(Guest Blog) England’s Epic Poet

by Ross Jeffery

Originally published on Storgy Magazine.

I’m not a huge fan of poetry, okay I’ve said it. I don’t know what it is, there’s something about the artform that I struggle with, it may have underlining issues with how this was dealt with at my secondary school and the bullying that took place in the classroom from my teacher and directed at me personally because I just didn’t get it.

After that I just turned my back on it, it was clearly for academics and well, I’m no academic.

I never gave up on it totally though, I had to discover it for myself and on my terms.

I had to find the right style that I could get to grips with, I don’t like all the floaty stuff, I like my poetry to be gritty or funny and one of my favourite poets is John Cooper Clarke (The Punk Poet) – his use of wordplay and his uncanny ability to get his point across in funny and engaging prose is something I truly love and admire. I think I enjoy poetry when it is real and heartfelt, when it’s dripping in pain and suffering and darkness (cheery guy that I am). I also have a fascination with the bible and the books of Job, Song of Songs (Songs of Solomon) and The Book of Revelation are some of my favourite books of the bible, due to the imagery that is created, the desolation of Job followed by the deftly crafted beauty of Song of Songs and the epic finale that is Revelation – and that is why I loved HellWard by James Sale so much.

How could such power be – the whole cosmos rent
Into parts and each part on its own work,
And better still, each atom purposeful, sent

Whilst far below on a bed, injured, hurt,
Powerless to do evil, much less good,
I lay helpless, fit soon to be but dirt?

HellWard by James Sale is a book that I couldn’t wait to dig my teeth into. I’d seen a few of these Cantos performed online via Sale and his use of language, the themes of the collection and the bleakness of it were most appealing.

The collection focuses on the Poet as he is in hospital with cancer and calls on Calliope, the Muse of epic poetry to help him in his time of need. Later Dante arrives to take the poet on a tour of what can only be described as purgatory or Hell – where our poet meets with people, friends and family – those that had some form of a connection to him at some point in his life.

It is in the meeting of these friends that had me reminiscing about the book of Job (how he also conversed with his friends – whilst being tempted to sin by Satan against his God). The way the Poet meets with these people and converses with them are incredibly well constructed, each one trying to bring him down further into the mire, each one with their own axe to grind, each one laying on blame or accusations, each friend or visitor a step towards a final destination that has yet to be decided.

‘Be careful,’ Dante said, ‘for here’s the end
Of hell itself in your world: the last test –
Philosophers whose ideas never mend

Or heal a single soul; rather, as pests –
Cockroaches scuttling in cellars below –
They quarry till your kitchen is their nest.

Sale masterfully gets his point across with these additional characters and the journey is one that is filled with pain, suffering, redemption and hope – the language Sale uses adds a regality to it that one would expect to find in the masters of the form such as Shakespeare, Homer, Dante and Milton but as I said I’m not much of a poetry man – so there are probably even more comparisons to be had such is the brilliance of Sale’s prose. You can witness with each Canto that Sale is someone that is passionate about language and poetry, crafting beautiful offerings from the ashes of a life, there is passion within the words and I feel that this is rather a somewhat personal journey for the author, one which comes across in blinding clarity and proves how powerful words can be, how in words sometimes we can find salvation and hope, but also despair and desolation.

The beauty of the book is in the journey and each Canto adds another layer to this incredible glimpse into the afterlife, the purgatory that awaits us or the hell we may or may not wander when our time comes. Each proceeding Canto has an echo in the next story, driving the reader onwards to a destination that they and the poet fear to tread, and it’s this that builds a palpable tension within the book and adds weight to the words and the prose that is always beautifully poetic. The wordsmithery of Sale ensures that each line is as sharp as a scalpel, that each verse hits with the directness of an arrow to a target, and ensures each Canto will take your breath away as you walk the delicate line that Sale has weaved before us.

The blurb of the book details that HellWard is based on Sale’s near-death experience in Ward 17 of Bournemouth General Hospital – and you can feel all the passion, pain, hurt, hope, despair, suffering, longing and fear in every line, it comes across as a deeply personal account of someone’s last days, a epic battle that is waging over their soul. HellWard also asks questions of the afterlife, leaves the reader pondering who will be waiting for them in the Hell Ward when their time comes, and it is this epic beauty, these unanswered questions that in my opinion solidifies Sale as ‘England’s Epic Poet’.

Ross Jeffery is the author of Juniper. A Bristol based writer and Executive Director of Books for STORGY Magazine. Ross has been published in print with STORGY Books, Ellipsis Zine 6, The Bath Flash Fiction Festival 2019, Project 13 Dark and Shlock Magazine. His work has also appeared in various online journals such as STORGY Magazine, About Magazine TX, Elephants Never, 101 Fiction, Ellipsis Zine, Soft Cartel and Idle Ink. Ross lives in Bristol with his wife (Anna) and two children (Eva and Sophie). You can follow him on Twitter here @Ross1982. His debut novella Juniper was published by The Writing Collective in January 2020 to much praise and is available from Amazon stores – click here.

(Guest Blog) Junji Ito and the spirals of hell

Though ideas of hell and its theological structures or “models” existed before Dante, Dante was perhaps the first writer to construct an architecture of hell so vivid and specific, to the point where many of his readers believed he had actually been there. Dante’s hell differs from many glimpses of the underworld that we are afforded in the works of Homer or Virgil. His hell is a mappable place, charted with a cartographer’s eye.

One of the key architectural features of this hell, a feature that was perhaps surprising to his readers, and indeed is still surprising to new readers of Dante, is the fact that hell is arranged in “circles” that spiral downward into the pit. Nine circles, to be precise. Not seven (which would be the obvious choice given the Catholic concept of the seven deadly sins, and seven days of creation), but nine. Research has suggested that, in fact, there are nine key drivers of human behaviour or nine “motivators”, based on various sources, including the Enneagram and even Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Could it be that Dante understood this psychological idea intuitively?

His choice of nine circles is even more intriguing when we consider western architecture, on the whole, is mostly angular or square, sometimes triangular, but almost never circular except in rare examples such as in the coliseums of Rome. In fact, it is more often Asian cultures that employ circles in their architecture, so Dante’s conception of a circular hell is culturally anomalous, against the grain of usual western thought, but of course psychologically genius. Circles represent cycles, endlessly repeating, and so Dante’s inhabitants of hell are trapped in their own warped logic, their own justifications for their actions, and the repetition of their own sins.

One of the greatest modern interpretations of this is in Junji Ito’s Uzumaki (which literally means “spiral”), originally published in 2010Junji Ito is a Japanese horror manga artist and writer, who has created some of the most haunting horror imagery of the twentieth and twenty-first century. He is greatly influenced by the works of H. P. Lovecraft and “cosmic horror”, but an often overlooked aspect of his work is the Dantean. Uzumaki is the story of Kirie Goshima, a young girl living in a coastal town that is slowly falling into the grip of a “spiral curse”. The townsfolk, to varying degrees, become obsessed and subsequently infected by spirals. The story opens with Kirie finding her lover Shuichi’s father staring at a wall, inspecting a snail.

From this tiny beginning, everything spirals (forgive the pun) out of control. The “curse” of the spiral, though we are unsure if this is really what is going on, takes many different forms, including causing people to warp their own bodies into torturous offerings.

Ito-san’s spirals operate with similar symbolic significance to the circles of hell, namely, they are partly allegorical, as well as literal, of the spirals and endless cycles of human behaviour. Here, Shuichi’s father has become twisted, and so, as in Dante’s hell all things become literal, he is physically twisted to reflect his psychological reality. Each person in Uzumaki is trapped in their own sin.

Shuichi, Kirie’s boyfriend, is trapped in his paranoia and pessimism. He sees the spiral’s work in everything (even a bowl of noodles, or a river).

Shuichi is eternally depressed, his face warped in a kind of rictus. The sad thing is he’s often right, and is the first to see the spiral for what it really is, though his warnings fall on deaf ears. He is like Cassandra in Greek mythology, knowing the future, but cursed never to be believed.

Kirie, on the other hand, is trapped by her own virtue. Many times Shuichi offers to run away with Kirie, but she refuses, because she will not abandon her family. Her desire to help others becomes almost selfish rather than selfless as she drags Shuichi down with her into a labyrinth from which, eventually, they cannot escape.

Each person who falls victim to the spiral throughout this expansive epic is guilty of some kind of engrossing behaviour that ends up determining them. Shuichi’s father is a collector, and his obsession combined with the spiral leads to him collecting spiral objects, and ultimately, warping his own body into a spiral and putting himself in a box, like of one his cherished possessions.

Kirie’s own father is a ceramic-maker, and he refers to it as “the art of the spiral”, using the spinning disc to form his creations. He becomes so obsessed by his art, that it leads to him shaping spiral pottery out of the dead. He’ll literally defile the dead if it means he can achieve an artistic break.

A lazy young boy who never attends class on time is transformed into a snail, so he will forever be slower than the others.

Azami, a beautiful young girl at school whom our Kirie is jealous of, is obsessed with keeping young men in her circle, and eventually becomes a monster, whose head is hollowed out by a grotesque spiral eating into her brain. Men are drawn into this spiral, feeding her ego (located perhaps in the frontal cortex).

There are subtle nods to Dante throughout Uzumaki. For example, as the power of the spiral increases, vortexes sweep across the town, much like the hurricane winds that trap Paulo and Francesca in Dante’s second circle. And, perhaps an even more direct allusion, the story of Yoriko and Kazunori. Yoriko and Kazunori are two young lovers whose families hate each other and will not permit them to be together; so, the two end up betraying their families. Their relationship oversteps the boundary of true love and becomes a kind of co-dependence. The spiral finds them, and they become one twisted serpentine creature, each wrapped round the other, now inseparable and co-dependent forever.

Junji Ito understands, as Dante did, that even positive emotions like love have a place in hell when they are taken to extremes.

Like a spiral itself, the story circles whilst drawing ever closer to a central point. Geographically, Junji Ito locates this in the middle of his town: a lake from which many of the spiral-problems seem to stem. When we finally venture to this lake, we discover the truth of the spiral. Again, like Dante, Junji Ito doesn’t flinch from showing us the full expanse and architecture of the hell he has created, and we see the very “nadir” or low-point of the spiral, and what that represents.

–Joseph Sale (The Mindflayer), 2020


Images copyright © Junji Ito (2010). Courtesy of Viz Media, Uzumaki Deluxe Edition, 2019