Canto 2 is part of a sequence of 33 Cantos called The English Cantos that James Sale is attempting to write in the style – and using the terza rima – of Dante. His aim is to create a contemporary epic of heaven and hell that stands four-square against the meaninglessness of post-modernism. Canto 1 has already appeared on The Society’s website.

I knew then that I had to move, be gone;
Another depth beckoned. Daylight rose up,
Though bleached by how only bland neon shone.

About me busyness, but I was stuck:
Weak, as at least one third of guts removed,
How would I find my way – what grace or luck

Empowered, directed to what I craved?
And as I felt the dull ache return, so
Too someone beside me, someone I loved

Appeared. Though not met before, yet to know
Was easy: jaw pronounced, complexion dark,
But something more purely in spirit shows;

As if, imagining a distant bark
One plainly saw exactly the whole dog,
So now who he was was clear, and his work:

‘Dante!’ I cried, amazed, restraining sobs,
That sense of overwhelm at crisis points,
That sense of undeserving, yet through God

Just as cancer came, and its dark taint,
So now goodness abounded: Dante stood
Beside my bed, in death a living saint

For all he’d suffered, all he’d understood,
And beckoned me to join him on his way:
The way he knew before, if but I could.

‘There is no time’, he said. ‘No time to stay.’
He gently smiled. I groaned within. So weak.
I’d much prefer to lie and chat and stay

And not get up. He knew and knew to speak:
‘You wonder how I wrote my work and laughed
The while? Then what I did you too must seek.

My place in heaven, which for you I’ve left,
That is no sacrifice: to save a soul
From hell is worthy – are you man enough?’

He moved forward, hand grabbed mine, with one pull
Up, one arm round his shoulder, so we stepped
Together exit-bound, and with one will.

‘The way up is down,’ he said, ‘you have slept
Too long.’ No stars above, only dead light
Casting no shadows, in its shade we kept.

So slow our journey to the stairs’ deep flight.
We reached the balcony. I made to pause,
Hovering above the atrium, a kite-

like figure, scrying land, to spot what flaws
Of living things disrupt its still cover,
And last, perhaps, to find my strength and cause.

But he had none of it. ‘Before it’s over
There’s one to meet, not as you met before.
Ward Two contains the start of all your bother.’

We reached the passage leading to the door
Left open, and no-one else seemed within.
One bed, far-cornered, across lino-ed floor.

I heard soft murmurs, groans, and so ground thin
Existence barely able to register –
But as it did, alas, now was but a whine.

I saw a face as old as Methuselah,
But feminine instead. Eyes grey and dim,
Turning she mocked me: ‘I know who you are,

And why you’ve come. You think you’re friends with Him?
How little you know – look at me, look now!
He did this! And laughs, and why? For a whim.

You think you’re clever, son, but still you owe
Me, still you haven’t paid me dues -’ She stopped
Midway as if to choke, and I to know.

My hair electrified, raised up in shock;
My tongue cleaved to the roof of my mouth;
I could not speak, seemed my whole being locked,

For in her face I saw both horror, truth;
And he beside me could not bear the sight,
But hid himself awhile, and held aloof

From what his own hell lacked – a mother’s slight.
This Dante did not suffer, for all he did:
But I endured it – saw her lost in night,

Her loss-like rags screening what would be hid –
Beneath her clothes of care, and high concern,
Compassion’s trinkets; there: her rings of pride.

For she knew best. And always had. So spurn
Advice from God Almighty, let Him try;
Yet, could He but see her, God too might learn;

And everyone who saw would see and pity,
Her mind reasoned. ‘Who put me here?’ she flamed
A-sudden, and fierce, and then sadly, ‘Why?’

‘It’s me. I am your son visiting, James’.
Her head lifted, but slow, as if her neck
Could scarcely hold the weight now I’d been named.

‘Steven?’ she said, in total disconnect.
‘No, James, your first son’. Some deep groan emerged,
Giving me sense my being somehow wrecked

Her purpose she’d always been on the verge
Of doing – instead, I was there, her son,
An inconvenience not to be purged,

A fact whose dreariness went on and on;
But, whatever, sons too had uses still,
And if no other, then torment was one.

How I longed, despite it all, just to feel
She loved me, and that deeply she approved;
My whole life waiting, and hoping she will

At last say words that mean, truly, I’m loved.
Instead, like serving stale but scalding tea,
She names the one we knew, with whom we lived

Those years: Gordon, husband who fathered me,
‘Do you remember him?’ Could I forget?
How not recall that day’s finality:

Him helpless, some jelly about to set,
And all living shivers shook out of him,
Arguing still as some shadow’s dark net

Engulfed his light, I – but she stretched out a limb
To touch me – ‘Bastard, wasn’t he?’ – her insult,
Casual and continuing to maintain her game.

How thick illusions are, how difficult
To penetrate; especially those we learn
Sucking that milk which seemingly lacks all fault,

And we no brain that might express concern;
So grateful just to drink and thereby live.
How I felt her love, didn’t doubt its turn.

On that basis, then, I was set to thrive,
Believing, as believe I did, her love
Was true, intrinsic, core and her real drive;

Belief, not knowing what I did not have,
As every step along her crazy way
Some subtle glitch revealed what forces drove

Her soul to night, and so to skip the day.
Each one, decision, at each crucial point
Avoided conscience and its sharp display:

Instead, stood ready with a blunt ‘I can’t’,
Or fond evasion, or bland platitude
Of ‘Peace’ she came to worship and anoint,

As if the word itself, and all its mood
Could trump all principles worth dying for:
Hail mother, you of right and rectitude!

What could I say? Already through death’s door,
My father, ahead in another ward,
Stuck like mother but on a lower floor.

‘Yes, bastard,’ she said. ‘He’s here too.’ She paused,
As if bemused by her own intensity;
And I saw him dying, as his throat clawed

For oxygen, and his words hauntingly,
Futile and few, which gargled I made out
At last, hunched over him leaving me:
‘Mudder, mudder, mudder …’ the word, no doubt
That drew me here now: his mother then, now
My own, and its unresolved gunk and blight.

I tried to say, or at least make some show
Of positives: ‘He’s gone now, mum – no need
To fret yourself’, but words would not allow

Release from pain: what was her past in deed,
Indeed, lived on, etched in flesh that could not
Forgive, forget, but held her in her bed,

Immobilised and fading, left to rot.
‘Have you a son?’ she asked, as if returning pain
To me, to think so easily forgot

My precious ones, grandchildren got in vain
For her, if truly no memory served
To re-create them freshly in her brain.

I groaned within. Again, she’d touched my nerve;
And Dante who had shied away came back.
He touched my shoulder softly. ‘You deserve,’

He said, ‘more. Let’s go. Why endure this flak?
Remember, here is where the lost convince
Themselves they’re right, but with no going back.’

I heard his wisdom, and saw its evidence,
But all the years, long years, being her son,
I wanted to save her, at last show my strength –

One last effort, one tug, it could be done.
She could, as if by magic, be released.
I turned to Dante. ‘Help me, we are strong’.

I saw the sheets she sat in, how they creased
Around her body, encasing her, stuck.
‘Let’s move her from here, that way she finds peace’.

Like Herakles, seeing Theseus struck
Mute in that dumb chair on that long journey,
So now I moved forward, still full of pluck;

But Dante stopped, for he knew more than me,
And watched as round my mother’s arms I wrapped
My own and sought to lift her, break her free.

One heave, huge heave, and then the spell would snap;
She’d lift and from the bed, at last awake,
We’d talk, not like before, but in my lap

I’d cradle, whisper, tell her for her sake
Now had arrived and now she would be free –
The past was over, all its binding stake.

How my mind, obsessed by these fantasies,
Worked mad, as up I felt her body come;
But then light drained, and flickered suddenly,

Ground shifted, trembling through some deeper thrum;
‘Stop!’ Dante cried. I felt her massive weight,
As upwards before, now my eyes stared down

To see her passive and in love with fate,
And those sheet folds around still clinging tight
Like coiling snakes who’d not discharge their freight

So much she loved them, and their toxic bite,
That God Himself – but then the plaster fell,
Showered our heads with dust and shattered bits –

Could not undo the hell of her free will.
No freedom now – I let her go – had to,
As Dante pulled me off, myself turned pale

And wretched – while she in all the hubbuboo
Stayed unconcerned, serene. ‘Mother,’ I tried
Once last time, as Dante made signs to go,

‘See – One who made the world, and all the wide,
Who moves in everything, is everywhere,
Has made such beauty, but in us resides –

Our souls, mother, matter, for He cares.’
I wept, could not contain my tears. ‘For most
Of all -’ And Dante’s hands, then, formed in prayer,

(He knew what must be said even to ghosts
And those who souls no longer live, adrift
From Him) ‘ – He’s able to the uttermost

To save – to save, mother, only now lift
Your eyes and see light.’ But her eyes were shut;
Ears too closing, of hearing too bereft.

‘Call on His name,’ I loudly shouted, but
To no avail. Some secret pleasure pursed
Her lips, some understanding I had not,

A moment; then blank and white, she turned, accursed
Away from me. I nearly – Dante caught
Me as I fell – fainted. Said he, ‘We durst

Not stay a second more.’ And so he brought
Me, space collapsing, out where ground stood firm.
No looking back. For now, no further thought:

She’d gone her way, and shown her true concern;
But mercy led me: ahead, a darker turn.

 

James Sale, FRSA is a leading expert on motivation, and the creator and licensor of Motivational Maps worldwide. James has been writing poetry for over 40 years and has seven collections of poems published, including most recently, Inside the Whale, his metaphor for being in hospital and surviving cancer, which afflicted him in 2011. He can be found at www.jamessale.co.uk and contacted at james@motivational maps.com. He is the winner of First Prize in the Society’s 2017 Competition and Second Prize in the Society’s 2015 Competition.
 

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39 Responses

  1. Amy Foreman

    Riveting, horrific, terrifying . . . this pulled me in inexorably and forced me to keep reading, even through the pain. Dante would be proud, James.

    Reply
    • James Sale

      Thank you so much for these words, Amy; I cannot pretend that I am anywhere near the poetic league of Dante, but that the poem ‘inexorably’ kept you reading despite its subject matter is a joy to me, for I always maintain that the true poets can take the most horrific material and make it beautiful but without compromising the reality. The post-modernists, of course, just give you the ugly and then expect moral brownie points for noticing it!

      Reply
  2. James A. Tweedie

    James, you have taken Dante and his late medieval/pre-renaissance moral rationalism and given him a 21st century heart and soul. Where Dante preferred to observe and reflect on the agony and ecstasy of the Divine Comedy from a safe distance, you have led him (and us) so much deeper into the innermost circle of human suffering, pain, disappointment, despair, and grief. The struggle you describe in this canto is nothing short of bare-knuckled, hand-to-hand, mortal combat, accompanied by the malingering institutional odors of urine, antiseptic, and stale, uneaten food. As I followed you and Dante back through the outer circles of the hospital and returned to the light and air of ordinary life I found myself scratched and bruised from the experience. The truth revealed in your poem is brutally real and raw. Between the lines I detected scattered hints of a just and righteous God alongside wraith-like specters of hope, redemption and immortality. Dante began his own poetic journey with Inferno and only then followed Virgil to Purgatory and Beatrice to Paradise. Perhaps you are headed in the same direction? I eagerly look forward to see where you and Dante will venture next. Thank you for sharing your journey with us.

    Reply
    • James Sale

      Thank you James – it is a delight to me that you have so ‘felt’ the poem, for it is the objective of all poetry writing that we can enter into the feeling state and lay bare the soul. Yes, I am attempting to follow Dante’s journey but in a modern context, and as you know now, Dante has appeared to guide me. Your response – and Amy’s – make me all the more determined, so far as it lays within my power to do so – to attempt to enter into the heart of the modern hell, and to exit from it to the light. But it was Colonel Percy Harrison Faucett who said, ‘The exit from Hell is always difficult’. How true. I am now midway through Canto 5, and 3 and 4 have been very bleak – but spectres of hope, redemption and immortality remain. Thank you again.

      Reply
    • James Sale

      Thank you David – great that you get what I am trying to do, and bizarrely, I am looking forward to the rest myself as my logical mind can’t work out what it is or even create it!

      Reply
  3. C.B. Anderson

    James,

    If you haven’t already , you must read Richard Wilbur’s translation of Canto 25 of Dante’s Inferno. If you can even come close to his perfection in all dimensions of prosody, then you will be immortalized with the likes of Edward Fitzgerald. What you’ve done to this point is a monumental undertaking, but the metrical & expositional gravy, so far, is still a little bit lumpy. I hope that my comment will be seen more as encouragement than as disparagement.

    Reply
    • Amy Foreman

      I agree with C.B. . . . there are some lumps in meter and rhyme, but the overall flavor of ominous dread is right where you want it: extremely moving and effective.

      Moments of genius stand out, as in the repeat of the word “in-deed:”
      “Release from pain: what was her past in deed,
      Indeed, lived on, [. . .]” . . . or at the crest of the Canto, where the lines are rhythmic, metrical perfection:
      “But Dante stopped, for he knew more than me,
      And watched as round my mother’s arms I wrapped
      My own and sought to lift her, break her free.”

      At other moments, I think, the phrasing might be altered, just a skosh, to take out a lump or two, as in:
      “I knew then that I had to move, be gone;
      Another depth beckoned. Daylight rose up,”
      The first line is perfect, but the second could be tweaked, only slightly, for the iambs to flow smoothly:
      “Another depth ahead. The light rose up,” or something similar, in which the meter is more easily felt.

      Of course, that is ONLY an OPINION . . . and you should absolutely keep it the same if you prefer! Just throwing in my two cents (or half cent!) Sometimes I wish there were some sort of symposium where we could read one another’s work aloud, and experiment with different options of words and phrases . . . sort of a classical poet’s workshop. I know it would help my poetry!

      Whatever the case, you have most certainly undertaken an enormous, epic task with these Cantos, James, and I salute you and, with C.B., hope you feel supported and encouraged in this mighty endeavor! Well done!

      Reply
      • James Sale

        Amy, as always, love your comments and perception. The question of the prosody I am going to review. That wonderful translator of Dante, who happens to grace this www, Simon J Harris, has been kind enough to give me a detailed critique of Canto 1, and I shall be revising Canto 1 in due course and seeing where I agree with his perceptive observations. Indeed, the editor, Evan, himself spotted something in Canto 1, some English jargon, and suggested I amend to something both Brits and Yanks could equally understand, so I did just that! Nobody is so good that they cannot learn from others’ ideas. But I like too your enthusiasm for some of my lines, and I will look at the lines you mention for improvement in due course – but in due course is key – one needs to brood on these things very carefully. Thanks again for all your help.

    • James Sale

      Thanks CB – I take it as encouragement and thank you too for potentially putting me in such august company. I will seek out the Wilbur translation. And I shall comment further on the prosody. Your support is really important to me.

      Reply
    • James Sale

      That’s great news, Leo, especially from a poet of your stature and ability. The thing is: that is exactly what one wants in a poem – to move – e-motion – and without that all technical skill is dead, and so are all bright ideas that stay just in the head.

      Reply
  4. Leo Yankevich

    I just wanted to add that since James introduces loose metre early and slanted rhymes, he has set a precedent that should be followed throughout the poem. This is fine.

    If a poem is strictly metred and rhymed in the first 8 lines, that precedence ideally ought to be followed. Broken metre and half rhymes introduced later on would suggest incompetence on the poet’s part. (There are, however, exceptions.)

    James has not done this; he lets us know early that the poem will be loose.

    Reply
    • James Sale

      Thank you for your perceptive remarks here Leo. I don’t want to deliberately say that my metre is ‘right’, but you are right in suggesting that it was never my intention to write in exact iambics or perfect rhymes, because I think – and thought – that in a poem of this nature, and given its length and scope – that it would not be appropriate to do so. Remembering Dr Johnson on Pope and Dryden, I prefer to read Dryden: Pope is too ‘smooth’ and precise for my tastes anyway; I like a rougher edge, but with a clear model that I am constantly returning to. But I am going to consider the possibility that I am wrong and consider CB’s and Amy’s points in due course. And here it might be appropriate to say how much the support of the SCP is to me. This poem is, hopefully, going to be ready for September 2021, which as you will all know is the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death. I have opened up discussions in the UK about dramatisations of this work in Southampton and London to co-incide with the anniversary, and I will let SCP know about this in due course. Also, FYI, my wife and I are visiting New York next year, probably May time, with a primary intention to meet Evan Mantyk and SCP members. I hope I can meet as many as possible – and do some readings too! – while I am in New York. At the very least I look forward to some great conversations about real poetry and where we all are now. Again, thanks.

      Reply
  5. David Hollywood

    Dear James, A marvelous achievement, and I wish you great and continued success with the rest of this project.

    Reply
    • James Sale

      David – thank you – I am encouraged by all this support. You know, on a simple level it’s so important. This weekend, for example, I was thinking of all the million things I need to do, but this response has made me think: to hell with it, let me spend Saturday afternoon working on the Cantos!!! So, it really helps. Cheers!

      Reply
      • David Hollywood

        And best of luck and support, while I also hope you gain great satisfaction and reward.

  6. David Watt

    James, I read Canto 2 from start to finish with full attention. It is truly commendable that you sustain this epic work, and in the process never lose the thread of heartfelt emotion, Hell and horror.
    I find the stanza below striking, because it flows naturally as any casual conversation, yet makes a decisive point.

    I groaned within. Again, she’d touched my nerve;
    And Dante who had shied away came back.
    He touched my shoulder softly. ‘You deserve,’

    Looking forward to further works.

    Reply
    • James Sale

      Brilliant – and thank you for pointing out that ‘casual conversation’ aspect, because I am trying – where appropriate – to get just that feel, and sometimes metrically that works fine, and other times I need to vary it somewhat. Most importantly of all: ‘sustaining the full attention’. If I can do that, then this poem will be worth it. Thank you again for supporting it, and all my work, which I have noticed you do. I shall keep you posted all developments on this, as it is going to become a large part of my life.

      Reply
  7. Alison Hull

    James. Reading this in sunny Barbados so no vaster contrast. Yet this resonated so profoundly for me that it brought tears. The emptiness of feeling so much needed and never coming. Your words are so powerful. The inner hell of a spoilt life which can never be healed. Modern yet graphically invoking ancient images and hitting straight to the soul. How did I know that you were so profound all those years ago, teaching in Luton? You’re enriching literature yourself. Thank you.

    Reply
  8. James Sale

    Alison – hi! fabulous and how good to hear from you on these pages! Paradoxically, I am so pleased that it ‘brought tears’, for that is the true function of poetry: catharsis. And as for Luton – well – you were one of my great stars in the superb English teaching team that was, for at least the two years it held together and before we all moved on, the best English department in the County!!! I still have an English department booklet you co-created back in those days. It’s been 28 years, but let’s hope we meet up again once more – all the best!

    Reply
    • James Sale

      Ha ha ha! Well, CB – I hope it is going to end well, which is all we can do, along with working towards that end. But one never knows in life exactly how things will end, which is, surprisingly, one of the major benefits of life, since we are constantly being stimulated and surprised!

      Reply
      • C.B. Anderson

        Well, James,

        As far as life goes, we only know that it ends, and at that time one can hardly say that one is well. Nevertheless, hope springs eternal in the human breast. We are all fools aboard a Ship of Fools, but good for those who act as though the situation were otherwise.

  9. James Sale

    Very true CB. We do know it ends; but I think we also know it continues too. The universal experience of mankind testifies to that: the Ancient Egyptians and Greeks, the fact that all civilisations take particular care with their dead, and then of course the accounts of returns from the dead, including all the extra NDE that has been accumulating in modern times since the 70s. And that is without even considering the Jewish and Christian scriptures and what they testify to. I am happy for people to believe what they want, since free will is an essential premise I also believe; but when I consider the weight of evidence for life after death I am persuaded that not to believe in it is wilful skepticism. Let’s not forget the wise words of that great atheist of the C20th, Aldous Huxley: “Those who detect no meaning in the world generally do so because, for one reason or another, it suits their books that the world should be meaningless”. Brave, new – and yes, pointless – worlds!

    Reply
  10. Stuart Yates

    An immensely tragic Canto, although I fear there are even more tragic and desperate Cantos to come. It touched on my different separation from my mother: different in detail/causes, yet you capture the universality of that primal chasm so that it feels like one’s own experience. Only great art connects the individual life with the universal experience such that they are felt as one and yet retain their difference.

    I was reassured by your words “in due course” in response to thoughts about metre etc. Because you are exposing, not your first draft, but maybe your first final draft, to others there is a potential vulnerability while the paint is still wet as it were. I thought, in my own sphere, of how Bruckner allowed others to smooth out the episodic and almost fragmentary aspects of his vast symphonies, thus weakening the power inherent in his originality. Your words allayed my fears. You will sift, reject/amend/select, wherever the paint has not dried fully to your purpose.

    For some reason, Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius comes to mind. The need for a companion on the terrible journey, like the Angel of the Agony, before, one hopes, the encounter with light . Dante, I suspect, will not be the only one who accompanies you, whilst we (sort of proto-angels?) watch over from afar, willing your progress through the dark nights of the soul. I do not underestimate the emotional, spiritual and physical burdens your enterprise place on you.

    Reply
    • James Sale

      Thanks Stuart – this is fabulous feedback and encouragement. First, that my personal experiences with my mother have transcended the particular and potentially become a universal one. That is clearly what I want to achieve: to nail the loss, and thereby exorcise it not just for myself, but others too. Second, yes, poetry is not written by a committee, and I hope to have at all times a strong sense of what this is about and how to say it; but I recognise others can spot things that really do improve things, so I am open to that. Finally, yes, the companion – the one who shares and leads the agony. If you know Dante you will know that Virgil only gets as far as the summit of Purgatory and then another takes over, so one could place bets here! But in terms of the Angel of Agony – a love phrase – I will share with you a passage or extract from Canto 5 where I am struggling to come to terms with a failed friendship and a woman whom that friend betrayed at a fundamental level. This writing strives to convey this agony:
      ……
      A sadness swept me, not words from his lips
      Only, but that I desired to reply
      At all, since I’d thought that we shared friendship.

      As that thought struck, another quality
      Re-masked Ginty’s face, this time a jeer:
      ‘Does Dante know I’m now an O.B.E.?

      Who cares for poetry? It’s nothing here.’
      And as he said those very words, deep down
      Something changed – like some thermometer’s

      Rising mercury hitting red; Ginty’s frown
      I can’t forget, and Dante’s arm about
      My shoulder, hugging me like his true son;

      And Marlene’s hair, once red, now growing shoots
      Of flecked and flecking grey, like fine, foamed froth,
      Spun off from her head, as some snake might spit.

      ‘Turn,’ my mentor said. ‘He has denied truth;
      On this you cannot look, but see my chest?’
      He pointed, and there I saw his cloak’s brooch

      Absorbing silver and mirror polished;
      And so I came to see Ginty, reversed
      In image, friend as was, on Dante’s breast:

      Medusa petrifying one she cursed,
      All serpents of hell alive in her stare,
      Withering, tense as a bladder to burst;

      He howled once, clutched a heart that wasn’t there,
      Rolled backwards like a dropped stone
      Till stopped in his own horror’s frozen fear.

      ‘Run’, Dante said, ‘run! Flee Medusa’s zone.’
      With that, his hands snapped tight as shielding screens
      Across my eyes and swung, then shoved me down

      The way, so that my head swayed, lost it means
      Of balance in trying to run; almost
      I fell, but Dante’s strength held me – a beam

      Upon which I depended, though a ghost.
      How could that be? And too, how could a friend
      Betray all we stood for, and our shared past?
      ……

      Thanks again Stuart, so pleased you find so much in this – James

      Reply
      • Stuart Yates

        Thank you James for your reply and the extract. The fear of Medusa’s look has haunted people for centuries, it is seared deep in our psyche. The thought also struck me that, if some of, if not all, the people you meet on your journey are still alive then your theme is – perilously? – close to Sartre’s notion that hell is other people. Even if those people are only in your head. There are a number of perspectives and turnings ahead which I look forward to with a mixture of eagerness and trepidation.
        Another thought – way, way, ahead: any plan/intention to record the whole sequence?

  11. James Sale

    Hi Stuart – thanks for continuing the dialogue. Ha ha! Yes – your point about Sartre is right, although that is not the primary I hope I am making (I say ‘hope’ because it is for others to decide whether that is the case – I can have an intention. but the poetry can reveal other things, since it is not consciously controlled). What is even more significant than the fact that hell is other people is the greater fact that people still living are already in hell – they have consigned themselves there through their own will and intention. And the essential aspect of this is Jungian: they insist on denying ‘reality’, the ‘truth’, the Tao, as it manifests itself to them in their lives, and so they manacle themselves to a false and damaging self-belief that they cannot break. In theological terms, they refuse to accept ‘light’. This is not to say – as the convict on the cross beside Jesus found, one of them anyway – that the light cannot break in even at the point of death, and the metanoia, the turning, can occur. But to all human intents and purposes, they seem lost in their own solipsistic hell. Indeed, solipsism is exactly what hell is; and Dante’s own hell is full of it. There is an amazing passage from something in Rilke that goes like this: ‘Are these people alive?’ Orpheus asked. ‘They think they are,’ Heurtebise answered him. So thanks for raising this. And yes, we are going to do some recording and other things too. Will talk about it with you in due course! Thanks again.

    Reply
  12. J. Simon Harris

    James, this second canto is every bit as powerful as the first. I love that Dante has appeared as your guide. Dante scholars often like to ask why Virgil is Dante’s guide through Hell and Purgatory, rather than, say, a biblical character, or St. Augustine or someone like that. But to me, it is obvious that no one but Virgil could have been Dante’s guide: literally, Virgil’s book is Dante’s guide in terms of structure and style and pattern, Virgil is the poet who led Dante to the afterlife. So of course he must guide him through it. Similarly, no one but Dante could have been your guide (although I will be interested to see whether you have other guides too, as Dante did).

    I like that your poem is so deeply personal (and yet, as others have pointed out, it maintains a universal appeal). Dante’s poem was very personal too, of course, but even he did not meet his mother and father in the afterlife; it really is a moving scene in your poem. Particularly moving to me is the moment where you attempt to bodily lift her from the bed. But although we can try our best to influence others, ultimately their fate is their choice – in Dante’s poem, too, is the overwhelming sense that the people in Hell have chosen to be there, that they could almost escape eternal damnation if only they would acknowledge their guilt, let go of their earthly grudges and justifications. Similarly, your mother, though frail and bedridden, became too heavy to lift by yourself. Even the space around you began to collapse as you tried to forcibly reorganize the divine will (and really, her will too).

    Your poem is more surreal than Dante’s – perhaps due to the setting, or the more dreamlike manipulations of space and time – but it is nonetheless strikingly real in terms of characterization and human emotion. I’m glad to hear you’re moving along on the poem. Although I’ve had a bit of a sneak peek, I hope this continues to be posted on this website, so that everyone else can follow along.

    Finally, I would like to address some of the suggestions people have made. I think you are taking the right approach by delaying any consideration of the suggestions of others (including myself). When enough time has passed, you become farther removed from what you’ve written, more objective, and more willing to change lines that were once very dear to you. That said, while all suggestions should be considered, whether to follow them is another matter. I agree that there are “lumps” here and there that could be smoothed over. However, overall, I think your meter is impeccable. Of course it is not perfectly iambic, and it doesn’t have to be. The beauty of using an iambic meter as your baseline is the ability to use variations of it for poetic effect. Even Pope, whom as you noted strictly adheres to his form, often used metrical variation for different effects. The flow of your meter feels very natural and effective to me (with maybe a few exceptions here and there).

    Anyway, that is my lengthy and belated commentary on this canto. Impressive work. I hope we see more posted soon!

    Reply
    • James Sale

      Thank you again J Simon Harris – I find your thoughts on the matter really informative and inspiring. You pick up a number of points that are significant. In reverse order: you are right – it is important (and this is a point for any poet, or most poets) not to immediately rush to correct, unless something is palpably incorrect or mistaken. We need a certain coolness before we decide to operate on our baby; but eventually we do need to do that revision. And I am trying to achieve a flowing and flexible meter such as you suggest. Further, you are right too about the ‘surrealness’ of the structure, which is more open than Dante’s. I do not regard this word ‘open’, usually used as a signifier of virtue (as in ‘I am an open person’), as a good thing: I admire Dante’s tight structure and wish I could emulate it. But the thing is, we don’t have that cosmology as a given, and so my feeling is that it wouldn’t work – and I am not a Catholic anyway! What I think might work is a psychology of the human heart that build towards a cosmology – what I want is, finally, the cosmology, for that is what I saw in the C5th basilicas of Ravenna. But in 2018 it is not a pre-given. Finally, so yes, to find the universal situations in my own particulars, which in the case of my mother you exactly get its significance and its pain, and the relevance of the Heraklean/Thesean myth. But here’s a question for you, which comes under the revision: I have used Theseus as the one Herakles could not rescue from the chair in Hades, for so Ovid tells it. But usually the variant is that Herakles did rescue Theseus and it was his friend Pirithous whom he could not remove. Aside from the metrics of the two names – Theseus fitted better, though the line could be recast – should I have used the more familiar version of the myth, though far fewer people have heard of Pirithous (v. Theseus). In other words, I was worried Pirithous was too obscure? What do you think? What do other poets think? Thanks again.

      Reply
      • C.B. Anderson

        James, not having read Ovid, or much classical literature at all, I would say go with your gut. I don’t know where you get your Italian, but I would advise you once again to read Wilbur’s translation of that canto from the Inferno. He seems to get everything right at the same time, without the hedging, hemming or the hawing. Compare the original to his own translation, and draw your own conclusions.

      • J. Simon Harris

        James, you make a good point about Dante’s cosmology not being a given. Indeed, it may be a bit insincere to use Dante’s cosmology given our understanding of cosmology today. Even the cosmology of the Catholic church has modernized dramatically since the days of Galileo. As I see it, then, you have two choices: either adapt a new theology to the modern scientific understanding of cosmology (which would be a gargantuan task), or else develop your own sort of inner cosmology (the route you have taken, from what I gather). I don’t think either choice would be a misstep, and I think your approach feels fresh and interesting so far. The only thing I hope is that you keep it fresh and interesting for the whole journey, just as Dante’s world is chock full of variety at every turn. So far you are managing admirably in this regard.

        As for your question about Theseus/Pirithous, I vote that you keep it with Theseus. I say this for a number of reasons. First off, as an amateur admirer of the classics, I didn’t even skip a beat when I read Theseus, and I don’t think most people (poets, classicists, or otherwise) will either.

        Second, I tend to think of Ovid as the final authority on a number of mythological stories, since he was such a compiler of them; for many people, if they have heard of the myth at all, they will have heard it from Ovid. Dante has a similar habit of selecting a particular version of a myth as the “correct” one from among multiple versions. In some cases, such as his story about the origin of Virgil’s hometown of Mantua, he actually revises the mythology in order to suit his purposes; and in other cases, as in his story of the final flight of Ulysses, he invents the mythology wholecloth. The point is, as the poet, you get to select which version of the myth is true; and you are in good company in doing so.

        Finally, there is something to be said for the fact that “Theseus” better suits the meter. In Keats’ poem, “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”, he compares reading Chapman’s translation of Homer to the feeling Cortes must have had when he first stared at the Pacific Ocean after mounting a peak in Darien. Well actually, Balboa discovered the Pacific, not Cortes. The Wikipedia article on the poem suggests that this error was pointed out to Keats, who decided to keep Cortes in the poem, “presumably because historical accuracy would have necessitated an unwanted extra syllable in the line.” It’s hard to imagine the poem with “Balboa” instead of “Cortez” (Keats used a “z”). I don’t know if that much revision of history is warranted or not, but if Theseus fits the meter and it’s okay with Ovid, then it’s okay with me. Great question though! Every detail matters in a work like this (certainly every detail mattered to Dante). Keep up the good work, James!

  13. James Sale

    So great Simon to have your further advice. In reverse order: yes, I am committed to the Keatsian praxis – I had forgotten that story but you now you remind me, you are right. Stay with the meter! And I’ll stay with Ovid too, so Theseus it is. But as you clearly understand, a cosmology is a gargantuan tasks and the former option especially is not do-able and if it were, would not be credible since the spirit of skepticism has ruled since the Age of Enlightenment. But your latter suggestion is where I am heading: the inner cosmology that reaches outwards because it rings true psychologically, and spiritually (where spiritually here means that it establishes meaning). Finally, I totally agree that there is an imperative to keep it ‘fresh and interesting’ in your phrase, which is what Dante does – that variety at every turn. Truly, that is the challenge! I hope others find discussing the mechanics and ideas behind such a large scale poem interesting and informative, and possibly useful in their own compositions and creative processes. I know I learn a lot from such open dialogues. Thanks again.

    Reply
  14. Damian Robin

    THANKS JAMES FOR THIS continuing journey. The storytelling is gripping, pulling me on to I know not what (unlike your mother character who is so deftly described in her sheets that have life that she encourages to keep her down.)
    I get involved with the narrative flow by the earnestness of your character who does not hide feelings, who has high desires and is honourable, a good hero, with whom I want to go (in my mind) to see where he/you will go.
    Wordplay, particularly enjambement, though others that I notice but don’t know the name of, make the journey enjoyable, bounce me along, keep me going, almost holding my breath.
    Only when I realise I’m reading do I focus on the words and see the metric inconsistencies and daub rhymes. It was kind of Mr Yankevitch to say you have a dispensation to continue loosely as you started loosely.
    (He was also kind about my meter abuse in an earlier post.
    Not really magnanimous, though, as his remark was terse. It would have been helpful if he could expand on his thoughts, releasing some of his knowledge on the technicalities and discipline of meter and rhyme. We can all learn from a skilled, experienced, and clever practitioner like him.)
    In a dialogue above with J Simon Harris you talk of cosmologies and mention Jung. As you are resolving what might be therapy issues concerning your parents, this could dirge into a mawkish family area of public therapy. However, you ‘solve’ / resolve the ‘issues’ by looking to a higher plane, so the interaction lifts us as readers. — Carry on like this please! Keep taking us higher (or lower, or whatever direction, for on the great revolving circle or sphere, one direction is all directions and we move up by revisiting and moving on when we’re done.) Power to all your limbs and muscles (the brain being said to be one of those).
    Direction does matter in writing of the symbolic geography of spiritual progress. And in hand sign language so — Thumbs up!

    Reply
    • James Sale

      Hi Damian – thank you so much for these observations. You are spot-on regarding the dangers of poetry being therapy, except of course that all poetry is therapy: therapy for the one who writes, and with true poetry, for those who read. This is because Apollo, the god of poetry, is also the god of healing, and so we have to heal ourselves through poetry. But your point is much sharper than that: namely, that it is so easy in analysing oneself and one’s problems, especially family ones, to become self-indulgent and solipsistic – a sort of poetic navel-gazing. That is what I am looking to avoid, and I am hoping my narrative structure will propel the reader to a higher frame of reference – to a cosmology, if you will, where we can understand more about how we all can make spiritual progress. That is ambitious, for sure, but what other option is there? Dante would be one example of such a narrative, but so too would the Odyssey – Odysseus stands for us all. But thank you for the thumbs-up, that is important for me to know I am making some progress.

      Reply
  15. Michelle Fawn

    An epic and emotional follow on from canto 1. As a Clinical Psychologist it rang so true of my clinical experiences and theory we still draw on today. In particular the work of Barry Mason in safe uncertainty. In order to step out of the emotional traps we are in we must relinquish our position of unsafe certainty (the familiarity of patterns of pain and distress) to move towards safe uncertainty (stepping into new unknown territory in order to claim safety and peace). James so beautifully portrayed this battle in his mother, her investment in the unsafe certainty and traps of pride.

    Reply
    • James Sale

      Thanks Michelle. Your point about Barry Mason’s theories is really interesting: the idea that people prefer ‘unsafe uncertainty’ and so get locked in. Instead, in order to grow we do have to embrace ‘safe uncertainty’ or what I like to think of in my management work as ‘ambiguity’. Indeed, and even in poetry work Keats referred to ‘negative capability’ about the very process itself which meant abandoning the ‘irritable reaching after fact’ – or certainty to use your word. A corollary of your point that I have often observed, and which is very pertinent to the state of hell, is that people seem often to prefer to embrace their misery rather than break out and change things, themselves first of all. Since my English Cantos are very much about psychological states I welcome you tracking their progress and making psychological observations. Thanks again.

      Reply

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