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.