On the shores of Gitche Gumee

Am reading a remarkable new biography of Dante Alighieri, by Marco Santagata, translated by Richard Dixon (Harvard UP, 2016).  Alongside Longfellow's remarkably reader-friendly translation of the Divina Commedia.

Where I live now is Longfellow territory : Minnesota.  In fact I live in a duplex adjacent to the Longfellow section of Minneapolis.  This is the land of Minnehaha Falls, Lake Nokomis, the Hiawatha rail line...  Henry L's Song of Hiawatha was inspired & underwritten by the Ojibwa legends recorded by his scholar-explorer friend Henry Schoolcraft (discoverer of the source of the Mississippi).  I can hear my late father even now - Minnesota Scout-camper-canoeist that he was - reciting (slightly tongue-in-cheek) tidbits of Hiawatha and Evangeline...

Santagata's Dante is a preternaturally-gifted young poeta (Einstein-like), trapped in a political combination of Inferno and South Boston.  His yearning for the authority of Empire makes (partial, recherche) sense in a parochial spacetime imprisoned by warlords, feuds, vengeance, murder, and every other circle of Hell.  These circles were closed.  Dante was like a drowning man struggling to the surface.  His appeal to Beatrice and Mary was a cry for a spiritual lifesaver - and a rescue from personal/political catastrophe.

But don't let me suggest that what we have here is a version of the mind-body problem.  Dante was more than an alienated intellectual.  He was a lot like Whitman, too.  He asserted Love at the center of reality, at the matrix of the cosmos - and found a way to synthesize all the different departments of Philosophia within the very human desire to love and be loved.  This was the gift of his mentors (Brunetti, Cavalcanti, Boethius, Augustine, Aquinas, Aristotle... Virgil) - but a gift he transfigured into blazing bardic fireworks (Whitman's descants on Emerson provide a parallel).

I find it interesting that during his agitated exilic (& hungry) wanderings around Tuscany & environs, Dante gravitated toward anywhere with a good library.  That early Renaissance hunger for knowledge chimes with what Mandelstam calls the Italians' (Dante, Ariosto) enormous appetite & gusto for speech, rhyme, poetry...  Mandelstam, out there in Voronezh & Vladivostok, carrying his frangled, tattered copy of the Divine Comedy around, always, wherever Stalin decided to send him...

The library was my refuge too.  I spent 30 years in the bowels of the Rock (Rockefeller Library, Brown University) - after Ronald Reagan brought an end to my 5-yr VISTA volunteer career (circa 1980).  I didn't want to be an organizer anymore; I needed to write.  But I didn't want to go back to school (I graduated from Brown - finally - in 1977).  For a brief ridiculous desperate time I worked as a "professional resume writer"...

I thought of poetry as something simple & direct - beyond academia, beneath academia; beyond politics, beneath politics; beyond po-biz, beneath po-biz.  I started a group called the Poetry Mission for that reason (stealing poetry off campus).  We sponsored events in an art gallery, organized some talks, published an anthology for Edwin Honig's birthday... but this was long ago (early 1990s).  Others have been down this path.

The library.  On the campus.  Yes.  I went back there, into my shell - and stayed for 30 years.

Here's what Wikipedia says about the dome of the Rhode Island State House, under which I spent much of my 5 years as a VISTA volunteer :

"The Rhode Island State House is composed of 327,000 cubic feet (9,300 m3) of white Georgia marble, 15 million bricks, and 1,309 short tons (1,188 t) of iron floor beams.[2]

The dome of the State House is the fourth-largest self-supporting marble dome in the world, after St. Peter's Basilica, the Taj Mahal, and the Minnesota State Capitol.[2][3] On top of the dome is a gold-covered bronze statue of the Independent Man, originally named "Hope". The statue, weighing more than 500 pounds (230 kg), is 11 feet (3.4 m) tall and stands 278 feet (85 m) above the ground. The Independent Man represents freedom and independence and alludes to the independent spirit which led Roger Williams to settle and establish Providence and later Rhode Island."


This post is a throwback to the HG Poetics of old - that Minnehaha of endless gab-gab... how did I manage it?  As TS Eliot says somewhere, "Humility is endless."  I worked, managed.  Now, strangely, I'm home again.  Florence was my paternal grandmother's name - the Goulds lived about 2 blocks from where I'm writing this, in another shady apt by the river.  Florence was born on the the 4th of July, 1900... granddaughter of a Mississippi riverboat captain...

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