Ravenna Diagram, Henry Gould, Dos Madres, 2018, ISBN 978-1-939929-92-1, $25.00
Henry Gould’s Ravenna Diagram is, to quote the introduction,
‘a long poem which follows in the vein of ‘Leaves of Grass,’ ‘The Bridge,’ ‘Paterson,’ ‘The Cantos,’ ‘A,’ and ‘The Maximus Poems.’ It is an attempt to come to new terms with old epic and visionary traditions, epitomized by Dante and Milton, and carried on by Hart Crane, H.D., Louis Zukofsky, Jay Wright and others. The poet aims to take up the primordial challenge of bridging heaven and earth, the spiritual and temporal, in a new voice. There is a special affinity with the Acmeist movement of Russian poetry and Osip Mandelstam—tracing to Dante, toward the end of his life, in Ravenna, completing his Divina Commedia under the clear shadows of Eastern Orthodox mosaics. But this is an American poem, and a work-in-progress—juxtaposing Dante’s spiritual “vertical” with the vast “horizontal” of colloquial, pilgrim American time and space.’
Well, there’s an ambitions statement of intent, if ever you saw one.
Unlike most of his cited American antecedents, Gould’s method is formalist, with the poems in this 400+ page series being written in quatrains, mostly seven quatrains per poem, but with some of 14 or 21, and an occasional aberration from the rule of seven. For the most part, the quatrains rhyme, more or less fully, ABBA, although again this is fluid. In fact, fluid is an apt enough adjective for Gould’s formalism.
Metrical variation is also the order of the day, with a disjointed syntax driving line length and stress patterns, including lots of cross-line and cross-stanza enjambment. The result is a rich, sometimes challenging, always delightful verbal music. A typical passage, if such a thing exists, might go like this, from about a third of the way in:
……………………….. This great nation
that wum nursed wim fingerpainting
– “Dang George’s fault – that bad,
mad King – we all been had!” –
squished into gouache, wid fingerpointing.
Like a rain-map by John the Daubist
lost tramp-vein – 50 states list
Gould’s wordplay reads like a cross between late Joyce and even later Zukofsky, and is in deadly earnest, like all good fun. Puns and other verbal echoes serve to weave themes and motifs into each other, as in this early passage:
A sort of green eye on Green
Island (bordered by sand
and ocean). Unmanned
bee, beneath ziggurat (unseen,
see) – this mound (sounding beyond
Ursa Minor). By Jimini!
(cracked the barrelly,
garrulous wheedler) – yer mind?
– ‘s gone!
Where images of America as both Dante’s Eden transplanted weave into Old World splendours, with ziggurat and mound representing a continuity of habitation with hints of the funerary, where we shall unmanned be(e) under the eye(land) of the green-eyed god. And one of the poem’s great figures, Ezra Pound, sneaks in the door (the truncated stanza at the end contains a reference to Cathay).
In fact, Pound is an almost ever-present presence, frequently paired with Apollinaire, whose name suggests an Apollonian counterpoint to Ezra’s Bacchanalian madness. Of course, in Gould’s fluidity, nothing remains the same, and at almost the exact mid-point they swap roles, when on facing pages (210/211) we read ‘Apollinaire’s//the latest Dionysus’ and Pound’s Apollonian, paradisiacal ‘Don’t move,/let the wind speak’.
These poets are just one among the poems multiple pairings, axes on the graph that plots ‘heaven and earth, the spiritual and temporal’. Another such pairing is Dante and Henry, the latter being the poet himself, John Berryman’s anti-hero and Dante’s great failed hope, the emperor Henry VII, whose ‘rocky throne/stands empty now’, as does his golden one in Dante’s vision.
Another crucial pairing starts with a cousin glimpsed in childhood via some old Super-8 film:
you hop off the see-saw, Juliet
sans warning – take me by surprise.
I land on my little ass
Whose suicide by drowning links her to Hart Crane, and whose proximity to a ‘brilliant golden spider’ pairs her with another recurring figure, Ariadne/Arachne, weaver goddess and wife of Bacchus, as it happens, and so round we go, all things connected.
An inchworm dangles calmly
from green thread; she
might be Ariadne’s cousin, gone
At the heart of Gould’s explorations is an imminent move from Providence, where he lived for many years, back to his home town of Minneapolis. This pulls together an interest in American place names as marker of the disjoint between the world views of the First Peoples and the Christian settlers, the latter sometimes lending names that reflected their utopian projects, sometimes borrowing the older names, and sometimes, as In Minneapolis (the town of water) combining the two.
And the two cities have much in common. Both live on and by water and both were established by a process of fair dealing with the aboriginal inhabitants. Indeed, Roger Williams, the religious free-thinker who established Providence is among Gould’s heroes, again often paired with Coke and Blackstone, jurists, in a distinctly Pounding grounding of the ideal city in the rule of law.
immaculate origin of Providence.
I see her hero stepping through the gate
of stone, one hand held out
on a wave of love. Light
scout, scouring the root of hate –
defanging that lamprey of predatory
malice, hostile cruelty –
injustice clamped on history.
With Coke & Blackstone whispers: Now be free.
There are a lot more threads that run through this weave: The figure of Olson’s Maximus; the Old Testament and Jewishness; the goddess Isis (with attendant, more recent echoes); Venn diagrams and catenary curves; Eeyore; the Matter of Britain and matters of Ireland. There is one remaining pairing that remains absolutely central; the raven, bird of ill omen, whose name echoes Ravenna and whose symbolism includes the picking over of dead bodies, and its complement, the dove, bird of peace. These are Noah’s birds, harbingers of the promised land, whose physical manifestation is repeatedly the American landscape:
The soft Bruegelish colors here
at India Point, at the end
of October. Moist diamond
apex of the bay, calm mirror
of gray sky… jade, orange.
Moss, oak leaves, quiet
water. Still boats, nets.
Strange silver vortex…
The dove recalls, memory being key to all things, Cavalcanti’s great canzone ‘Donna me prega’, with its insistence that love resides ‘dove sta memoria’, where memory is.
And so, we return to Cavalcanti’s friend Dante in Ravenna, hell and purgatory behind him and heaven almost completed, building to the great final silence:
A l’alta fantasia qui mancò possa;
ma già volgeva il mio disio e ’l velle,
sì come rota ch’igualmente è mossa,
l’amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle.
In the love that moves everything, which is also the final goal of Gould’s extraordinary poem, driven by memories of a dead cousin, Juliet, by Pound’s prompting to make things cohere, by the riven, unfinished history of America, a vision of justice not fully achieved, Ravenna Diagram finds a resolution. Unlike the Cantos or Maximus, and Like ‘A’, this is not an open-ended epic. But unlike Zukofsky, Gould does not close with a grand chorale, but on a quieter, but no less satisfying note:
The King of Milk is by the riverside.
He washes memories
like Papa’s hand – a breeze
murmuring. Everything’s OK. I sighed.
A child is comforted. The Earth
will be. Like Magdalen
or Beatrice – when the sun
colors a morning cave (in Nazareth).