Commentary on HellWard, By David Russell Part 2: A Darker Turn

In Canto II, Dante appears on the scene as the Poet’s guide. James senses “someone I loved appeared.” Dante makes his stipulation:

“My place in heaven, which for you I’ve left, 

That is no sacrifice: to save a soul 

From hell is worthy – are you man enough?” 

He further admonishes: ‘the way up is down’, and leads James to the Ward where he will meet his mother, but on totally different terms to those in his past lifetime: in a way, ‘his mother is in Hell.’ She is at Death’s doorway. But she is mocking and recriminatory towards James, reminding him of the dues he owes her. Dante recoils in horror, but James faces the ordeal. He longed to feel she still loves him, and approves of him. In response, she reminisces about her husband. The Poet feels let down by the non-reciprocation of affection: 

“How thick illusions are, how difficult 

To penetrate; especially those we learn 

Sucking that milk which seemingly lacks all fault.”

Something had gone seriously wrong in his mother’s life. 

“Some subtle glitch revealed what forces drove 

Her soul to night, and so to skip the day.”

She reveals that her husband is on the Ward, and at death’s doorway. She hates him, so the poet tries to console her, but fails. Her hatred and resentment are not mitigated by mortality. She makes a query about grandchildren. This gives the Poet a twinge. Dante returns, and exhorts him to move on. The Poet reacts by getting Dante to help him lift up his mother’s body and bring her back to life. But she remains ‘passive and in love with fate . . . in the hell of her free will’. Dante makes signs to go. She turns, accursed, away from him – and dies. A sense of disintegration: “Me, space collapsing, out where ground stood firm.” They have to exit from this trauma, with deep foreboding of what’s next: “mercy led me: ahead, a darker turn.”

A progression from the mother to an ex-pupil who has gone astray takes place in Canto III. James feels some guilt, wonders if he was in some way responsible. ‘Nemesis closes in’; the two must leave and go on to their next encounter. The poet felt ‘unmanned’ by his previous experience. The non-communication with his mother felt like gruesome surgery:

“Some umbilical cord drawn through a crotch, 

Constricted tight, unbreakable at both ends, 

And saturated through its skin with blood 

No scissors, scalpel, knife could cut to mend.”

He felt he deserved his mother’s hell. He felt the arm of Dante, ‘dead seven hundred years’. His essence would override his mother’s chronic failings. They proceed to Ward 4. This is filled with lost souls, faceless, lacking in love, led by a person called Kip, who makes donations. It is then added that Kip was long dead. The Ward has a wall of faces; these turn out to be Kip’s children. He brags about his paternity. He is preposterously conceited. None of his offspring are a patch on his ‘Original’. He is reduced to desperate straits. James exhorts him to leave. Apollo appears, ready to pierce Kip with his bow and arrow. James feels suffused with the essence of Apollo. He warns Kip that one of his offspring will return in retribution, and unravel his universe. Kip complained of his talents not being recognised in his childhood, even perhaps by God, and multiplied himself in compensation. Now he claims to own the Cosmos. Then a seeming Senior Nurse or Ward Sister appears, and Kip is terrified. She turns out to be a ‘harpy’, one of Kip’s rape victims. She comes to claim her debt; he pays in blood. Again they flee this ward for the next.

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