Painting by the Chinese Ming Dynasty artist Chen Hongshou‘The English Cantos: Volume 2: StairWell. Canto 3 Ex-Wife’ by James Sale The Society August 6, 2021 Beauty, Culture, Epic, Poetry 20 Comments . The Argument: The Poet, with Dante and Virgil, has arrived on the third step of the StairWell, or Purgatory. Dante at the start of Canto 3 has been at pains to explain to the shocked Poet what just has happened on step 2. It has been an incredible, almost unbelievable encounter. Now they have forged forward and have had to fight through obstructions of ice. As finally, after considerable danger, they manoeuvre through, the Poet then encounters his ex-wife from over 40 years ago. There, burnished with gold that her soul so prized, The chair she sat on; and beside the gifts That we’d exchanged in love, but she had seized. Two rings, a bracelet—pure gold—other thefts Of lesser value, and there the amulet, Centre of all, which left me most bereft: Gold chain, with coffin figure, within set Ivory inlaid to fill its key-like core; Recalled to me what I’d tried to forget, I turned to Dante, if he could help more? Impassive, though, he stared straight through the queen, Seated, quite unaware his presence there; And Virgil—well—to him, what did it mean? ‘I rule here,’ she said. ‘And here my writ runs, For Midas grants me power which nothing screens: One touch of mine is deadlier than a gun; Flesh even turns to what I want, more gold! Why—’ Here she stood. ‘Once James, we two were fun; But look now—you are poor, ha! You are old! So let me touch, and ease your misery; Your value I’ll increase one hundred-fold!’ With that—her ominous first step towards me— I tensed, treading backwards, in total fear, My wretched mind revolving desperately— Like some wasp buzzing in a locked jam jar, Below it, perilous waters waiting patient— And all I did not want looming so near. The StairWell proving some deceptive agent Delivering back to the Hell I had escaped But lately. Indeed, some abortifacient— For if I failed now, what would be my state? Distracted by impending doom, I turned Only to see the white ivory inlaid Within the amulet, as in an urn, Sacred, devoted, as some congealed ash No fire destroyed, though thoroughly it burned. Her hand reached out and with its merest brush I too would be a brute inanimate, And all my hopes for heaven helpless, crushed. But in that space where time itself lacks state, As neither forward nor backwards to go, A knife-edge either way deciding fate, So there I was, the amulet a-glow, For why? What secret did ivory own— Somehow to continue I had to know. ‘Hari,’ I blurted, ‘ivory’s real bone: That child we had together, you destroyed, His flesh and blood consumed, and his soul’s gone To heaven!’ I cried to God. “My dear boy!’ No more her peril vexed me or her touch— Something had been lost money couldn’t buy, Or all the gold she’d stored in her greed’s pouch. And she—as ivory preoccupied My mind—too felt its memory, and blanched, Stalled in her tracks, remembered her boy, dead; One she’d forced down and out her crotch’s chute. ‘I don’t care, I don’t care,’ she said, and lied. For now, some tear—but one as black as soot— Tried forming in the corner of her eye, But finding release from her flesh, could not. Held back, held onto, so how could she cry? Where was release? Within, a speck before Not visible, now half-crawled out, a fly Lodged on her duct, so well fed, dripping spores, Bloated, and like its mistress, simply stuck There: far too fat to leave, effect a cure. And yet, half out this way, wriggling—a crack Appeared in her countenance, as askew Eye saw the fly and memory brought back The clinic—killing—and the wrong she knew She’d done—dead child of whom I only dream, How in my heart my being longs for you! Yet, yet … she took your life before your name Was ever called—who are you? And what be? See us, me too, this golden waste of shame Around—deserts of her idolatry! But she, constricted, choked and rendered dumb, Could hardly move, much less attack, touch me. That fatal moment when God’s judgement comes, Which every human gets to at some point, Deciding whether they go up, slip down, And now, her eye blotted as by black paint, Disfigured as its fly expanded forth, She turned, staggered as one about to faint, But holding up until she felt support— Grasping the amulet, pressing in my hand, Rendering back to me our dead child’s worth In ivory. And as she did I understood Or thought I did—she now hysterical, Yet silent as a block of hardest wood For nothing could come out, compressed withal; We both may, shocked, have stayed there till doom’s day; But short steps to the edge, that was all, As Dante herded, bid us not delay; The desert-ocean had its golden shore, A precipice on which last outcomes played. But what she did next, why, I wasn’t sure: Collapsing down as Crassus did, his throat To be the moat on which the Parthians poured Gold loved so much by him. Another note, However, sounded as of some release: A flapping, light, as if about to float, And not that hostile buzzing of disease Infecting her eye; I looked, and there, red Which black before, was struggling but to seize Its living back, which for so long had fled; So now in metamorphosis red changed, First black to red and then even that bled Away. At last, all had to be expunged. Around my knees she clung, began to wail, Her very eyes—liquefying squeezed sponges— If that her tears so long held in her soul Might finally be free—but fluttering, I saw it, heard a new voice say it all: The fly—no longer one—now took to wing, A butterfly so beautiful, so light, So graceful, its sight induced in me song— Charged and transported—I’d made paradise, At least in that moment. I wondered hard To see it soar so fragile, free in flight, But more still—a wonder I preferred: Below, gold altered so, its dust to brown With shoots of green, as if the conscience stirred Meant earth returned, reclaimed its own, And what was dead might incredibly live Through Him whose dying, death couldn’t keep down. Quiet, she stood beside me now. ‘Forgive,’ At last, she said, and what else could I do? ‘With all my heart,’ I said, ‘But I must leave.’ But now beside us, stood Dante, Virgil too, Standing as if awaiting some last act Which I’d commission though what, I didn’t know. Ahead, the ground her butterfly had raked With aerial beauty, now seemed fertile soil, Living and moist, half solid and half lake. My palm felt warm: in it, about to sail, I felt the amulet expanding fast Eager to launch and be free of its gaol. I knew then what to do: one motion cast The gold away and ivory in it. See, how it flashed in flight, and fell at last Into the lake-land’s alive, living pit, Wherein, not sinking, but like a small boat Held up, and following with innate wit Her butterfly on its long, distant float. How tiny—ivory in such a big sea, But even so it seemed bigger, full of hope: Indeed, as I strained my eyes, tried to see More, yes, becoming clear, expanding, there The gold dissolving, but not ivory— I saw its shape take form, taking in air, Enlarging as if new breathing began— And in my heart of hearts I found a prayer, A blessing: I was seeing my lost son, Whom she had killed, adrift, and in pursuit Of where his mother’s butterfly would land. I waved—like some lost soul’s desperate salute; Perhaps his eyes were formed and he’d respond— Or lips cry, ‘Father’! But his lips were mute. As slowly the ivory confined went beyond My vision, I felt my being shut down, Go quiet, struggling so to understand— My breath to hardly breathe, or heart to pound. Yet all the while, as sight became a speck On the cruel world’s vast and receding round, I saw the body form: its head from neck, Limbs shaping outwards in perfect legs, arms; I sensed his blood even, suffuse his cheeks; And as I did my inner self went calm. I turned, full knowing I’d not see again My precious boy; yet now what was, was balm. Heroic child, though you were never born, Like Herakles to the furthest western point To find Hesperides, fearless you’d gone; Over the horizon’s edge, the while each joint Of you reformed itself into the one I call, ‘My son’. You did not disappoint. She stood there, still crying, tears still not done; Till Dante touched her shoulder—so light, deft, I’m sure she barely felt; but change came on, As nakedness is altered once it’s dressed, As if the honey of his hands allowed Her emptiness to have some sweetness left. ‘Hari,’ I said, ‘You’ve cried. I too broke vows; And now our boy flies to the Western Isles Whom we may never see just once—God knows His living eyes. So let us without guile Forgive; commit to love our other child; At last then—’ here I choked—‘end this turmoil: Conclude today what our mad years made wild.’ She stood, she looked for all the world as lost, Drained—majesty void, divested, and grown old; Who’d think to grow so rich might end a cost? Had even Dante’s touch restored her soul? I sensed beside me Virgil anxious most To move on—we could not let Hari stall Our progress: other levels beckoned near, Already time ran out. I felt the pull Ahead. ‘Hari, listen—we’ve lost what’s dear— Almost ourselves as well in what we did; I must go, climb further and leave you here, But you must not permit your pain be hid, Returning to those sterile, golden shores, Pretending Midas can be your true god. Your butterfly’s exposed that god’s lush flaws; Gird yourself, and prepare to follow him When grieving’s done and ego’s emptied, poor. She stirred then—tremulous, a sort of whimper. Finally, ‘Why bring me out of the womb? Why not be dead before I have a name? Why live where I can never be at home? Why knees receive me and why breasts to nurse? Why not in darkness stay than living roam? Perish the day my father blessed my birth And said, ‘O joy, to us a daughter’s born. No, rather, begetting, let him be cursed.’ With that she stopped, and teetered over, swooned. I caught her just in time. With Virgil’s help We laid her where fresh lilies lately grown Adorned a bank of solid earth, not pelf, All that was gone—a new world dawned; and she— A beauty sleeping there—might come to health Once some angelic prince, but never me, Arrived and with one kiss her soul would start. But we’d no time to dither, destiny Must run its course. To see her broke my heart Thus on the ground. But Dante urged the way Before, and going meant we’d shed the hurt. So, one last time, I knelt just where she laid And gently kissed her forehead, and said, ‘Bless.’ At last some sort of peace between us made. Not looking back, but that last tenderness I treasured in my soul and more beside— Where had he flown—my son—I could not guess? Onward, both Dante, Virgil with huge strides Pressed forward, as if leaving me behind, So dilatory I, and now the gulf so wide; I ran as one possessed, or out of mind, To catch them up, when round a sudden bend They disappeared, so ominous a sign: To lose my mentors and come to this end— How would I fare without their wisdom, love? I raced with all the strength I had to mend How far apart we were—and reached the curve Where they’d gone round, but as I did stopped short, Amazed—before my eyes, rising above The whole landscape, stood a bridge, metal, taut, All shiny, surface smooth as polished steel— Far side a building, political, fraught With all of thinking’s miscegenated ills: A school, to wit, where education deals. . . James Sale is a worldwide thought leader on motivation: he has had 4 books on the topic published by Routledge, and over 700 management consultants in 15 countries use his products. James is also a feature writer on culture for The Epoch Times. He has written poetry for over 50 years and has had 9 collections published. He won First Prize in the Society’s 2017 Competition and his next collection, The English Cantos Volume 1: HellWard is due shortly. For more on this, go to https://englishcantos.home.blog. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. NOTE TO READERS: If you enjoyed this poem or other content, please consider making a donation to the Society of Classical Poets. NOTE TO POETS: The Society considers this page, where your poetry resides, to be your residence as well, where you may invite family, friends, and others to visit. Feel free to treat this page as your home and remove anyone here who disrespects you. Simply send an email to email@example.com. Put “Remove Comment” in the subject line and list which comments you would like removed. The Society does not endorse any views expressed in individual poems or comments and reserves the right to remove any comments to maintain the decorum of this website and the integrity of the Society. Please see our Comments Policy here. CODEC News:Share this:Click to share on Twitter (Opens in new window)Click to share on Facebook (Opens in new window)Click to print (Opens in new window)Click to share on LinkedIn (Opens in new window)Click to share on WhatsApp (Opens in new window)Click to email this to a friend (Opens in new window)Click to share on Pinterest (Opens in new window) 20 Responses Andrew Benson Brown August 6, 2021 Love this extract on so many levels, James. It is full of fabulous imagery: the “wasp buzzing in a locked jam jar,” “crotch’s chute;” the analogy to Crassus’ legendary death; “thinking’s miscegenated ills.” Lots of imaginative details, too—your ex-wife’s Midas abilities combined with the revelation of the son she destroyed makes for a very poignant scene. Best of all are the transformations leading up to meeting your lost son: the stuck fly evoking the memory of the abortion, bleeding away, turning into a butterfly, raking the fertile soil. The pathos is potent here, making this scene among the very best that I have read in contemporary narrative poetry. A lot to look forward to when StairWell comes out! Reply James Sale August 6, 2021 Thanks Andrew – appreciate your response and also your deep insight into what is going on here. Indeed, this is possibly the most personal thing I have ever written and one has to remember that Apollo is the god of healing as well as the god of poetry, which is one reason why poetry is so necessary. Reply Andrew Benson Brown August 6, 2021 Apollo also had a rather terrible side to him, and could be a bit string-happy with his plague arrows from on high. I interpret this to mean that you will bludgeon poetry’s enemies with copies of your hardcover edition when it comes out. Reply James Sale August 7, 2021 Thanks Andrew, but I am hoping that by the time I reach heaven – if I reach heaven – I won’t need to bash anybody because I’ll have more important things on my mind, indeed on my very spirit! That said, a hardcover edition of the book would be an additional benefit in this life, now! The Mindflayer August 6, 2021 Love this extract, particularly the Arthurian mood and atmosphere which seems new for the English Cantos: the beauty asleep among the lilies, the kiss to the forehead which is one of bittersweet healing and farewell, and the magical transformation of the butterfly-child, as wondrous and fantastical as anything in Spenser. The underlying pathos of this is almost unbearably sharp. Deeply moving. Reply James Sale August 6, 2021 Thank you Mindflayer. That it has moved you, I am moved; and I know that you are a Spenser fanatic and expert, so comparing me with your great hero is wondrous praise. I am humbled and exalted by it. Reply Brian Yapko August 6, 2021 James, I am astonished and deeply moved by the depth and scope of your work. I think it would take quite some time to work out most of what you have embedded in terms of symbolism, allusions… (e.g. – naive question – Is the fly in the poem a reference to beelzebub, the lord of flies? It would make sense to me given the context and the grand scale of the piece.) But I can appreciate the intricacy and craft that has gone into your Canto. As it happens, I just spent three months (months!) reading Dante’s Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso and just in time because it makes me far more capable of appreciating what you have done and its ambitious scope. If I’m reading it right, your Stairwell is a wonderful corollary to Dante’s mountain in Purgatory. On a more personal level, what this poem achieves is astonishing. You’ve taken a personal tragedy and you’ve magnified it into an issue of cosmic proportion and you’ve done so organically and with superb taste. In less skilled hands, a poem like this could have come across as either boring, pompous or steeped in bathos. It is none of these things. Instead, you have successfully universalized your personal history in a way which manages to retain humility, is very moving and absolutely stunning. This is no window into the mind of a fine poet. This is a window into your very soul. How brave you were to write it and what a privilege it is to read it. Reply James Sale August 7, 2021 Hi Brian, thank you so much for such a deeply felt response to my work. At the end of the day, it’s not fame or money that is important, but how the work impacts others – and here affecting them at an emotional (as opposed to a merely intellectual) level is key. I am glad you have been reading Dante – the Master – for there is so much to learn in his poetry, and for me he has been the key to unlocking the epic in English; one simply cannot imitate Milton in English without falling into parody – as Keats found, and I did myself many years ago when I tried! And yes, StairWell is my equivalent take on Dante’s Purgatory. The final and third sequence is to be called PassageWay – and I am sure you can appreciate it is going to be the most difficult to write. As for your question, I am always loathe to answer only because I do not wish to restrict what other people see or find in the verse. It was Socrates who said, ‘I soon realised that poets do not compose their poems with real knowledge, but by inborn talent and inspiration, like seers and prophets who also say many things without any understanding of what they say . . .’ I might phrase this differently myself, but in essence it is true, for one does not write poetry, but true poetry is written through one. The Muse – the great Spirit – is always the originator of creativity and it is her presence that we seek as we set out to write. But in answer to your question: remorse leads to despair, and suicide in the case of Judas; but repentance leads to life. And the sign of repentance is the ‘tear’. What I think is happening in this section is the forced exorcism of the evil one – Beelzebub, the lord of the flies – as the tear of repentance becomes manifest. It is coming out from the eye because the eyes are the windows of the soul. The transformation to the butterfly is possible because ‘Through Him whose dying, death couldn’t keep down’. At this stage I am coy about naming ‘Him’, as Dante was (but we will reach that point where we become explicit about ‘Him’ in PassageWay), but I am obliquely referring to St Augustine’s idea that God from all evil is still able to produce all good and that no weapon aimed against God works because He ‘is able’ to turn all things to His own purposes. Indeed, as I write this now I realise that I am one too who has been turned to His purpose! Thanks again – and oh! Would love to use your line about window into the soul as promo blurb? I am sure you are OK with that. Do visit my Widercircle site and see whether you have something to contribute: https://englishcantos.home.blog/the-wider-circle/#havenofdante Reply Brian Yapko August 7, 2021 James, thanks for the detailed information which allows me to enjoy your extraordinary work even more! And of course you may use my words — anytime! Susan Jarvis Bryant August 6, 2021 James, this is a stunning piece of fearless writing. Every raw emotion is tangible. Every vivid image serves to enhance those emotions, which took this reader on a rollercoaster of a breathtaking ride through the dark realms of despair and loathing to the beauty and release of forgiveness and love. When words rise from the page to envelop me in scenes that have my heart pounding along the heart of the protagonist, recoiling at flies emerging from eyes, and rejoicing in the birth of a miraculous butterfly… I know I’ve read a masterpiece. I would imagine it took an awful lot of emotional energy to write this and I’m grateful for the depth of wisdom it offers. I’m also intrigued by the ivory… I’m pondering on the underlying meaning of ivory. I know you touch upon the organic… the ‘bone’. I’m thinking of the mindless slaughter of magnificent creatures just for the their monetary value and the aesthetic appeal of trinkets made from tusks, which would be in keeping with your message. Am I missing something? James, thank you! Reply James Sale August 7, 2021 Hi Susan – thanks for your heartfelt appreciation of my piece. If only all readers could respond as you do – to feel it in the mind’s eye and imaginatively engage with the journey! I don’t think you are missing anything. But I did have a piece of ivory encased in solid gold, and the shape was like one of the Egyptian mummies. So, a true kind of incident which I am allegorising into something bigger. What struck me about it was the way the ‘living’ – or organic – ivory was entombed in solid gold. It seemed to me a metaphor for the danger of riches and how the rich like to stop change, so that they can hold onto their riches – it’s the status quo, basically, whose actions run consistently this way through history. So you are quite right about the elephants – the living being sacrificed for greed. That is why, the gold dissolves, but the ivory is activated when the riches are thrown away … Thanks again. Reply Cynthia Erlandson August 7, 2021 This is amazing. I caught my breath at the allusion to Job, with whose agonies, questions, and expressions I have always felt deep sympathy. Reply James Sale August 8, 2021 Well spotted, Cynthia. One does not write poems to generate allusions, but allusions can be extremely powerful if handled well. Also, one needs to remember when considering epic that the Book of Job is the Hebrew epic which is up there with the greatest – it’s mixture of poetry and ‘theodicy’ is so potent. I used a relatively recent translation of Job by David Wolfers as the source of my versification. He claimed that most translations of the Hebrew were incorrect. Whether right or wrong, certainly some of his lines were astonishing. From chapter 3, for example, this: I should have slept then, there had been repose for me With the kings and councillors of the earth Who built up the wastes to themselves, Or with princes, who once had gold, Who filled their houses with riches, Or as a concealed abortion I might never have existed, As the infants that never see the light The translation and its accompanying notes (which are heavy) are not well-known in the UK, but maybe better known in the USA: https://www.amazon.com/Things-Darkness-Essays-English-Translation/dp/9039001049/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=David+wolfers&qid=1628421166&sr=8-1 I am glad you ‘caught your breath’ – that is what epic should be doing, and is what the sublime must induce in us if it is to be sublime. Much appreciated. Reply Julian D. Woodruff August 8, 2021 A narrative of deepest feeling and boldest imagination, James. Such memorable images! Reply James Sale August 8, 2021 Thanks Julian – I am glad that this has so impressed you, and I especially like your phrase ‘boldest imagination’ – yes, be bold – let us not let our poetry be timid and mousey! On the pages of the SCP we shall roar like lions! Reply Dr Tom Woodman August 10, 2021 Yes, James, these lines are stunning and very moving as other commentators say. As with Dante, most remarkably of all, the incident has a representative quality in enacting the evil of what has occurred but not without compassion for the perpetrators, who (as usual but not always) did not understand the meaning of what they did at the time they did it). So there is hope here but not the sentimentality of a full reconciliation. Reply James Sale August 11, 2021 Thanks Tom – it’s great that you get what I am trying to do. And the point about sentimentality is true; it is easy to fall into it. One thing about the journey is, that although it’s a vision, one is attempting to see the ‘object’ as it is, not as we wish it to be or we hope it is. In this way the narrative is not shaped by me but by another power. Reply Dr Tom Woodman August 11, 2021 Yes, that is definitely what comes across, James. Dr Michelle Fawn August 15, 2021 James, this was so beautiful and incredibly moving to read. I was particularly touched by your exploration of the strength in vulnerability. Psychologically it made me think about how we can sometimes seek the concreteness of materialism or wealth to protect ourselves from a deeper emotional scar that we carry or fear about ourselves. For me, the simultaneous delicacy yet strength of the ivory, then the butterfly and the blessing of forgiveness was such an incredible message of the courage it takes to explore the past and the strength in true forgiveness. The language throughout also mirrored this expertly, conveying the heaviness of the burden in carrying these experiences and transitioning to a lightness and space through forgiveness. This is a real blessing to read and such a gift to offer others from your personal experiences. Reply James Sale August 16, 2021 Thanks Michelle – really appreciate your response to this complex poem, and for me too the psychology is always important: the language wrestles to get it across. As Longinus comments on his Essay on the Sublime: ‘But passion requires a certain disorder of language’. However, the form keeps it in check! Reply Leave a Reply Cancel ReplyYour email address will not be published.CommentName* Email* Website Notify me of follow-up comments by email. Notify me of new posts by email. Δ This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.