Dante’s Ghost

The poetic medium has ever been a vehicle for the transmission of deeper dimensions of human experience. This has been so since the time that the rhapsodei chanted and sang Homer’s great tales of mythic heroism and human contention with divine and demonic worlds. It has found expression in the works of those master wordsmiths since Dante, Petrarch and Shakespeare who have sculpted language and compressed human narratives into patterned forms of rhyme and rhythm. And it continues to pour forth in the humour, the wisdom, the irony and the despair voiced by contemporary urban poets and hip hop artists.

Poetry reflects the world back onto itself and can bring to greater light the diaphanous and the hidden forces through which we live, move and have our being. Poetic expression addresses the subtleties of language, the complexities of reality, the intensities of experience and the perennial quest for meaning. Like music, the experience of poetry is best had in the hearing.

Dante’s Ghost offers both original pieces and interpretive readings of the works of selected poets with a view to awakening a greater awareness and enjoyment of their style and message. A number of representative pieces are offered below.

The full collection is available on the Dante’s Ghost website which may be accessed here.

 

Original Pieces

Empedocles. A Song of Aetna

This original piece was inspired by a hand-sized fragment of crystalline sulphur gathered from the slopes of Mount Aetna, near the place of my birth. It brought forth a remembrance of the story of Empedocles of Akragas, the Sicilian poet, philosopher and healer who was considered by the Roman physician Galen to be the founder of the science of medicine in Italy. Empedocles was born during the remarkable time that brought forth such enlightened beings as Pythagoras, Lao Tzu, Confucius, and Gautama Buddha.

Empedocles generated the doctrine of four elements – air earth, fire and water – as an elaboration of the monism of Parmenides. This notion was to be highly influential in both Western philosophy and in the theory and practice of European medicine for a period of over 2,000 years.Among his remarkable achievements, Empedocles made life easier for the inhabitants of his native Akragas (present-day Agrigento) by draining the fetid swamps that surrounded the town thereby freeing the population from the scourge of malaria that swept through local communities every year. He also directed a massive engineering project to construct a series of berms which deflected the searing winds of the Saharan Sirocco away from the cultivated fields that supplied the town thereby securing food supplies in the region.

According to legend, Empedocles quietly slipped away from an evening celebration held in his honour at a location near Mount Aetna. A few days later, a search party discovered his bronze sandals placed carefully on the edge of the crater of the erupting volcano.

The music that accompanies this piece was composed and performed by Nico Di Stefano.

Empedocles can be streamed using the media player above. A CD quality mp3 file can also be downloaded here.
Full text of the poem can be accessed here.

The Centurion’s Prayer. An Ignatian Remembrance

This short poetic reflection is offered as a personal response to the crass commercialisation and diversionary spirit that has overtaken the time of Easter throughout much of the Western world. It offers an Ignatian remembrance – an act of conscious imagining and visualisation – of the events that took place in Palestine some 2,000 years ago when the rebel Jesus of Nazareth (to use Jackson Browne’s term) suffered the fate of a common criminal in the act of execution by crucifixion ordered by the Roman governors at that time.

Yet the time of Easter bespeaks more than a Paschal sacrifice. It heralds the regeneration and renewal that emanates endlessly through the heart of love.

The music that accompanies this piece was composed and performed by Nico Di Stefano.

The Centurion’s Prayer can be streamed using the media player above. A CD quality mp3 audio file can also be downloaded here.
Full text of the poem can be accessed here.

Careful Now. Reflections on the Mutations of War

The nature of war has completely changed over the course of the past century. From being the domain of a trained warrior caste who lived and died face to face, it has, especially in more recent times, become an exercise in technical sophistication where decisions made and actions taken at a vast distance from the field of battle determine the fate not only of combatants, but of fathers, mothers and children who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

This original piece offers a brief reflection on the senselessness, the tragedy and the dehumanisation wrought of war at a time when the great powers continue to draw down vast portions of national economies to maintain and further develop the technologies of death.

The music was composed and performed by Nico Di Stefano.

Careful Now can be streamed using the media player above. A CD quality mp3 file can also be downloaded here.
Full text of the poem can be accessed here.

Songs for Vannuzzo

The death of a parent can be a turning point in any given life. For a surviving son or daughter, the nature of the experience can range from the grief of losing a beloved friend and confidant, to the ambivalence resulting from an abrupt loss of all further possibilities for resolving a conflicted and unsatisfactory relationship, to a sense of relief at being finally freed of the perceived domination and judgement of an overbearing parent. Regardless of one’s position, to live through the death of one’s parents represents a difficult act of emancipation, a call to ultimate maturation, a transmission of both freedom and responsibility, an entry into the domain of eldership.

These two original poetic reflections, Just Man and Luce Magra, were written during the latter weeks of my father’s final sickness in 2008. They offer a personal reflection on the ineffability of fully encompassing the depth of experience carried in the life of another, the sense of helplessness often experienced in the face of progressive mental and physical dissolution, and a tentative poetic exploration of the more transcendent meanings carried in human embodiment.

The music that accompanies both pieces was composed and performed by Coastal Slipstream (David Capon and Peter Popko)

Just Man can be streamed using the media player above. A CD quality mp3 file can also be downloaded here.

Luce Magra can be streamed using the media player above. A CD quality mp3 file can also be downloaded here.
Full text of the poems can be accessed here.

Interpretive Pieces

Gerard Manley Hopkins

The Wreck of the Deutschland

The Wreck of the Deutschland is unquestionably Gerard Manley Hopkins’ master work. It reflects where the true centre of this man of deep spirituality and towering intellect lay – in the heart, which is evoked 18 times during the course of the poem. The poem was written at the suggestion of one of his religious superiors after Hopkins expressed his personal anguish at the death of 80 people, among whom were five Franciscan nuns, when the German ship The Deutschland ran aground at the mouth of the Thames in early December 1875. The poet-turned-priest was in the seventh year of his nine-year-long training for the Jesuit priesthood. He had maintained a complete literary silence throughout that time.

“The Wreck of the Deutschland” was written in the months immediately after the ship-wreck. The poem was deemed “unpublishable” both by his Jesuit community and by his close friend, the Poet-Laureate Robert Bridges. When Bridges finally gathered Hopkins’ poems together and published them 30 years after his friend’s death, he described “The Wreck of the Deutschland” as, “a great dragon folded in the gate to forbid all entrance.”

This audio interpretation represents a small attempt to revise Bridges’ sombre judgement and suggests, rather, that this symphonic poem holds an infinite cask of jewelled insights into the nature of Gerard Manley Hopkins and his understanding of human frailty, of human strength, of human tragedy, and of divine mercy.



The Wreck of the Deutschland
can be streamed using the media player above. A CD quality mp3 file can be downloaded here.

A substantive accompanying essay/ interpretive analysis of the poem, “Taming the Dragon. Gerard Manley Hopkins and The Wreck of the Deutschland“, can also be downloaded in PDF form here.

Binsley Poplars

The Jesuit priest/poet Gerard Manley Hopkins is remembered for his exquisite use of language and the depth of his poetic regard. Binsley Poplars was written in 1879 in response to his shocking discovery that a favourite stand of aspen trees which he had long enjoyed during his days at Oxford had fallen to the axe. At another level, the poem is a lament for the destruction of the natural world without thought for the beauties that it holds and without regard for the blighting of the landscape itself and of our minds when we behold such devastation.

Hopkins is acutely aware of the irreversibility of such assaults upon the natural world, and laments the loss to future generations of the mystic entrancement evoked by scenes of natural beauty. Though written over 130 years ago, Binsley Poplars is presciently anthemic of the present day Green movement and of environmentalism more generally.

The music that accompanies this piece was written and performed (multi-track) by Nico Di Stefano

Binsley Poplars can be streamed using the media player above. A CD quality mp3 audio file can also be downloaded here.
Full text of the poem can be accessed here.

The Windhover. To Christ Our Lord.

The Windhover, written in 1877, draws powerfully from Hopkins’ experience of nature, specifically of his observations of the dawn-time flight of a falcon. Hopkins the poet describes in unforgettable terms the gracefulness and exquisite perfection of movement embodied by the bird. Hopkins the Jesuit priest views that perfection as an expression of the greater perfection embodied by his Lord and Master, Jesus of Nazareth.

Hopkins himself described The Windhover as “the best thing I ever wrote,” an extraordinary affirmation considering the depth and density of the rest of his canon. Scottish existential psychiatrist R.D. Laing is known to have voiced this poem literally hundreds of times while sober and while drunk, while at work and while at rest.

With many thanks to Nico Di Stefano for providing the beautifully melodic lead guitar overlay.

The Windhover can be streamed using the media player above. A CD quality audio file can also be downloaded here.
Full text of the poem can be accessed here.

 

Edwin Arlington Robinson

The Man Against the Sky

American poet Edwin Arlington Robinson was born just after the time of the Civil War and lived to see the dramatic transformation of the world he was born into through the influence of so-called Enlightenment philosophies and the development of early industrial technologies. Like William Blake before him, he came to perceive at an early age the destructive effects of new forms of power made available by the actions of big government, big business and big industry.

The Man Against the Sky was written in 1916 at a time when all informed citizens in the Western world had begun to grasp the immensity of destruction wrought by political will and the new machineries of death unleashed during the First World War. As a poet, Robinson was also deeply conscious of a widespread devaluation of human life and a growing dismissal of the more subtle dimensions of human experience as encompassed by such terms as soul and spirit.

Among other things, this dramatic poem carries Robinson’s impassioned response to the growing worship of science and scientism and the widespread negation of any transcendent meaning to human life by those who at that time espoused and vociferously promoted a materialist view of life.

Although written nearly a century ago, Robinson’s depth of questioning continues to resonate into the present time when the philosophical and existential divides as articulated in this poem have, if anything, deepened further.

The music that accompanies this piece, Lofoten, was composed and performed by Doc and Lena Selyanina.

Robinson’s The Man Against the Sky can be streamed using the media player above. A CD quality mp3 audio file can also be downloaded here.
Full text of the poem can be accessed here.

 

Thomas Merton

Chant to be Used in Processions around a Site with Furnaces

This chilling poem by Cistercian monk, writer and poet Thomas Merton offers a dramatic portrayal of SS Officer Rudolf Hoess. Hoess served as commandant of Auschwitz from May 1940 to November 1943. He was convicted of genocide at the Nuremberg trials and handed over to the Polish authorities who charged him with the murder of three and a half million men, women and children. Hoess responded, “No. Only two and one half million. The rest died from disease and starvation.”

This poem was published in 1961 by Lawrence Ferlinghetti for the inaugural edition of “Journal for the Protection of all Beings.”

The music that accompanies this piece was composed and performed by Henk van der Duim of Zero V.

Merton’s Chant can be streamed using the media player above. A CD quality mp3 audio file can also be downloaded here.
Full text of the poem along with additional commentary can be accessed here.

Original Child Bomb

Original Child Bomb, like Chant to be Used in Processions around a Site with Furnaces is one of the small number of pieces written by Thomas Merton which he described as anti-poems. Merton’s anti-poems are characterised by the conscious and ironic use of the debased but now-commonplace language that masks the horror of genocide.

In his essay “War and the Crisis of Language”, Merton wrote: “Poets are perhaps the ones who, at the present moment, are most sensitive to the sickness of language – a sickness that, infecting all literature with nausea, prompts us not so much to declare war on conventional language as simply to pick up and examine closely a few chosen pieces of linguistic garbage.”

Original Child Bomb was first published in his friend Robert Lax’s magazine “Pax” in 1961, but was soon picked up by “New Directions” and re-published a year later in 1962, thereby reaching a far wider audience.

The music used in this piece includes:

“Sentimental Journey” by Les Brown with Doris Day (1945)
“Hell, Fire and Damnation” by Jocelyn Pook from “Untold Things” Real World Records, 2001
“Only the Devil Laughed” by Hildegard von Bingen. Performers: Catherine King, Emily Van Evera and Sister Germaine Fritz from “Vision. The Music of Hildegard von Bingen” Angel Records, 1994

Original Child Bomb was produced collaboratively by Vincent Di Stefano and Chaz Kilmer (Virtual Renderings)

Original Child Bomb can be stream using the media player above. A CD quality mp3 audio file can also be downloaded here.
Full text of the poem can be accessed here.

 

Ephraim of Syria

The Pearl, Part 1

The Pearl. Seven Hymns on the Faith was written by the 4th century theologian, mystic, poet and wonder-worker Ephraim of Syria. Among other things, this beautiful poem offers a remarkable entry into the sources of imaginal vision. This poetic/musical interpretation of Part I of The Pearl was developed from the original J.B. Morris translation of 1898.

The music in this piece was composed and performed by Greg Lavell (keyboards) and Nico Di Stefano (guitar).

The Pearl (Part I) can be streamed using the media player above. A CD quality mp3 audio file can also be downloaded here.
Full text of the poem can be accessed here.

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