The night before Good Friday, in Ballarat:
Jess opens her laptop, clicks on the Wiki
page for Dante’s Divine Comedy, and that
heats the blood, sets her in motion, those tricky
hyperlinks that send a poet down rabbit
holes. [If only she’d spent less time with TV
and more time tuning literary habits
she would have traversed this classic text by now
and wouldn’t need to pursue elaborate
synopses.] Nevertheless, she strokes her brow—
the one that’s nearly bald from boredom and stress—
and carries on, hopes the Comedy will show
ennui who’s boss. [Covid’s fault, it’s made a mess
of her brain and now she can’t be bothered with
much else but bingeing crime drama. She’ll confess,
after drinks, her penchant for shows without pith
where the players may as well be cardboard cutouts,
and story arcs are zanier than myth.]
And Alvin, in the middle of a rut,
murders time with garden chores and cleaning.
A sea away, he knows deep in his gut
an idle year will not surrender meaning;
that progress calls for sedulous endeavour
and sustained relations. That the gleaning
of success demands a novelistic fervour,
academic rigour, capitalist zeal,
attention to retail. But (as always and ever)
the poet’s whinging wins; the loud appeal
of fame as vain as Ukrainian real estate
circa April ‘22. One meal,
one sleep, provokes another. An insensate,
cancerous unspooling. A monstrous suspense.
(Note how a poet will procrastinate
by any means necessary, and hence
miscegenate language, to stay the blade
of time. To keep the present present; tense.)
Consigned to hybrid work hell now, we’re paid
to smile at Teams for hours in a proper top
and PJ bottoms, bed and hair unmade.
This is it. The devil’s riding crop.
The running to stand still. The inferno
of normalcy that refuses to stop.
Friday: Jess scoffs a hot crossed bun—there were no
such delights in hell, she’s guessing; just a lot
of burnt toast for our meta-traveller, journo
composing his own salvation. Dante’s not
a modest poet, counts himself as one great
bard among a small posse of skilled crackpot
scribes; why do poets think themselves so au fait
with the best-thinking minds—what compulsion drives
such chirping strains, the urge to compete, to bait?
Did Dante ever move beyond circle five,
that party of the sullen and wrathful? (Snore.
Jess has been there before.) The cantos jive
and crawl from there, with fanciful dreams of more
than bitter ink, coffee, and a smelly goat.
But Dante’s ‘God-as-light’ is now ‘God-as-fourhundred-
that takes up space at the Met Gala. Okay,
Jess has wandered bitterly off track. Her note
to Alvin: Not sure what I’m wanting to say.
But I can’t stop thinking about the clean road
leading straight to the horizon, and the way
the shadow of the robed man lingers—like code
for one’s legacy—in Dalí’s slender sketch
of Canto 1.* Also, how the green explodes
top right, the path through woods to salvation etched
with danger; meanwhile, his earthly human trace,
left to the living, will yield to the road, stretch
and fade. Boarding a train the north winds race
to overtake, Alvin’s off to Brussels.
On Saturday he sees the pudgy face
of Boris stuck on one of Dante’s levels
at a book fair, and thinks of distant Jess
anxious for response. Art works the muscles
of anger, makes a clarifying mess
of the deadly, stultifying lull
of our lot, our “This is how it is”.
How monstrous is purity! The placid dull
samenesses we’re sold as paradise.
We reach for paint and chord and line to cull
not excess but recess, pierce the precise,
unwall polite despair, suggest release
lies deeper in the lees, beneath the ice
and silences. But the lies increase,
hydra-like, with each impunity,
feeding off our rage. So should we cease
our eloquence, the arid subtlety
of wit, and take up arms more purgatorial?
What if we let our rhymes slide, play dirty
with language, if not with the bacterial?
Sunday—Jess is couch-sore from all the sitting
and staring at screens, scoping material
to guide her from the madness of consuming
shit to plug a gap, to void monotony—
of life, work, holi-days. Oh straight, unyielding,
beige road! Oh rolling track of I-hate-Mondays,
followed by the rest! A knotted forest made
a lot of sense to Dante, who schemed a way
out, meeting mess with mess, and stress with shade
of stress until he reached a clearing; of course,
the flash that set his heart on fire won’t crusade
the way for all. Critical discourse
presupposes access to the reading.
Dante’s dallying with the post-mort bourse
assumes we knew his news: who did the leading
and who the losing, in which petty brawl.
These days, can we claim a common pleading
(if such exists or were desirable)?
Railed on the same sure road to some hot end,
we fight over what’s fact. So why not call
it poetry, Alvin quips, and play to bend
the river of sense towards our headlong doom,
affect with affect our dire fate, and mend
our ruined gaze with madness? When wars loom
over water, reason tends to fail…
Tuesday falls to Wednesday. Alvin’s room
and stanzas are a post-travel travail.
He plans his next jaunt; Jess, more Pinor Noirs.
To cope, we poets–monstrous, small—avail
ourselves of words, those futile, febrile stars.
*cf. Salvador Dalí, Departure for the Great Journey (Inferno, Canto 1), c.1963
Jessica L. Wilkinson is the author of three poetic biographies, most recently Music Made Visible: A Biography of George Balanchine (Vagabond, 2019). She is the founding editor of Rabbit: a journal for nonfiction poetry and is Associate Professor in Creative Writing at RMIT University.
Alvin Pang is a Singaporean poet and editor whose writing has been translated into more than twenty languages worldwide. His latest titles include WHAT HAPPENED: Poems 1997-2017(2017) and UNINTERRUPTED TIME (2019). A co-editor of the anthology Divining Dante(Recent Work Press, 2021), he also translated two Cantos of Purgatorio for the volume After Dante: Poets in Purgatory(2021, ed. Nick Havely & Bernard O’Donoghue). He is an Adjunct Professor of RMIT University.