Versecraft

"Paradiso XIV, 63" by Matthew Buckley Smith

December 12, 2022 Elijah Perseus Blumov Season 2 Episode 4
"Paradiso XIV, 63" by Matthew Buckley Smith
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Versecraft
"Paradiso XIV, 63" by Matthew Buckley Smith
Dec 12, 2022 Season 2 Episode 4
Elijah Perseus Blumov

Mea culpa: I forgot to mention that the last line of the poem can also be read in the following sense: desire to LIVE and not merely to EXIST ("be" alone). In this reading, it is the body which allows the soul to actually "live." 

Topics discussed in this episode include: 

-Matthew's podcast, "Sleerickets" 
-The Dantesque pairing of this and the following episode 
-A defense of the "embrace materiality" agenda 
-"Being Human" by C.S. Lewis 
-Literary power couple Matthew and Joanna 
-Alice Allan's podcast "Poetry Says" 
-Dante's Commedia 
-The heavenly soul's desire for their body at the rapture 
-Italian (Petrarchan) sonnets 
-We're enjambin' 
-If you took a shot every time I mentioned Milton, you'd be mildly buzzed sometimes. 
-Le mot juste 
-Quoting Revelations like a Southern Gothic reverend 
-David Cronenberg's "Videodrome" 
-Aspiring beyond the cross 
-Flesh as sartorial joy 
-Anti-Buddhism 
-A sniffling desire? 
-Human touch is next to godliness 

Text of poem: 

Paradiso XIV, 63 

Even in heaven, then, there is desire: 
for resurrection in the appointed time, 
when out of blackened earth new flesh will climb 
beyond the cross of every storm-whipped spire 
into that harmony kept by the choir 
assigned each soul, whose naked pantomime 
clothes itself there in joy, like sense in rhyme, 
like lyrics in the plucking of a lyre; 

for this, but also for the body’s own 
relentless, unrepentant want—to feel 
cool water on the brow, to bend and kneel 
within the house where skin and hair and bone 
meet in a smoky, sniffling, crassly real 
desire to live and not to be alone.

Support the Show.

BUY VERSECRAFT MERCH HERE.

Please subscribe, rate, and review! Thanks so much for listening.

You can leave me a tip, support the podcast, or request a commission here!

TikTok: @versecraft
Send me a note at: versecraftpodcast@gmail.com

My favorite poetry podcasts for:
Sharp thoughts and cutting truths (Matthew): Sleerickets
Lovely introspection and sensitive reflection (Alice): Poetry Says
The landscape of Ohioan poetry (Jeremy): Poetry Spotlight

Supported in part by The Ohio Poetry Association
Art by David Anthony Klug

List of the most common metrical feet:
Iamb: weak-STRONG (u /)
Trochee: STRONG-weak (/ u)
Anapest: weak-weak-STRONG (u u /)
Amphibrach: weak-STRONG-weak (u / u)
Dactyl: STRONG-weak-weak (/ u u)
Cretic: STRONG-weak-STRONG (/ u /)
Pyrrhic: weak-weak (u u)
Spondee: STRONG-STRONG (/ /)

Show Notes Transcript

Mea culpa: I forgot to mention that the last line of the poem can also be read in the following sense: desire to LIVE and not merely to EXIST ("be" alone). In this reading, it is the body which allows the soul to actually "live." 

Topics discussed in this episode include: 

-Matthew's podcast, "Sleerickets" 
-The Dantesque pairing of this and the following episode 
-A defense of the "embrace materiality" agenda 
-"Being Human" by C.S. Lewis 
-Literary power couple Matthew and Joanna 
-Alice Allan's podcast "Poetry Says" 
-Dante's Commedia 
-The heavenly soul's desire for their body at the rapture 
-Italian (Petrarchan) sonnets 
-We're enjambin' 
-If you took a shot every time I mentioned Milton, you'd be mildly buzzed sometimes. 
-Le mot juste 
-Quoting Revelations like a Southern Gothic reverend 
-David Cronenberg's "Videodrome" 
-Aspiring beyond the cross 
-Flesh as sartorial joy 
-Anti-Buddhism 
-A sniffling desire? 
-Human touch is next to godliness 

Text of poem: 

Paradiso XIV, 63 

Even in heaven, then, there is desire: 
for resurrection in the appointed time, 
when out of blackened earth new flesh will climb 
beyond the cross of every storm-whipped spire 
into that harmony kept by the choir 
assigned each soul, whose naked pantomime 
clothes itself there in joy, like sense in rhyme, 
like lyrics in the plucking of a lyre; 

for this, but also for the body’s own 
relentless, unrepentant want—to feel 
cool water on the brow, to bend and kneel 
within the house where skin and hair and bone 
meet in a smoky, sniffling, crassly real 
desire to live and not to be alone.

Support the Show.

BUY VERSECRAFT MERCH HERE.

Please subscribe, rate, and review! Thanks so much for listening.

You can leave me a tip, support the podcast, or request a commission here!

TikTok: @versecraft
Send me a note at: versecraftpodcast@gmail.com

My favorite poetry podcasts for:
Sharp thoughts and cutting truths (Matthew): Sleerickets
Lovely introspection and sensitive reflection (Alice): Poetry Says
The landscape of Ohioan poetry (Jeremy): Poetry Spotlight

Supported in part by The Ohio Poetry Association
Art by David Anthony Klug

List of the most common metrical feet:
Iamb: weak-STRONG (u /)
Trochee: STRONG-weak (/ u)
Anapest: weak-weak-STRONG (u u /)
Amphibrach: weak-STRONG-weak (u / u)
Dactyl: STRONG-weak-weak (/ u u)
Cretic: STRONG-weak-STRONG (/ u /)
Pyrrhic: weak-weak (u u)
Spondee: STRONG-STRONG (/ /)

Versecraft Episode 2-4: “Paradiso XIV, 63” by Matthew Buckley Smith

 

Hey everyone, before we begin today I’d just like to remind you that this is the penultimate episode before a short break, and that Versecraft will return in mid-January. As always, thank you so much for listening—if you like the show, please don’t forget to tell at least one friend about it who you think might enjoy it, and, if you’re feeling extra ambitious, a rating or review on Apple Podcasts is always very appreciated. 

On my Robert Hayden episode, I mentioned that the poetry podcast I love most besides my own is “Sleerickets,” by Matthew Buckley Smith. In addition to being a delightful and insightful commentator on all things poetry, Smith is a sensitive and moving poet in his own right, and I’m pleased and excited to share a poem of his with all of you today. As with the Davis and Cunningham episodes, today’s episode is twinned with next week’s episode, both of which feature a hyper-specific theme—in this case, the appeal of embodiment as conceived within the context of Dante’s Divine Comedy. 

To clarify, both poems take a different scene from the Divine Comedy and use it to meditate upon the unique pleasures of living within a human body in a material world, as opposed to existing purely as incorporeal spirit. This may sound similar to the theme of Davis and Cunningham, but whereas those poets approached the problem of material specificity vs. ethereal abstraction in the context of love and relationships, Smith and next week’s poet focus on flesh and materiality as the proper home for the human spirit in a more general, existential sense. In this they reflect the sentiments of Janet Lewis and Carl Dennis that we saw in Episode 6 of Season 1, as well as a charming poem I just rediscovered by C.S. Lewis, which I unfortunately don’t have the space to recite here, entitled “Being Human.” 

            Having chosen so many poems for discussion which revolve around similar themes, you may have begun to suspect that I have an agenda—to an extent this is true, but my agenda is twofold: I do actually think that one of the major problems we face as human beings is a tendency to reject and despise the limited, imperfect, and often frustrating and uncomfortable conditions in which we live, and seek refuge either in escapist fantasies or unrealistic and even dangerous ideals. Poems which work as rhetorical antidotes to this tendency, which wholesomely argue for treasuring our humble, incarnate condition as the essence of what we are, and loving the material world accordingly, therefore have a special spiritual and moral value in my book. 

            Nearly as important as this, however, I think that by focusing on one thematic nexus, a variety of poetic styles, interpretations, and world views can be thrown into edifying contrast. By using the theme “embrace of the material world” as a kind of control, we can profitably see how different minds respond to similar ideas, and compare the fruits of their meditation. 

            All of which brings us back to today’s poem and poet. Matthew Buckley Smith was born in 1982, and so has now, at the tender age of 40, transitioned from being a so-called “emerging poet” to a “young poet,” as he’s cheekily put it. He attended the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University, where he met his wife, the talented poet, writer, and psychiatrist Joanna Pearson, and has gone on to publish two books: “Dirge For An Imaginary World,” which won the 2011 Able Muse Book Award, and his soon to be released collection “Midlife,” which won the 2021 Richard Wilbur Award. He also mantles the best poetry podcast that doesn’t rhyme with “shmersecraft,” so that’s something, though I would be remiss not to also mention his sometime co-host Alice Allen’s podcast “Poetry Says,” which is also excellent. 

            Our poem for today, “Paradiso XIV, 63” comes from Smith’s first collection, and I imagine that he wrote it when he was around my age, a fact which to me at least gives it an extra layer of intrigue. The title of the poem functions as the poem’s epigraph, and in order to understand Smith’s poem it’s necessary to have knowledge of the passage of poetry to which the title refers. The citation in question comes from Dante Alighieri’s epic poem Paradiso, the third in the trilogy of epic poems, following the Inferno and Purgatorio, which comprises the Commedia or Divine Comedy. Specifically, Smith is referring to the 63rd line of the 14th canto of Paradiso, which comes immediately after a host of souls in heaven have spoken to Dante about what will happen when they are reunited with their bodies following the rapture. Let me read, from Allen Mandelbaum’s translation, what happens next, beginning at line 61: 

 

One and the other choir seemed to me
 so quick and keen to say “Amen” that they
 showed clearly how they longed for their dead bodies—

 

not only for themselves, perhaps, but for
 their mothers, fathers, and for others dear
 to them before they were eternal flames.

 

Dante observes that the intense enthusiasm the souls display to be reunited with their bodies shows that even in heaven there is longing, and that for a human soul happiness is not complete until one’s body can experience heaven too. The key line, for Smith and for us, is: Che ben mostrar disio d’i corpi morti: “showed clearly how they longed for their dead bodies.” It is this poignant remark that provides the inspiration for Smith’s poem, which can be seen as a meditative response to and commentary on Dante. The poem goes like this: 

 

Paradiso XIV, 63

 

Even in heaven, then, there is desire:

for resurrection in the appointed time,

when out of blackened earth new flesh will climb

beyond the cross of every storm-whipped spire

into that harmony kept by the choir

assigned each soul, whose naked pantomime

clothes itself there in joy, like sense in rhyme,

like lyrics in the plucking of a lyre;

 

for this, but also for the body’s own

relentless, unrepentant want—to feel

cool water on the brow, to bend and kneel

within the house where skin and hair and bone

meet in a smoky, sniffling, crassly real

desire to live and not to be alone.

 

            At this point in the podcast, we’ve looked at several different variations on the sonnet, but this is the first time we’ve encountered an orthodox Italian sonnet, which we might compare to the orthodox English sonnet I discussed in the Stanley Kunitz episode. The form is of course appropriate to the Italian subject matter, and even more so because Dante often wrote in this form as well. How do we know the sonnet is Italian? Two reasons immediately jump out: the stanzaic division, and the rhyme scheme. The lines are divided into an octet and a sestet, the traditional division for an Italian sonnet, and the fact that there are only two rhyme sounds in the octet rhyme scheme, which runs ABBAABBA, a pattern by the way known as “enclosed rhyme,” and three rhyme sounds in the sestet, CDDCDC, accords with the strict rhyming expectations of this form. 

It’s because Italian sonnets are so demanding in their rhyme scheme, requiring the poet to think of 3-4 words for each of their rhyme sounds, that true Italian sonnets are relatively rare in English, a notoriously rhyme-poor language. When poets do decide to write Italian sonnets in English, it’s very difficult to write ones where the rhymes don’t sound forced—that Smith is able to handle his rhyme scheme so gracefully, have his words fit so naturally, is a testament to his consummate craftsmanship here. 

True to the structure of an Italian sonnet, Smith employs the octet to paint a lyrical description, to set a scene, and then makes a turn, a volta, at the sestet, in this case identified by the words “but also,” to explore a deeper meditation on the situation described. 

Metrically, we are in our standard iambic pentameter, with an anapest in the fourth foot of line 2, an amphibrach in the first foot of line 14, and the occasional trochaic substitution here and there, including in the first foot of the poem, which starts us off on a literally strong note, and indicates Smith’s eagerness to respond to Dante. Most metrically interesting about this poem is how furiously enjambed it is: the last line aside, only the first, second, seventh, and eighth lines do not spill over grammatically into the line that follows. These are the beginning and ending lines of the octet, and they create a kind of stable grammatical border around the frenetic interior. The fact that every other line does enjamb, to say nothing of the fact that the whole sonnet is only one sentence long, creates a breathless, virile through-line of energy to this poem that reminds us of no one so much as the master of enjambment himself, John Milton. 

Because this poem is so heavily enjambed, it’s difficult to break it down into sections without losing the sense of what it’s saying. Therefore, I’m going to start by looking at the entire octet. It reads: 

 

Even in heaven, then, there is desire:

for resurrection in the appointed time,

when out of blackened earth new flesh will climb

beyond the cross of every storm-whipped spire

into that harmony kept by the choir

assigned each soul, whose naked pantomime

clothes itself there in joy, like sense in rhyme,

like lyrics in the plucking of a lyre;

 

Smith begins by baldly stating what Dante has insinuated: even in heaven, there’s desire. Smith goes on to describe the object of this desire: the resurrection of dead bodies, their decayed flesh renewed to health and matched to their immortal souls at the Last Judgement. The third line, “out of the blackened earth new flesh will climb.” is a much richer one than we might initially give it credit for. Let’s start with the brilliant use of the word “blackened,” which in this context is wonderfully ambiguous, and could mean at least three things: firstly, it could refer to decay: as things rot, like teeth or roadkill, they tend to blacken. The bodies are rising out of the blackened earth, transcending the rot and decay of which the soil is made, to begin a new life in heaven. 

However, “Blackened earth” could also refer to how the ground, and not just the ground but planet Earth, are blackened by shadow. In the Book of Revelation 6:12 we read: And I beheld when he had opened the sixth seal, and, lo, there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became as blood. Against all astronomical logic, during the Last Judgement there is a solar and lunar eclipse at once, and the world is thrown into darkness. The bodies, then, are fleeing the blackened earth, soon to be destroyed, for the shining light of heaven. 

Finally, we can read blackened to mean scorched, like a blackened fish taco. In Revelations 8:7 we read: The first angel sounded, and there followed hail and fire mingled with blood, and they were cast upon the earth: and the third part of trees was burnt up, and all green grass was burnt up. With a single adjective, Smith describes the world as decaying, shadow-cast, and burnt. “Blackened” is truly le mot juste, as Flaubert would say, the perfect word in this context. 

We’re not done with this line quite yet though. “Out of the blackened earth, new flesh will climb.” I’m very curious whether Smith has seen David Cronenberg’s film Videodrome, the famous last line of which is “long live the new flesh,” which the main character, played by James Woods, says right before he kills himself in order to gnostically ascend to a higher plane of reality. The phrase “new flesh” is totally appropriate in the context of the rapture, but I can’t help but wonder if it was unconsciously chosen after watching Videodrome or if it was consciously chosen as a sly allusion. The good thing about living poets is that they can give you answers to silly questions like these—maybe I’ll ask him. 

Finally, and more seriously, we read that the new flesh will “climb.” What exactly are they climbing? In most depictions of the rapture, the righteous resurrected float up to heaven. Smith, by contrast, imagines a more physical ordeal. Perhaps he is thinking of the vision of Jacob’s ladder described in Genesis 28, wherein angels climb up and down a ladder to heaven. Perhaps similar ladders are in use here. Alternatively, this could be a case where Smith chose the verb “climb” mostly for the sake of the rhyme scheme—it’s ok if he did, because it adds a strange and thoughtful image which the poem would not otherwise possess. 

In line four, we read that the new flesh are climbing “beyond the cross of every storm-whipped spire.” Church spires of course often have crosses at the top of them, and Smith is describing the ascent of the bodies higher and higher to heaven. The fact however that he says they are ascending beyond the cross loads the description with metaphorical meaning: the cross, which represents the suffering of God, the suffering of the world, has fulfilled its purpose, and now the souls of the righteous are moving beyond it to enjoy eternity. They are also, by extension, moving beyond the church to which the cross is attached—when the world as we know it is over, there is no need for organized religion. The spires are “storm-whipped,” literally by the stormy destruction of the apocalypse, but “whipped” also adds a connotation of penance—the storm is presented as a punishment of sin, which of course it is. 

Once the bodies have ascended to heaven, they are assigned to their respective souls, who dwell in heaven’s choirs. These souls are described as “naked pantomimes,” because their bodies, their fleshly clothes, have been missing, and in the meantime, they can only imitate the forms of their bodies. Once they’ve been reunited with their bodies, each soul “clothes itself there in joy.” The way in which a soul is clothed with a body, which gives it the ability to feel sensations again, is then compared to how the content of a poem may be clothed in rhyme, or clothed in the accompaniment of music, both of which add a delicious sensory element to the words. It’s a beautiful and vivid pair of similes worthy of Dante himself. By showcasing the root of the word lyric in the word lyre, Smith also reminds us of the musical origins of poetry, and perhaps implies that just as a soul is happiest when united with a body, so poetry thrives best when wed to rhythm and rhyme. 

Let’s begin again, and read the poem all the way through:

 

Even in heaven, then, there is desire:

for resurrection in the appointed time,

when out of blackened earth new flesh will climb

beyond the cross of every storm-whipped spire

into that harmony kept by the choir

assigned each soul, whose naked pantomime

clothes itself there in joy, like sense in rhyme,

like lyrics in the plucking of a lyre;

 

for this, but also for the body’s own

relentless, unrepentant want—to feel

cool water on the brow, to bend and kneel

within the house where skin and hair and bone

meet in a smoky, sniffling, crassly real

desire to live and not to be alone.

 

            In the sestet, Smith complicates his argument: Yes, the souls in heaven desire God’s plan to come to fruition for its own sake, but they also have a more selfish motive: they long to be reunited with their body so that they can feel its “relentless, unrepentant want.” This is what you might think of as the opposite of Buddhism: the enlightened souls in heaven wish to have bodies again so that they can feel once more what it means to desire, what it means to appreciate and hunger for sensation; they wish, like God in the personage of Jesus, to become incarnate. They wish to feel “cool water on the brow,” an image which serves as a synecdoche for all kinds of sensory pleasure. This is reminiscent of the C.S. Lewis poem I mentioned, where Lewis says: “but never an angel knows…. the blessed cool at every pore caressing us. An angel has no skin.” The heavenly souls desire to be able to “bend and kneel” within the house of their bodies, a prayer-like motion that seems to imply that worship cannot be complete without a body, that having a body allows one to appreciate and praise creation more than one could otherwise. 

            In the last three lines, we seem to have a bit of problem: Smith says that “skin and hair and bone/ meet in a smoky, sniffling, crassly real/desire to live and not to be alone.” The choice of imagery is effective— Smith, a one-time avid smoker, adds a personal touch by describing the body as smoky; “sniffling” captures the visceral activity of feeling one’s bodily fluids in bodily canals, and the word “crass” which is etymologically related to the words “gross,” and “grease,” captures the disgust we sometimes feel with our physical bodies which seem so crude compared to our minds, but which are in fact wondrous and intricate blessings essential to our experience. 

            So where is the problem? The problem lies in the fact that these adjectives are not actually qualifying the word “body,” but the word “desire.” How can a desire be smoky or sniffling? Simply put, I don’t think it can, and I think this may be the one slip I detect in an otherwise stunning poem. 

            We end strongly, in typical Matthew Buckley Smith style, with a stab of pathos: the body’s desire to live and not to be alone. Already we have seen that the soul feels lonely without its body—but with its body, it feels the more instinctive need for human touch, human affection. This calls back to the Dante we read at the beginning: the souls longed for their bodies, “not only for themselves, perhaps, but for/their mothers, fathers, and for others dear/to them before they were eternal flames.” Even in heaven it seems, there is no substitute for hugging the ones you love, no substitute, not even the face of God, for seeing the faces of your friends. Materiality is shown not merely to be essential to the human experience, but essential to love itself, and if God is love, materiality is as much an aspect of His glory as heaven itself. 

With all that we’ve learned and explored, let’s read through the poem one last time, as an old friend: 

 

Paradiso XIV, 63

 

Even in heaven, then, there is desire:

for resurrection in the appointed time,

when out of blackened earth new flesh will climb

beyond the cross of every storm-whipped spire

into that harmony kept by the choir

assigned each soul, whose naked pantomime

clothes itself there in joy, like sense in rhyme,

like lyrics in the plucking of a lyre;

 

for this, but also for the body’s own

relentless, unrepentant want—to feel

cool water on the brow, to bend and kneel

within the house where skin and hair and bone

meet in a smoky, sniffling, crassly real

desire to live and not to be alone.