Monday, June 09, 2014


Chapter 23: The Gluttons

I gazed aloft through the green foliage
            like hawker who wastes hours pursuing birds
            until my more-than-father said, “Come, son!                         3

Make better use of time.” Turning my face
            and racing after him I heard a hymn
            sung by a chorus mingling joy and pain:                                 6

“Lord, open up our lips.” I asked my guide,
            “Father, do you know what this means?”
            Said he, “Souls paying God what’s due to Him.”                  9

Like travellers absorbed in thought who rush
            by others with one quick enquiring look,
            so, coming from behind and speeding on,                               12

a crowd, silent and devout, overtook
            and passed us with surprised stares. All had eyes
            sunk in deep hollows, white skins clinging tight                    15

to bones beneath. Erysicthon who gnawed
            his limbs when wild with hunger was as gaunt,
            and those starved in Jerusalem’s great siege                           18

where Miriam ate her child. Skull sockets
            seemed gemless rings. The nose-bone M was plain
            to any who read OMO in a face.                                            21

I did not know the sight and scent of fruit
            had famished them, but greatly wondered at
            their harsh emaciation, scabbiness,                                         24

misery. Then one turned sunk eyes on me
            and cried, “Rejoice! What good thing brings you here?”
            Not by his looks I knew him, but his voice–                          27

he was my friend, Farese Donati.
            “Ignore,” he begged, “my withered skin and flesh.
            Please tell me about you. Who are the two                            30

you travel with? You must explain all this.”
            “I wept to see your face when dead,” I said,
            “and weep to see it now. In God’s name say                         33

what starves you? Upset by your present state,
            I don’t see how to answer questions now.”
            “The spring of water nourishing that tree,”                            36

said he, “makes me as lean as all of us
            who sing as we pass under branches of
            that fragrant fruit and spray. It renews our                            39

hunger and thirst. We glutted appetite
            to such excess in life these painful pangs
are needed to restore our holiness.                                          42

It feels like pain but is a comfort too.
            It brings us closer to the tree where One
            who died to make us free was crucified,                                 45

crying, ‘Lord! Lord!’.” I said, “But Farese,
            you only died five years ago. I know
            you were not very bad, but men as good                                48

have had to wait lifetimes outside the gate
            before admitted to ascend the stairs.
            What lets you come so fast and far?” He said,                       51

“My widow Nelly’s tears and constant prayers
            heard in the court where love is highest law.
            She’s that rare thing among our womenfolk,                          54

a widow who still loves the man she wed
            and does not seek romps in another bed.
            Her prayers have raised me to and through the gate               57

and roads above to here. She’s one of few.
            The savage women of Sardinia
are chaste beside most female Florentines.                             60

Brother, I prophesy an evil time
            when priests from holy pulpits will denounce
our noble dames for how they flaunt their tits.                      63

I hear that Muslim wives dress modestly,
            and wives from equally barbaric shores
            need none to tell them not to dress like whores.                    66

I wish they saw ahead what tragedies           
            will come before their baby boys grow beards.
            Dear brother, it is time to tell your tale                                  69

not just to me: also my company.
            Your shadow on the road amazes them.”
            At that I said, “Farese, I will not                                            72

give tongue to all we did when we were young.
            I left such wildness just four days ago
            when my best teacher led me bodily                                      75

through Hell then up to here, circling this hill
            that straightens folk made crooked by bad will.
            He’ll be my guide till I meet Beatrice.                                    78

He is Virgil, the other Statius
            for whom all Purgatory shook like mad
            releasing him, as you will one day be.                                    81

How great that both of us can now be glad.”







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