Vox Populi: A Public Sphere for Politics and Poetry
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.