Saturday, April 27, 2013


Chapter 23: Hypocrites

Silent and unaccompanied we went
            along the dyke-top path, me after my guide
            pondering on the turmoil left behind.                                     3

It called to mind Aesop’s tale of the frog
            and mouse, both killed by their own deceit. 
            What would our fiendish guards do, joined by two                6

recovered from the tar-bath's scalding heat?
            Demons are only bound to keep one law –
            sinners must suffer in their ring of Hell.                                 9

They knew we saw they had not kept it well,
            been swindled into clownish capering.
            Who would they blame for their incompetence?                    12

Stupid malice will never blame itself
            for lack of sense. And now I seemed to hear
            a distant yell draw near. “Master!” I cried.                            15

He turned and said, “You’re right in what you fear.
            See, soaring they draw near, batwings spread wide,
            baying like bloodhounds after blameless hares.”                    18

As mother wakened by a fire alarm
            lifts baby from her side and runs, he grabbed,
            raised, held me to his chest, jumped into the                          21

other ditch, slid down the dyke on his back
            like water down a sluice. My lucky ride
            baffled our foes who, snarling, stood above,                          24

powerless to leave the ring they must patrol.
            In the sixth malebolge we also stood
            watching a novel kind of suffering.                                         27

At first sight what I saw was glorious –
            a line of richly patterned golden gowns
            enameled with such peacock colourings                                 30

kings might have proudly worn them, though grand hoods
            hid every face, and from these tears streamed down.
            The fancy dress was causing this distress.                             33

Its agonizing weight made them all move
            so slow I’d thought at first that they did not.
            A weary dress to wear eternally!                                           36

My poet led me left, the way they went,
            not fast, but each step passed a sobbing wretch
            until I begged, “Have none here names I know?”                   39

“You with the Tuscan tongue, don’t rush away!”
            A voice behind us cried, “Stay in that place.
            When closer to you I will give you names.”                           42

My master said, “Yes, let us wait for them,
            then if you wish, go forward at their pace.”
            I saw behind two trying to come near.                                   45

“Their coats are light,” one said.  His friend replied,
            “He whose throat moves when talking is not dead.”
            When opposite the last looked sideways, spoke:                  48

“Tuscan, though you may fear hypocrisy,
            know that to you I will talk honestly.
            Before I do, tell me first, who are you?”                                51

I said, “My body, born by Arno’s flood,  
            grew up within that city set on it.
            I keep that body yet, but tell me why                                    54

your eyes distill such tears.  How did you get
            the punishment you wear?” He groaned and said,
            “These gilded robes are lined with thickest lead,                    57

so those who bear such weight are bound to creak.
            Once we were priests sworn to protect the weak
            and work to end the bitterness of feuds                                 60

which dominate every Italian state.
            When Florence found no able magistrates
            to keep God’s peace inside the city gates                              63

it gave two Jovial Friars the job –
            me, Catalan and Loderingo here,        
            both Bolognese.” Horrified, I yelled,                                      66

“Peacekeepers? Bah! You raised the mob who smashed
            the Guardingo, home of the Uberti!”
            He sobbed and muttered, “We did wrong, that’s true.           69

Eager to please, we pleased the great too well.
            Pope Clement wanted to hurt the Uberti.
            He is now in Hell.”  I began to say,                                        72 

“Friars, your iniquities…” but was struck
            silent by a new piece of divine wrath –
            an old man crucified across our path                                      75

was trodden underfoot by all who passed.
            He writhed most under me for my foot pressed
            heaviest, since I lived.  Catalan said,                                       78

“That was Caiaphas, priest who thought it best
            one blameless Jew should benefit the rest
by crucifixion. Staked around this ring                                   81

are other priests, those who supported him,
forever now condemned to feel the weight
of dreadful falsehood in each sinner’s heel.”                           84

Virgil had died before our Saviour’s birth.
            He marveled at the sight, then told the friar
            “We need a way to climb out of this ring                               87

upon the right.  Please, is there such a thing?
            If not I must command a black angel
            to fly us up astride his ugly wing.”                                        90

Catalan said, “There is a way at hand. 
            Bridges across this malebolge all fell
            in the great earthquake when Christ harrowed Hell.               93

It left big slopes of rubble down each dyke,
            mainly the lower side upon the right.
            We’re nearing one – climb up it if you like.”                          96

My master halted for a while then cried,
            “That demon, Captain Stinktail, lied to me!”
            The friar replied, “In Bologna we heard                                  99

Satan is a beast with vices even
            demons adopt, and lying not the least.”
            With angry face my leader strode ahead.                                102

Of course I hurried after where he led.







Thursday, April 18, 2013


        Chapter 22: More Swindlers

I have heard cavalry and infantry
           march off to bang of rocket and of gun,
           drum ratatat, trumpet tantantara,                                            3

bell clang, bagpipe yell and hornpipe hoot.None
           disconcerted me like that rude salute
           which sent us on our march along the dyke                             6

with ten fiends guarding us. But why? From what?
         Not able to imagine a reply
I stared hard at the moat where sometimes gleamed                 9

the backs of souls, daring to ease their pain
         like dolphins, before sinking down again.
         Folk say, do as the Romans do in Rome.                                  12
Walking among this crew so eased my fear
         I learned their names and almost felt at home,
         within their ghastly camaraderie.                                               15

Most souls I saw clung froglike to the shore,
nose above tar, but dipped as we came near.
         One clung so long that Snatcher leapt ahead,                            18

speared hair with pitchfork, yanked him into air,
         threw him onto the ground and briskly said,
         “Right, pussies – here’s your mouse. Who wants first bite?”  21

I shuddered, shouted, “Please first ask his name!”
         “Tarface,” snarled Dogspew, “spit your old name out.”
         The wretch moaned, “Ciampollo of Navarre,                           24

King Tybalt’s chancellor, then barrator
         distorting laws for all who paid me well,
         damning my soul to everlasting Hell.”                                       27

“Hooray!” howled Scratcher, ripping a wide strip
         of skin away, but Clartyclaw cried, “Halt,
         a guest has more to say.” My master asked,                      30                   

 “Are there Italians underneath that tar?”
         “Many,” whimpered the native of Navarre.
         “I’ve just been dragged from one who is my pal,                      33

a very famous magistrate indeed –
         no bigger swindler sat upon a bench –”
         “You talk too much!” yelled Gasher. With a hook                   36

he wrenched a muscle from the speaker’s arm.
         Clartyclaw told my guide, “Talk fast before
          they mangle him some more.”  My master asked,                   39

“Who was your friend?” Staring upon his wound
the Navarese groaned, “Great Fra Gomita,
deputy governor and magistrate,                                               42
so kind to gangsters in Sardinia
            they all spoke well of him, also his mate
Zanche of Logodoro, chief swindler                                       45
of the lot. O how the fiends gnash teeth and
            roll their eyes at me! If you want to see
            Tuscans and Lombards let me whistle, then                           48

at least seven will appear. By that sign
we tell each other that the coast is clear.
I’ll do that for you, though of course at first                          51

you must stay out of sight.” Ratsnout snorted,
 “I smell a trick,” The swindler said, “You do.
 I am so much a trickster that from spite                                54
I’ll fool my pals because I can’t fool you.”
Then Pigshit cried, “If managed well this lad
will be our tool, our bait. He sits on dyke,                             57

we wait behind. He whistles like a lark.
            When enough are lured ashore, we charge out
            slashing, goring, buggering how we like!”                           60

“While he escapes?” sneered Ratsnout, “Daft idea.
            One bird in hand is worth flocks in the air.”
            “My arms are long,” Snatcher said. “Crouched behind,         63

I’ll keep him in my reach, and if he leaps
            I have wings, will swoop. Before he hits tar
            I’ll grab his balls, we’ll remove balls, tongue, skin,                66

teeth, nails and hair. Trickster, will you like that?”
            “Escape? I would not dare,” the swindler swore.
            Now even Ratsnout thought the plan was good.                    69

The demons placed the bait where they thought best
            and crouched down low behind, we with the rest,
            till Snotbeard whispered, “Whistle!” and the bait                  72

drew a deep breath, paused, jumped and Snatcher grabbed
            for him shouting, “Got you!” but too late. Fear
            outleapt wings. Snatcher’s downward swoop did not              75

carry him up because Ratsnout, enraged,
            had also taken flight. Mad for a fight
            he tackled Snatcher in mid air. Both plunged                          78

in scalding tar where the Navarese sank.
            Pain disentangled them, but pitch-clogged wings
            stuck them screaming, struggling in the ditch till                    81

Clartyclaw sent four fiends to the far bank.
            By hooks from each side Snatcher and Ratsnout
            were dragged up, pulled out raving and laid down,                 84

each one well cooked inside his crusted hide.
            This uproar, pandemonium, stramash
was not our business so we did not wait,                               87

but left both fiends and swindlers in that state.





Chapter 21: Swindlers

We went from height of bridge to bridge’s height
            of the fourth malebolge, the blackest moat
by far to greet my sight, brimful of tar                                               3

from side to side, boiling like the vats in
            Venice’s great arsenal where the state
            builds its new ships, makes old ships water-tight.                       6         

No furnace lit by hand but wrath divine
made bubbles in the pitch welter, expand,
burst, rise again within that scalding ditch                                          9
at which I stared down till my leader cried,
“Take care!” pulled me aside. Fearful, amazed,
I gazed at a black demon speeding by,                                          12

batwings spread, claws clutching a sinner’s feet,
with thigh over each shoulder, roaring out,
            “Come comrades! See a new town councilor                                      15

from Lucca – I am flying back for more.
            No lack of politicians there to swear
            that yea is nae for cash, then for more pay                                    18       

 to vote the other way.” He flung his freight
            face down into the pitch. The victim shrieked,
            arched back, tried to rise. From below the bridge                               21

leapt demons wielding hooks and pitchforks who    
forced him down as cooks plunge boiling meat,
yelling, “You cannot swindle us, so sink                                   24

you bastard, sink! Go under! Drink our tar
            or feel us rip and scar!” My master said,
            “These boys are rough. You go behind that rock                               27

while I talk sense to them.” Gladly I hid
            and saw the horrid crew rush out at him
            as dogs attack a beggar. Unafraid                                                        30

he told them, “Before you risk prodding me,
            a word first with your captain. Which is he?”
            “Old Stinkytail!” they cried and moved aside                                    33

from one who grunted, “Talk will not save your hide.”
            My guide replied, “See I have reached this place
            clean and unhurt, proving that heavenly grace                                    36

is leading me. This force you must obey,
            to help me and a friend upon our way
            down to Hell’s deepest pit. This you must do                                    39

or boil in your own stew.” I never saw
            a villain so downcast as Stinkytail.
            He gulped then panted, “Bring your pal out here –                           42

I’ll see what I can do.” Trembling with fear                                      
           I joined his crew like Pisans I have seen
           pass between ranks of Tuscans, who they must                                  45

trust not to kill them, but can’t wholly trust,
           I clung close to my leader’s side among
           these glaring demons wielding blades and prongs.                            48

“One wee jag in the arse will do no harm?”
            “Why wee?  Why not a few?” two whispered, but
            “Scratcher and Gasher, shut your stupid gobs                                  51

or feel me fork your bums!” roared Stinkytail,
            then to my leader said, “The bridge ahead
            fell in an earthquake twelve hundred, sixty-six                                  54

years ago yesterday at noon. You need
            a bridge much further round this dyke. I’ll pick—
            that’s if you like— good men to take you there.                               57

I whispered, “Master, please let us go alone.”
he murmured,” Please control your cowardice.
            These demons hate us, yes, but fear me more,                    60

so stop those scowls which show how foul they are
            so must exasperate.” He said aloud,
            “Thank you, we accept.” Stinkytail grinned and cried,                   63

“Clartyclaw, take command of these: Snotbeard,
              Dogspew ,Ratsnout, Toadspit, Tusker, Pigshit,
              Snatcher, Scratcher, Gasher and Cuntycrab.                                 66

Aye, these good men will do, so now you lot,
            give both my guests the care that is their due                                    
            to the next bridge’s arch, but let no part                                         69

of swindlers arse show above tar you pass.
           Now, forward march!” He gave a bugle call
           out of his anus, very loud and clear.                                               72

As counter sign each fiend stuck out his tongue
             and farted just as loudly in the rear.
             Dreading each one I started marching too                                 75

along beside my guide, sweating with fear.