I am the way into the city of woe,
I am the way into eternal pain,
I am the way to go among the lost.
Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, Vol. 1 (Inferno), Canto III: The Gate of Hell
(Anthony M Esolen translation)
I: Journey through Anaplasia: An itinerary of my mother’s passing
We surface abruptly somewhere between
the third and fourth stages, two hills wailing
in a keening wind, your tented knees encircled
by an ice-shrill entreaty – ‘Take the baby!’
and I, still nursing my own, am momentarily
distracted by the thought of where he could be.
Your urgency returning me to the grimness at hand,
I seize your demon child, cautious to elude its writhing claws,
while you rise, limp as snow-sludge in your stained nightdress,
your stormed temple and I forever failing you as, bound together
by our imperfections, we arrive at this unwalled border
having already crossed the Ninth Circle of Hell.
Before us is a barren, gravelly terrain that slashes savagely
at our exposed soles as we tramp mapless for forty days.
A vinegar-soaked sponge our only sustenance, silenced
by our sand-slaked tongues and the horror I cannot keep
from you – repulsed each time it breaks away to snuffle
and scratch, gnash and suckle – until, out of the fortieth night,
a jagged cliff looms, unyielding to any light, and you
deliver it back, this clacking undead infant, which flies
screeching from my enfeebled grip as you orphan it
in your last vicious ascent into the darkly swirling mists
beyond my reach. Trudging back alone through all the terrains
we had traversed together, light bleeds out ahead
across some far-off palms, where the living are sleeping.
Glancing back to where you had passed, I am frozen
in perpetual immotion, transformed to stone, shackled
to your darkest hour in that abominable landscape where I
had abandoned any god that I had ever known – until, roused by
a tiny trembling form, whose hungry cries are sundering the tumbled
night, I am dragged upwards under a midnight sky transmogrified,
pierced through ten thousand times by empyrean light.
II: Return to Anaplasia: If you are still here, this is not the end
Out of impregnable gloom looms an all-too familiar terrain –
round hills rolling in great grey grainy waves, like some long-dead
lunar sea-bed – this over-charted but under-fathomed territory
where the forebears of my female line lie buried beneath
a blemished legend, this witch’s curse that I had sworn
would make no claim on me. A fire-red eddy up ahead –
heat signature of my unseen demons that had breached
the gap, failing still to fall foul of me – my bunched gown
a swathe of blue, dipped in the middle over this long-ruptured
abdomen, tumbling away between the twin peaks of my knees
as I rise above the gnawing edges, crimson starlets falling to earth
beneath my teetering feet – demi-demons slithering in the shadows
of my tainted footprints – a scarlet trail writhing serpentine
between striated slopes as I thrust a handful of gold at the
toothless soothsayer, recompense for reading my future
in the patterns of my blood – no more useful than the blind shaman,
her eyes gouged out by her own conceit and unmerited self-belief,
two blackened spoons dangling from her crocheted pocket.
‘You must give one thousand answers and follow without question,’
her hollow sockets scanning page after yellowed page.
‘Like cures like,’ she would declare reaching for jars to sniff
and crush, smoulder and pulverise the bitter tonics I would swallow
for three years, my eyes closed to follow her lead – that meandering
path leading us back to where we had started, where at last we parted,
I still heavy with my devils, my purse alone made lighter.
Ascending out of memory, I come upon a crumpled form,
whose rumpled robes and cragged skin render him as one
with the rock upon which he squats. An ancient rod caught
between his cracked and sandalled feet dangles a limp line
into a dark crevasse – as from behind a beatific smile, he cries
‘Beware the prowling lion that will devour you!’ The hollow scrape
of his hook cuts through the answering growl from my innards.
For cover, I reply ‘My father was a fisherman too, but of a different kind.’
Eyeing my clutched middle, he offers me a ragged scrap much like a flap
of skin. ‘Take this and eat it,’ he says, but my parched tongue gags
on its rusty tang and the bitter aftertaste of human sacrifice.
‘Follow me and I will meet you at the gate. He is the key,’ he pleads,
the spurned scab cupped to his left breast. But I have already moved on –
descending from that high rocky place to a frozen lake where, from
her ivory tower, an ice queen invites me to sign away my life
so that she can hand it back to me; the pact agreed, she extends to me
two mottled ovules. Leaning in, I sense a hissing from within
and wince. ‘The blue one will make you shed your skin for once
and forever. The yellow will make you happy again,’
the frigid regent proclaims. ‘But I am not unhappy, only plagued
by this unshakable curse,’ I venture. ‘Stupid child. The yellows
are the solution to the blues.’ ‘But what will cure me of the yellow?’
I dare to enquire. ‘Ah –’ she professes, ‘there is a pill for that too.’
Dismissed with a flick of her wrist, I turn aside, having already realised
that her majesty high on her perch and I, with my belly in the dirt,
will never see eye to eye. Through the waylaid midlands, I skirt
a soapbox prophet spittling from a makeshift pulpit, spreading wide
his tiny hands to take in a burgeoning sea of tumbleweed that echoes
his empty words in a rasping chorus, stirred by heated winds, still failing
to apprehend the false bottom in his rambunctious arguments –
the more you take away, the less you have to give.
Tracing a trail of glistening beads, I come to a meeting
of ways, marked by a beheaded pieta – still recognisable
by its heaped misery. Here I ponder all the fallen relics
of decaying faiths laying to waste and, weary now
from following those many false tracks,
I lay me down to sleep with my demons.
Stirring in obscurity – a trick of the dark,
or words inscribed in an ancient circle –
What makes the righteous-minded believe
they have the one true answer,
when they never care to hear the question?
I wake to the shining faces of my two blindfolded sons
lifting me out of the semi-gloom, bearing me towards
a waiting form – the only one to have ever known all of me,
and love me nonetheless. And away with us into the light
we cannot yet see, but know lies ahead.