Contributor’s Marginalia: Maria Hummel on “Moment of Dante” by Paul Bone

August 27, 2012

I took a Dante seminar during my senior spring in college, part of a small group of devotedly nerdy students that clustered around a rectangular table. Most of the time, we pretended to understand more than we did, and we struggled through the cantos with the green enthusiasm of the crocuses and daffodils surging up outside.

Suddenly it was May, and we were halfway through Purgatory when a sophomore named Carmen broke in.

“I’m sorry. I know we’re supposed to be all knowledgeable here, but I JUST DON’T GET IT,” she said. “I wasn’t raised to believe in anything, any church or whatever, and every week when we talk, I feel like there’s some layer I’m supposed to be seeing. And I can’t.” She tossed up her hands. “How am I supposed to know what’s really going on?”

Dante Alighieri in a painting by Domenico di Michelino

When I read Paul Bone’s marvelous “Moment of Dante” in Vol. 10, No. 1, I remembered Carmen, and her justified sense of unfairness at the old Florentine poet for tying her mind in knots about 14th-century transcendence. Her outburst touched on the great and unanswerable problem of how new generations experience the literature of the past, and it launched the best debate we had that spring.

Bone’s poem beautifully examines the same issue, move from disorientation to revelation in a trio of distinct acts that echoes the three-part structure of the Divine Comedy.

In the first act, a speaker describes teaching Dante to students who are sick of him, “of journeys.” The act ends when, in a notably end-stopped line, the electricity in the building cuts off. It is a blackout.

The second act shows the students pulling out their phones and flipping them open. The poem doesn’t ask what they’re searching for. Exposition is over now, and Bone shifts into the lyric mode, drawing out time with imagery and rhythm. His focus moves to the devices’ light, and as it moves, his meter goes mostly iambic: “The lights from all the phones, blue as lapis, / brought just their faces back from the abyss,” he writes, using lapis and abyss to echo off each other in a pleasurable reversal of stresses. All at once, in the haloed light, the students’ heads appear to detach from their bodies. The self departs it corporeal prison.

This gorgeous image could end the poem, as Dante leaving Purgatory and moving to Paradise could have ended the Divine Comedy, leaving heaven up to the reader’s imagination. Yet like his forebear, Bone goes on. His conclusion deepens the question of revelation, and brought me back to thinking about Carmen.

“The precise moment when the moment vanished / was when they began to look for each other,” Bone writes, and describes the students swinging the lights from their phones around until “behind, beside / the edges of their spheres united / and they remembered they were not alone.” The power comes back on. The students chatter. And “there was no more lesson that day.”

The spell of light and dark is broken, and broken in a way that reminded me painfully of the isolation of Carmen and most contemporary readers. Unlike the Florentines of Dante’s time or the Elizabethans of Shakespeare’s or even the Americans of Whitman’s, we do not have a common sacred text, and therefore our experiences of literary transcendence are rare and unshared. “Behind, beside,” Bone writes when he describes the students’ lights. Not “with” or “among.” The layer of collective revelation that Carmen couldn’t see simply isn’t there anymore. What this means for poetry is still hard to fathom. We may have the Comedy, but we’ve lost the Divine.

Bone alternates between end-stopped lines and enjambment to underscore the tri-part structure of his examination of the lost sublime. The enjambed lines give the lyric moments their flow, their sense of transition, and eventual transcendence. The three end-stopped lines create the plot:

Just then the power in the building failed.
It happened all at once, reflexively.
And then the lights came back. A nervous chatter.

“Moment of Dante” is the last poem in this issue, making it a kind of meta-commentary on the other thirty-one. I wonder sometimes, as a 21st century poet, about our current cultural position, stuck between the “lights” and the “nervous chatter” of our time. What does it mean that 32 Poems’ parting shot is about people failing to read but finding connection anyway? I don’t know, but I can say that I admire Paul Bone and everyone involved in the issue for eloquently capturing so many distinct pleasures and doubts in our ongoing search for meaning.

Maria Hummel

Maria Hummel’s poetry and prose have appeared recently in Pushcart Prizes XXXVI, Narrative, The Sun, and Missouri Review. She lives in San Francisco with her husband and son. Her poem, “The Unicorn,” appears with Paul Bone’s “Moment of Dante” in 32 Poems 10.1.

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