Saturday, June 29, 2013


Chapter 29: Forgers

The sight of all these mutilated souls
            made my eyes drunk with grief. I stood and wept,
            pondering long upon the crowd below,                               3

till Virgil said, “Come – we have far to go,
            much more to see. The sun is overhead,
the moon under our feet. Why linger here?                          6

No malebolge before has held you long.”
“I hope my Uncle Geri will appear,”
said I. “He must be in this dismal throng.                            9

For starting one of the feuds that dislocate
every Italian state.” “True,” said he.
            “While you were talking with de Born                                12

he pointed a stern forefinger at you
who did not see him, so he went away.”
“He was stabbed,” said I, “so thinks I betray                         15       

our family by not avenging him.
            I sympathize but have to disagree.”
Talking, we left the dyke, climbed the next bridge                18

and heard such piercing cries that from pity
            I pressed hands hard on ears, almost thinking
            we neared a street in a plague-struck city.                             21

The truth was much more horrible. Suppose
            each hospital there is in Italy,
            Sardinia and Sicily and Crete                                                24

flung every inmate crippled by putrid sores
            into a mighty trench. I saw that sight.
            The stench of it also attacked my nose.                                 27

Two weeks to sit up, half the souls lay flat.
            The rest sprawled over them or feebly crawled.
            The quickest movements were their frenzied hands.               30

They would have welcomed flame or scalding pitch
            to stop the endless itch they had to scratch.
            A pair propped back to back at the ditch side                         33

were thickly blotched with scabs from head to toe.
            No stable boy or one wakened by lice
            ever employed so fast a curry-comb                                      36

as fingernails with which each scratched his hide,
            stripping off scabs as cooks scrape skins from bream
            or fish with bigger scales. To one of these                              39

my master said, “You who distress your skin
            with fingers used like pincers, do you know
            Italians here?” Weeping, he replied,                                        42

“We are, although disfigured. Who are you?”
            Virgil announced,  “I am an escort sent
            by One on high to lead this living man                                   45

down through the rings of Hell and up again,
            so that he can report upon your pain.”
            The sinners, trembling, broke apart to look.                           48

My master murmured, “Tell them what you like.”
            I faced them and declared, “If it’s your wish
            to be in history for years to come,                                         51

don’t let your foul damnation keep you dumb
            but tell your tale to me.” At this one said,
            “I, Griffolino of Arezzo was                                                  54

burned by a bishop as a sorcerer,
            though that was not my sin. Purely for fun
            I told his idiotic bastard son                                                   57

I’d teach him how to fly like Daedelus.
            I could not so I died for nothing done.
            Albert of Siena was the fool’s dad.                                         60

My burning was that bishop’s mad decree.
Minos, a better judge, sent me down here
for I had truly practiced alchemy.”                                         63

I said, “The Sienese are silly folk –
            even the French are not so light of mind.”
            The other leper cried, “Unfair! Unkind!                                 66

You have forgot their great academy –
            the Spendthrifts Club where wise Sienese
            teach poorer citizens to pawn their goods                              69

to buy rich clothes, exotic whores and foods
            and booze and horses shod with silver shoes.
            But Dante, I am one you used to know.                                 72 

When students, I was called Capocchio.
            Physics for you led to philosophy,
            for me, knowledge of metal under heat                                   75

feeding fantastic dreams of alchemy,
            and turning lead to gold and sour to sweet,
            making my body live eternally,                                              78

but what I made was always counterfeit.”


Wednesday, June 12, 2013


Chapter 28: Subvertors

If unrhymed prose could easier describe
            the blood and wounds appearing in that ditch,
            I’d certainly resort to it, Hell knows.                                     3

All speech falls short, there are no words to tell
            of all the carnage we enact on earth
            and re-enact repeatedly in Hell.                                              6

Below the bridge there seemed an endless flow
            of all those mutilated in the wars
            of Troy, Greece, Italy and Africa.                                      9

Gashed bloody bodies with sliced heads, stumped limbs,
            staggered along or hopped or crawled or reeled,
            their inner parts obscenely unconcealed.                                12

From chin to fart-hole one was so far split
            that all his entrails hung between his thighs
            with under those the bags of piss and shit.                            15

Seeing me stare he raised hands to his chest
            declaring, “See me divide myself,” then
            pulled the gap wider still, shouting aloud,                              18

“Thus is Mohammed maimed! Ali ahead
            is cleft from chin to hair. Everyone here
            created what the cowards call discord.                                   21

Behind us stands a demon with a sword
            who chops us up like this. Trailing again,
            again again around, we slowly heal                                         24

until feeling yet again his slicing steel.
            But who are you, standing upon that dyke?
            Is viewing punishment a thing you like                                  27

before you have to suffer with us too?”
            My master said, “He is not damned like you.
            I, who am dead, conduct this living man                                 30

to see all the conditions of the dead.”
            At this over a hundred in that ditch
            halted, forgot their wounds. Each raised his head                   33

to gape at me. Mohammed said, “When back
in Italy, see Brother Dolcino
leader of those who would restore the faith                           36
of Christians to old simplicity.
            Crusaders menace them and Muslims too.
            Tell them to get in food before the snows                              39

give victory to their Navarese foes.” 
Mohammed lurched away and then came one
half-headed, with ear, nose, mouth sheared off.                 42

Out of his severed windpipe red with blood
            with sides that moved like lips, these words wheezed up:
            “O you alive and innocent! Unless                                         45

appearances deceive, we’ve met before
            on that sweet plain sloping from Vercello
            down to the mouth of Po. If you return,                                48

speak of Pier da Medicino. I
            was a scandal-monger there. Tell my friends
who govern Fano of their dreadful ends                                 51

prepared by one who means to grab their town.
            He will invite them for a peaceful talk
            and send a ship. Unless my words from Hell                         54

prevent, at sea they’ll be flung in to drown
            by Malestino, Whelp of Rimini.”
He was silenced by a yell, then explained                              57

“The name of Rimini is agony
            to one damned here for something he said there
            forty-nine years before the birth of Christ.”                          60

I said, “Yes, I will speak of you on earth,
            but first say why that name causes such woe.”
          In answer Pier, gripped the yeller’s jaw,                                  63

wrenched the mouth open wide so that I saw
            the tongue slashed to a wordless stump inside.
            I cried, “But why? For what?” and Pier replied,                     66

“A stream near Rimini called Rubicon
            was Italy’s frontier. Gaul’s conqueror
            and governor once halted there: Caesar,                                  69

his army too. Rome’s Senate had commanded
            that returning armies be disbanded
before they entered Italy, and so                                            70 

crossing that stream would lead to civil war.
            No wonder Caesar hesitated till
            Curio spoke: “Delay is dangerous                                          73

to men prepared. March on before too late.”
            Both he and Caesar marched on to their fate.
            He and I share the fate of those whose tongue                       76

overflows with bad persuasive speeches.”
            A handless wretch came waving stumps which spouted
            blood that befouled his face. He shouted,                               79

“I, Mosca the Florentine began our
            civil war when I said, Do in the lot
words that killed the Buendelmonte.”                                     82

I said, “Your kindred too!” He staggered off,
            maddened by grief. And then I saw a sight
            almost beyond belief. A headless man                                    85

ran to the bridge. One had held by the hair
            a head. He stopped and raised it lantern-like
            to see me nearer, help me hear it speak.                                 88

After a moan of deep despair it said,
            “O breathing soul, look at this mournful thing.
            Does greater misery than mine exist?                                     91

I am thus for dividing a young king
            from his father Henry King of England,
            as Achitophel goaded Absalom,                                             94

David’s son, to rebel against the head
            of Israel. So I am divided,
            body from brain. But carry news of me                                 97

back to the light of day – Betran de Born,
            lord of the great High Fort in Perigord,
            poet whose minstrelsy is known to you.                               100

Say also this retribution is my due.”