Saturday, May 25, 2013


Chapter 26: Liars

Florence rejoice, famous on land and sea
            where florins are the common currency.
            That crowds of thieves swarm from you into Hell                   3

cannot delight, does not astonish me.
            Cardinal Prato tried and failed to quell
            the bitter feuding that corrupts your state                                6

and prayed for a total overthrow
            to end your boastful posturing.  I too
pray that this happens soon.  The more I wait                            12

the horrider must be my city’s fate.
            We left that dyke, set foot on the next bridge,
surmounting rocks so jagged and abrupt                                   15

we could not move without the help of hands
            and as we struggled up I grimly thought                                
of how so often mighty powers betray,                                        18

mislead so many.  Being a Florentine
            I swell with hope and pride when I survey
            the scope of what I plan to say in rhyme.                                21

What if my talent leads me far astray?
            I too must pray for more humility.
            At last we rested on the bridge’s height.                                  24       

As peasants, with the coming of the night,
            pause on a hillside before going down
            into a valley where the fireflies glow,                                       27

we stared into the malebolge below
            and saw a flow of sparks. “Each is a flame,”
            my master said, “Clothing a counsellor                                  30

whose lying words fooled people into war.”
            I shuddered, wondered could such words be mine?
            Could things I write become excuse for sin?                           33

I clutched the crag to stop me falling in
            before we climbed down to a nearer view
            some spires of moving fire within that ditch                            36

were taller than the rest and cleft in two.
            My master said, “Each of these double flames
            contains a pair united by their crime.                                        39

Here comes inventor of the wooden horse,
            Ulysees, with beside him Diomed
            who made the Trojans think it was a gift                                 42

proving the war was past, the Greeks had left.
            Both mourn within that fire their stratagem
            which burned down Troy, home of Aeneas                             45

who fled and founded Rome, as I have sung.
            They bemoan also other crafty tricks
            whose outcomes they did not see.” I cried out,                       48

“Master, if they can speak within their flame,
            please I pray you, please let them speak to me!”
            He said, “I like that prayer, so I agree.                                    51

Leave talk to me. Greeks will despise your speech.”
            When the flame came to where my guide thought best
            I heard him cry, “Please pause, hear our request.                    54

We are poets wishing to be your friends.
            You alone can tell us what we never read
            in Homer’s poems – how you met your ends.”                      57

One flaming horn, the biggest of the pair
            first roared and wavered, as if struck by wind,
            then the point flickered, speaking like a tongue.                      60

“Bound home from Troy I lost my way, my men,
            my ships through storms, monsters and women’s wiles,
            so winning home at last I found myself                                   63

unfit for quiet life with wife and son.
            Choosing a crew of some I knew from Troy
            we put to sea, sailed west and reached that strait                      66

between Africa and Spain with before
           only the boundless ocean. Then Hercules
            has put a pillar on each shore inscribed                  69

DO NOT GO THROUGH, and so not many do.
            ‘Shipmates!’ said I, ‘Did we dare, share, survive
            a thousand dangers in search of rest? No!                               72

Greeks believe, strive for virtue and knowledge 
            the best thing in life. Let us sail ahead,
            discover a new world, and if we fail                                         75

what grander way to end can old men find?’
            They cheered and plied their oars, would not have ceased
            to drive us onward had I changed my mind.                            78

We sailed for five moons south. Equator crossed,
            strange constellations shone above at night.
            Then to the east one day as dawn light spread                       81

we saw, dimmed by distance, a splendid sight –
            a land wider than Italy, rising
            high like a mountain far into the sky.                                      84

Our joy soon changed to grief. From that land came
            a storm that struck and whirled us three times round,
heaved our stern high, plunged the prow under waves       87

that closed above us. As fate willed, we drowned.”




Chapter 25: More Thieves

Having said that, The Brute flung up his fists,
            each one with two fingers splayed in wide Vs,
            and screamed, “Up your arse God! Fuck you and yours!”      3

A friendly snake, coiling round throat and head,
            choked cursing short, while one between his thighs
tied hands to genitals. He could not move                               6

a finger without pain so, speechless, fled.
            Pestoia, Pestoia, burn yourself down
            rather than breed brutes from the Fucci seed!                          9

In all Hell’s halls I have met none who so
            shamelessly, arrogantly hated God,
            not even he struck dead on Theban walls.                              12
A centaur charging past cried, “Where is he?
            Where is that filthy beast?” Maremma’s swamp
            along the Tuscan coast had not more snakes                         15

than writhed upon his back.  Behind the head
a dragon rode his shoulders, bat-wings spread
            and snorting flame.  “That’s Cacus,” my guide said.           18

“He was that cattle-thief Hercules slew,
so is not good enough to share the job
            of keeping tyrants in the moat of blood.”                          21

I heard voices below cry, “Who are you?”
            and down there saw three Florentines too rude
            to give their names. Not knowing them I laid                   24

finger from nose to chin, suggesting that
            we watch them silently.  I heard one say,
            “Where is Cianfa?” in a worried way.                                27

Maybe you won’t believe what happened next.
            It seemed incredible to me.  A reptile,
            six-legged, sprang and clung to the speaker’s front.          30

Mid limbs clasped belly, top claws clamped his arms,
            jaws like a vice gripped cheeks.  The lowest part
            grasped thighs, squeezed tail between and up behind.       33

Never did ivy bind an oak so tight,
            then both forms started merging like hot wax,
            colours and shapes becoming interfused.                          36

“Agnello, you are neither one nor two!”
            the others cried.  Two faces shared one head.
            Torso and legs grew twice as thick.  Two arms               39

stretched twice as long.  Sickened, I gladly saw
            that jumbled monster stumbling away.
            His friends stayed put in spite of their dismay.                42

If they felt safer near us, silly they!
            As in hot summers, over sunlit roads
            the lizards flash from hedge to hedge, through air            45

a wee red goggle-eyed beast flung itself
like dart at belly, hit one where it stung
            the part through which the unborn child is fed,               48

then fell down, crouched, gaped up at the bitten one
            who, hypnotized, gaped back and even yawned.
            Smoke from his navel, smoke from the beast’s snout      51

came squirting out and mingled in a cloud.
            Lucan’s Pharselia tells how bite of snake
            turned Sabellus into a pool of pus, and how                   54

Namidius swelled spherical and burst. 
            Ovid’s Metamorphosis tells of how
            Daphne, Arachne, Arethusa changed                            57

into tree, spider and fountain.  I am first
to tell how substances were interchanged
between two kinds, so Lucan, Ovid,                              60

listen to me.  Under that smoky veil
the lizard’s tail split while the bitten man
            pressed feet, knees, thighs against each other till           63       

separation vanished.  The forked tail took shapes
legs lost.  Meanwhile arms drew into armpits
            while the beast’s fore-legs grew.  Its hind claws clenched,      66

changing into those parts good men conceal –
            the wretch’s private parts became wee feet.
As one sank down the other rose erect.                                 69

One head went bald, the other head grew hair.
            Colours exchanged, yet through the misty air
they still stared eye to eye from changing heads.                   72 

The upright one grew brows, cheeks sprouted ears,
            nose formed above and chin below his mouth
            in which the cleft tongue rounded, fit for speech.                 75       

The croucher’s face had sharpened to a snout,
ears pulled inside as a snail retracts its horns.
The tongue thinned, forked and flickered.The smoke 
stopped.                                                                                                    78

The soul, now lizard, squirmed and hissed and fled.
            The soul now human spat, and turning said
            to he who stayed, “So now let Bosua                              81

run on all fours a while as I have done.”
 I thus knew how none in this robber’s den
             could call their souls their own for very long.              84       

As the unchanged man limped away I knew
            he was crippled Puccio, followed by
Francesco, the ex-lizard, thug and thief                      87       

who brought the folk of Gaville such grief.









Saturday, May 11, 2013


Chapter 24: Thieves

Just as a shepherd, baffled by late spring,
  frowns upon fields where grass is white with frost
                then smiles when sunlight thaws it for his flocks,                3

my master frowned upon the broken rocks
            that must become our stair. Gazing aloft
            he chose the best line of ascent with care,                                 6

then turning, smiled and beckoned. Up we went,
            he leading till high boulders blocked our way.
            Stooping, he lifted me. I gripped the top,                               9

then dragged my body up over the edge
            and pulled him after –  he was very light.
            And so by lifts and pulls, from ledge to ledge,                         12

we climbed above that static avalanche.
Breathless, exhausted, on the highest rock      
I lay flat out, thinking the summit reached,                 15

but no! The dyke in front sloped higher yet.
            I groaned at that. My master said, “Get up!   
Sloth is no way to win enduring fame.                         18

Great works demand effort to stop your name
            fading like smoke in air, foam into sea.
Come, we have harder climbs than this ahead.”              21

Pretending to a strength I did not feel,
            rising I said, “Lead on. I’m not afraid.”
We toiled up that that sore steepness to the ridge               24

where the next bridge began. We mounted it.
            Halfway across a cry from underneath,
angry, prolonged and wordless, made me stare                27

down into dimness. I saw nothing there
and asked, “Who is below?” Said he, “You’ll see,”
and led me off the bridge.  At last appeared                         30

the seventh malebolge and what it held.
            I shudder when that vision comes to mind.     
It was not deep and squirming at our feet                           33

were reptiles of every kind – limbless,
many-legged, blind, goggle-eyed – snakes, lizards,
crocodiles, wriggling in piles or chasing                          36

naked men who raced around, their hands bound
tight behind by serpents whose heads and tails,
thrust between thighs, entwined their genitals.                         39

One of them paused beneath us by the dyke.
            A tiny lizard leapt and bit his back
where neck and shoulders meet. His head flamed up.             42

Like wooden statue blazing from the top
he stood there burning downward into ash
spreading like thin white carpet on the ground.            45       

Smoke from the burning hung in a pale cloud                                    
that did not fade but stayed, thickened, sinking
            to the ash that rose, meeting the haze                             48
in lump, hump, pillar. Ash and smoke condensed,                              
became that shape the burning had unmade.
            He stood where he had been, blinking, aghast           51
like epileptic waking from a fit,                                                           
bewildered still by recent agony.
            My master asked his name. “Vanni Fucci                   54
of Tuscany,” said he, “called too The Brute                                      
            of Pestoia, which was my town and den
            where I was absolute, me and my men.”                   57       

“Master,” I told my guide, “don’t let him go                                               
            before he says why he is here. I know
            he was brutal, bloody, caused much grief                60       

like other party bosses – never knew
The Brute of Pestoia was also thief.”
The sinner glared at me, blushing with shame.                63

Said he, “You finding me so low in Hell
hurts worse than dying did.  Since I must tell,
know it was I who, from Saint Zeno’s church,               66

stole all the holy vessels. For this crime
an honest man was jailed. Now listen more!
Learn to regret you ever met The Brute.                     69

Your party has some strength in Florence still –
not for much longer. Those who wish you ill
are growing stronger. Allied with Pistoia                 72

the party hating yours will force a war,
a stormy battle on Picene’s plain.
Your people will be thunderstruck and mine               75

will win, and give the beaten side no choice
but death or exile, therefore I rejoice! 
            You’ll never see the town you love again.               78

I’m glad that fact will bring you endless pain.”