On Poetry

Dante Among Friends: Kevin Young and Robin Coste Lewis

Between 1958 and 1960, Robert Rauschenberg produced a series of 34 drawings, one for each Canto, or section, of Dante's poem The Inferno (1308–1321). Together they are a virtual encyclopedia of modern-day imagery, made by transferring photographic reproductions from magazines or newspapers onto the drawing surface. "I think a picture is more like the real world when it's made out of the real world," Rauschenberg said. With additional imagery in pencil, crayon, pastel and collage, the drawings reflect Rauschenberg's desire to infiltrate his art with the scenes and sounds of the surrounding world, a radical departure from the more transcendent ambitions of Abstract Expressionism.

Robert Rauschenberg: Thirty-Four Illustrations for Dante's Inferno, was published in conjunction with the first major retrospective on Rauschenberg's career since the artist's death in 2008, this book presents the complete set of 34 drawings, and newly commissioned poetry from Kevin Young and Robin Coste Lewis, each reflecting on a selection of drawings and their corresponding Cantos. Young's half of the 34 Cantos are titled "The Dark Wood" and Lewis' are erasures of John Ciardi's Dante's translation, titled "Dante Comes to America: 20 January 2017: An Erasure of 17 Cantos from Ciardi's Inferno, after Robert Rauschenberg."

CANTO II: THE DESCENT. 1958 / Solvent transfer drawing, pencil, gouache, and colored pencil on cut-and-pasted paper on paper, 14 3/8 x 11 3/8 in. (36.5 x 28.9 cm) / The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Given anonymously.

Canto II. The Descent
by Kevin Young

What will
become of us?
The blue wash

& the arrows aiming
us on: No Exit.
No Trespasses

No Breath.
Are you willing
& able to assist?

asks the Captain.
Dry docked
& airlocked, the cruel capsule

we barely glimpse
Earth from.
Ladies & gentlemen,

we cannot move till everyone
is seated.
We hold each

other awaiting
the splash of landing—
prepare for impact—

our vessel's crash
& flush
sounding down in the blue.

The lake of my heart.
The light departing.
All around us, new

in the briar of after—
a lone goose, or loon,
low overhead. The white

ring around their necks.
What was next:
arms raised to reach

the banking birds—
hands up don't
shoot—or as if we might,

ourselves, take flight.


CANTO XXIII: CIRCLE EIGHT, BOLGIA 6, THE HYPOCRITES. 1959–60 / Solvent transfer drawing, pencil, gouache, and watercolor on paper, 14 3/8 x 11 ¹/2 in. (36.5 x 29.2 cm) / The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Given anonymously.

Canto XXIII.

by Robin Coste Lewis

"I Go with The Body That Was Always Mine"

Silent, one following the other,
the Fable hunted us down.
O weary mantle of eternity,
turn left, reach us down
into that narrow way in silence.

College of Sorry Hypocrites, I go
with the body that was always mine,
burnished like counterweights to keep
the peace. One may still see the sort of peace

we kept. Marvel for a while over that:
the cross in Hell's eternal exile.
Somewhere there is some gap in the wall,
pit through which we may climb

to the next brink without the need
of summoning the Black Angels
and forcing them to raise us from this sink.
Nearer than hope, there is a bridge

that runs from the great circle, that crosses
every ditch from ridge to ridge.
Except—it is broken—but with care.

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