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Authors: Philip Terry

Dante's Inferno

BOOK: Dante's Inferno
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PHILIP TERRY

Dante’s Inferno

For Marina Warner

Thanks to Tim Atkins, Mark Burnhope, Adrian Clarke, Sarah Crewe, James Davies, Steven Fowler, Ulli Freer, Jesse Glass, Peter Hughes, Piers Hugill, Tom Jencks, Peter Kennedy, Sophie Mayer, Aodán McCardle, Stephen Mooney, William Rowe, Michael Schmidt and Scott Thurston, who have previously published sections from this sequence, usually in a different form, in books, pamphlets and magazines.

I would also like to thank Ann Davey and Lou Terry, who have lived through this, as well as all the friends and poets who have helped this work along in one way or another with suggestions, encouragement, and opportunities to read, in particular Wayne Clements, Lyndon Davies, Cristina Fumagalli, John Goodby, Seamus Heaney, Jeff Hilson, Keith Jebb, Antony John, Jess Kenny, Matt Martin, Harry Mathews, Adrian May, David Miller, Marjorie Perloff, Tom Raworth, Stephen Rodefer, Tony Tackling, Jonathan White and Johan de Wit. Without the enthusiasm and support of all of these individuals this book would never have been written. Finally, I would like to thank Robert Sheppard for supplying some of the villains for Canto XIX.

Halfway through a bad trip

I found myself in this stinking car park,

Underground, miles from Amarillo.

Students in thongs stood there,

Eating junk food from skips,

           flagmen spewing E’s,

Their breath of fetid

Myrrh and ratsbane,

        doners

And condemned chicken shin

        rose like

                       distemper.

Then I retched on rising ground;

Rabbits without ears, faces eaten away

                        by myxomatosis

Crawled towards a bleak lake

              to drink

                           of leucotomy.

The stink would revive a

         sparrow, spreadeagled on

           a lectern.

It so horrified my heart

         I shat

                  botox.

Here, by the toxic water,

    lay a spotted trout, its glow

    lighting paths for the VC.

And nigh the bins a giant rat,

Seediness oozing from her Flemish pores,

Pushed me backwards, bit by bit

Into Square 5,

              where the wind gnaws

                 and sunshine is spent.

By the cashpoint

      a bum asked for a light,

       hoarse from long silence, beaming.

When I saw him gyrate,

His teeth all wasted,

                               natch,

His eyes

        long dead

      through speed and booze,

I cried out

                ‘Take pity,

Whatever you are, man or ghost!’

‘Not man, though formerly a man,’

        he says, ‘I hail from Providence,

                  Rhode Island, a Korean vet.

Once I was a poet, I wrote

                  of bean spasms,

          was anthologised in
Fuck You
.’

‘You’re never Berrigan, that spring

Where all the river of style freezes?’

I ask, awe all over my facials.

‘I’m an American

        Primitive,’ he says,

‘I make up each verse as it comes,

By putting things

                     where they

           have to go.’

‘O glory of every poet, have a light,

May my Zippo benefit me now,

And all my stripping of your
Sonnets
.

You see this hairy she-rat

                  that stalks me like a pimp:

Get her       off my back,

                   for every vein and pulse

Throughout my frame she hath

                                     made quake.’

‘You must needs another way pursue,’

He says, winking while I shade my pin,

‘If you wouldst ’scape this beast.

Come, she lets none past her,

Save the VC; if she breathes on you,

                           you’re teaching nights.

This way, freshman, come,

If I’m not far wrong we can find

A bar, and talk it over with Ed and Tom.’

I went where he led, across a square

And down some steps,

                          following the crowd.

The SU bar, where we queued

For 30 minutes

To get a watery beer, was packed;

                              Ed and Tom

Sat at a banquette in the corner

Chain-smoking and swapping jokes.

Here we joined them,

                                 till closing time,

                             the beer doing the talking.

‘Look,’ said Tom, ‘if this guy’s got funding

And approval from the Dean and whatever,

Why not take him round?’

‘Show him the works,’ said Ed, ‘no holds barred!’

‘You mean,’ said Berrigan, ‘give him

                                                  a campus tour,

Like, give him Hell?’

‘That’s exactly what I mean,’ said Ed.

‘Let’s drink to it!’ said Tom,

At which we all raised our glasses,

Unsteadily, clinking them together above

The full ashtray.

‘Hell,’ pronounced Berrigan gnomically,

‘Is other people. Sartre said that.

Hell is Hell. I said that.’

Now people were leaving,

                               we shifted outside,

Into the cold air,

Where we lingered a moment sharing a last

Cigarette, then split,

                  Ed and Tom going to their digs

Leaving me and Ted to breathe the night air.

The day was dying,

        the rabbits, unable to move,

        sat confused in the fading light,

And I too found myself stuck to the spot

              as I do

                               now,

At the thought of that terrible journey

Which outdoes memory.

Now, Oulipo, come to my aid,

And muses, if you are there, now

Is the moment to show yourselves,

As I inscribe what I saw.

‘Poet,’ I said, ‘who come to guide me,

Do you think I’m cut out for this?

In
Memorial Day
you said you

       “heard the dead, the city dead

The devils that surround us,”

And in life you always had one foot

In the underworld – and I don’t just mean

You were friends with Lou Reed

                                      and Drella.

Like Virgil, who wrote of Sylvius’

      father, who, while subject to corruption,

      journeyed to the immortal world,

You have that special power

             to penetrate the veil of sense;

     but
I’m
no Aeneas.

Nor am I a Heaney or a Walcott,

Come to mention it,

By what right should
I
go?

Perhaps you’ve got the wrong man?

And then, if I say I’m up for it,

I fear I might make a fool of myself.

You see what I’m driving at –

Perhaps you can understand my

                                   dilemma.’

‘I get your drift,’ said Berrigan, ‘you’re

Getting what in the trade we call cold feet.

You’ve got that

                           fear that all too often

Turns a man away from a noble enterprise,

As a frightened beast that runs from its own shadow.

Now listen up. I’ll tell you why I came

And why I first took pity on your

                                 plight.

I was hanging out among those souls in Limbo

When a Lady came up to me

And dragged me out of my lethargy.

She was so fair and blessed

That I was won over at once.

Her eyes shone with a light brighter than any

Eye-liner, and she began in soft and gentle

Yet commanding words to address me,

With the voice of an angel:

“Oh noble spirit, courteous Rhode Islander,

You who taught in the Poetry Project

At St Mark’s, and indeed taught here too,

Whose fame still shines resplendent in the world

And will continue to shine as long as Time lasts,

I have a friend and colleague, so impeded

In his way across the Essex wastes

                     that he has turned back for

                                        sheer terror,

And I fear already

From what I have heard in London,

That I have come too late for his relief.

Now go, and with your ready turn of phrase,

And all the art at your disposal,

Help him, so that I may have solace.

I who urge you to go am Marina;

I come from a place I must quickly return to,

For I need to give a talk at the

British Library, this same afternoon,

Where there is a symposium on the sonnet,

With Jeff Hilson and Paul Muldoon –

When I return there, often will I sing your praise.”

She was silent then, so I began:

“Oh Lady of Grace, aren’t you that

Lady writer on the TV

Talking about the Virgin Mary

Celebrated in that Dire Straits song?

It’s good to meet you ma’am, and let me

Tell you now, you can rely on me to

Get the job done. It’ll be a pleasure,

And a good excuse to get out of this place,

Which gets real dull at times.

But tell me, what madness

Brought you to this point of spacelessness,

Stuck out here in the marshlands of Essex,

And away from your spacious home in town?”

“That song,” she replied, “is not really about me –

It’s a
chanson d’amour
about a beloved

Of Mark Knopfler’s, of whom I briefly remind him.

As for your other question, why I fear not

To come within this place,

I can answer with ease:

A woman only stands in fear of those things

That have the power to do us harm,

Of nothing else, for nothing else is fearful.

I first heard tell of my friend’s predicament

On a lunch date with Dawn and Michèle,

And they urged me to make this untimely visit;

There never was an entrepreneur in all of Texas

More anxious to pursue his selfish ends

Than I was, having heard this,

To rush down here and do what I could,

Confiding in thy noble speech, which honours thee,

And they who have heard it!”

After telling me all this, she turned away

Her bright eyes, weeping, then made her way

To the car park.

To cut a long story short, that’s why I

Came to get you, just in time to stop that

Giant rat getting its teeth into you.

So what’s your problem?

Why chicken out now, with dames like these

To look out for you?

Pull yourself together, there’s not a moment

To lose.’

              As daffodils, bent down and cowed

By the chill night air, lift themselves up

And open

                 when the sun whitens them,

So my courage began to come back,

And I stood up,

                        as one who is ready to go.

‘I was a fool to doubt you,’ I said,

‘Let’s get moving.’

These are the words I spoke, and as Berrigan turned,

I entered on the savage path.

BOOK: Dante's Inferno
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