Edited by Barry Kitterman | Andrea Spofford | Amy Wright
Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness.
Who is not at some time a dream of oneself and nothing more?
The litany in hell is weeping, saith Dante, Dante saith, as he travels through hell.
Again is again. The copulative verb as the hellish equation.
Reciprocity such a curious law. Sometimes a τελος, an end proper to the cause that preceded it—as in one’s eternal punishment for choices made in time. Sometimes a motion that cannot but be met by a similar motion. As above, so below. And sometimes a motion becomes a notion, and a thought transforms into image, or an image into thought, as Dryope turns into a tree, and her child plays in the shadow of thought beneath her.
Sometimes the mind can’t help itself.
“Love, that exempts no one beloved from loving,” is how Francesca describes the mortal predicament that in hell has left her buffeted by winds in an “infernal hurricane that never rests,” whose howling gale is overblown by the wailing laments of the damned. The souls damned for carnal lusts, like swallows that once taken to wing will never touch the ground again again, stay up in the air, blown through abyss, afloat in nothing, driven by intolerable winds that are no more than the hellish magnifications of their once blissful sighs.
Come dove, and speak to me. Come thrush. Come nightingale. Come swallow. Come and speak.
Keats writes in a letter: “The fifth canto of Dante pleases me more and more. It is that one in which he meets with Paulo and Francesca. I had passed many days in rather a low state of mind and in the midst of them I dreamt of being in that region of Hell. The dream was one of the most delightful enjoyments I ever had in my life. I floated about the whirling atmosphere as it is described with a beautiful figure to whose lips mine were joined as it seem’d for an age, and in the midst of all this cold and darkness I was warm. Even flowery tree tops sprung up and we rested on them sometimes with the lightness of a cloud till the wind blew us away again.”
Thou art a dreaming thing, a fever of thyself, says the goddess, to the man awake only in his dream.
Francesca explains to Dante how she came to commit her sin with the brother of her husband. She and Paulo were reading for their delight of Lancelot, and love so overcame him, reading about love, that he closed his eyes and kissed her on the mouth. Keats reads of Francesca reading of Lancelot and closes his eyes and dreams of a kiss that makes of hell a heaven where the flower-trees make a brief nest for the lovers who from their loving cannot cease.
Sometimes the notion becomes a motion. Sometimes the mind asks the sparrow to sing for me. Sing for me.
Sometimes I can’t help myself.
Keats begins his afterlife while still living this one. “I have an habitual feeling of my real life having past, and that I am leading a posthumous existence.” He is dying in Rome. He did not bring his beloved Dante with him. Both are exiles, I guess. He will not open the letters the woman he loves sends him. Later they will be wrapped in the shroud in which he will be buried, never to be read, but forever near, next his skin, if not upon his lips. Again is again. He wakes from a troubled, fevered sleep, and speaks out to Severn, the friend caring for him: “How long is this posthumous life of mine to last?”
Francesca says to Dante:
There is no greater sorrow
Than to be mindful of the happy time
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, from whose translation I quote, repeated these lines often, remembering his wife who died in the fire that burned to ash much of his house while the poet worked on translating hell. “There is no greater sorrow . . .”
On which point, I think, John Keats would agree. Having woken up so often, feverish, remembering.
Not every hell is a dismal hole. You can visit other versions more easily. Just walk up the museum steps. You need no Virgil, just the gallery map. Go past the shepherds in the green fields. Past each Christ on the walls. Past the babies tumbling down a grotto like a river made of birth itself. Past Achilles’ shield made of crayon and oil and pencil marks. There you will find my favorite hell, made of glass, so shyly reflective, you look through yourself as you look through it, a bride hovering in the air, and below her, the bachelors who after her lust, hovering in nothing, too.
A “delay in glass,” Duchamp calls it. Kind of like one line of poetry taken out from the whole poem, if only you could see the whole poem through the single line. Like only if it didn’t take time to read from first word to last. Like only if grammar were an instant revelation, like light, in the eye.
Sometimes the mind can’t be helped.
Marcel Duchamp spent eight years working on The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even. He never finished it. Composed with lead wire and foil between two large panes of glass, Duchamp let time itself color the work, leaving it in an attic where the dust gathered on it over many months. Man Ray’s photograph looks like a document made of a lost civilization, of Atlantis perhaps, if rather than by ocean, the world had been drowned in dust.
The same collaborator keeps drawing on our faces lines we have not asked to be etched, lines which we can see if, ignoring the museum guards, you get close enough to the glass to see in the glare of the pane your own face looking. Then you see yourself seeing in ways in which you never hear yourself hear. Sure, there’s echoes in the art-cave. But the syllables keep going away, slipping past the delay that sends the words back our way.
The top half of the glass is the realm of the bride, free from perspective, a creature part machine and part insect, running on love gasoline, sparking her own motor, dreaming of the orgasm she can only bring to blossom herself, dropping her dress from the power of her own imagination, her desire a kind of gearing that “binds the bouquet.” Her desire is “ignorant,” is “blank,” with “a touch of malice” in it; and when she rejects the amorous overtures of the bachelors, she does so warmly, not chastely.
It is ancient trope, the reclining nude, the bride before consummation, the virgin feeling the blush in her cheek. Sometimes the bride breaks in her beauty our expectation of what beauty should be.
A dream blossoms from her head: the “cinematic blossoming,” the “halo of the bride,” the “milky way.” Between the largest part of her body, which contains not only her “steam engine” and “pendu femelle,” just above the “arbor type,” there is a “letter box.” You cannot see it. But those erotic sparks igniting the love gasoline into the blossoming bound only by desire itself carry electrically letters that fill the three nets in the dream cloud, a kind of dream of the self dreaming herself, an alphabet bringing no other being into being but the dreamer in her desire. An essence made of accident.
Duchamp writes a series of notes he keeps in a green box, and on these notes are his thoughts regarding the bride and her bachelors. Some scholars claim the art piece standing in the museum is but an illustration of the ideas and concepts written in those notes; others disagree, and claim the notes are just a tangential thinking to the ideas inherent in the masterpiece. Mostly I agree.
Duchamp writes: “The search for ‘prime words’ (‘divisible’ only by themselves and unity).” He writes: “These signs must be thought of as the letters of the new alphabet.” He writes, “This alphabet very probably is only suitable for the description of this picture.”
So hard to read the notes in these words I know so well, to stand before the bride and years later write these pages, using none of the words to describe her she uses to understand herself. Jean Cocteau, the filmmaker and artist, so I once was told, could bring himself to orgasm without touching himself or being touched. In the museum, waiting for the bride to drop her dress, I kept worrying I might find myself in an embarrassing situation. I think it might have happened had I been able to hear the words she dreamed, those prime words divisible only by themselves, where death and desire are one, and any who hears them are spoken by them, and desire becomes your only bound. As it was, I looked down. Not in embarrassment, maybe in disappointment. I kept touching the tip of my penis when I put my hand in my pocket, but nothing could wake it up.
Duchamp made a series of suitcases into which he built miniature versions of all the art he’d ever made. Some were special editions that contained a unique piece of art. In one of them, a black silk cloth onto which he’d ejaculated. Earlier in his career he turned a urinal upside down and signed it R. Mutt. The poet William Blake reminds us that our procreative and execratory organs are one and the same. Blake and his wife used to sit naked together in separate armchairs before the fire and read out loud Milton’s Paradise Lost. Later in his life Duchamp asked his wife sit on wet clay and then bronzed the result.
Sometimes the nude is the absence of the body. Or is what waits the body to come fill it. Or is what comes out of the body and like a miniature milky way spills across the black cloth, an arm of our own galaxy, but the galaxy is reaches inside us. Sometimes you name the edges of the labia after the leaf that covers Eve’s shame. Sometimes we’re clothed in nudity.
I guess when I looked down I looked down in shame.
Just like the other bachelors, wanting so terribly the bride.
I felt like a set of clothes without a body, an emptiness dressed up. Maybe that’s the male condition. To want to be a person, and end up being the mold waiting the clay, waiting the breath, waiting the drop or two of sea-water. The patient mold waiting for the illuminating gas.
The litany in hell is weeping, weeping; but there are other litanies. The nine bachelors, the “malic molds,” move back and forth on a glider, filling with an illuminating glass that never lights a thing but their own infinite longing, singing endlessly one song on eternal repeat: “Slow life, Vicious circle, Onanism, Horizontal, Buffer of life, Junk of life, Cheap construction, Tin, cords, iron wire, Eccentric wooden pulleys, Monotonous fly wheel, Beer professor.” Duchamp writes this list once, crosses it out, and then writes it again. Such is the useless song of the whole “celibate machine.” Unable to consummate the marriage each one so desires, the illuminating gas floats up into spindles which makes dizzy the upward direction each by its nature should go, is caught then by the sieves, and drawn down into the chocolate grinder where, rather than the bliss of the bride, the bachelors only “grind their own chocolate” forever.
Dante didn’t see such men in hell, not because they are not there, but because Virgil didn’t want to show him—they are such a version of most of us all—saying endlessly the same words, trying to get Beatrice floating above us to drop down her dress and come naked to our chamber. Recent research places the bachelors on the edge of the second round of the seventh circle, where in an infertile plain the damned walk beneath the sparks raining down on them, but the essay in which I found the hypothesis I’ve lost, and cannot provide the citation.
But Duchamp writes a little about this hell, though he had no Virgil, only himself. “But they will never be able to pass beyond the Mask = They would have been as if enveloped, alongside their regrets, by a mirror reflecting back to them their own complexity to the point of their being hallucinated rather onanistically.” Then he calls them a “cemetery,” which—according to the infernal grammars—is in hell the collective noun for such bachelors.
I though of this passage which I’d not realized I’d memorized when I last went back to the museum to see the bride. I had in myself such complexities of thought, such ardors of passion, but I could see none of it in my own face, looking at myself looking in the mirror of the glass, somewhat older than before, where the bride sang to herself her own song, and I recited my litany beside her, each one of us silent, but mine a different silence, so absorbed by the profundity of my own thought that I almost got an erection, to be so full of ideas like a child filled with too much chocolate; but of her words I could hear nothing. Even if she spoke them to me—her dream, her stars, her milky way—I wasn’t able to understand.
I keep wondering if my hands are filled with the invisible bouquet, but I can’t see a thing, and the scent in my palms is what? Maybe just my own skin. Maybe fear. Maybe truth. Maybe beauty. Maybe the happy boughs of the trees sprung up in heaven. Maybe the petals the floating lovers knocked down.
Dan Beachy-Quick is the author of five books of poetry, North True South Bright (2003), Spell (2004), Mulberry (2006), This Nest, Swift Passerine (2009), and Circle's Apprentice (2011, winner of the Colorado Book Award in Poetry). He is also the author of a book of interlinked meditations on Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, titled A Whaler’s Dictionary (2008), and a collection of essays, meditations, and fairy tales, Wonderful Investigations (2012).