Author Archives: 78perrysg

Canto 30: Guilt by Association

Adrienne Perry

My high school Spanish teacher preferred not to use a syllabus. When we weren’t watching “Destinos,” a protracted telenovela designed to teach Spanish to non-native speakers, we were listening to him rant about current events, though rant is probably too harsh a word. Astute and worldly, Señor Redler was a spectacular linguist in Spanish and a gifted grammarian in his mother tongue. He relished words and a good verbal joust, yet he could smell his retirement as plainly as a cochon rooting for truffles. By the time we landed in his class, he’d hit the stage in his teaching career when he could have taught the subjunctive or railed about Latin American politics even if he were stone drunk. Instead, he used his encyclopedic knowledge to both intimidate and hold captive his audience. He drew a boy or two to near tears.

Day to day the majority of kids in class nodded off and checked-out, though a small cohort listened; Mr. Redler could say provocative things. He was appalled, for instance, by a meeting designed to rally faculty around ways to stem the fights breaking out in the halls. “Do you know what they told us to do?” No one said anything; we had learned what a rhetorical question was the hard way. “They told us, when we see a fight, to take a ten dollar bill out of our wallets, work our way in, and ask, ‘Did anyone drop this ten dollar bill?’” He punctuated this with a demonstration, drawing out his wallet and extracting a Hamilton. He wagged it a little and rolled his eyes a little. No question: the suggestion that this gesture could disperse a crowd of restless teens eager to see a beat down was a glaring symbol of the administration’s incompetence.

What the hallways of Central High really needed was Virgil. With a quick cut of the eye, he could have reinforced that our desire to see (or hear) “such baseness is degrading” (255). Towards the end of Canto 30, we see Dante become a different kind of rubbernecker. Not like he hasn’t been interested in spectating through hell before—certainly he takes an active interest in certain sinners—but this time we get a sense that he’s enjoying (a little too much) the spectacle of watching Master Adam and Sinon exchange physical jabs and a bolgia ten version of “yo mamma” barbs. Like someone settling in for the guilty pleasure of a ½ hour of Jerry Springer or WWE, Dante can’t take his eyes off this grotesque and ridiculous scene. Or, at least he can’t until Virgil raises his voice, “Now keep on looking/ a little longer and I quarrel with you” (254). Or, as I’ve heard it from my loved ones, “Mind your business.”

Dante’s spiritual guide has brought him back to his right mind before, and this time Virgil chases that good deed with an absolution. Dante need not feel lasting embarrassment: “my shame to ask his pardon; while my shame/ already won more pardon than I knew// ‘Less shame,’ my Guide said, ever just and kind,/ ‘would wash away a greater fault than yours’” (254). That’s nice Virgil, but it’s hard not to continue to feel the residue of shame, once we realize how magnetic violence is and how we can be both compelled and repelled by it simultaneously. We know we shouldn’t watch the fight in the hallway, and yet we don’t want to miss anything, not even for ten bucks. It’s no surprise to me now that Mr. Redler and his colleagues were advised to take out money in an effort to redirect and reinvest the mob. We weren’t mere spectators; active players, we might not have had lines, but we had a part.

This struck me as the critical Lenten lesson for me to extract from this canto. Since my last posting, I feel as though I’ve watched a literary horror flick unfold tercet after tercet. Canto 30 is salt on the proverbial wound, with its continuation of “The Falsifiers,” those sinners who have assumed false identities, counterfeited money, and born false witness. Master Adam says “Inflexible Justice” has “forked and spread” his “soul like hay” (252). He’s also without legs, has a “distended belly,” and the wretches beside him “reek so strongly” (253). Like our gluttons in Canto 6 (oh so long ago!), these sinners are equally incontinent. Except, instead of food, they can’t control themselves or what they put into circulation. They stamp images on money, lie, and presume to be other people. They sound like junkies, train wrecks, thirsty souls with bad tempers made worse by hell. And yet, no matter their sin or suffering, it cannot be for our amusement. These cantos teach that, yes, there is guilt by association—meaning ours. When the temptation arises to watch “petty wrangling and upbraiding,” ’tis better to, as Issac Hayes sings, “walk on by.”

Canto 24: Thieves in the Temple

Adrienne Perry

St. Mark’s Episcopal Church sits on the corner of 19th and Central in Cheyenne, Wyoming. A “pioneer” church, St. Mark’s history dates back to the town’s early heyday, just a few years after the end of the Civil War when Cheyenne was probably little more than a prairie outpost. Raised in the church, I was an acolyte and attended youth group meetings. My mother, on the other hand, became more than a participant. I have watched, particularly after my father’s passing, her devotion and sense of belonging to the church flourish. She has served as the church accountant, on the vestry, is part of ECW (Episcopal Church Women), and contributes to the life of the church in energetic and sustained ways. I can always count on our weekly conversations turning to some matter of church business, whether she updates me about the lives of people I’ve known since my childhood, something noteworthy (or funny) in the bulletin, or the Taize style service she’s just attended.

Over the last few years, the church has struggled with whether or not to leave the sanctuary open—and thereby unattended—during the day. Philosophically, most embrace the idea of leaving the church open to worshippers or those seeking a moment of quiet respite and meditation. The church is historic and, in its physical structure, simply lovely, with stained glass renditions of the Stations of the Cross, an impressive organ, and a sanctuary and altar somehow both humble and glorious in their subtle detail—brass railings, the cloverleaf pattern on the choir pews, the marble floors and cherry stained wood leading up to the altar. Unfortunately, theft has kept the congregation and church leadership hesitant to leave St. Mark’s open. Even with the crosses and candlesticks locked safely away by the altar guild, items have still gone missing—sometimes even baffling items from baffling places. While the parishioners are eager to share their church with others and often appreciate that the theft may stem from deeper social ills, it ends up leaving a sour taste of confusion, anger, and disappointment on the tongue.

At the end of Canto 24, Dante and Virgil encounter Vanni Fucci, a “beast” who stole treasure from the sacristy in Pistoia. “A mule among men,” Vanni Fucci “chose the bestial life above the human” and that choice has delivered him to the seventh bolgia in hell’s eighth circle (21). As far as levels of hell and bolgia to avoid, this one is high on the list. Here the sinners swarmed “naked and without hope,” they were “terrified,” and, worse still, “Their hands were bound behind by coils of serpents/ which thrust their heads and tails between the loins/ and bunched in front, a mass of knotted torments” (209). There is a cruel and intentional irony in these thieves having their hands—the most likely vehicle of their crimes—tied by vipers behind their backs. And these are particularly creepy snakes, mind you. Just moments before arriving at the bolgia, as our heroes neared the “the next chasm’s darkness,” Dante heard in the snakes a sound akin to a wrathful speaker somehow unable to form words (208). The depth from which that tormented voice sought to rise appeared bottomless, and so, not knowing what ill might have met them there, Dante and Virgil agreed to slightly alter their route. Even before we know what’s coming, we can feel, almost immediately, that this was a good move. All together it makes for a dark and eerie scene.

Snakes play such a powerful role in myth and imagination, with negative connotations from jump in Genesis, to the positive connotations associated with Kundalini (the “coiled one,” represented as a snake) in yogic traditions. Located at the base of the spine, coiled Kundalini is the power of a seeker’s latent consciousness. Once roused, Kundalini unravels, extending up through the chakras and ushering the seeker through higher and higher levels of consciousness and spiritual awakening. But these aren’t the kind of snakes Dante’s talking about. The very memory of the snakes in bolgia seven made Dante’s “blood run cold,” and so should ours in this seething pit of high drama. The snakes bite the sinners, dissolving them “into a heap/ upon the ground,” whereupon they turn to ash, they rise and sigh, already in anticipation of the agony’s repetition. Sorry love: it’s a Groundhog Day that will never, despite the perpetual resurrection, lead to redemption:

(Digression: Insert blues riff. Let’s say, 4/4 time: “I’m in bolgia seven and I got the blues/ thieves to my left and thieves to my right/ can’t tell whether it is day or night/ tied up by snakes that bite me on the neck/ I fall to ashes and say, ‘Hey man, what the heck?’/ I got them bolgia seven blues/ been a long time baby since we had good news…)

There are several turns in this canto, moments in which I felt as though Dante winked at me—from his almost bucolic rendering of a vernal scene at the canto’s start to Virgil’s admonition of Dante to tighten his belt: “The man who lies asleep/ will never waken fame…”(207). I don’t have the pluck to take up all of these moments here. It is enough, it seems to me, to contemplate the nature of thievery. As anyone who has had material possessions stolen can testify, we experience theft as a deep violation, not merely of our personal possessions but of our selves. The emotional range of our reactions can be profound—from disillusionment, disgust, and questions of personal safety to a nagging sense of disappointment in our fellow man. (And all of that before we even begin to deal with the fallout of what we’ve lost.) Theft ravages. So, sure, Fucci is a “beast” simply because he stole, but his beastliness is certainly made worse because he stole from a church. Dante makes clear that stealing what is sacred is diabolical; in pilfering from a church we rob God and those seeking to worship or know God. That’s low.

About the nuances of this kind of transgression there’s much more to say, though I don’t think I can elegantly unpack it all here. In my experience, theft doesn’t simply trample the golden rule or cross an established boundary. Whatever the reason behind the theft—be it hunger, malevolence, a still developing frontal lobe—, taking what isn’t ours undermines our sense of community. It blasts a hole through our social fabric—even “minor” theft. (Little moths still nibble away at the linens.) It bites us, reduces us, and, when we have the strength to rise again, we do so with a sigh.

Part of theft’s deeper, more lasting damage arises from our (understandably) kneejerk reactions and need for self-preservation. If we can, we want to patch the fabric and put it away so that nothing ever molests it again. We jam the cycle of giving’s gears, removing from circulation and creation many of the things we hold precious. It’s a response that makes sense, even though I’m not sure it’s always healthy. We can feel such a need to protect what’s ours that we neglect those around us, their needs, and the compassion that might grow in us if we were to extend ourselves enough to experience another’s reality. Thieves will do what they will. We, on the other hand, close down our houses, our sanctuaries, our hearts, imagining those around us as potential vipers, slithering about what we have and they hope to get.

Canto 18: No Harm

Adrienne Perry

Spend enough time in hell and it becomes, well…more hell. It becomes more of itself, revealing its full dimensions through the poet’s vision—its nooks, crannies, and characters—layer after layer and circle after circle. It is a vulture perched beside road kill, slowly lifting its wings until we see, bit by bit, the full span of its body and what it plans to do next. By the 18th canto, hell seems horrible and yet familiar, perhaps even horribly familiar. We have had fire, whips, excrement, rafts of sinners, and creatures resurrected from mythology (easily, as though they were strange, yet intentionally/opportunely placed) to move the sinners, and sometimes our pilgrims, along.

I opened to this canto and felt myself a tad numb, stimulated by my fellow bloggers’ insights to be sure, and yet inured to what this level of hell might hold. Perhaps that’s how Stephen Dedalus felt as “[he] sat again in the front bench of the chapel. The daylight without was already failing and, as it fell slowly through the dull red blinds, it seemed that the sun of the last day was going down and that all souls were being gathered for the judgment” (Joyce 300). As the preacher details in his sermon to Stephen and his peers, there is, in hell, physical pain, spiritual pain, and—the “last and crowning torture of all”—eternity (Joyce 304). The Inferno had successfully conjured, for me, hell’s physical pain and eternity. A place where “sodomites” run across burning sand isn’t where a gal wants to spend much time. I’d been taking it all in, but I hadn’t yet felt the pinch of spiritual pain. For whatever reason, this canto flipped that switch. Dante’s hell has room for pimps and poets, lovers and looters. And sometimes they stir our compassion while we stir their souls to recognition…

Here’s what stirred me to recognition: Dante and Virgil descend from Geryon’s back and our poet soon finds “new souls in pain,” “new torments, and new devils black as pitch” (158). I was skeptical about the “newness” at first. True, the Malebolge of this eighth circle provided a twist, and not just because there’s a sassy, Tolkien-esque map at the start of this canto in my translation. The “we’re-not-in-Kansas-anymore” shift could have easily come from the changed landscape, but I soon found the “the new” in language and in the nature of the sin that landed these “misbegotten wraiths” in this circle and their various bolgia. For instance, I’d not yet heard this in hell: “Move on,/ you pimp, there are no women here to sell” (160). Or, as Dante and his guide approach the second bolgia:

Once there, I peered down; and I saw long lines
of people in a river of excrement
that seemed the overflow of the world’s latrines.

I saw among the felons of that pit
one wraith who might or might not have been tonsured—
one could not tell, he was so smeared with shit. (161)

The abrasiveness of the language drew me to the “coarseness” of the sin. While the eighth circle is full of the “Fraudulent and Malicious” (I assume, writ large), somehow the panderers, seducers, and, to a lesser extent, the flatterers made clear that it is one thing to bring ourselves low and quite another to intentionally drag others down alongside us. The panderers and seducers, in particular, traffic in other people—be it actual beings or their emotions. In this circle, we bring others into sins they would perhaps never have designed for themselves: prostitution, slavery, the fallout of a twisted love affair; it is, at its most common and worst, the possibility of manipulation through every level of human relation. For the flatterers in hell, their false and hollow speech is shit made manifest. Alessio says, “Down to this have the flatteries I sold/ the living sunk me here among the dead” (162). There is a connection, it seems, between the soul and the substance of our sin.

As a Lenten contemplation, this canto makes me want to be very honest and to do what Chögyam Trungpa has called “no harm.” To be aware, without being neurotic, of the way in which my actions impact others. In my experience, spiritual pain is internal turmoil, often caused when I feel as though my thoughtlessness or negligence have extended beyond me to friends, loved ones, coworkers, even strangers. Do I attempt to bend situations to my will, thinking I know better for others than they know for themselves? Do I see people as some currency to get what I want? Have I spoken half-truths in the hopes that others would like or accept me? Certainly. It sounds vile, but I also know I’m in good company. I can see the way this mixture of opportunism and cowardice unfolds in everyday situations—driving to the grocery store, the kinds of purchases I make, and the list goes on. In this level of hell I imagine enduring physical pain and eternity while being tormented, most brutally, by the recognition that my selfishness and deception—whether sinister or perhaps even a bit everyday—had harmed another.

Joyce, James: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1992

Canto 12: Violent Against Neighbors

Adrienne Perry

Even the terrain in hell can change.

As Dante and Virgil head into the first round of hell’s seventh circle, they stand on the edge of a devastating and treacherous pit. No accidental tourist, Virgil has passed through “this dark way to the depths of Hell” before; yet he notes that the topography, on this journey, has changed dramatically (112). Dante describes it as a “ruin” similar to “the result of an earthquake/or of some massive fault in the escarpment—” (111). Given the photographs of downed houses, upturned roads, and piles of rubble from Haiti, Chile, or eastern Turkey, it isn’t hard to imagine the “broken cleft” our poet and his guide saw. Without warning, earth and hell rip open and then seal off their wounds like a boxer’s bloody mouth opening and closing.

My Uncle Richie was a pugilist and a Jehovah’s Witness; he would have seen no accident—indeed, only continued portent—in the physical, human, and spiritual upheavals of the last few months. Virgil looks at his “hellscape” and also sees the hand of God at play. After all, it was in the coming of Christ, as he “took/ the souls from Limbo, that all Hell was shaken…” (112). Virgil goes on to say that, in that eventful moment, he “thought the universe felt love/ and all its elements moved toward harmony,” though we see more convincing evidence in this canto of “ancient rock…stricken and broke open” (112). To my ear the poetry in these lines and in this canto soar, even though they do so, like a bird flying down a mineshaft, in hell’s ever darkening, deepening, shape-shifting landscape. (Mi dispiace, Dante, for not unpacking more of it here and by so doing seeking to revel in those moments of exquisite poetry.)

The river of blood proves to be the most obscene and disturbing part of this scene. The Minotaur didn’t have it easy above ground, and in hell he’s as dodgy as the path Dante and Virgil must navigate to pass him. The centaurs, with their bows and arrows at the ready, have a “shoot first, ask questions later” attitude. Split between man and beast, their very physical being makes them possessors of a (potentially) terrible, unpredictable power. (Just like animals; just like us.) And yet, outside of the few moments when their arrows are turned toward this creature who “moves what he touches,” their attentions remain trained on the souls cooking, at various depths, in the river (113). Somehow, I expected the river of blood to be red, but it is instead a “scalding purple” in my translation. A gruesome reduction.

In hell, I’m beginning to realize, all of a river’s good—indeed much of nature’s good—appears turned on its ear. True, earthly rivers cause destruction and wreak havoc, yet they also make life possible. They replenish the land as they flow seaward. They transport us and our “goods,” literally and metaphorically, up and down river. Crossing the Mississippi or flying above the Colorado makes easy a sense of wonder. Rivers baptize us, they heal us, they usher us from one shore of our existence to the next. They don’t turn into the burning Cuyahoga River, in other words, without some sin. Nor do we get, without some sin, a river of blood that feeds into itself, in a loop with depths both profound enough to cover a man and shallow enough for some critters to barely wet their hooves.

As children we used to prick our fingers and become blood brothers/sisters with the other kids in our neighborhood. Someone always had the needle if someone else had the will. We might not all have been born of the same family, from the same blood, yet by combining our red sap we could become kin to one another and symbolically unite our family trees. We went around saying that we were brothers and sisters to one another, not only because of this ritual, but because someone had heard at church that we were all brothers and sisters in the eyes of God. For a few weeks, this neighborly, embracing notion of “blood” relations took off like a match to dried grasses.

Everyone hanging out in the river of blood either ignored or forsook that basic notion of brotherhood, even though their sins appear to be on a sliding scale—a hierarchy which leaves Dionysius and Alexander up to their eyelashes and a bunch of cats, whom Dante recognizes, free from the waist up. Though of a similar type, not all of these sins are created equal. Is Eichmann covered over, Ted Bundy bare from the shoulders up, and woman who poisoned her neighbor wading up to her kneecaps? The centaurs may be ready to shoot them back down when they get “uppity,” but these questions invite questions about the nature of sin and hell and justice.

Nessus guides Dante and Virgil expertly past the river to “deeper Hell,” explaining the various figures and their sins along the way. At one telling moment, Virgil raises his hand to hush Dante, “Let him be the teacher now, and I will listen” (114). I wondered what Nessus was thinking, whether this was all in a day’s work for a centaur and a soldier of sorts. After he carries them across the river, he goes back across the ford without fanfare. There is work. There is hell. There is the reality of blood. Much like, when we as girls asked my father about Vietnam, “Have you ever killed anyone?” All of the blood in him froze. He didn’t answer. He walked upstairs, back to his work, without saying a word.

Canto 6: The Gluttons

The VIth Canto – how apt. Historically the Lenten season has not been met, in my life, with much meditative reflection. As a child, I looked forward most to Shrove Tuesday, to gorging myself on a pancake supper at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church. We sat at a table for children and teens, our plates loaded with pancakes drenched in imitation maple syrup and accompanied by a thick slab of ham. We ate ravenously, as though we’d been locked in solitary confinement, as though we’d gone without hot food or good company for the entire winter. It was a gastronomical and social highlight of an otherwise bleak time.

Knowing now the soulfulness and earnest devotion the people manning the griddles and pouring hot coffee have either shared or exhibited, I’m sure many at those pancake suppers returned home eager to turn inward – perhaps with a bottle of Tums – and make space in their lives and hearts for a time of penitence and contemplation. Not so with me. I wondered how long we had to wait before the crosses were unveiled. Later on, Lent became a self-centered gimmick to embrace the cause self-improvement; it was an opportunity to abandon guilty pleasures or parts of my life over which I felt out of control: baked goods, lying, gossiping, candy, Taco Bell. A rash of acne and my interpersonal relationships made my failure to “rein it in” all too apparent. I had (have) a knack for missing the Lenten boat.

Maybe reading the Inferno is like taking Psych 101. We thumb through the diagnoses and somehow find ourselves described through the shorthand for each condition or disorder. Our phobias and neuroses are both confirmed and laid bare. We are suddenly agoraphobics with wacky Oedipus complexes. The way Dante describes it, Hell might just have a seat for me, particularly the third level we enter in Canto VI.

This may get me booted from the blog, but I have to say, I laughed at the beginning of this canto. Dante makes the scene sound utterly wretched—something akin to diving into a freezing privy in the dead of night while being chased by wolves. What out of this putrid and restless morass could prompt a chuckle? Virgil. He’s the comic and he’s the relief. Virgil is keeping it so real, perhaps even gangsta. He has, as one hip hop artist put it, “diplomatic immunity in every ghetto community.” I’ve never heard of someone facing down so many ravenous multiple-headed beasts, and in this canto he does so simply by throwing down Cerberus’ “gullet” a “clod of the stinking dirt that festered there.” Next thing we know, Cerberus’ heads have “choked on their putrid sops and stopped their fuss.” And then Dante and Virgil are on their way, like Dorothy and the scarecrow down a road paved with bodies, which their footfalls push through to “emptiness.”

The emptiness inherent in gluttony has no apparent bottom; there is no sating the insatiable, after all. Cerberus has three heads, plenty to eat, and he’s still barking, bearing his teeth as much out of habit as real need. No wonder he would shut his trap after Virgil threw him a handful of offal. This canto warns that gluttony transforms a human being into a garbage can, numbing the senses that were once used to taste until there is no possibility for moderation. That first pancake goes down smooth—buttery, spongy, sweet. The tenth pancake is intestinal caulk. Gluttony doesn’t live far away; it’s not across the railroad tracks. More likely, it’s in the living room or, at best, next door in the Lazy Boy eating Cheetos and waiting for some company. It’s just too easy to get too much of a good thing, except perhaps, spiritual nourishment. It’s hard to imagine Ciacco in this level of Hell if he had turned his hunger inward, used that longing as a vehicle for coming closer to the divine.

“The Hog” is part of the second chuckle. I like the way he calls to Dante, as though they’re in the final throws of an office holiday party. “Oy, Dante, remember me?” “Hmmmm. Let me see. Your face looks familiar, but now that you’re ‘rotting like a swollen log,’ it’s hard to place you. . .” Soon, however, they are past introductions and onto the essential conversation: what of Florence? Well, though I don’t think I’m picking up all of what Dante’s putting down, the phrase “political incontinence” comes to mind. Any vice powerful enough can take multiple forms, and so with gluttony, as “Black shall ride on White for many years,/ loading it down with burdens and oppressions/…There,/ pride, avarice, and envy are the tongues/ men know and heed, a Babel of despair.” There is no shortage of political rapacity today, heaven knows. And I find myself asking about our “Florence,” with all of its inhabitants and leaders’ insatiable desires: the accumulation of wealth or power or nuclear arms or natural resources—a hoarding (a gluttony) without sense. There’s an even lower level of Hell for the worst of those gluttonous for power, I would guess. That is what I will contemplate as Dante and Virgil walk away from the scene “speaking of pain and joy.”