Ravenna Diagram III by Henry Gould: A Review

Ravenna Diagram III, Henry Gould, Dos Madres, 2020, ISBN 978-1-948017-90-9, $30.00

And so we reach paradise, or do we? Gould’s epic of American history reaches its final leg, with the Hobo Henry navigating a diagram comprised of multiple binary pairs that are, for the most part, familiar from the two earlier volumes (reviewed here and here. In this review I will refer to but not spell out formal and thematic aspects of Ravenna Diagram already covered in those reviews, so it might be helpful to skim them first): Roger Williams/Cautantowwit; Pound/Apollinaire; Providence/Minnesota; Pilgrims/Native Americans and so on. As ever, the poem’s trajectory is to find a dynamic balance between these opposites; this is Gould’s Eden.

But what is love’s binary? The answer comes early:

Eleven years later (1862)

starved, dispossessed

the scar broke open (led

by blue, reluctant Little Crow).

 

Extermination of the buffalo

echoed the reservation

camp.  To build a nation

all these savages must go.

Followed a few pages later by a poem that commemorates Martin Luther King on the 50th anniversary of his assassination. These reminders that the Shining City on a Hill was built on the back of genocide and slavery, that Roger Williams’s vision of justice tempered by love ran into the hard , cold reality of dehumanisation, is the measure of the work the poem has to do to achieve some kind of paradisiacal vision. Watching the news reports from Minneapolis as I read this book makes me think it’s a near-impossible task.

A further complication is that this volume was composed during the racist-encouraging Trump presidency, a circumstance that finds its way into the poem:

the fatal, dominant thug belongs

                   *

to us.  Chief executive,

or executioner?

Headsman (for our

gentler Republic)?  How can we live

  

in a democracy, ruled by despot?

We cannot.  Our choice

is clear, as once we faced

when Lincoln gave it voice – the violet



is trodden underfoot by hate.

Meanwhile, Hobo Henry trails around the States in search of glimpses of paradise:


The iconoclast in his canoe

oars his poetry

(defying gravity)

upstream.  I’m following you,

 

he murmurs, to the light

behind his back.  One

source-vibration

senses waves out of her tight

 

spring, jetting toward the Delta.

The canoe echoing Dante’s ‘piccioletta barca’ becomes, a few pages later is further conflated with the Isis guiding the sun-boat:

Hobo sleeps in his Isis-canoe.

On the ridge, Henry

drove toward glory –

the poet’s reward.  Onward he flew.

Which inevitably leads to the conflation of Hobo and Osiris, the sacrificed fertility god whose story prefigures much of the Christian mythos:

Henry’s buried north of Pig’s Eye

inside an Erica-tree.

Come back for you & me,

someday.  Maybe.  I don’t know why.

 

He’s Osiris, in a hoary

Hobo boot.  Isis

is us.  She’s

barely there (yesterday’s story).

This interweaving of poetic and mythic is typical of Gould’s method and shows, again, his debt to Pound. The vision of justice tempered by love is to be approached by all and every route available to the poet, and is to be inclusive, not exclusive.

Another key element in Gould’s approach in this final volume is the introduction of Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise, a pair of doors for the Baptistry of the Duomo in Dante’s native Florence. One key factor here is that Ghiberti’s narrative in the ten panels of the doors is framed by two exemplars of justice; at the beginning he places the story of Adam and Eve and at the end the testing of the wisdom of King Solomon by Queen Sheba. In between, in one of the other panels Ghiberti illustrates the story of Jacob and Esau, a tale that has particular relevance for the betrayal of trust inflicted by the European settlers on the native inhabitants of the Americas. And this golden gate folds into another with personal resonance for the poet:

The turning year brings its anniversaries.

Sunken ships in the harbor.

My fleeting image of an arbor

green on the slope at Golden Gate – Julie’s

 

last day (her father Jim’s birthday).

Today the sun glistens

as if through Temple linens;

pearl beyond pricemerciful Gateway

I think it’s also relevant that that the doors were not originally calls the Gates of Paradise, but this name was given to them by Michelangelo, not because of what they depict but on account of their beauty.

The distinct end of poetry is beauty.

& beauty is wholenessradiance

& harmony, per Stephen Dedalus

– out of Aquinas (Aristotle too, maybe).

 

Beauty, rounding on itself… dimensional

& resonant.  Unlike the trodden

thoroughfare of explanation,

abstraction (utilitarian, impersonal)

 

& then Truth stands there, facing you –

smiling, breathing!

And as we move deeper into volume III, beauty moves more and more to the foreground, specifically the linguistic beauty of verse. Gould’s wordplay as discussed in my earlier reviews intensifies so that his writing approaches ever nearer to the condition of music:

A fresh breeze brings the May-month in.

The sisters ring their double wreath.

The young hawthorn on Fisher St.

is blooming pink.  The almond

 

in her dark eyes glows, her smile

of Sheba-Shekinah… the lady

of the Song of Songs (spry

tree of Galilee, in Rhody Isle).

It’s a tight, fugal music where local detail plays out the major themes that run through all three volumes of the poem, the binary themes interweaving as the sisters weave their wreath. This short passage, from the final poem, the approach to the end, exemplifies Gould’s method. The alliteration of ‘breeze brings the May-month’ is the obvious note, but other patterns play against it, for instance the alternation of short and long vowels in that first line, the repeated ‘in’ sound and eye rhymes (‘in’, ‘ring’, ‘pink’, ‘in’, ‘Shekinah’, ‘in’) disrupted by the near rhymes of ‘Song of Songs’. These twinned and twined sounds enact the juxtapositions of, say, the virginal almond, the sign of Cousin Juliet, with the knowing Sheba, who in turn is contrasted with Shekinah, the divine against the profane, while Galilee and Rhode Island are conflated explicitly. And the whole passage is infused with images of fertility, from the Fisher King to the spry tree. The writing does not describe the necessary process of balance, it enacts it.

Which leads to the point of Gould’s paradise, which is that it’s not elsewhere. The journey ends, fittingly, on May Day, saturated in images of new life, with, at its centre, the child in her domestic, American basilica, pointing to the one person who can make the dream a reality:

Everything spins in the green matrix.

Liberty & justice, equity

& equilibrium… an origami

fold of love & intellect – deep Genetrix

 

a whirl of fiery faery feet – Elohim

twirling on galactic rim

with ocarina Jonah-hum,

to glaze the grail-stone with her hymn.

 

Sophie was making rivers on the patio,

& found a black-brown woolly bear –

small furry embryonic caterpillar

searching for a leaf to call ground zero.

 

Henry was looking for an oak-bole too.

At end of May, at Pentecost,

on Dante’s birthday, JFK’s… lost

Restoration RI zone?  Hagia Sophia? – YOU.

Ravenna Diagram is a unique achievement, an essential addition to the canon of the American Epic. You’re not going to read anything else quite like it, not this year, not next, not ever.