Saturday, March 16, 2013


Chapter 12: The Violent

Where a vast canyon cleft the clifftop edge
              I saw, as from an Alpine mountain’s height
              a rockfall sloping down between dark walls                         3
so steep and far I shuddered at the sight.
             Think of that avalanche of ruined stones
             near Trent, that people call The Slides of Mark,                   6

which spills from lofty summit to the plain.
             Such was our stairway down through the ravine,
             while sprawling across the top I saw                                    9

that monstrous and bull-headed shame of Crete,
            the bastard of depraved Queen Pasiphae
            whom only a bulls prick could satisfy,                                  12

and crouching in a hollow wooden cow
            got what she craved. On seeing us her child
            bellowed and bit his dewlaps, wild with rage,                        15

at which my master cried, “No, this is not
            Duke Theseus who slew you long ago.
            This man must see the violently wrong                                  18

you guard below, so beast, out of our way!”
            as bull fataly stabbed by butchers knife
            before death strikes, has breath to plunge and kick,               21

so did the Minotaur. My guide said, “Quick!
            let us slip past while fury blinds the brute.”
            We did, both stepping down the scree of stones                    24

that shifted under my more weighty foot.
             I pondered this until he said, “Perhaps
             you contemplate these rockfalls which permit                      27

your easier descent into the pit.
             They were not here when last I came this way
             before that Hero from the world above                                 30

rescued so many souls from sin and shame.
             In Limbo then I heard a joyful shout
             as if our universe was cleft by love,                                      33

and certainly an earthquake split these cliffs
            when he came here to fetch his people out.
            Now look below. You will begin to see                                  36

a flood of boiling blood devised to pain
            those who by force hurt other folk for gain.”
            Between the cliff foot and a wide red moat                            39

that curved around that level’s inner ring
I saw a troop of Centaurs galloping
            all armed like bowman out to hunt for deer.                           42
They stopped as we came down. Three left the troop,
put arrows in their bows and, drawing near,
            one called,” Halt, you from above! Stand there and say         45
what torture you deserve – speak or I’ll shoot!”
my guide called back, “What I am here to say
            is for the ears of Chiron – not for you,”                                 48
and leading me toward that well drilled band
murmured, “The speaker tried to steal the bride
            of Hercules, who shot him dead for it.                                   51
Chiron the centaur chief, once kept a school
for heroes where Hercules, Achilles
           and others trained. His troops patrol the shore                       54
of this hot moat, ensuring damned souls don’t rise
more than they should above the scalding flood.”
We stood before this chief, our heads below                          57
the line at which the horse and man combine.
From his great height Chiron regarded us,
          then took a dart and with the feathered end                             60
parted his beard, exposing his wide mouth
and said to the companions at his side,
          “Look at the one behind – the follower                                    63
whose feet imprint the soil. He is not dead.”
 “Not in the least!” swiftly declared my guide.
          “ He has been sent by one on high to view                              66
the depths controlled by you, the wisest beast.
I pray you, by the Power that led us here,
            let one you trust escort us to the ford                                     69
and carry this man over on his back –
he is no spirit who can fly through air.”
           Chiron addressed the centaur on his right:                               72
“Nessus, do what he asks. Take care of them.
Make sure no other troops cause them delay.”
           We and our new guide paced along the bank                           75
amid the steam that rose from the canal
of bubbling blood, with many a piercing scream
          Those sunk to eyebrows in the hellish stew                            78

    could make no outcry, though they suffered most.
“And should!” our centaur cried. “These plunderers
            gloried in slaughter, spilling blood like water,                         81

 seizing by force nations not rightly theirs.
That bald dome was the boss of Sicily,
Dionysious, poisoned at last,                                                 84

who pestered Carthage, Greece and Italy.
That scalp is Alexander’s, called The Great,
          for grabbing states from Greece to India,                                  87

dying when thirty-three. He over ate.
Those black hairs in the soup reveal the place
          of tyrant Azzolino who brought woe                                       90

 to Padua, Verona, Brescia.
          The fairer hair nearby belongs to grim
          Obizzo of Ferara, rich with loot –                                            93

vile gains for which his own son murdered him.”
          Wondering how my master liked this guide
          I looked at him and, smiling, he replied                                     96

“Let me be dumb a while and learn with you.”
          As we advanced, above the simmering gore.
          wild shrieking heads emerged and we saw more                       99

of bodies as the moat grew shallower.
            One waist-deep soul a little way apart,
          our Centaur said, was Simon Montford’s son                          103

who had avenged in church hid father’s death
            by stabbing England’s crown prince to the heart.
           Screaming among those grand aristocrats                                 106

were pirates, highway robbers, human dregs,
            though now the moat boiled only lower legs.
          Where feet alone were stewed I recognized                              109

 faces I knew. Not wanting more tête-a-têtes,
           I looked aside and so we did not meet.
            “Now we can cross,” the Centaur Nessus said,                     112

“Beyond the bed sinks to the other side
            where Attila and such as he abide
          so deep that none will see them any more.”                             115

So on his back I reached the further shore.


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