But, for the unquiet heart and brain,
A use in measured language lies;
The sad mechanic exercise,
Like dull narcotics, numbing pain.
Tennyson, “In Memoriam”
When it became clear that my wife Judy Birdsong would not recover from a rare form of Non Hodgkins lymphoma that had come roaring out of remission, I sought ways to numb myself, and following the example of my ol’ pal Alfred Tennyson, I began a poetic exercise in which I strung lines of unmetered terza rima together in a crude parody of Dante’s Inferno. The plan was to compose nine cantos of nine stanzas in honor of Dante’s Babylonian algebra.
When Judy died, I had completed four Cantos, but I decided to finish it anyway. Even now, though happily remarried, I’m determined to finish [nervous bad-pun cough] the goddamned thing, even though it’s silly and flawed.
No one can accuse me of not being self-indulgent.
Canto 7, The Malebolgia
No sooner than the rum had hit my belly,
Catullus stopped the cab, put on the parking brake.
“Get out,” he shouted, my spine turning to jelly,
My hand trembling DT-ish in the dark.
“You can’t be serious,” I said, looking askance.
“Listen, you pusillanimous punk,” he barked.
“Get out! Now! ASAP, STAT!”
So, I sheepishly opened the door, stepped into the gloom
And peered through the dark at the expanse
That lay below the rim of the cliff, an abyss of doom
That Catullus called the Malebolgia,
A circular series of ditches, a living tomb,
Fraught with fire and strewn with boulders,
A prison for con men, hypocrites,
Fake magicians, corrupt office holders,
And the like, each confined to a dire ditch
Well-suited for shit-slinging shysters.
“We’ll wait here,” he said, “for the witch
Hecuba to fly us down on her whirly
Bird of a broom. The road ends here.”
For whatever reason, Catullus had turned surly,
And began to rant and swear,
Cursing God and Darwin,
As we waited for Hecuba,
Who kept us waiting, waiting, waiting,
My head spinning like a dervish, a dervish, a dervish –
Fainting, fainting, fainting . . .