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Richard St. John: Learning with the Lost

For Robert Hollander – celebrating 40 years
as Professor of European Literature


Great teachers teach us nothing.  At best they love

their subject deeply, and we take

a bit of that away.   You taught us Dante: On a dike above

a burning plain, he peers at the charred and upturned face

of his own teacher, but the face I see is yours.

Around us now, the broad white flakes

of flame are falling like hot phosphorous

and I wonder what you’re doing here –

wherever here is – tanned and vigorous,

not like a shade at all.  Perhaps because it’s queer

that anyone could love a poem so much,

an immoderate passion for these forty years.

There was other work to do, after all.  Ride any bus

through Kinshasa.  Nothing to buy

at the corrugated market stalls.    Pale gray dust

on the street kids at the corner.  The one dull eye

of a three-legged dog.  Everywhere grief

settles on the unprotected, like ashes from the sky.

* * *

And yet, head bowed, I thank you, even for the brief

treasure of a long-past, one-semester course,

the customary green of Dante’s laurel wreath

a hope that beauty begets beauty, the fair calls forth

some symmetry of fairness in our hearts.  You run,

driven now across the plain, giving it all you’re worth

not, as Dante says, like one who lost, but one who won.

But is it that easy?  Can we forgive

the poet, who – for all the affection

that he shows Brunetto and the sodomites adrift

in the seventh circle – still he has them damned

and, in the poem, slips the added shiv

of outing them?  By our forgiveness stand

aside while fire falls on others?  Cut to the plain

outside of Sodom.  There we find Abraham

bargaining with God.  Would the Lord refrain

from destroying the city for fifty just men?

What of forty-five?   Would God inflict such pain

 if only short a few? …And so on, down to ten.

Even God learns, it seems, and learns through us.

For though the fire fell, there’s a story where he bends

to ponder – and this is mysterious

to all the others, watching with their stones –

then writes with his finger in the warm gray dust.

* * *

Poets stranded on a narrow dike, like the ones

built of stone to guard their cities from the sea or floods

by the cautious Flemings and the Paduans.

The broad white flakes are falling.  Only the blood

boiling in the fosse – its vapor – shields us overhead.

Distant puffs of sand appear, and grow in magnitude

until a troop of winded, blackened shades

comes up beside.  One of them looks hard

at us, squinting like a tailor at his thread

eager to mend some tear or flaw.   His marred

features swim before us, they fill the space

around us now, a circle widening.  He reaches toward

us with his eyes.  We meet the rapt face

of this naked man, unnamed and disapproved,

and – in the moment we return that gaze –

what we learn, and learn again, is love.                     

From Each Perfected Name (Truman State). Copyright 2015 Richard St. John.


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