Letters From Hell

Commentary On HellWard By David Russell, Part 6: Beneath Them Deeper Pits

Canto X: Brexit

“Then, the Poet encounters the European Federalists and Anti-Brexiteers in their special Ward of Hell. It starts with Napoleon and the succession of fascists who have strived to control Europe, but this leads onto even the Brits who have betrayed their people and their country, manufacturing false, specious and well-sounding arguments to overturn Democracy itself.”

After the fall of Blair, others fall, others rise. More propping up from Dante. He feels re-energised. He encounters a ‘figureless voice’ which claims to offer assurance: “I know your thoughts and what you wish to know: With all this misery, where is heaven’s course?” Then, “. . . as it went / It seemed that I and Dante became one.

Then, through Dante, James goes beyond Physics, becomes an element:

“What Dante saw, was now what I looked on: 

Before, at some impossible height, a door 

That we might reach at last and all be done –

And as it opened suddenly its glare 

Of light flashed, blinding me – already mute – 

But now my mortal eyes could not endure 

The sight. So speechless, blind, I felt his feet 

Move forward into that light where mass

Evaporated; and instead a beat 

Began, all depth, a tuning fork in bass 

At which vibration what was is entrained, 

And will be too aligns in its light space.”

Dante feeds him a flood of joy. He hears sounds: another linguistic point: “My name, but not the name I knew myself – / A name unknown, yet one my being craves.” By acquiring this new name, he becomes a new entity. He was met by a loving group of men and women, who adopt him, as ‘their child’. With his euphoria, he feels that he somehow ‘defiled’ the gathering, was unworthy of them. With that thought, Dante’s footsteps go into reverse, and he recoils. He feels an immediate loss – “So heaven itself seemed subject to theft”. Should he now “loiter, with the damned”? His other choices are to go back, to “black heat”, or forward, to “deeper, desolate lands”.

Dante gives him his prompt, to go on, to where he will meet two dead souls who have gained eternal life. Dante refers to Him (God), whom “death dreads”.

More hope, more optimism. Dante sheds a touching tear, but then all must again be qualified:

“But with celestial spirits no such luck: 

For Dante knew, as his tear quite transformed 

Itself; and what was sorrow ís engraved track 

Now seemed a diamond – though rough carbon-wombed – 

With all the brilliance, clarity too,

Of something, simply, immortally born. 

I need say nothing now, for he just knew – 

His diamond like a lens absorbing light 

Which at the same time showed me through and through

And to myself therefore, still lost in night.

But moving forward meant repentance wait, 

For soon enough we’d be at our next plight.”

Now he was facing something “more than hate . . . some deeper level of evil “. He finds some dictatorially induced architecture:

“Symbolic of one who living had sought 

To build colossal unity which held 

Europe infected – a virus caught 

Through violence, swathes of levelling law 

By which mankind ís deceived and all ís sold short.”

Good analogy of regime and virus. The spectacle of Napoleon appears. Someone wails for his return. Dante points out that he has been inspired by Ares, the God of War. ‘Boney’ is terrified, and lets out a primordial scream. James’s mind wanders, to see massed soldiers, the historical progression of Napoleon, the Kaiser, Hitler – those ‘hateful has-beens’. James curses Ares, “That from his very loins all poison urged.”

Then on to Brexit. Some satire of the politicians involved in Europe, including Minor (John Major): “Europe had addled his wits, destroyed his mind.” An Inferno vision from Dante:

“All hospitals have beneath them deeper pits 

Where hot incinerators burn and try 

To rid the souls of their infectious fevers, 

But none of these so self-important Iíes 

Can ever be free. For them heaven is never 

Available. Like Arachne with her webs, 

Thinking to outwit the goddess as a weaver, 

So they rage with stories, seemingly with legs, 

Until at last caught out (compete with wisdom? 

Who would who ís sane?) they fade as power ebbs 

In death and that eternal law holds them; 

Forever spinning, but all pointless Babels, 

Building no living fabric, but a tomb 

In which all that is human is disabled. 

I felt a roaring heat ahead, approaching, 

That would consume all ‘woken’, self-labelled 

And virtue-signalling hypocrites, all cringing 

As fire that washes them to finer grey 

Advanced. We must be gone. No time for lingering.”

An attack on Heseltine, with which I would not altogether concur. I am not sure who is meant by Barquo.

To check out David Russell’s Poetry Express newsletter, please click here.

Commentary On HellWard By David Russell Part 5: Concourse of the Damned

In Canto VIII, entitled Neighbour Murderer, we travel further down the path of horror: “he finds an ex-neighbour of his who murdered his own wife.” The crime is complex: “. . . not just murder but the depths of the betrayal involved. And for what? Sordid cash from an insurance policy.”

Dante, who is there at his recovery from Dobbin, gives a stern admonition:

“You know your being is to be defiled, 

So why require the master intercede 

On your behalf, or block what you self-willed?”

So initially he blocks any intercession on James’s behalf, as James must take the consequences of free will: “Real heroes determine, make their true way, / Which you so failed to do.” But then he saw the ‘special grace’ of Dikè. “Heaven cannot be held in check”, whatever the depth of misery. And what misery indeed! James is in despair; his soul has not been purged of its propensity for evil; the universe is a faltering dirge sinking into deathly silence. But Dante comes back with compassion: in his younger days, he was in the grip of pride. He gives the ultimate admonition and pep talk:

“But those who seek salvation simply must 

Face every deception to which they’re tied; 

“There is no other way ahead, the dust 

Awaits, and before you sense its covering 

Divest yourself of greed and pride and lust. 

“Look deep, my son, your weeds are there, flowering; 

But where you go, if there you truly want – 

Your heart must find the seeds of love’s real gathering – 

“For that ís the antidote for all rank plants, 

Such that you’ll weep to even think of them, 

While thinking cuts itself to end up blunt.”

They proceeded, to a corridor like an alley leading to the underworld – which contains many aspects of earthly life – toiling neighbours, and the anomaly of elegant houses surrounded by piles of rubbish and detritus. Then the next encounter – with Peter, who eerily shuffles his papers. Peter is anxious to acquire a woman’s inheritance, and contemplates procuring her decease. “The paper slips – the sums made up his wife” – they had a quality of menace: “Blades freed from the soul – dark – where they indwelled” – also “like magnetic pointers”. Then focus on his wife; Peter contemplates the fatal blow. His depravity knows no bounds; he longs to kill the dead.

Li, the wife, lets out a primordial scream, which disturbs even Dante – “Suddenly felt again the mortal depths / From which heaven itself had been his buffering, / Till now”. The fatal blow falls; James is petrified. But Li prevails: “her voice had paralysed / Through its high-pitch the power of this conman”. She intones, like a mass of bees; it nails down, it penetrates his guilt. Peter is in pain; he aches for absolute nothingness – a variety of Nirvana – “Where cursing One who never was or is /Provokes no payback, or endless mishap”. Peter makes a last, failed attempt to wrestle with fate; he disintegrates. But there us something fascinating about his demise: James feels somewhat drawn in. Dante reappears, harsh and discriminating; there is some sense that he resents having left his seclusion in Paradise. He ushers James on to someone, somewhere, more extreme: “Where I might revel in some deeper vice.” 

Canto IX leads us to something far worse: from the individual to the mass.

“Here not only the murders are repellent, but the self-justifications that go along with them. Being ‘sincere’ and ‘sincerely believing’ prove convenient covers for those wishing to perpetrate evil, and without any real remorse.”

James flees in terror from Peter’s rage, wondering how many ‘levels’ he missed in his flight. He is awoken to the horrors of dictatorship, and the lot of its victims – “Their portion, part, to always live in death, / Unleashed from flesh, then from the source of love.” He laments the failure of countermanding factors. There is a switch to the legend of the Exodus – the drying up of the Red Sea, the salvation of the Jews, and the terror this struck into their enemies – “the dread of Him (Moses) on them / Broke out like plague – some mad infection spread / Faster than light . . .” Even some of the Children of Israel panic. Another encounter with Dante. In spite of his severity, James feels some bonding with him because he has suffered in the course of his descent to mortality. In a very human, mortal way, he asks for forgiveness.

Even for someone as exalted as he, old wounds can be reopened, even sub specie aeternitatis:

“Bless you,” he said, “Forgive that lapse I had 

When at that sound once more the human hurt 

Pierced through the spirit realms with all its bad, 

And stirred remembrances that heaven purged 

When I cast off my flesh and was remade.” 

Dante recognises that, going on this mission under the orders of Will (God), he too is vulnerable to being scourged. Their next Ward, port of call, is a sarcophagus, a huge cavern. Then the encounter with ‘Bliar’ (Tony Blair?) – indictment of “socialist ‘woke’, Poured forth as if thinking had never been . . .” an innuendo of ‘hushed-up’ mass murders. The author is equally trenchant about Korbutt (Corbyn?). Indication that Bliar wanted the author to be his propaganda journalist. Bliar claimed that the deaths in the wars he promoted were the lesser evil – casualties lower than they would have been if he had not acted. With recognition “. . . wonder turned to fear, And fear in turn gave way to horror’s sign.”

Even Bliar has a conscience battle:

“This concourse of the damned, as no surprise 

But shocking all the same, and to accuse 

Purveyors of its truth, which meant its lies: 

There, there, in something like swirling black holes, 

Which Bliar understood full well – his eyes 

Reeled back into their sockets as his soul Struggled to free itself from his own mind; 

But blackness – that bright tar – gravity’s pull 

Began to exercise its force and bind.”

James feels drawn towards annihilation, but Dante holds him back. No such backing for Blair. The following exposition goes beyond Physics, proclaiming quintessential contrariety:

“I’d moved an inch and saw the black so bright 

Because it burned existence at its core, 

Then feeding on its melt – the trapped-in light – 

So nothing living fled its one-way door. 

Light blackened as it touched its surface, lost, 

And scorching the while darkness screamed for more 

No matter what was destroyed, how steep the cost; 

But if not light could escape, at least sound’s 

Agony, baking in its basted roast 

Emerged in beats of pulverising wounds 

Across the void in pulses that replaced 

Heart beats. Instead, there where senses – spellbound 

Gripped reality’s superficial face, 

I saw their arms drag down the bleeding masks 

Which one by one succeeded in that place.”

The guilty parties struggle desperately to cover up their atrocities, but the kernels of truth remain. There is a vision of massed victims wreaking vengeance on their persecutors. Reference to Bin Laden and Hitler. 

James challenges Bliar on his actions. Bliar is choked for words. He is “always image and never the deed.” He puts on the hypocrite’s front: “My mask won’t slide; I know what power’s for.”

He meets his come-uppance:

“But fighting evil in himself had failed: 

The arms had him, so down he shot to hell.”

To check out David Russell’s Poetry Express newsletter, please click here.

Commentary On HellWard By David Russell Part 4: A Web of Friendship

In Canto VI, the Poet finds another old friend, Saul, whose manipulative aggression still palls, and proves no sound basis for life. More despair of humanity “. . . human nature starved of love, and thin . . . wholly set / On self-assertion, at all costs, to win.” He thinks of the Biblical relationship of David and Jonathan. Dante reassures him that he will find his true love at the end of his quest. They pass what looks like the detritus of an abandoned hospital. There is a room with three-sided screens. James finds Saul behind one of them. Ironic reflection: “He’d beaten me to hell, as he preferred . . . To be the winner.” In the past, James had ignored his blatant sadism. He would crush the human spirit, drag humanity down with him, lure James to join him on the ward. But James will not go under – he retains faith in “that soul’s original identity . . . Which was not love, not power, and sure not knowing . . .” but “pure light . . . one final showing / Of creativity and its delight:” Saul turns on him, and accuses him of never having been creative. But Saul is self-defeated:

“Indeed, to Saul was now a disconnect 

That never again would power his life 

For good . . .”

Saul’s image reminds James of his mother and her Ward. He begins to feel paralysed . . . “my torso now felt more, Like blisters erupting, liquid, then crust, / Hardening my skin to scales, inward to core. / As it did, diminishment taking hold.” Concomitantly, Saul gains in strength, and rises. He brutally crushes James’s index finger. James is utterly dumbfounded: “I addled with a hard-boiled egg for brain.” (one of the finest poetic expressions ever for nervous shatterment). He describes atheists as “those who never know”. Overwhelmed by Saul, he feels he has reached his nadir: “What place left for me, so fallen, so low / / And utterly without virtue, merit?” Dante stood in the background, observing the proceedings. He feels as if he has turned into cement. Then James ‘unfroze’ and finds himself praying. The prayer is answered: the floor opens up, making a passage to a ‘deeper hell’. Saul senses he is going down, and wants to drag James with him. James is on the brink of doing so, when Dante comes to the rescue, and tells him to jump. He has a last view of Saul ‘gripped by his daemon’, sees him rise and fall.

In a sense, James goes ‘out of the frying pan, into the fire’ in Canto VII, meeting someone from further back in his past:

“Here he finds himself in a web of friendship with darker designs on what friendship means, which is the undermining of morality itself – a deep chaos that Dobbin seeks.”

James is smarting from his last encounter, with a broken finger and aching ribs. He has been brought to the depths of disillusionment and despair:

“The years, long years, of friendship and its faking 

Brought my life down till I was bare alive. 

Around me darkness, black as a coal seam . . .”

He is forced to ponder as to whether false friends are better than no friends at all. He was left in deadly silence, super-tense: “Within, a pulse, flawed, as if it were wounded.” He acknowledges that he was late in realising the nature of false friendships. Then his priest/confessor touches him and saves him. He confesses that “all righteous tracks I have derailed my soul.” But then an incredible observation of the essence of language and the human spirit:

“And as I said the word, ‘soul’, 

I felt a tremor – like naming detailed 

Its nature, leaking essence in its spill – 

So small, at least it seemed the word I spoke, 

But then a wave so strong it flushed my ill.” 

He recovered – “Myself became visible to myself” and gains supreme vision:

“Could see itself and everything be known, 

So transparent each human heart”

At the Centre there is one he could not fathom. When he tries to do so, he ‘seeing was undone’. He finds himself again in the hospital, and called on his mentor for aid. Dante then makes a most profound statement of optimism and spirituality:

“Each thought you have, and each desire you nurse,”

He said, “derives from dreams and dreaming’s air, 

And from this invisible and primal source 

What ís solid materialises here; 

In mortal life cause and effect may not 

Always manifest as a conjoined pair . . .”

Dante reminds James of his struggles with Saul, and warns him that he must face greater challenges yet: “Raw strength Saul had, but stronger still ís the lie.” Dante led him on to the next acquaintance – one Dobbin: James ‘knew that he was dead.’ His discourse is cultured and inspiring. But there is a catch: “I could not constrain his genius, / Or guess at how profound he felt his envy.” Ironically, Dante “. . . who’d pressed me so hard, now seemed / Away the while my past found sharp repeats.” Dobbin wants to continue, and restructure their relationship: “Experiment! Our friendship ís on new ground.” He is compared to a spider: the spider’s tapestry reveals the true lives of the Gods. Their all-too-human foibles are laid bare. James wonders about Dante’s whereabouts. But then he hears a voice, just as he is going to fall into Dobbin’s embrace. He then receives a vision of a flawless entity, adored by the cosmos, and entity of supreme power – this turns out to be the Goddess Dikè!

“The Gorgon, from whose face fear itself hung – 

Aloft, whose spear which only she could wield 

Would penetrate beyond the body’s corpse 

And drive to where the human soul is killed.”

Her apparition makes him feel a failure. Abased, he begs her for a revelation: “Undo this veil and show me what you weave.” She comes to the rescue; hope is restored. “Though blind, time stopped – as Dobbin froze and stalled.” Her ‘tapestry’ is revealed. It initially seems completely chaotic, but then appears as an intricate web, beyond his comprehension. Dobbin is dumbfounded, taking away his chair, so that James falls to the floor – knocked unconscious. He recovers – in the arms of someone he knows!

To check out David Russell’s Poetry Express newsletter, please click here.

Commentary On HellWard, By David Russell Part 3: Love Cannot Be Overcome

In Canto IV, James proceeds to a Ward which contains a former boss – apparently benign, but with ‘an underlying and pathological desire for control, recognition and self-aggrandisement.’ He desperately needs to be propped up by his guide. He feels great twinges of guilt about having been a bad teacher. Dante tries to console him, saying he was young then; this does not quite compensate. An interesting digression on the decline of the English educational system: “The mind a slave to idols without heart: Kids sold a mess of pottage . . .”

An exhortation of Dante: “. . . part of his (God’s) nature is / Freedom of the will; we must share it too.” Then the Grand Paradox that ‘love created Hell.’ After this, Dante has a shaking fit, from which he soon recovers. He reasserts the will of god, and resumes the great journey: “There’s One with whom we cannot force a deal.” They head on a downward path with an increasing gradient; there are ghostly footsteps. Dante’s rhetoric continues – if only Adam had not committed the primal sin, there would have been an ideal world. The Poet “Heard only groans, saw filth, and smelt the blood, / Of Adam’s legacy which we all shared.” Dante asked “Don’t you see the good?” Then a mass of empty beds, awaiting restless souls. He goes through the door, and finds one he recognises as Bryan. Robotically, he orders James to lie down. He then discovers that the beds are cluttered with the aftermath of surgery, indicating patients who have not recovered. The Poet senses that Bryan is under a curse. Bryan is very angry when quizzed on this point. It turns out that he is an old, persecuting mentor of the Poet – ‘with nothing learned’. A fraudulent educational manipulator. “Bryan took credit for all I’d made,” but still tries to make gestures of friendship. He tries to tempt James with an offer of an Educational partnership. Dante warns him against this temptation, and urges him to leave. Bryan comes out in his true colours. James is furious, attacks Bryan, and pierces his skull. James remembers a benign mentor, J E Williams. His memory is an ‘avalanche of snow’ to cool the heat of anger. James and Dante venture to their next encounter.

They progress, in Canto V, from the Boss’s Ward to that of some former close friends. One of these is a person he admired as a ‘poet friend’, but then discovered details of his bad character. He still has contradictory feelings about Bryan. 

“I could not reconcile my own two sides: 

Be one person, integrated, together.”

Another indictment:

“So-called learning proving one route to pride 

And not much more: humans puffed up with knowing; 

Not knowing exactly the hell they’re in 

Of endless iteration, pointless doing.” 

Dante embraces James, and affirms their bond: “As if by force he should join my split soul . . .”. James is restored to energy and positivity. He asks Dante again why he left his comfortable Heaven, to be told of someone who loves and cares for him: 

“Through her, Beatrice ordered your relief.”

Great optimism: 

“Love lights, and love cannot be overcome 

Because beauty stops motion at its root. “

Interesting to contemplate the opposition of love and motion. Then he sees Ginty and Marlene, Ginty in bed and Marlene, though sick, tending him. Ginty has gone into terminal decline. He asks James what has brought him here. The answer is that he was prompted by a Muse. Ginty visibly shrinks at the mention of Dante. Ginty then proclaims himself an OBE, and a lover of Literature, then says “It’s nothing, here.” Ginty turns against James, whom Dante again protects. 

“And so I came to see Ginty, reversed 

In image, friend as was, on Dante’s breast”

Enter Medusa, a possible transformation of Marlene; again under Dante’s prompting, he makes a panic-stricken flight. He is in extreme exhaustion and disillusionment: “It seemed to me that all my friendships lied.” Dante pulls him up with “Now learn what liars do.”

He realises his past naivete:

“The folly I had followed lacking doubts, 

Thinking I had friends untested the while 

And here discovering for myself their roots.”

They have completed another phase of their journey. There is much trepidation about the next – “ahead was dread of what I despised.”

To check out David Russell’s Poetry Express newsletter, please click here.

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.

To check out David Russell’s Poetry Express newsletter, please click here.

Commentary On HellWard, By David Russell Part 1: To Hell And Back

Today, we have the first instalment of a series of article-commentaries upon HellWard by editor David Russell of Waterloo Press. Offering startling insight into the poem, this commentary will give readers not merely a summary of the narrative thread of HellWard but also tools to dissect its deeper themes and meanings. For those new to reading poetry, it provides a methodology for breaking down poetic language and symbolic meaning – effectively demonstrating how to read with a critical eye. But for more experienced readers it also offers an alternative prism through which to view the theological poeticism of “England’s epic poet”, James Sale.

In part 1, David Russell examines the introduction to HellWard and its first canto.

Sale opens his preface with a clear approach to epic poetry. He rejects the dogmatic and the doctrinaire. Epic has an essence beyond any conscious motivations of its writer/s: “a profound belief system behind the overt belief system.” The Leitmotifs of this work are the concepts of free will, and the near-death experience. He sees free will and the concept of Hell as being related, and as unpopular amongst the doctrinaire. 

“Epics are all about journeys to Hell and back.”

The author takes Dante as his guide, both as inspiration for his composition, and as a guide/mentor in the narrative.

“Dante elevated human decision-making to a point where even God cannot reverse the consequences of such decisions.”

The author had his own near-death experience with a Malignant Sarcoma in 2011. This decisively related stark reality to his Dantesque vision:

“The ward system could represent, loosely, the Circles of Hell that Dante describes.”

In Canto 1, James is hospitalised. Through the sheer agony of near-death, he gains enlightenment and vision:

“In total despair and pain, the poet is invaded by this force at the point where the surgeon’s knife went in and cut him; and so, unexpectedly, enters a state of paradise, albeit briefly; and from this moment he is enabled, and sent to enter all the Wards of hell to find the meaning of loss.”

Through this enlightenment, he recognises that the Path to Hell is paved with good intentions:

“The misery, unintended, unplanned 

That characterised the fools who sought to build 

A better world.”

He sees the folly of overrating the influence and power of politics and science. A true vision of the world parallels the full exposure and dissection of the body under surgery. So with the doctrinaire:

“Yet for all that building, they built one tomb 

Called planet Earth – polluted, warmed and dying, 

Neglecting the while to study, exhume 

The corpse of what the century was frying.” 

He realises that he must ‘make his descent’ work against that neglect. To that end, “I saw myself for poetry is scrying”. In his extremity, he calls on Calliope, the Epic Muse, to make sense of the modern world. He realises his mission:

“. . . each human hides that face 

Divine, which is our task, within our will, 

To reveal at last . . .”

There is a ‘face divine’ in every human, however, sick, aged, degraded or perverted. In his appeal to Calliope, he recognises that grand Paradox: “That Love that Dante saw created hell.” This is the balancing contrast of the sublime constellations.

James is on his Quest for the Grail, to ascend to Dante’s 9th Heaven. A powerful sense of destiny, tinged with despair:

“You know the golden god and how he breaks 

The proud. I came myself near history, 

Despite a false summer then broken out, 

Collapsing quite incomprehensibly.”

Epiphany prevails over chaos. He relates his quest to his surgery. There was some sense of hope and optimism through the surgical revelation of the diseased tissue. The cancer is a death-threat:

“Refusing life, wanting in death to mesh 

With me, an apt image of evil’s mind, 

Small gains to build one vaulting emptiness, 

At last undo what so much love designed.” 

Perhaps not so perversely, part of him longed for the release of death, for his spirit to ascend: “Out of my body, sight soared to space.” He gets a vision of his eternal, post-mortem self: “There, close-up, I saw not chaos, / But its just opposite . . . a star formed in deep space.” But this astral body is subject to a greater power “– One flick, it revelled forward on its round.” What agency/power administers the flick? God? The same question applies to “the whole cosmos rent Into parts” and “each atom purposeful, sent”.

James is acutely conscious of his plight: “Powerless to do evil, much less good” He makes an appeal to God, who is life itself, who is the plan. He fears he might have to stay forever, ‘in his dark rut’. Then comes the Divine Revelation through surgery: 

“There, at the point the surgeon made his cut, 

At that point exactly I felt God’s blow

In me – so in me that nothing could stop 

Its force, its flow and in one instant all changed, 

As if mortality itself were shut 

Off, and for it something brand new exchanged: 

I mean that pain, in body and mind, ceased, 

As suffering, past and present, was expunged . . .”

He attains a state of peace and freedom, but this is also deeply disturbing:

“And I aware of some awful purity: 

A whiteness of light, which recalling ever 

I quake within, tremble before to Be . . .”

In spite of this, he weeps tears of joy, being in the benign embrace of God. Peace and wellbeing prevailed over malignant chaos, evoked by a searing image of mass deaths of bees. God prevails benignly over time and matter:

“Time slowed to tripartite significance, 

Future ahead, and present, a new past 

In which what was random had His Presence, 

Vital, pervading all moments, all mass, 

Nothing beyond reaching beyond His reach, 

That reach, and His hand, the net He had cast.”

His power is all-pervasive, but he is “not some distant God”. He opens the door for the Poet to proceed with his journey. The depth of horror points the way to enlightenment:

“If seeing my own horror and its toll 

Might let light intrude, penetrate my soul.”

To check out David Russell’s Poetry Express newsletter, please click here.

The StairWell to Heaven…

The second volume of The English Cantos, StairWell, is now available for pre-order!

This volume marks the middle stage of the Dantean journey, the ascent of Purgatory. In Dante’s cosmological configuration, Purgatory is viewed as a mountain arising from the reverse side of Jerusalem and the Satanic nadir. In James Sale’s StairWell, Purgatory is configured as a magical stair of spiritual progress.

Each step upon the stairwell contains an impossible space, a landscape corresponding to the particular spiritual ailment of those on the path of redemption. The stair is also a personal symbol of James Sale’s literal ascent up the staircase in Royal Bournemouth Hospital towards the Chapel of St. Luke, in which he prayed during his battle with cancer.

Aptly, St. Luke is figured in esoteric terms as the Taurus or bull—correlating to the element of earth and physical matter—and therefore promises deliverance from the physical suffering via spiritual means. Purgatory is Luke’s kingdom, for in many ways it marks the intersection of Divine and earthly. In this interstitial space, magical things are possible, hence whereas HellWard features horrifying psychological and mythological archetypes, StairWell takes on an almost Arthurian aesthetic of fantasy and magic—the grand, holy quest for the absolution of one’s soul and attainment of the Garden of Paradisical Innocence.

Purgatory itself is also symbolic of our earthly reality, for progress is possible in Purgatory both up and down the stair; the fate of those in Purgatory is not “fixed” yet, but rests in potentiality for salvation or damnation. Thus, StairWell is full of literal and symbolic transformations, signified by the black butterfly upon its cover, which embodies the truth spoken by Dante Alighieri:

“Perceive ye not that we are worms, designed

To form the angelic butterfly, that goes

To judgment, leaving all defence behind?

Why doth your mind take such exalted pose,

Since ye, disabled, are as insects, mean

As worm which never transformation knows?”

Purgatory, Canto X

StairWell is coming 1st March 2023. You can pre-order the book here.

A review of J. Simon Harris’s translation of Dante’s Inferno

J. Simon Harris’s translation of the Inferno is a real work of love. The book is worth reading for all the information, notes, bibliography, and glossary alone! But especially for what seems to be his attempt to capture some of the actual ‘poetry’ of Dante in English. We have translations that are pedantic, and so which bore; we have translations which are accurate, but lack the poetry; and we have translations that are simply idiomatic – Clive James’ springs to mind. Here, though, we have a translation attempting accuracy AND poetry. First, it is written in terza rima but going beyond that let me give an example of what I mean: Stanley Applebaum’s is a good translation and he gets the ‘meaning’ of the lines, but misses the poetry. For example, in Canto 5 we have Dante’s line, Io venni in luogo d’ogni luce muto. Appelbaum has this as ‘I came to a place bereft of all light’, which is what it means; but the Italian original uses the word ‘muto’ or mute/dumb. In other words the ‘bereftness’ of light is conveyed poetically through synaesthesia: the light is dumb or mute. This is a much more powerful expression of the failure of the light – it cannot speak! In Harris’s translation this is: ‘I came into a place mute of all light’ – a brilliant rendition, particularly as the line itself is blank verse and picks up the power of the English language too. I recommend this to all readers of Dante who want to find something more like Dante himself in English.

Find more information here.

Visiting The Hell Ward by Sally Cook (Guest Blog)

James Sale came to my attention at the Society of Classical Poets some years ago. It was there that I first encountered the logic and lucidity of both his poetry and prose.

Sale has been writing and publishing for several decades, but this book Hellward is a major step forward in his craft and ambitions. It is the first volume of a proposed trilogy titled The English Cantos, and it is rooted in Sale’s long-standing fascination with Dante’s Divine Comedy. In fact, in this book Sale himself (as narrator and protagonist) is being guided by Dante through the hospital when Sale was once treated for a very dangerous cancer.

In this “ward,” Sale meets various characters from his life and experience. This is a modern epic loosely patterned on Dante’s great work—hence the title Hellward, which could also be understood as a hellish cancer ward, filled with suffering victims. 

Such an idea for a poem would seem daunting to most contemporary poets. But Sale’s clear and logical perception of the world and its follies has led him to take up this challenging task. With Dante as his guide, he leads us straight down to Hell. We pass through several levels, as he encounters and speaks with family members, friends, minor criminals, politicians, and even mass murderers. In a time when narcissistic poetasters rule the roost, who dares to even think of reading, let alone writing such a momentous poem?

Just as Sale was saved from the threat of cancer, so also does his persona in this epic work to save a Western world gone mad with the ugliness, disorganization, and clouded reasoning that we have lived with for more than a century. Hellward connects us again to reason. Sale is essentially a mender, seeking to diagnose the various distempers and derangements of modern society and then show some kind of pathway to escape them and return to sanity and health. In this manner he connects his own return to life (he had a near-death experience in that cancer ward) with a possible revival of our sick society as a whole. His visit to “Hell” Ward is an attempt to come to some better awareness, some healthier outlook, some promise of redemption—just as Dante’s trip to the Inferno was part of a larger goal of human salvation. 

Of interest to poets will be Sale’s Canto 11 on modern poetasters. This section really bristles with justified anger and contempt, as these lines show:

Here even Dante wearied at the scene,
As if the heaven he was in could not
Protect him from writings, low and obscene.

To see such scribblings, such vagaries, blots,
More like graffiti than serious works,
Defacing truth, the while their authors gloat

As simians might whose fingers at nits pick;
Or primates in their hierarchies might
Preen themselves--keen on set-ups for perks!

This is the ire of a serious poet against the hordes of fake writers who have managed to corrupt the literary world with their bogus garbage. And like Dante, Sale reacts with real animus against that which he considers the perversion of something that he holds sacred. For Dante, it was those who had defaced the Church with corruption and venality. For Sale, it is the pack of self-absorbed nitwits who have plagued English and American poetry for far too long.

Hellward is a fine work that proves good literature is hard to kill. Like Dante’s Divine Comedy, this is a book of substance that will last.

You can read Sally Cook’s phenomenal poem “Shadows” here at the Wider Circle.

A former Wilbur Fellow and six-time Pushcart nominee, Sally Cook is a regular contributor to National Review, and has appeared in venues as varied as Chronicles, Lighten Up On Line, and TRINACRIA. Also a painter, her present works in the style known as Magic Realism are represented in national collections such as the N.S.D.A.R. Museum in Washington, D.C. and The Burchfield-Penney, Buffalo, NY.She was recently showcased in the Burchfield-Penney Museum exhibit “In The Fullness Of Time”  which covered 150 years of Art in Buffalo and western NY state.  She was one of a handful who had two items in the Exhibit and is one of six living artists represented. A popular virtual tour of her retrospective at the State University of New York at Buffalo ART GALLERIES may be found at The Society Of Classical Poets website.

(Guest Blog) The Whip of Sight Translation, Metaphor, and Poetic Energy by Daniel Fitzpatrick

As Robert Frost sees it, poetry is what is lost in translation. When we consider the relationship between translation and metaphor, that both mean to bear over, to carry across, Frost’s assessment, more even than characteristic statement of his wry cynicism, takes on something of the contour of his poetry. In Frost we find much more of the figure than the figurative. His metaphors often slip by, flickering beneath the surface of the phenomenon he shows us. That is if he employs metaphor at all. Often he does not, as in the case of “The Road Not Taken,” or only glancingly, as perhaps could be said of the “sweep” of the snowflakes in “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”

In his more explicit similetic moments, to be sure, Frost allows for the great figurative flights into otherness which for Aristotle mark genius. Consider the “ghost of sleigh bells in a ghost of snow” to which the speaker of “Hyla Brook” compares the song of the spring peepers. Even here the effect may be more musical than exact, far different from the metaphor whereby the brook’s bed “is left a faded paper sheet” a few lines on. This latter instance is more in character. It is in a sense no metaphor at all. The dry leaves in the bed of a brook have in fact become something of a sheet of paper.

Similar modes of metaphor are in play in such slightly longer lyrics as “Birches.” There is the arresting comparison of the limbs to those girls on hands and knees with hair thrown over their heads to dry, and then there are those light, almost unremarkable metaphors like the “crystal shells” the winter sun cracks and crazes. In such moments Frost takes us not into that metaphorical gulf between being and non-being but rather into the asymptotic nearness of contraries approaching each other as they approach Being itself. He is a poet of body language, of the metaphors those things which stand over against us hand us in order to help us describe them.

In all this Frost occupies a very different space from those contemporary poets who delight us by their indefatigable comparative activity. Sharon Olds, for example, in “Summer Solstice, New York City,” supplies us with as many metaphors—all apt, all electric—as Frost has in the four poems so far mentioned. Olds gives us a rush through whitewater, a passage in which we can never lose the impulse of our direction even as our gaze is whipped every which way. Frost ferries us across a placid river, always under his own power, always gently enough that we may see our Whitmanian reflections in the water as we cross.

It is in the involution of his language, in his ability to give us interiority through the phenomenal, that Frost’s metaphorical power resides. It is there, in a sense, that all real poetry resides, and it is this which most of all defies translation. If figurative language curls in upon itself, only to bloom before the attentive gaze of the reader, those of us who take up the work of translation run the risk of falsely unfurling the language so that we are left with colorless, odorless meaning.

In my own translation of Dante, I began with two main principles in mind: first, to convey the sound of Dante’s Italian as nearly as English allows, provided that to do so does not introduce an inappropriate poetic or theological dissonance; second, to preserve Dante’s philosophy and theology intact.

As I progressed through the work, there arose a need to add a third, to preserve metaphorical language wherever possible, and this in light of two lines of Inferno IX. The Italian reads, “Gli occhi mi sciolse e disse: ‘Or drizza il nerbo / del viso su per quella schiuma antica” (73-74). I have rendered it as, “He loosed my eyes and said: ‘Now flick the whip / of sight across that antique scum.” The metaphor is unimposing, especially by contrast to the two epic similes, one of a burning wind and the other of the frogs fleeing a snake, between which it falls. And yet the choice of translation in such small matters as the whip of sight, as Vergil puts it, proves critical to the preservation of poetry. What Vergil plainly means is for Dante to “look over there,” and the line is often translated thus. Such translation, however, is a kind of double translation, a move first from one language to another and second from the figurative to the literal. Then poetry is lost in translation.

The matter concerns more, of course, than the words themselves. When Frost gives us the bed of Hyla Brook like a faded paper sheet, he tells us not only that the ground is dry and brittle and brown but that histories live in it and may perhaps be written upon it still. Likewise to flick the whip of sight is not simply to look over there but to embody something about the nature of looking. It is to say that sight is not simply a passive power in which the open eye receives whatever is before it but rather that the seer acts upon the seen object in the moment of seeing.

To translate is in its way to set a metaphor before the reader, to supply a thing which both is and is not its original. It is an act in which poetry can be lost as well as found. In its practice is a step beyond the old half-truth that words alone are certain good into a recognition that words may shape the temporal mind for eternity. In words, in metaphor, in translation, we may bear ourselves over to those fires Olds finds at the end of her Solstice, the fires the first men lit in the first nights; we may bear ourselves forward with Frost through the radiant tension of the quotidian and forward farther still with Dante to the closing of the portal of time. We may by words trace the contours of the work of the Word, speaking being out of nonbeing, calling us ourselves to be translated and behold that Triune vision in whose heart our face is painted.

Daniel Fitzpatrick is the author of the novel Only the Lover Sings. His new translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy, illustrated by sculptor Timothy Schmalz, is out this year in honor of the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death. He is completing an MPhil in Creative Writing at Trinity College Dublin, and his poems and essays have appeared in places like Dappled Things and Studia Gilsoniana. He lives in Hot Springs, Arkansas, with his wife and three children.

You can find out more about his work, here: https://enroutebooksandmedia.com/helpdantehelpitaly/