Thursday, April 14, 2016

An Apocryphal Canto

Teaching Dante in Core this semester, I decided we'd all had enough with expository papers, so I'm having my students add their own extra circles to Hell. Once they're written, I plan to collect them under the title Hell's Hidden Rooms: The Apocryphal Cantos (though my students prefer Schwartz's Inferno). Here's one I composed as a pilot.

The Eighth Circle, Twelfth Pouch. The Pedants, who cannot keep from spitting into their cups.

  Pushing open the gate that led from the room                      
where unhappy souls had been kept awake                            
by endless paperwork, pointless tasks, gloom,                       
  (having asked for bread, we were given cake             
made from cornstarch and ketchup; wanting sun,                   
we were told to sit still and consume more cake),                 
  my vision opened out to a coffered hall, not outdone         
by the one by the man of Urbino. Sitting, standing,                
conversing, witty, women and men, every one             
  making noises – their discourse – resounding                      
from some kind of horn: oboes, trumpet,                                  
a shawm, clarinets, bassoons, french horns rounding,          
  trombones, a tuba (sometimes they’d thump it),                  
recorders and piccoli and a great flute,                         
every one poking from – where? Not the rump, it                    
  wasn’t like Barbariccia! Alas, if by their fruits                       
ye shall know them, then know that it was – the navel.        
From what seemed a Babel of indiscriminate toots               
  with time there emerged a symphonic fable              
of pride injured, pain at imagined slights                                
decisions made round wooden tables                          
  people’s blindness to extraspeluncular lights.                     
Such sweetness emerged from the conduits umbilical          
and such grace I perceived in their execution of rites
  that I did not notice, at first, their odd habits prandial.      
They seemed to be drinking moonlight, some spirit              
of truth, of wisdom mythico-mystical;                            
 yet each time they quaffed, with slyness implicit                  
their mouths left behind a slight drop, a thin trail,                
a small mucous swirl in the cup, or they’d lick it.                    
  Then, taking a mighty pull, they’d offer the ale                     
to their partner in tippling and tooting, who                            
did the same. In the end – so I thought, and I paled –           
  it must all be one swill; yes, the whole happy crew             
was supping from one keg of beer, not having realized        
its leaven was human. So tasty the brew                                  
  seemed to them that they fed it to smaller-sized                 
tooters, with less fulsome navels from which             
tiny woodwinds and brass had only begun to arise;              
  trying the mug on for size, these soon felt the itch               
to dribble along with the rest. Whereupon,                             
from his flute, one found his pitch                                             
  and declared in doggerel, getting his rhyme on:                   
“To the minnows, I shine like the Ichthus                                  
Heliodiplodokus – Pound’s very paragon                           
  of a poem, by which Louis Agassiz hoped to focus                
the finishing graduate. ‘Here’s a sunfish – look!                    
Please, no more hocus-pocus!                                         
  You cannot possibly make a book                                            
from five book reviews and two                                      
articles. Even allowing you cook                                     
  your data, and stew                                                                     
with a jigger of new theoretical wine,                           
you will still smell vinegar in the brew –                                  
  even packaged by Princeton, it’s brine.’”                                 
Next another strode up with an instrument                              
stuck out from her belly that shimmered in kind;                    
  I could not tell from its strange integument               
was it an oboe, euphonium, drum, an aeolian chime?          
Every moment, it altered its temperament,                               
  not to mention its key and its rhyme.                           
The cup she offered looked sweet, but the backwash           
was bitter. “I can take you to Cocytus for a good time –         
  I got friends there – we can picnic, pack a brioche – “          
But my Master said: “Bite that brioche, and Proserpina         
will pity you. Find something better to nosh.”             
  The last soul I saw wore a concertina                         
that pushed and was pulled without help from the hands;  
his chin in the air, he spat not just in vina,                                
  but everywhere, really – quite into the stands.                      
O wonder! The arcs his drool made formed a mass                
In the air; the product, a castle of strands                                
  that hovered an instant, then slid back into his glass.