at the foot of the waves,

Which seemed to have fully conquered her gaze,

 

While the gray sky mirrored the sadness of her days.

As we came closer, she turned toward me her face

In which I saw beauty and amazing grace.

 

Then Catherine said, “This woman knew the embrace

Of the man who made the demand for equality,

While she always remained his property.

 

For so long she had no voice in your history,

But as William wrote, nothing is lost in time—

All we do, say, or desire informs the sublime

 

Wonder from which beams of light shoot forth that shine

Through the ages and disclose the human form,

Long buried in darkness, only to be reborn

 

Through a process that requires us to perform

Our duty to those whose existences were erased

From the human family that had debased

 

Itself through mindless acts of laying waste

To its members as if to mutilate

Its own body, a strange form of self-hate.

 

None of this is ever a matter of fate

And redemption never comes to us too late.

Go to her, for she has something to say.”

 

I turned to the woman in black and felt the spray

Of the sea behind her that might have been tears,

For I felt the sorrow of two hundred years

 

Emanate from her face in which tenderness did appear.

Then she spoke, “My pain is not for myself alone,

But for generations of black folk who were owned

 

By men who refused to know what they had sown

Of hatred for their world but even worse

Of love that for us could only be a curse,

 

When the one you love is the one who would coerce

Your affection that your soul begs you to resist

While your heart longs for the comfort of kiss,

 

Which gives even to suffering the feeling of bliss.

That’s how I felt about Mister Jefferson.

He awoke in me the fire of tender passion

 

And made me love him without the satisfaction

Of seeing in his eye something reflected

Of my own essence, but instead dejected

 

He seemed, and the gift of my heart he rejected,

And the children of our union were neglected

When they looked to their father for recognition,

 

While he obeyed a social prohibition

And looked away until the day he died,

Which enabled them at last to have the pride

 

Of freedom, though still enchained by the need to hide

The truth about their inadmissible birthright,

Which they could do because their skins were light—

 

Oh, how could such evil not turn my days into nights?

And that would have been all there was for me,

But in death I was redeemed by the force of history,

 

For consciousness survives death through memory

And imagination that can resurrect

In other minds what my world kept in check—

 

That even slaves have the power to reflect,

That with our condition we were never content,

That our understanding went beyond resentment,

 

That freedom was our holy covenant

With God and the better angels Lincoln could see—

That one day would come the end of slavery,

 

Which begins the war on all human misery.

Now come with me and we will cross this sea

For there are souls we both need to witness,

 

Who will contribute to your mental fitness.”

With her finger she pointed toward a skiff

Without oar or sail as if we could just drift

 

Across the chasm, an idea I had to resist

By turning to see if Catherine could explain.

She said, “All this is the work of your own brain,

 

And it will define the physics of this domain.

Trust your vision.” To which I then replied,

“Can I go forward without those two at my side?

 

With Blake and Spinoza I would still abide.”

She answered, “There’s something in you that inspires

Her appearance and the goal of your quest requires

 

You to follow this sign of your true desire.”

The dark lady then took me by the hand

And led me to the boat which we pushed off the sand,

 

Then climbed in for the return to our own land,

And without effort we left behind the strand

As if the skiff followed our mental command

 

Through some means beyond my power to understand.

Almost instantly a dense fog consumed us

And I could hardly feel the skiff’s own thrust

 

Though I knew I simply had to place my trust

In forces that seemed to be working through me

And through this woman whose desire to be free

 

Awakened in me admiration of her esprit

That never lost hope or fell into despair.

Then she spoke, “Don’t think that I am unaware

 

Of generations of white folks who still don’t care

About the things we all have in common,

Though in death I have also met with someone

 

You know and who through her example won

You to a lifelong struggle for justice.

In the heaven in your head she remains restless

 

And over her children she keeps a jealous

Eye to protect you all from losing sight

Of what she taught you to see in the darkest night—

 

That no one should be excluded from the light.”