Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Richard Greene's Dante's House

“I substitute have seen you for will see./Tenses shift and I prepare for memory.”

Those lines, the final in-stanza couplet from “Crooked Eclipses”, Richard Greene’s poem from Dante’s House, capture the backward transitional movement of psychological time, but Greene has consistently gazed over his shoulder, in this collection as in his previous, Boxing the Compass. Even in his personal travel pieces, the past constantly merges with the present, and is often more vivid than reachable church stone or “ten fantini sitting on bareback steeds”. That said, his observational powers are very good. Greene’s mind is equable, and many of the conclusions drawn are doubting, provisional, withheld, or impossible. Unlike instances in Boxing the Compass, there’s more of, “Those roads wind among degrees of sorrow/I cannot imagine” (from “The Idea of Order at Port-au-Prince”), and I, for one, am grateful for it.

The latter poem’s title is in some way a response, obviously, to Wallace Stevens’ “The Idea of Order at Key West”, which could just as easily have been headed as “The Idea of Disorder”. Greene, then, isn’t indulging in irony when observing the broken political reality and broken men and women that he sees during a Haiti excursion. A narrative poet often drawn to the elegiac mode, Greene’s lyrical skills are rarely virtuosic, though the approach is purposely understated, even at heightened interludes. At times, though, a memorable sequence will make the reader (this one, at least) pause. One example: Greene, in his “The Idea of Order at Port-au-Prince”, agrees with Stevens’ philosophical stance of manpersonwomankind’s rage for meaning, but undercuts it in practical necessity, with “Rebuilding is a matter of cinder-/block and thickets of rebar rising up/the mountain’s steep face”.

The sameness of colour in the first eleven one-to-five pagers – measured, sympathetic, commemorative – makes it more important than usual that content, in isolation, be interesting. This is, of course, highly subjective, reader to reader. I found the two-part “Corrections” a highlight: horrifying mini-studies of doomed prisoners “rip[ping]/open the skin and muscle with their hands.” Greene’s strength, though – (I’ll shortly get to that) – is absent by constriction. The poet obviously can’t enter the troubed lives of these unfortunate men in any meaningful way from a one-visit tour. A lowlight was “Yankee Stadium”, a fond homage to the Yankee “mystique”.  Rhapsodizing over ballooning multi-millionaires becomes, itself, weirdly inflated as one ages and the corporate chess-players shift and pluck from the green board.

The approach and sequencing between Boxing the Compass and Dante’s House is the same. Shorter considerations act as substantial appetizers to the last poem, in this case the titular 32 page travelogue-memorial. So I was surprised to find my evaluations, book-to-book, reversed: “Dante’s House”, after the collection’s uneven first half, knocks it out of any open space, whether Yankee Stadium or the Grand Canyon. The aptly-named poem’s impulse is self-evident. Structured in twenty-nine tercet-descending terza rima stanzas, the formidable formal constraint works astonishingly well. It’s not a boastful marathon exercise. The one-step-back-two-steps-forward foray of the rhyme scheme captures Greene’s often tentative experiences on foreign soil, trying to communicate with strangers in Berlitz Italian, and interpreting actions and dialogue, self-consciously, through a different cultural and historical lens. (For that matter, the backward-forward steps work as fitting image of a Dante troubled by the Inferno’s upcoming, deeper circle.) But the pattern also enhances Greene’s quieter connections between the past as it manifests in the present (Faulkner is useful to think about here), not just in how Il Duce’s sins live on in the shattered lives of victims’ descendants, but in Greene’s own ruminations on his mother’s troubles and ultimate death. His strength in bridging time and geography, others with himself, is utterly mellifluous and convincing. To accomplish that narratively within the demanding long-poem constraints of the form (I only counted one egregious choice – “move slowly past in their pageantry of tum-//ult.” is the end-move to “come” and “drum”) is even more impressive. One reason attention isn’t called to the procedure, like an annoyed and dissatisfied audience member lifting the curtain in front of the hand puppet, has to do with Greene’s prosodic variance. Many readers, even studious poets, frequently belittle rhyme in a free(r) verse milieu, but a far more damning clunkfest has to do with repetitive metre. Gimme ingenious rhymes all day; just don’t dress them up in military iambics.

There are many other elements to trumpet in “Dante’s House”, and though I can’t get to them all, I’d like to point to a few more. Lyricism is enhanced, in contrast to the book’s first half, throughout the long poem. “Bungling shrinks tinkered with her sanity” is the closest Greene gets to anger, but it’s the sounds, not the tone, one remembers. The concluding line of that penultimate stanza – “Love was taken from me, yet I rejoice” – is simple and heartbreaking, a closing benediction on three interspersed sections concentrating on his mother, itself a spur to a spiritual strength which surpasses the milder, received grace of Italian architecture and biography and interaction, though these, too, are noteworthy. Like “The Divine Comedy”, Greene’s scope encompasses all kinds of figures -- political, artistic, religious, and intellectual. Catherine of Alexandria is given thirty lines of stanza twelve, and, typical of Greene’s seamless weaving, he manages to distill complex, provocative and disputatious subject matter into personal wisdom. The future martyr is “a late child among twenty-five,/little wonder she preferred constraint//to bed and breeding.” Conversion, Greene seems to believe, followed more easily, perhaps even as a practical inevitability, from her early experiences, and in that way may not have been the unexplained event, the more sensational miracle. Umberto is Green’s Virgilian guide, and if the author doesn’t mythologize his helpers, he certainly colours them liberally with fond idiosyncrasy, as Umberto “summons dark humour/and blows away his temple with a finger.”  The poem’s length lets Greene rummage, ruminate, travel without conclusion, stumble, misconstrue, prevail, and “rejoice” with “a power to bless”. “Dante’s House” is more expansive and more concentrated than “Over the Border”, the similarly structured long end-piece to his previous volume which won the Canadian Gov-Gen award. This poem is far more deserving of accolades, and I hope he receives them.