December 7, 2022 / Ella Rous

My lady won’t open her mouth.

My lady, washed in scarlet as though swallowed by flame, her lips painted shut like cruel window frames. My lady, draped over her chaise, folded outwards like a gesture towards heaven.

The soft red contours of this dream spill and pulse everywhere. Every movement seems to be a motion underwater, the matter of the universe pulled into a slow, inexorable orbit around a single locus.

All night, the stars rotate overhead as the god of love coaxes her teeth forward. All night, his twin shadows pour over our unmoored figures, marrying our bodies in the boundless crush of space.

As the sun kisses the horizon, the god of love touches my chest and withdraws my heart, alive, aflame, and pulsing with the heady rush of lust.

My lady, white, bloodless, and unwilling, takes my burning heart into her hands.

At last, Beatrice eats.

When Dante Alighieri awakes, the world is different: He is almost 10 years old, and he is in love. He first glimpsed her, the nine-year-old lady Beatrice, from across a crowded plaza; now, her image follows him into sleep and through visions of hellfire and brimstone.

From this moment onward, Dante’s soul is ruled and possessed by the god of love. This dream composes the heart of Dante’s Vita Nuova, a story in prose, studded with sonnets, and he himself is a creature imbued with the feverish energy and processing power of the sonnet machine.

Like an ouroboros, Beatrice eats the poet’s burning heart, and for the rest of his life, Dante will eat Beatrice. It is strangely intimate, this consumption. Like the bread and blood of Jesus Christ, the essence resides in the body in ways that can be internalized by its devotee. Religion and physics, music and poetry: The human mind is driven and drawn to representational acts, to methods of achieving closeness to the world and to the lover.

These are the timeless processes that have eluded and enchanted humanity from its shivering beginnings among the first syllables of language and the origin of thought. Among them, poetry particularly gives rise to passion and purpose, to fits of madness and depressive mania and spiritual epiphany. It marvels at the grand arc of the universe, the throughlines that span human history, the personal, the gorgeous, the mundane, the stamen on a flower, the curve of the lover’s neck, the mystery of the cosmos.

Fifty years prior to Dante’s obsession, Giacomo da Lentini bends over his papers, the flickering crags of his face in the lamplight. The whale fat sputters and drips; the pen scrawls out of ink before returning to inkpot.

Unknown to him, a primitive thing is emerging, not from his chest but between his hands, not silver or wooden but machine nonetheless: the sonnet, the favored machine of processing obsession for the discerning poet of the ages, which has been so since since Giacomo caged a woman in his heart —

“I carry in my heart
an effigy of you.

I bear you in my heart…”

From his lips to God’s ears: Giacomo’s new machine eats the woman and spits her out, edited, shivering, clean. An effigy caged in his darkening heart.

A century later, Francisco Petrarca tastes blood as he receives the sacrament upon his living tongue. His vision tunnels, his palms supplicate the front of his robes. As a beautiful woman in the third pew bows her head, haloed in godly light (a sunbeam piercing the Avignon church roof, perhaps?), he is struck with a vision of ebony antlers sprouting from within those tumbling strands of dark hair.

He calls her Laura.

Laura flits through his work, ethereal and haunting, a memory or a fever dream. She steps into his most famous sonnet as a holy deer, the words “touch me not” etched in diamond and topaz lettering around her neck.

And touch her he never will: his obsession kindled and nurtured by distance, his writing hazy and speculative, his lust centered on her image. As Francisco will never know her real name, so, too, will history never know for certain that she existed. Such is the power of the sonnet. It is a sort of God-playing, the birth of a divine lady from the mind of the poet.

Giacomo may have created the sonnet, but Francisco, following in Dante’s inimitable wake, defined it. The first iteration of the sonnet is called the Petrarchan, enshrining his machinations for eternity.

The mechanics of the Petrarchan form follow: The sonnet’s rigidity and motion mimic the breath, the heartbeat, the quivering fingers; the internal structure and end-rhymes dictate how and where the light falls, how the object, like a statue amid its lonely gallery, is enshrined, worshipped, coveted, martyred. Built into its very structure is a mechanizing procedure of unnatural horsepower. It is the form in which its object’s total existence is compressed and estranged, the procedure by which the depth of a human life is made manifest within the strangling constraints of a mere fourteen lines.

The act of putting the human being into the machine is a violent and bloody transfiguration of the body and the life within it. The soul, indefinite and transitory, balks at the permanence and disfiguration implied by the written word. Something substantive disappears eternally in the act of translation. Something different emerges from the text: the human after humanity, the machine producing the machine, silver, shining, and deathless.

Perhaps the attempt to immortalize the soul in writing is so uniquely destructive because the nature of humanity is eternal disappearance: to bend the grass underfoot, kiss new stars into the night, and let them fade in every last breath. To exist, from moment to moment, changeable, an unfinished collision of energies, matter, and spirit.

To attempt to outlast our bounds is divinely human; uniquely, deeply, hideously human. Religion and physics, music and poetry.

But in the end, the most human thing about the attempt is that it fails.

We may assume that Beatrice Portinari lives a life of blissful ignorance. She might rise in the mornings, go into town to shop for silk and jewels, and retire to her noble household to rub the knots from her powerful husband’s shoulders. She might kiss his cheek and die quietly three years into her marriage, having never heard Dante’s name or seen his visage, not knowing her self has been gruesomely rent from her body and displayed, static, immortal, and posthuman, in lines of poetry.

But we may only assume. Because in the fusion of obsession and machine, a piece, a moment, an imagining of her lives on, forever preserved, disfigured, and divorced from the transient body and mind. She is unable to decompose peacefully into her final resting place: to disappear, as humans are wont to do. Because Beatrice Portinari will be known to all of history as Dante’s creation —

My lady Beatrice. ■

By: Ella Rous

Layout: Elena Ahsan & Kai-Lin Wei

View the full spread as it appeared in Issue No. 19 here.

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