Paolo and Francesca: Bill Berkson and Oona Ratcliffe



Oona Ratcliffe, Heartspring the wreckage (diptych), 2008. Acrylic on canvas, 72 x 168 Inches. Courtesy of the artist

Oona Ratcliffe, Heartspring the wreckage (diptych), 2008. Acrylic on canvas, 72 x 168 Inches. Courtesy of the artist

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.

Oona Ratcliffe, Hippies in the dust, 2009. Acrylic on canvas, 72 x 84 inches. Courtesy of the artist

Oona Ratcliffe, Hippies in the dust, 2009. Acrylic on canvas, 72 x 84 inches. Courtesy of the artist

“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.”

Oona Ratcliffe, Voracious, 2008. Acrylic on canvas, 72 x 84 inches. Courtesy of the artist

Oona Ratcliffe, Voracious, 2008. Acrylic on canvas, 72 x 84 inches. Courtesy of the artist

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.

1982/2009
for Oona Ratcliffe