Sunday, April 28, 2013

The Miner Who Loved Dante (1924)

Dawn Potter

But after I had reached a mountain’s foot,
At that point where the valley terminated,
Which had with consternation pierced my heart,

Upward I looked, and I beheld its shoulders,
Vested already with that planet’s rays
Which leadeth others right by every road.
            --Dante, the inferno, translated by H. W. Longfellow

I haven’t wandered your way lately, Nell,
            not since the police clapped me up
            and I lost my shift at Number 2.

But I remember the porch of our borrowed house
            and the pigeons that fluttered up from the roof
            when the old lady banged her pail.

And Sue . . .  remember Sue, who sang alto to your mezzo?
            In those ragged evenings, how stillness would sift
            over the men, old and young, listening from their steps

or squatting outside the canteen, half-full bottles of wine
            balanced on the ground between their knees.
            Night opened her arms to us like a favorite aunt,

like Lena—plump, smiling, one hand at rest on my damp hair
            as a hundred pigeons dipped over the river.
            And all the while, Nell, you and Sue sang

of hearts, of summer, of fleeting secrets,
            and we listeners believed that the songs were ours.
            For no one, no one in the world, was as alive then as we were.

[from Chestnut Ridge, a verse-history-in-progress of southwestern Pennsylvania]


Christopher said...

Wonderful, Dawn, delicate, respectful as lace and as respectable too, yet, like so much lace, tragic. And I love the fact that you choose to introduce "1924" with these particular lines from the Inferno and not the much more familiar opening words which seem to leave the reader lost in the woods, as if Hell were all bad!

It's easy to forget that right from the start Dante says that it's not, in fact, going to be all "savage, rough, and stern" in this place:

But of the good to treat, which there I found,
Speak will I of the other things I saw there.

Like the infamous Let Us Now Praise Famous Men Report of 1936 which the U.S. Department of Agriculture found so difficult to accept. Indeed, all the government could see was the politically disastrous exposure of AMERICAN POVERTY and not the indomitable human spirit which both the photographs and the text were in the process of memorializing forever -- and don't even think about the extraordinary respect and the BEAUTY!

I wish you so well with this huge new project, Dawn -- I can't imagine any poet better equipped to deal with it than you. James Agee must be clapping his wings in Heaven -- or Hell, I guess, depending on how you look at those things, or where you'd rather be.

(And I'd better shut up too, hadn't I -- which I will if some of you others will give her a hand too!)


Ruth said...

Christopher, I especially like your opening "delicate, respectful as lace and as respectable too, yet, like so much lace, tragic." that is so apt for Dawn's handling of this.

Dawn Potter said...

I'm so glad you both like the poem. I owe the germ of this tale to my friend Jean, who shared some haunting family history with me.

Christopher said...

Grateful for that, Ruth -- not only for what you chose to affirm but for letting me off the hook (I'd love to keep coming in but I can't if you all don't too...).

And my cadenza of commas, Dawn? Is that just show-off, or does it actually add a dimension to my observation?