Paolo and Francesca, with paintings by Oona Ratcliffe
Oona Ratcliffe: Deep Forgetting at gallerynine5
POEM BY BILL BERKSON
March 6 to 24, 2009
24 Spring Street
New York City, 212 965 9995
POETRY FOR ART presents newly published poetry (or poetry posted to the web for the first time) that relates, responds, or is dedicated to the work of a contemporary artist on display in New York or elsewhere at the time of posting. Bill Berkson – who is editorial advisor to the series – is a poet and critic who lives in San Francisco and New York. His recent books include Sudden Address: Selected Lectures 1981-2006; Goods and Services; Bill, a words-and-images collaboration with Colter Jacobsen; and Portrait and Dream: New & Selected Poems just out from Coffee House Press. He was awarded the 2008 Goldie for Literature from the San Francisco Bay Guardian. Oona Ratcliffe lives and works in Brooklyn. She has participated in various exhibitions across the U.S., including a solo show at Susan Inglett Gallery, New York, and recent group shows at the Morgan Lehman Gallery, New York; Jeff Bailey Gallery, New York,;the Bolinas Museum, California; Roberts & Tilton, California; and Geoffrey Young Gallery, Massachusetts. Ratcliffe received a Janet Sloane Residency Award from Yaddo in 2005.
Paolo and Francesca
after Dante Alighieri, from Canto 5, second circle Inferno, “La Bufera” –
the whirlwind where souls reside whose reason was overwhelmed by desire.
Smitten, I began: “Poet, I would speak
with that pair who go so lightly there
together on the wind.”
And he said: “You will see
when they come a little closer, ask
by the love that brings them on, they will come.”
So, when the wind swept them near us,
I raised my voice: “O breathless spirits! come,
talk with us, unless another forbids it!”
And as doves whom desire has called,
with wings poised and resolute, borne by their will,
come through the air to their sweet nest,
These left the company where Dido is
and approached us through that wretched air,
such was the power of my soulful cry.
“O kind and gracious being
who visits us in this perditious murk,
we who stained the world with blood,
If we could pray to the lord of the universe, we would,
to grant you peace, since you have pitied us
in our sad perversity.
Whatever you please to speak of or to hear
we will hear and speak of with you
while the wind, as here it is, is still.
The place where I was born sits
by the shore where the Po descends,
to be at rest with other lesser streams.
Love, that wakens quickly in the gentlest heart,
seized that one through this beautiful form
which then was torn from me – and manner still offends me.
Love, which excuses no one loved from loving,
fixed this man’s charms on me so firmly
that, as you see, they haven’t left me yet.
Love brought us together to this death:
Cold Hell waits for him who spent our life.”
These words carried from them to us.
And when I heard how doomed these spirits were,
I hung my head and kept it so long like that
until finally the Poet asked what I thought,
And when I could answer, I began: “Alas,
how many sweet thoughts, what great desire
brought them to this sorry place!”
Then I turned back to them and said:
“Francesca, your suffering makes me cry,
and I pity you terribly –
But tell me, in the days of those sweet sighs
how did love concede to let you know
your dubious desires?”
And she said: “Nothing is worse
than recalling the happiest of times
in utter misery; your teacher knows this well.
But if you really want to learn
our love’s first root, I will tell
although my misery in telling will be plain.
One day for pleasure we were reading
how Lancelot was struck by love.
We were alone and somewhat careless.
But as we read our eyebeams often met
and our faces lost their color.
One part alone was enough to undo us.
When we read how that lady’s lovely smile
was kissed by such a lover,
he, who is forever inseparable from me,
All trembling kissed me on the mouth.
That book and whoever wrote it was our Galeotto.
That day we read no further.”
As the one spirit spoke,
the other wept, so that, pitying them,
I fainted as if I were dying,
And I fell as a dead body falls.
for Oona Ratcliffe