Canto 3 is the third canto in the sequence of the English Cantos, the first two of which are available to read on the SCP website. James Sale is attempting in this poem to emulate Dante, and this begins, initially, by descending into a modern day hell. Whilst the poem mythologises as it progresses, the events and people it depicts are based on real situations and real people that James has encountered or experienced. It is James’ firm conviction that in order to go up, first we must go down.

 

And now, if truth be told, I’d been unmanned:
My mother not able to recognise
Her son, or love him, except what she shammed.

The eerie passageway, so to my eyes,
Had some volume control – turned down a notch
Or two, but bass up louder – pitched red hues

Infesting air, and every breath would catch
Their resonance of kin. Imagine, then,
Some umbilical cord drawn through a crotch,

Constricted tight, unbreakable at both ends,
And saturated through its skin with blood
No scissors, scalpel, knife could cut to mend.

‘Hold me,’ I wheezed to him beside me, good
And still my inspiration. As he did
The air came back, but worsening my mood:

My soul in living now wanted to hide
The shame of realising I could not
Love her (whom instinct, not soon denied)

Deemed ‘mother’. Unnatural, then, or what?
Ingrate, then, after all she’d done for me?
I, too, deserved her hell or deeper lot.

I was her son, perverse epitome,
Disfigured by all the guilt I held –
Which guilt burning like acid constantly.

Though dead seven hundred years, his arm I felt,
And wisdom from a deep life-giving spring,
Which balm calmed, countered all her acid spilt

So long ago – a sense of hope he’d bring,
Despite the depth to which my mother fell,
Despite her folly and endless feigning.

‘This modern world’, he grimaced, ‘truth to tell,
Is not the same as Florence was back then;
It’s different, though stamped and marked as hell.

He paused, as if to weigh what that might mean.
‘We knew what evil was, and how it caught
Unwary souls; but here … you think you’re clean,

As if deleting wrong were done by thought,
As if enough opinions made wrong right,
As if my way cancelled truly we ought …’

He stopped. The strain of evil was not light.
How better to stay in God’s heaven, free?
But now upfront, cries punctuating night,

We seemed on a ramp sloping listlessly
Down. ‘Where is this place?’ I shuddered; could smell
Bandages, blood, and splashed liberally

Some anti-septic wash which sought to quell
Or mask the stench pervading. Darkness, too,
Oppressed, diffused a red and putrid feel.

But sounds now, wailings, louder, I knew
What they were and that induced fresh dread.
‘Yes,’ Dante said. ‘Your old friend waits for you.’

‘But these are children’s cries I hear ahead –
How could children be in a place like this?’
But before his answer formed, we stopped dead:

Ward Four. A narrow arch, brickwork a-mess,
And we stooping to enter its thin space.
Indeed, the more in, so it seemed the less

There was. Until, no room at all, a face,
Gaunt, bone-like, white peered through the red-rinsed dark.
‘Hi James,’ he said, emotionless and waste.

‘I’d knew you’d find me; knew you’d like my work.’
What work? I thought. Then heard some sullen sobs:
The walls themselves had faces in, each hurt –

Each face half-formed, deformed, and like a yob’s
Made so through lack of love and fatherhood,
But each one spoke, as one collective, mob;

Each one deprived of anything called good,
So each one cried and tried to finger-point,
But at what exactly my friend understood

And took some pleasure from, as every joint
In them strained to exit from their flat lives.
He was their monarch, reigning, they his runts.

‘Kip.’ I knew him well. But now? How time flies
And changes. ‘What’s done?’ I queried. ‘What’s here?’
He swallowed, Adam’s apple swollen, tied

And hard, as if words were something to fear.
Once, long before, he’d been my student, first,
Fluent in music, words, in meaning clear;

But what had seemed so promising, now had burst:
Youth’s garnish stripped, removed, instead a husk
Remained, a shell suggesting what he’d lost.

So he began and justified his lust.
‘Donations, James,’ that’s what this is about.
‘I’m contributing; I’m someone they trust.’

‘That’s good, Kip,’ I said, hesitant, ‘no doubt.’
But what was it, despite fair-seeming words,
Made wincing within, chilling cold without?

I felt the good hand on my shoulder. He’d heard,
And understood intuitively. His grip
Though, for one so long dead, was over-hard.

Something appalled my guide, not some small blip,
But an enormity these yelping walls
Portrayed. ‘After,’ Kip said, ‘curry and chips!’

‘After what, Kip?’ I pressed. ‘I take their calls –
They need me, and the state has let them down.
We meet at a pub. I use a cubicle.

I’m reasonable, only 20 pounds;
It pays for travel and for grub.’ He seemed
Pleased, while I’m perplexed. ‘Call it a loan,

If you prefer; I give them what they’ve dreamed
Of.’ As he paused, shell-shocked I realised
What he meant: the walled faces’ contours screamed

Paternity – his, gotten otherwise
Than through the natural join of woman, man;
Children unknowing him, marked with his eyes,

Beget in a toilet, using his hand,
And passing on donations in a bag
For pennies and his vain, immortal brand.

How now he swelled with pride: not quite a shag,
But still he had achieved? To be a god –
Create life, more than others, so he bragged,

At least a brace, a score of kids – all odd –
But his whom lesbian mothers wanted most,
So much, they’d been no screening of his blood.

‘Look!’ he said, pointing, determined to boast:
‘This one is mine.’ A figure squirmed, outlined
Smooth on the wall, like in some Facebook post,

Where Kip tracked them, and kept hoping for signs:
Their mothers careless now of him, but not
Their kids – his DNA built their designs,

Their destinies: all they might have been – but –
Constrained to wonder, look and never catch
Their Pan-like father, his repeating shots

Creating replicas, not one a patch
On his original. As was. So sad
To see them straining now. And Kip to watch

And think this living; clearly all was mad,
And he reduced to such desperate straits:
His flesh itself his sickening source of trade,

Yet for so little recompense, small rate.
I looked him in the face, but as I did
Hoping I could, by God’s grace, communicate,

Tell him to quit, so the space, like some grid,
Contracted; the outlines more defined, squealed
Like pigs forced into a pen they’d have fled

Had they the sense their existence concealed,
Fatherless and lost. We stooped, we had to then,
As Kip, gaunter still, blocked my speech, and railed.

‘I’m helping, giving my best, these women
Need me. No lectures, no sermons, from you
Or Him, please!’ ‘But Kip,’ I said, ‘these children,

Abandoned so, they want, at least, to know,
And if they don’t’ – and here words failed within,
For some higher force wrenched my sense in tow

To His purpose – to prophesy, for shining
Invisible beside us now, Dante saw
What startled – stopping the yelping, whining;

As if they too, just once, could see the core
Of what was there: Apollo, golden youth,
Arrow now drawn from his limitless store,

Bow bent in dread menace at poor Kip’s mouth,
Hanging in front open, as if it sensed
Some dire presence but not perceived its truth.

‘You will,’ I said, and as I did I blanched,
So did the god run through me till my extremes
Lacked blood, and in my heart all avalanched

In frozen turmoil, ‘never reach your dreams:
One of these whom you have begot, toyed with,
Will seek you out, find you, and be the worm

Undoing the fabric, the very stuff
Of all you’ve built your life upon – be sure –
Apollo himself will plague you enough

Till even you, Kip, will cry out, No more.
These ants, gotten by you, will be your itch.’
He would have smirked, but clumsy, like a paw,

Involuntarily, he began to scratch
His face, and then his back, until his frame
Seemed raw, exposed, and each part now a-twitch.

He’d bred in deed to multiply his name
But each scratch skinned him further, till he was
More skeletal, more red, yet not with shame.

As calculating what to say, he paused –
Our presence disruptive, not in control –
His voice an exhalation like a hiss.

‘I know you knew me when I went to school
So long ago – teacher – but you don’t know
How much I played my teachers all for fools.

None understood I had my way to go.
None got my beauty, got what I portrayed,
Or saw the hidden depths my work could show.

None saw my heart-ache, none my fears allayed;
None, nobody, not One Himself got it;
And now, because of that, I’ve fully paid

My dues and I reject Him and His shit;
For I create and what invalidates?
See, see, yourself, around you, it all fits,

The cosmos mine and all is Kip’s to take!’
His red, raw skin – and now his eyes burned red,
A-flame with energy defying fate.

But even as his words in molten shreds
Oozed out from his mouth, so the Ward shook
In one dire quake, and Kip spun round in dread:

For there was one at whom he could not look,
And she, severe now in her odd uniform,
Appeared through an opening the quake had struck

And strode towards him; and he, like some worm,
Twisted agonised against the flat screen –
One face yelped, ‘Dad’, surprised at Kip’s return,

Demanding acknowledgement, where he’d been;
But Kip could only groan, as one might do
Who had to take the final medicine:

‘Here you are,’ the harpy seizing him cooed
With menace immeasurable. ‘Remember me?
You raped me Kip, but I am not your food –

You owe me, and you owe my family.’
With that her talon-like grip round his neck
Pierced skin, and Kip shrieked, struggled, tried to flee.

‘You owe me!’ And her grip tightened, sought to break
All Kip’s resistance. How his blood poured out –
The floor, the screen, himself plastered in streaks –

And we jumped back avoiding bubbling clots
Of gore that threatened to engulf us. Then,
My guide to me, almost having to shout

Above the din, ‘If not now to go, when?
See the way the harpy forged in? That’s our path
Out, down to all the futile grief of man.’

I knew at once to act; he spoke the truth.
Whilst Kip screamed bleeding, harpy carving pounds
Of flesh out of him in her bloody bath,

We dashed where the hollow opened, and round
Its corner till we were beyond that sound.

 

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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14 Responses

  1. Bruce Wren

    Being a great admirer of Dante, I would like to see what SCP followers think of this Canto.

    Reply
  2. James Sale

    Thanks Bruce. It would be good to know what they all think; but first and foremost, as you are an admirer of Dante, it would be good to know what you think? And perhaps, as this is quite visceral, what you feel as you read it? For me a key question always and especially when reading ‘epic’ is: do I want to read on, does the narrative grip me? Epic can often be a synonym for turgid – God forbid, but alas I cannot be the judge in my own case!

    Reply
  3. James A. Tweedie

    I, too, have had friends similar to Kip,
    Who traded talent promising and bright
    For oily pleasures whose destructive grip

    Transmogrified their bloom into a blight;
    How easily it is for us to slip
    From heaven’s grasp when trading wrong for right.

    Your Canto makes it viscerally clear
    That hell can be uncomfortably near.

    Reply
  4. David Paul Behrens

    Another great achievement in your journey onward in this series of Cantos. I was captivated from beginning to end. I am looking forward to the next one. Good luck!

    Reply
    • James Sale

      David, thank you so much for your appreciation of the poem, and what more can I want than to ‘captivate’ – which is a synonym for ‘enchant’? The damsel with the dulcimer does exactly that. I hope I can keep up the standard of this writing so that I do not disappoint you – it is always in the ending that we discover whether the poet’s vision is wholly true.

      Reply
  5. William Krusch

    The sense of absolute horror when Kip is seized by the harpy and torn apart is stunning in the way that Bosch’s depictions of Hell are. Certains moments in this canto instill a feeling of terror only matched by the old masters – I have only read lines as gross and captivating as “And we jumped back avoiding bubbling clots/ Of gore that threatened to engulf us” in Dante’s own works. The descriptions are bizaree and horrific, and yet are always original, never riding on Dante’s coattails. The ability to recreate this cycle without being derivative requires enormous talent and skill, and this canto fully possesses those qualities. Bravo, Mr. Sale – I do hope you continue to expand this work.

    Reply
    • James Sale

      Hi William – thank you so much for your gratifying response to the scene, and the nice caveat that I am not riding on “Dante’s coattails”, though, of course, I am riding on a lot – we all do, it’s the power of tradition and of the classical, as we seek to make these wonderful forms our own, and speak through them in our own day. I take great encouragement from your words, and do fully intend to expand this work. I have some big plans for 2021 which I shall be sharing in due course; there is shortly a video coming out on Canto 1, which I shall also be sharing; and FYI I shall be in New York next year in June for a fortnight, and hope to meet up with fellow poets there, and maybe a little further (west), deeper (south), into the USA too! Hopefully, you will be one such person I meet. All the best.

      Reply
  6. Amy Foreman

    Another gripping chapter in the descent, James. Thank you for sharing.
    Occasional rough patches in meter and rhyme do not obscure the fact that this is a riveting journey, disquieting and even revolting in places, but one that compels us to keep reading. I say, “Well done.”

    Reply
    • James Sale

      Thank you Amy – really glad you like it. I am hoping to make the upward journey towards God as interesting as the downward one away from Him. I shall be reviewing meter and rhyme in due course. J Simon Harris has been extremely helpful here. But as I am sure is true for you – certainly in the throes of writing – if we stop to make it perfect then we never finish. Perfection, literally, is the enemy of progress. But once done, and with a while to cool off, then one can re-visit and see what can be done to improve the work. So that is how I am approaching it; so useful comments like your own are very welcome. Thank you again.

      Reply
      • Amy Foreman

        Absolutely, James. You are chiseling out an epic sculpture, and the form beneath your hammer can be softened and sanded later. . . . but for now, we all can see it’s going to be once-in-a-lifetime tour de force. Thanks to the SCP, we are allowed behind the sculptor’s screen to watch the unfolding form as you work. Looking forward to the next installment!

  7. C.B. Anderson

    As Gilbert often said, “Gee Beave, I don’t know.” Too many strained locutions for me. But don’t give it up; practice makes perfect.

    Reply
  8. Steve Feltham

    As ever James, awe inspiring and thought provoking. Never bland, more grit than sand and never such as to leave one’s thoughts when the reading stops.
    Roll on canto 4.

    Reply
    • James Sale

      Thanks Steve – great to hear from you, and really appreciate your support. The idea that some lovers of poetry are actually waiting for the next instalment is deeply encouraging.

      Reply

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