"Dante and Virgil in the Ninth Circle of Hell" by Gustav Dore‘Canto 3’ by James Sale The Society August 30, 2018 Beauty, Culture, Poetry, Short Stories 17 Comments 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. Views expressed by individual poets and writers on this website and by commenters do not represent the views of the entire Society. The comments section on regular posts is meant to be a place for civil and fruitful discussion. Pseudonyms are discouraged. The individual poet or writer featured in a post has the ability to remove any or all comments by emailing submissions@ classicalpoets.org with the details and under the subject title “Remove Comment.” Share this:Click to share on Twitter (Opens in new window)Click to share on Facebook (Opens in new window) Related 17 Responses Bruce Wren August 30, 2018 Being a great admirer of Dante, I would like to see what SCP followers think of this Canto. Reply James Sale August 30, 2018 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 James A. Tweedie August 30, 2018 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 James Sale August 30, 2018 Thanks James – a wonderful addendum to my point!!! Love it. Reply David Paul Behrens August 30, 2018 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 August 31, 2018 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 William Krusch August 30, 2018 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 August 31, 2018 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 Amy Foreman August 30, 2018 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 August 31, 2018 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 August 31, 2018 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! C.B. Anderson August 31, 2018 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 Steve Feltham September 11, 2018 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 September 12, 2018 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 Michelle Fawn September 21, 2018 Another great Canto, beautifully crafted and so captivating that I held my hand up to stop someone about to interrupt me whilst reading it! Psychologically Canto 3 is fascinating and made me think about a Chapter I recently read in Jordan B. Peterson’s latest book – 12 Rules for Life where he explores what drives people to do unspeakable things. James perfectly captures the situation described by Peterson where someone becomes so critical and despairing at the state of the world and Being itself that their only option is to rage against God himself, as if saying “I’m the better creator, I will show you how it should be done”. Psychological truths and traps seem to flow effortlessly in these Cantos and I eagerly await Canto 4. Reply James Sale September 21, 2018 Great to hear from you Michelle, and thank you so much for your kind words on the poem. Yes, I am trying to write a poem in which psychological truths and myths mesh into a compelling narrative. And I am so glad you have read Jordan B Peterson’s book, which I think is a masterpiece of writing and insight. Outside of the Cantos I did write another poem on this strange phenomenon of doing something better than God and it revolves around my understanding of the Pelagian heresy in which people not only think they save themselves by their ‘good’ works, but that their works actually impress God. I shall keep writing – and your interest in my work inspires me onwards! Thank you. Reply james sale March 3, 2019 If you have enjoyed Cantos 1-3 published on the pages of The Society of Classical Poets, then I am pleased to inform you that Canto 4 of The English Cantos has now been published by The Lowestoft Chronicle in their Spring edition. It can be found out: http://lowestoftchronicle.com/issues/issue37/jamessale/ They have kindly provided a link back to Cantos 1-3 on their pages. I hope you will enjoy this too and find it still an enthralling read. And while posting, let me say as well, I am really looking forward to meeting many of the SCP’s finest poets in June when I shall be over in New York for a ten day visit. I can barely wait to meet some of you! Reply Leave a Reply Cancel Reply Your email address will not be published.CommentName* Email* Website Notify me of follow-up comments by email. Notify me of new posts by email. This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.