Divine Comedy: Journeys Through a Regional Geography: Three New Works, John Kinsella, WW Norton
A review of John Kinsella’s Divine Comedy could easily consist of four words: you must read this. Or, perhaps two words would suit—words that Kinsella himself uses in a poem in the book, Dream Canto: Cross on the Hill:
Wedged into granite, the cross on Wongborel
is Easter’s singularity—a one-cross Calvary
for ecumenical sublimity, the degrees of observation
increased by lessening, quickening trees.
The words I refer to are “ecumenical sublimity”: words that, particularly when joined together in a phrase, describe the volume’s aggregate tone, the way its broad reach and massive goals are realized through Kinsella’s careful attention to detail and painstakingly controlled ecstasies.
I have spent the last two months with this book, and have gone through numerous revisions of this review. After the first handful of pages, everything I say with the intent of convincing you to read Divine Comedy becomes a mere reiteration of Kinsella’s own words, for, as a poet-critic, Kinsella has written a book that contains both arts.
In argument’s stead, I want to tell you what Kinsella’s volume told me about itself. It is neither a translation nor a rehashing of the Dante: Kinsella calls it “a distraction” on Dante’s texts. Several of Kinsella’s cantos reference Dante’s (not to mention the canticles and the overall project themselves), and while, as the poet writes, his book is not written in terza rima, it is largely comprised of tercets and remains generally faithful to Dante’s structure. But Kinsella’s Divine Comedy is “not necessarily confined” to its namesake: as the poet writes, it is meant to be “paralleled with and read against” the Dante.
With, and against. Each canticle is preceded by a preface, in which the poet details the origins, the method, and some of the labor behind his work, including both the theoretical and the nitty-gritty. In the preface to his Purgatorio—which is where we begin, for Kinsella does not travel in Dante’s order—Kinsella writes that he believes we permanently reside in a state of purgatory. In a manner analogous, but far from identical, to the way Dante follows Virgil through hell and purgatory and then follows Beatrice to heaven, we follow Kinsella through Purgatorio, then to Paradiso, and last to Inferno.
In Purgatorio, Kinsella deals with how tethered and linked we are to the land, and we start to notice the significance of the many birds—creatures that deal in both sky and earth—that appear in the volume. In Paradiso, he presents a driven attempt to achieve some form of sublime ecstasy, while complicating that attempt with a straightforward admission: “Celestial bliss is not an option: we’ve got responsibilities to the land,” he writes. An effort to struggle toward paradise leads Kinsella and his speakers toward hell, a movement that is also complicated by yet another admission when he writes, “I do not like Dante’s Inferno.” He continues:
I do not like his judgments nor punishments. Its grotesqueries are not adequately deconstructive in terms of the self, and Virgil seems too relieved that this, at least, is not his lot. It’s a smug work. For me, hell is what we live with, and each of these grotesqueries, as maybe Dante would agree, lives with us here and now.
Kinsella’s book emerges as the embodiment of a struggle to exist on a day-to-day basis, nestled in purgatory along with hell, our minds fixed on paradise. Marjorie Perloff writes that the volume “marks no ascent from Inferno to Purgatorio to Paradiso.” Yet, Kinsella’s book does have a motion. Entrenched in land, it wavers between skies and depths; while not an ascent, it is certainly not still. It is more of a fraught trembling: a poet’s response to string theory.
It is no surprise that Kinsella calls upon Derrida. A poem in Inferno names and deals with Derrida and Dante in tandem, and Derrida’s “différance” is mentioned in Purgatorio. Différance emerges in the poem Dream Canto: Torch Bearing:
I am out and about in a clear but dark night,
torch in hand, shining into the tree-tops;
beam weak enough not to alarm
roosting birds too much—I am seeking
out the epistemological ambiguity of owls
and tawny frogmouths, as if différance
were my own words fragmented as flashes
and twinges of branches, leaves, claws, feathers.
In Divine Comedy, Kinsella’s “own words,” his speakers’ words, actively play with différance, with the verbs to defer and to differ, with “epistemological ambiguity.” More still, Kinsella demonstrates that he is aware, as Derrida was, of the disturbance that words cause: he knows that he will inevitably “alarm” the “roosting birds,” so he tries instead not to rustle them “too much.”
One of Divine Comedy’s most astonishing feats is its utter lack of pretension. It is self-conscious in the best sense of the word: it does not gesture frantically at his own theoretical, historical, and canonical foundation. Its verse is graceful. Its poems do not groan under their weight. It does not strain to sound intelligent. The book simply is intelligent. Further, the self-analytical work that the poet performs in the prefaces enhances the volume, adding an additional layer of artistry. And, simultaneously, Kinsella keeps a sharp eye to culture: The Kinks’ song “Lola” makes an appearance, as do Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head. Neither of these moves—or the many similar ones, for that matter—feel contrived: Kinsella on Derrida is as matter-of-factly elegant as Kinsella on pop culture. Cantos of “weirdos,” “heebie-jeebies,” “velintroquizing,” and “antipodean emergence ” share equal prominence, with ease.
One moment in Divine Comedy strikes me as weak. The poem Canto of Ghosts: The Indolent in Purgatorio begins with the clause, “Ghosts fuck with my head / like clichés,” and I find myself seeking some different opening remark. It is not the expletive that bothers me, for this is not the only time an expletive appears in Divine Comedy—see the Canto of Shit (Eighth circle, second bolgia, 18) in Inferno—but rather its position in this particular poem. The word “fuck” is caustic, a jolt of acid, and I wonder whether it may have been more effective if it were placed later in the poem, where it would have startled the reader out of any possible complacency. Instead, Kinsella warns me that I am about to be jarred, and in doing so, dampens the effect of the word.
I am beginning to reach that point in this review where there is very little else to say. Kinsella has not only given us a spectacular book of poetry, but also a solid critical work. I could tell you about how Kinsella inhabited a small sliver of Australia during the creation of Divine Comedy, and about the impact he says this had on his book. I could tell you that Kinsella includes more than one dedication to his wife, who he mentions in several poems as well, and that he seems to contemplate her relationship to Dante’s Beatrice. I could tell you what I think about the fact that while the last word in each of the sections of Dante’s Divine Comedy is “stars,” Kinsella ends his Purgatorio with “stars,” his Paradiso with “future,” and his Inferno with “inseparable.”
Instead, having given you a selection of a poem from Kinsella’s Purgatorio, I will leave you now with two selections from two other poems, one from his Paradiso, one from his Inferno, selections that are among my favorite moments in each. From Canto of the Consensus (22: Ascent from Saturn to the Fixed Stars), in Paradiso, beginning in the first stanza:
Recall: light of day, our limelight,
no peace or armistice, just difference.
Branch and hessian fortress,
clods of clay thrown
without mercy. No prisoners.
War comics, tales of the Apache
in landscape bare as the eye
can make, fearless. Victors. Unread,
they fell at our feet.
And, from of Echoing Canto of the Gleaners (Sixth Circle), in Inferno, beginning in the penultimate stanza:
. . . . Fanning
out, gleaning elsewhere in the stubble, galahs
and corellas protract windrows: they
don’t walk paths laid out for harvest, picking
wherever chaos has showered grain, gleaning
against the system, which would pick every ear
clean if it were perfected.
Sumita Chakraborty is the assistant poetry editor of AGNI Magazine and a graduate of Wellesley College. She writes poems and critical essays, and has worked with Lucie Brock-Broido, Frank Bidart, and Dan Chiasson. Her poems have recently been published in or are forthcoming from BOXCAR Poetry Review, White Whale Review, and Muddy River Poetry Review.