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Philip Terry

An excerpt from Dante's Purgatorio


Philip Terry was born in Belfast and is a poet, translator, and writer of fiction. He has translated the work of Georges Perec, Michèle Métail, and Raymond Queneau, and is the author of the novel tapestry, shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize. His poetry and experimental translations include Oulipoems, Dante’s Inferno, and Dictator, a version of the Epic of Gilgamesh in Globish. The Penguin Book of Oulipo, which he edited, was published in Penguin Modern Classics in 2020, and Carcanet published his edition of Jean-Luc Champerret’s The Lascaux Notebooks, the first-ever anthology of Ice Age poetry, in April 2022. His book Dante's Purgatorio will be out on 31st October 2024 from Carcanet. His book From From (Pamenar Press, 2020) includes Philip's essays on poetry and poetics.




DANTE’S PURGATORIO CANTO XXII

 

We’d already left the Alp Angel behind us,

The guide who had shown us to the sixth terrace –

He’d added a stamp to my card,

 

Then told us to look out for those who thirst

After the good, stressing the thirst, and all this he

Did so swiftly there’d barely been time to thank him –

 

When I, feeling lighter than at the other openings,

Went on with a surer tread, so that without effort now

I was keeping track with the swift spirits as they climbed.

 

Now, Berrigan was already speaking: “Love,

Kindled by beauty, always kindles more love,

If the flame burns bright,

 

And so, ever since the day that Tom Raworth

Came down to Hell’s Limbo to join us,

Telling me of your great regard for my writing,

 

I have felt nothing but good will towards you, more than

I’ve felt for any poet I hadn’t met, and so

This tedious climb will now seem much shorter.

 

But tell me – let’s cut the formalities,

Speak to me as you might to an old friend,

And forgive me if I speak too boldly –

 

How on Earth could your heart find room for greed,

For your poetry is full only of wit

                                                    and good sense?”

At these words Atkins let a brief smile play

Over his lips, and fade.  Then he replied:

“I’m touched by everything you say.

 

Buddhism has taught me that appearances

Will often cause people to jump to strange

Conclusions, when the truth lies elsewhere.

 

By your question I’m guessing that you think

That on Earth I was marked by that greed which

Instills itself in the heart of every consumer, 

 

Leaving them constantly lusting for greater material wealth.

As you say in ‘Rusty Nails’: ‘We are drawn to shit because

We are imperfect in our uses of the good.’

 

Well, it’s not surprising, given where you found me,

But in truth, if I had a fault it was

Not giving a shit about money.

 

If anything, I was a good old-fashioned spendthrift,

Especially when it came to books and CDs and vinyl.

Know then, I ended up on this terrace

 

Among these souls who weep for avarice

Because my fault was the opposite of theirs.

It’s one of the strange laws of the mountain

 

And you don’t need to have to read Derrida

To understand it – when any inclination is the rebuttal

Of its opposite, the two of them wither together here.”

 


“Now, when you sang about the bitter love

Of Petrarch, or versioned Horace’s odes,”

The bard of Many Happy Returns said to him,

 

“I see no trace of that fruit which you so

Openly profess now – so tell me, what

Heavenly sun or what Earthly beam lit up your

 

Course so that you could set sail behind the Buddha?”

Atkins said: “It  was through your work, and more

Generally that of the New York School,

 

That I first started writing poetry –

My Twenty-five Sonnets comes straight out of that drawer.

It was the same school that showed me the path to Buddhism.

 

You can hardly deny that your own work,

For all its apparent personalism,

Ultimately rests on an aesthetic of impersonality,

 

Where the self is dissolved in the vertigo

Of borrowed and recycled texts which are

Forever reborn in different forms.

 

It’s more about the method than anything else,

And the same is true of my own poetry –

My favourite sequence in Petrarch is the

 

Series of poems where words are progressively

Replaced by their definitions – this was

Liberating for me as I had no part in it as ego.

 


But tell me, how come you’re familiar with

My work – most of it, no, all of it, appeared

After you death in 1983 was it?”

 

To which Berrigan replied: “We’re not barred

Reading material in Limbo – there’s no ‘book ban’ 

Which gives it the edge over the British penal system –

 

In fact we have quite a good library down there,

And if a book’s not in stock there’s an

Excellent inter-library loan service.

 

Still, I find it strange that you took

Religious inspiration from my work.”

“You’re forgetting how attuned you were to the zeitgeist,”

 

Said Atkins.  “You were the lonely traveller in the dark

Who held his torch out behind him, casting a beam of light,

Not for his own benefit, but to teach others;

 

For even if you avoided adherence

To any faith yourself beyond your pills,

Preferring like Keats to live in doubt and

 

Uncertainty, your words pointed the way

To your disciples, you even said it straight out,

This one even you can’t deny, in your

 

‘Three Sonnets and a Coda for Tom Clark’:

‘Being a new day my heart

Is confirmed in its pure Buddhahood.’”

 


Realising that here was a poet

Who had read Berrigan’s work more closely

Than he had himself, for once Berrigan shut up.

 

Then, after a pause, Atkins resumed: “Now,

Please tell me, you who removed the veil

That once hid from me the good I sing,

 

Tell me, while there is still some way to climb,

Where is our ancient Horace, do you know?

And Petrarch, and Celan, and Akhmatova?

 

Have they been damned?  If so, where are they lodged?”

“They all, along with Dorn and me

And others,” said my guide, “are with that American

 

The muses suckled more that all the rest,

In the First Zone of the Infernal Campus.

We often fantasise about the mountain

 

Slope where our nine muses hang out.

Hawkins walks with us, whose work you know,

Lopez and Barnett are there too, as well as

 

Corcoran, who wrote Helen Mania, and

Others who have taken inspiration from Greece.

With us are many of your New York School too:

 

O’Hara, Ron Padgett, Clark Coolidge,

Bernadette Mayer, sad as she has ever been,

And he who showed Brainard to the French.

 


Of the others you might know, too many to name,

There’s Marjorie Perloff, and her daughter Nancy,

And Antonia Byatt, with her sister too.”

 

The poets now were at the top of the stairs,

And both of them stood in silence on the ledge,

Eager once more to gaze out at everything.

 

Then Berrigan said: “I think we ought to shift,

Keeping our right shoulders to the outside edge,

The way we always have done round this Essex Alp.”

 

So, habit was our guide now, and we went on

Our way with much less hesitation than before,

Since Atkins gave us the go-ahead.

 

Berrigan and Atkins strode ahead and I followed

Close behind, paying close attention to their words,

As they discussed the secrets of their art.

 

Atkins talked about the different methods

Of translation he employed, citing Oulipo

And the work of Douglas Barbour and Stephen Scobie,

 

Berrigan, for his part, talked about how much

He had learnt from New York collage artists,

How this had given him the courage to

 

Cut up and mix different texts to the point where

He had no idea where his own lines came from.

At which point Atkins began to talk about

 


The time some friends had presented him with some lines

Of verse and quizzed him about their authorship.  The lines,

It turned out, were his own, but he hadn’t recognised them.

 

“A good line of poetry, he said, “is never

Personal, if it works, it just takes its place in the

Indistinguishable mass of poetry in the world.”

 

Then, right in the middle of the path, a tree appeared,

Laden with fruit whose sticky perfume filled the air,

And suddenly that poetry talk was cut short.

 

Just as a fir tree tapers towards the top, so

This one tapered down, like an inverted Christmas tree,

To stop the souls from climbing, I guess.

 

On that side where our way was bounded poured

Clear water from an outlet in the rock,

Sprinkling the topmost branches in a cascade.

 

As the two poets drew close, there came a mechanical voice

That barked at us from within the tree:

This fruit and this water are out of bounds!

 

Then the voice ground to a halt as if the mechanism

Had failed, before starting up again – bdzzzzzzzzrrrkk!

And repeating what it had said already.

 

“I don’t think this exhibit is working

As it should be,” said Berrigan, “let’s see if the

Guidebook offers any illumination.”

 


He leafed through the pages, adjusting his

Spectacles, then read out the following

Passage: “After a gentle stroll along

 

The sixth terrace, the visitor will encounter

The unmistakable ‘Fountain Tree’, unique

To the British Isles.  It is not upside down, as it

 

Appears at first sight, but has a vertical branch

Growth pattern which increases in girth as the tree

Increases in height.  The first visitors to the

 

Terrace would have been greeted by recorded voices

Extolling the virtues of abstinence, exemplified

By the stories of Mary, Daniel, and John the Baptist,

 

Who subsisted on a diet of locusts and honey.

This feature has been removed until further notice.

The management accepts no responsibility

 

For those who adopt these figures as role models.”



Philip Terry, photo credit: Alexander Kell

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