My introduction to artist Marco Nereo Rotelli began with a poem I wrote on a mirror, the last line of which read, “A dream is a dream, only when unfulfilled.” As the artist in residence at Northwestern University, he was transforming the stone walls of the Charles Deering Library into pages of living poetry. Marco invited me to participate by writing a poem and curating the poets for the installation, the theme of which was, "Saving Trees." The seed of friendship was planted.
The installation at Northwestern was only the prelude to a monumental project Marco was planning that following summer at the Field Museum of Natural History. Once again, he asked me to collaborate and curate a multi-cultural, multi-national group of poets for an ephemeral installation of light and sound. This time, the theme was Dante Alighieri’s INFERNO, from the DIVINA COMMEDIA.
The issues Dante addressed nearly 800 years ago were the same we face today: politics, love, war, and how our choices to live our lives can guide us through and beyond the ninth circle of Hell. Using the various cantos Marco recommended we use as a guide, I realized we had to address the human spirit in such a way that touched upon the psyche, with an alchemy of memory, light, sound, tears and fears in concert with the theme of Inferno.
DIVINA NATURA conveyed the connection between past and present as the poets (we ended up with a collage of Arabic, Greek, French, Hebrew, Portuguese, Spanish, Turkish, and of course, Italian) exhibited the bounty of their life experience and solidarity with one another through Dante’s works. From the most profound love poems, to the poetry of pain, suffering, limbo, and loss, each poet navigated his or her way through Inferno, staying true to Dante’s meaning of the original title, Commedia.
Thomas Haskell Simpson, Distinguished Senior Lecturer in Italian and actor, introduced the program with a reading from Robert Pinsky’s “ABC,” beginning with the line “Anybody can die, evidently. Few go happily, irradiating joy, love, knowledge.”
Touching upon Canto I, Reginald Gibbons "From a Paper Boat (excerpt)" began with, "Now is a time for endings--of the year, the decade, the century. Now opposites will struggle with more ferocity."
"I don’t even belong in this poem." wrote Chana Zelig, in English and Hebrew, "And yet, I am Beatrice who urges you to journey," as she addressed the limbo of her forbears with Dante's Muses: Beatrice, Santa Lucia and the Virgin Mary from Canto II.
Invoking Dante from Canto XXIV, Syrian-born, Osama Esber, meditated upon civil war ravaging his land, "in a country where Divine Revelations visited in bullets and blades."
Elise Pachen navigated through the tragic love story of Paolo and Francesca in Canto V, "Paolo my love my husband's brother forever bound we circle round."
In her poem, I Ask the Impossible, Ana Castillo wrote, "Love me as you relish your loneliness, the anticipation of your death, mysteries of the flesh, as it tears and mends."
Greek poet, Lia Siomou asked her deceased husband to, "Take me, on the old boat that softly traverses the cool Lake waters to the shore across."
Marco selected Canto XXXIII for me, a dark story about corruption, greed, murder and betrayal, offering a challenge and a gift to explore the inner workings of how the mind can find a way out the prison we create for ourselves. "Reach into the womb of healing waters, and sleep….sleep…Until a pulse returns…And a cry announces life." In the same direction, Giuseppe Conte's poem eloquently sings "Like a comet of ice, the soul revolves on its orbit, returns to the kingdom of the water."
In the end, the poets not only succeeded, but exceeded, the limits imposed upon them by the Divine Nature of Marco Nereo Rotelli’s concept of uniting poetry, music and light onto an architectural wonder overlooking a Great Lake on a stormy night. The evening’s predicted torrential rains subsided just before the poets took the stage, as the images seared their imprint on the museum, a monument inspired by ancient Greek temples, into the annals of Chicago history.
I am indebted to such poetic luminaries as Ana Castillo, Giuseppe Conte, Osama Esber, Reginald Gibbons, Elise Paschen, Lia Siomou, Chana Zelig and former poet laureate of the United States, Robert Pinsky. And my deepest gratitude to Thomas Haskell Simpson for his perfect recital of Canto XIII, where Dante explained to the Duke of Verona in Canto XIII that a commedia is a work representing a story with a happy ending.
In a recent interview, Marco eloquently stated, “The mind of every man, every poet, is looking toward heaven.” I can say that working with an artist like Marco Nereo Rotelli might have been a dream, but no longer.
Grazie Mille a Marco Nereo Rotelli!
24 June 2013