Three months before my wife died of Lymphoma, I began as a sort of mental escape exercise to write a parody of Dante’s Inferno in terza rima, a verse form very inimical to rhyme-starved English. In fact, even though Dante used terza rima in his Commedia, I know of no English translation of that great work that employs it.
My plan was to write nine cantos, each consisting of nine stanzas, to render an abbreviated trip through the nine circles of hell, having as my guide the Roman poet Catullus, rather than Virgil, who led Dante through the nether regions.
Alas, my poem, now two thirds completed with this latest canto, is a failure because – guess what – writing terza rima in English is nearly impossible unless you’re a master like Shelley (see his “Ode to the West Wind”). Some of it comes off as silly, for which I apologize.
Nevertheless, I’m determined to finish it, even though I myself don’t pretend to know what it means, and cast it out into the ones and zeroes of the Internet.
As the rutted road like a corkscrew twisted downward
through darkness, the cries of lamentation
abated, and a more martial clash we heard
as we entered the circle of anger, an infestation,
of spiteful wretches screaming, biting, gouging,
their wounds never-healing, a damnation
deserved, according to Catullus, slouching
behind the wheel of the hell cab. “Violence
is the bane of humanity. See that man crouching
behind the rock there, sliced and bleeding?
That’s none other than Pee Wee Gaskins,
podunk mass murderer, receiving
forevermore the very same tortures he wrought
upon his brethren, and over there Joseph Goebbels,
leper-like, oozing sores, with agony forever fraught.
We were in the small intestines of hell,
as it were, the stench overpowering,
the horrors too horrible to tell
with words, the previous circles towering
above us, the worst still yet to come.
I closed my stinging eyes, myself cowering
in the backseat of the cab. “Oh, for a drop of rum,”
I sighed, and Catullus smiled, pulled out a flask,
“Here,” he said, reaching back, “please have some.
It’s not much to ask
after what you’ve been through,
donning the sackcloth with a mouthful of ash.