An appearance of Again, the diva-dame.
- Wallace Stevens
We look around and we see pairs of things - night & day, winter & summer, man & woman, life & death. It's as if Nature is posing a geometry problem : draw a line C from point A to point B. Find the inter-mediator, the golden mean. Build a bridge across that chasm.
We want to make whole what seems to be divided. It's a psychic necessity. Sometimes our solutions are very simplistic, and instigate more fractures than before. Sometimes our answers are very elegant & abstruse elisions - yet despite the sophisticated technology, we end up sliding into the next ditch.
I've been working on a poem-project in which the two parts of the binary, the two points of the calipers, are spread so wide that I can often seem to lose my way - but it also allows for a lot of creative mulling & curious detours.
I knew from the beginning the poem was involved with geometry. I usually do with this kind of thing. I start getting unaccountably intrigued by certain numbers & their divisors, how these numbers might be fleshed out in stanzaic and other patterns. It's a kind of numerology.
The poem is anchored in a Venn diagram - the overlap of two congruent circles, each circumference passing through the other's center. A pun is a sort of imperfect Venn diagram - the overlap of two meanings in one sound. The name of the poem is Ravenna Diagram (you see what I mean).
I seem to have many thematic motives (over)determining this basic layout. One of the main motives has something to do with the traditional Orthodox doctrine of the Incarnation. Here three Persons overlap as one God. In the Incarnation we have, very roughly speaking, a Venn diagram of the unity of human & divine.
It occurred to me this afternoon that another facet or motive of this design has to do with Time.
A poet, or any writer, always writes from where they are. They express their place & time - their "Now". But a poem or any fiction can project another "Now" as well. Proust dwells on this mystery with magisterial complexity in his great novel (In Search of Lost Time).
For the ancient Christians, I think, Time was duplex, dimensional. There is ordinary time, the successions & cycles of clock time - & then there is God's time, Eternity.
History, for them, involved the terrific drama of the intersection of these two dimensions - played out as the destiny of Humankind on earth. There is a subtle concept called in Greek pleroma - the "fulness of time". This can refer, apparently, both to the "climax" of the plot of sacred history - God's actual historical presence on earth - and to a sense of time as a kind of ripening of eternity within clock-time (these two notions are obviously close kin).
With Ravenna Diagram I have these two "historical" points of the calipers, a pair of points in spacetime. There is the "Now" of the author, the poet, me - speaking out of my own experience & character, my place in time & space. Then there is a second "Now" : that of the historical Jesus, the person who actually lived in Galilee and Judea 2000 years ago. & then there is a kind of aesthetic middle term - a third "Now" in spacetime : the Italian town of Ravenna, where Dante is buried, where he finished his Paradiso - & where towering, awesome mosaics, representations of Orthodox Christianity, glimmer in their cave-cathedrals (some of these glittering icons found their way into Dante's poema as well).
Jesus tells a parable somewhere - & I forget the exact details - but he concludes with a riddle about time. Something about a man inviting all his friends to a wedding banquet, but everyone makes excuses. So he flings open the door & invites all comers. However, some people show up not clothed properly for a wedding - they are tossed out. Jesus says something like, "the Kingdom of Heaven is like this too. So when the Eternal comes upon you, make sure you are prepared."
I've probably botched & oversimplified this parable. But what interests me is this phrase about "when the Eternal comes". It seems to goad the listener toward attempting to grasp a certain sense of the layers of time.
We live in a doctrinaire & factional era. Our "side" is always ready to pin a simplistic label on the other "side". They are deluded idiots. Fundamentalists are convinced that old books are roadmaps through life's foggy ambiguities. Secularists are convinced that religious believers are basically mystified by myth.
I think there might be a kind of philosophical, reasonable aspect to this religious concept of a duplex Time - spiritual and material, temporal and eternal. The stereotype of puritanical Christianity, clinging to the spiritual at the expense of physical pleasure, is a very old cliche - with some basis in history (think of the desert monks renouncing the world).
But it's possible to think of the religious emphasis on the spiritual as a pragmatic counterweight to life swallowed up by the chaos & futility of the purely material. A balancing, not a rejection : a synthesis.
This is how I conceive of Jesus' admonition about "when the Eternal comes". The Eternal is always there : it's only as we get older that we begin to sense the limits to clock-time - our limits. An awareness of mortality is a spur to long thoughts. Then we start to sense the presence of the Eternal.
I noticed this with my father - not only while he was dying, but actually long before. There was a kind of intellectual detachment. Not that he didn't enjoy life, or care about others - but there was this sense of limits, the fleetingness.
Such a sense can result in a reshaping of priorities. "What am I doing with my life?" People are always ready with quick answers to this one, too - usually addressed to others. But to grapple with it for oneself is the issue.
When you try to write a poem or fiction with two such compass-points, you are immediately handed a wealth of difficult artistic/philosophical problems. How do I represent my "Now" - and that other "Now"? But hopefully I put my trust in the creative process. The whole impulse of poetry is toward integration & wholeness - to enter the rapture of the mesmerizing song. My pleroma & that other Eternal might in some sense be one & the same, or at least connected. After all, some such conundrum was the challenge Beatrice threw down before Dante, too...
Mosaics in Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, Ravenna