Dante's Inferno

Dante's Inferno

by Philip Terry

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781847775511
Publisher: Carcanet Press, Limited
Publication date: 07/01/2014
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 160
File size: 275 KB

About the Author

Philip Terry is the director of creative writing at the University of Essex. His fiction, poetry, and translations have been widely published in journals in Britain and the United States, and his books include the celebrated anthology of short stories Ovid Metamorphosed, Fables of Aesop, and the poetry collections Oulipoems and Shakespeare's Sonnets.

Read an Excerpt

Dante's Inferno

By Philip Terry

Carcanet Press Ltd

Copyright © 2014 Philip Terry
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84777-553-5



    Halfway through a bad trip
    I found myself in this stinking car park,
    Underground, miles from Amarillo.

    Students in thongs stood there,
    Eating junk food from skips,
      flagmen spewing E's,

    Their breath of fetid
    Myrrh and ratsbane,

    And condemned chicken shin
      rose like

    Then I retched on rising ground;
    Rabbits without ears, faces eaten away
      by myxomatosis

    Crawled towards a bleak lake
      to drink
      of leucotomy.

    The stink would revive a
      sparrow, spreadeagled on
      a lectern.

    It so horrified my heart
      I shat

    Here, by the toxic water,
      lay a spotted trout, its glow
      lighting paths for the VC.

    And nigh the bins a giant rat,
    Seediness oozing from her Flemish pores,
    Pushed me backwards, bit by bit

    Into Square 5,
      where the wind gnaws
      and sunshine is spent.

    By the cashpoint
      a bum asked for a light,
      hoarse from long silence, beaming.

    When I saw him gyrate,
    His teeth all wasted,

    His eyes
      long dead
      through speed and booze,

    I cried out
      'Take pity,
    Whatever you are, man or ghost!'

    'Not man, though formerly a man,'
      he says, 'I hail from Providence,
      Rhode Island, a Korean vet.

    Once I was a poet, I wrote
      of bean spasms,
      was anthologised inFuck You.'

    'You're never Berrigan, that spring
    Where all the river of style freezes?'
    I ask, awe all over my facials.

    'I'm an American
      Primitive,' he says,
    'I make up each verse as it comes,

    By putting things
      ;where they
      have to go.'

    'O glory of every poet, have a light,
    May my Zippo benefit me now,
    And all my stripping of your Sonnets.

    You see this hairy she-rat
      that stalks me like a pimp:
    Get her off my back,

      for every vein and pulse
    Throughout my frame she hath
      made quake.'

    'You must needs another way pursue,'
    He says, winking while I shade my pin,
    'If you wouldst 'scape this beast.

    Come, she lets none past her,
    Save the VC; if she breathes on you,
      you're teaching nights.

    This way, freshman, come,
    If I'm not far wrong we can find
    A bar, and talk it over with Ed and Tom.'

    I went where he led, across a square
    And down some steps,
      following the crowd.

    The SU bar, where we queued
    For 30 minutes
    To get a watery beer, was packed;

      Ed and Tom
    Sat at a banquette in the corner
    Chain-smoking and swapping jokes.

    Here we joined them,
       till closing time,
       the beer doing the talking.

    'Look,' said Tom, 'if this guy's got funding
    And approval from the Dean and whatever,
    Why not take him round?'

    'Show him the works,' said Ed, 'no holds barred!'
    'You mean,' said Berrigan, 'give him
      a campus tour,

    Like, give him Hell?'
    'That's exactly what I mean,' said Ed.
    'Let's drink to it!' said Tom,

    At which we all raised our glasses,
    Unsteadily, clinking them together above
    The full ashtray.

    'Hell,' pronounced Berrigan gnomically,
    'Is other people. Sartre said that.
    Hell is Hell. I said that.'

    Now people were leaving,
      we shifted outside,
    Into the cold air,

    Where we lingered a moment sharing a last
    Cigarette, then split,
      Ed and Tom going to their digs
    Leaving me and Ted to breathe the night air.



    The day was dying,
      the rabbits, unable to move,
      sat confused in the fading light,

    And I too found myself stuck to the spot
      as I do

    At the thought of that terrible journey
    Which outdoes memory.
    Now, Oulipo, come to my aid,

    And muses, if you are there, now
    Is the moment to show yourselves,
    As I inscribe what I saw.

    'Poet,' I said, 'who come to guide me,
    Do you think I'm cut out for this?
    In Memorial Day you said you

      "heard the dead, the city dead
    The devils that surround us,"
    And in life you always had one foot

    In the underworld – and I don't just mean
    You were friends with Lou Reed
      and Drella.

    Like Virgil, who wrote of Sylvius'
      father, who, while subject to corruption,
      journeyed to the immortal world,

    You have that special power
      to penetrate the veil of sense;
      but I'm no Aeneas.

    Nor am I a Heaney or a Walcott,
    Come to mention it,
    By what right should I go?

    Perhaps you've got the wrong man?
    And then, if I say I'm up for it,
    I fear I might make a fool of myself.

    You see what I'm driving at –
    Perhaps you can understand my

    'I get your drift,' said Berrigan, 'you're
    Getting what in the trade we call cold feet.
    You've got that

      fear that all too often
    Turns a man away from a noble enterprise,
    As a frightened beast that runs from its own shadow.

    Now listen up. I'll tell you why I came
    And why I first took pity on your

    I was hanging out among those souls in Limbo
    When a Lady came up to me
    And dragged me out of my lethargy.

    She was so fair and blessed
    That I was won over at once.
    Her eyes shone with a light brighter than any

    Eye-liner, and she began in soft and gentle
    Yet commanding words to address me,
    With the voice of an angel:

    "Oh noble spirit, courteous Rhode Islander,
    You who taught in the Poetry Project
    At St Mark's, and indeed taught here too,

    Whose fame still shines resplendent in the world
    And will continue to shine as long as Time lasts,
    I have a friend and colleague, so impeded

    In his way across the Essex wastes
      that he has turned back for
      sheer terror,

    And I fear already
    From what I have heard in London,
    That I have come too late for his relief.

    Now go, and with your ready turn of phrase,
    And all the art at your disposal,
    Help him, so that I may have solace.

    I who urge you to go am Marina;
    I come from a place I must quickly return to,
    For I need to give a talk at the

    British Library, this same afternoon,
    Where there is a symposium on the sonnet,
    With Jeff Hilson and Paul Muldoon –

    When I return there, often will I sing your praise."
    She was silent then, so I began:
    "Oh Lady of Grace, aren't you that

    Lady writer on the TV
    Talking about the Virgin Mary

    Celebrated in that Dire Straits song?

    It's good to meet you ma'am, and let me
    Tell you now, you can rely on me to
    Get the job done. It'll be a pleasure,

    And a good excuse to get out of this place,
    Which gets real dull at times.
    But tell me, what madness

    Brought you to this point of spacelessness,
    Stuck out here in the marshlands of Essex,
    And away from your spacious home in town?"

    "That song," she replied, "is not really about me –
    It's a chanson d'amour about a beloved
    Of Mark Knopfler's, of whom I briefly remind him.

    As for your other question, why I fear not
    To come within this place,
    I can answer with ease:

    A woman only stands in fear of those things
    That have the power to do us harm,
    Of nothing else, for nothing else is fearful.

    I first heard tell of my friend's predicament
    On a lunch date with Dawn and Michèle,
    And they urged me to make this untimely visit;

    There never was an entrepreneur in all of Texas
    More anxious to pursue his selfish ends
    Than I was, having heard this,

    To rush down here and do what I could,
    Confiding in thy noble speech, which honours thee,
    And they who have heard it!"

    After telling me all this, she turned away
    Her bright eyes, weeping, then made her way
    To the car park.

    To cut a long story short, that's why I
    Came to get you, just in time to stop that
    Giant rat getting its teeth into you.

    So what's your problem?
    Why chicken out now, with dames like these
    To look out for you?

    Pull yourself together, there's not a moment
    To lose.'
      As daffodils, bent down and cowed

    By the chill night air, lift themselves up
    And open
      when the sun whitens them,
    So my courage began to come back,
    And I stood up,
      as one who is ready to go.

    'I was a fool to doubt you,' I said,
    'Let's get moving.'
    These are the words I spoke, and as Berrigan turned,

    I entered on the savage path.






    I saw these words spelled out on a digital display
    Above the entrance to the Knowledge Gateway.
    'Master,' I said, 'this is scary.'

    He answered me, speaking with a drawl:
    'Now you need to grit your teeth,
    This isn't the moment to shit yourself.

    We're at the spot I spoke about
    Where you will see souls in pain
    Who perverted the good of intellect.'

    Placing his hand on my shoulder, and flashing
    Me a smile, though not one that reassured me,
    He led me in.

    Here groans and cries and shrieks of grief
    Echoed through the freezing fog
    And made me weep with fear;

    A confusion of tongues,
    Greek, Polish, Arabic, German, Dutch,
    Strained with notes of tortured woe,

    Rose into the sightless air,
    Like frenzied seagulls
      at a landfill site.

    And I: 'What's this
      noise I hear?
    Who are all these tortured by grief?'

    And Berrigan replied: 'They are surfers,
    Dudes who coasted through life, drifting in and out
    Of degrees and jobs without conviction.

    They are mixed with those repulsive civil servants
    Neither faithful nor unfaithful to their leaders,
    Whose love was all for self.

    Oxbridge, to keep its reputation, annulled
    Their degrees, and even Essex
      would not honour them.'

    'Master,' I asked, 'what's eating them?
    Why are they making such a racket?'
    'That,' he says, 'I can tell you in a nutshell.

    They have no hope of death
    Yet the life they lead is so low
    That they envy all the other shades.

    Nobody on earth will remember them;
    Funding bodies dismiss them out of hand.
    Let's not talk about it: look and walk on.'

    And as I looked I saw in the gloom
    A giant screen, and on it the giant mouth
    Of a talent show host, a man called Callow,

    If I caught it right; in front of the screen
    Such a crowd had gathered, I wondered
    How death could have undone so many.

    A few of these tortured souls I recognised,
    Among them a couple of red-heads:
    One who had amassed a few credits

    In Philosophy and Literature before
    Drifting into telecommunications sales,
    Another who had been unable to choose

    Between poetry and stand-up.
    These wretches were stripped naked
    And picked on by wasps and hornets

    Which buzzed in their ears
    And made their swollen faces run with blood
    And pus, where fat maggots fed.

    When I looked away from this awful sight
    I saw another crowd queuing by the bank
    Of a swamp which had formed in a building site.

      'Master,' I asked,
    'Are these more students? What makes them
    So eager to make the crossing?'

    And Berrigan, my guide, replied:
    'Hold your horses, you'll see
      soon enough.'

    And I, biting my lip,
    Said nothing more,
      until we reached the muddy shore.

    Then suddenly, coming towards us in a bark,
    An old man, hoary white with eld,
    Bellowed: 'Woe to you, wicked students! Hope not

    Ever to see a grant again. I come to take
    You to the main campus
    Into eternal loans, there to dwell

    In sticky heat and dry-ice. And thou, who there
    Standest, live spirit! Get thee hence, and leave
    These who are dead.' And when he saw I didn't

    Budge, he added: 'By other way
    Shalt thou come ashore, not by this passage.
    Thee a nimbler boat must carry.'

    Then Berrigan spoke slowly: 'This is no time to get
    Imperious, Dr May, it is willed by Senate,
    That is all you need to know. Step aside.'

    His words brought silence to the woolly cheeks
    Of the boatman guarding the muddy swamp,
    Whose eyes glowed like burning coals.

    But all the students, shagged out and naked,
    Grew pale, and their teeth began to chatter,
    At the pronouncement they'd heard.

    They cursed the day they were born, they
    Cursed the coalition, they cursed their fathers
    For not having vasectomies.

    Then, like lost souls, wailing bitterly,
    They squelched knee-deep in mud, towards
    The shore of the forsaken building site.

    Dr May called them together with his
    Ferryman's song, and with his oar he walloped the
    Latecomers, saying: 'Put that on your SACS forms!'

    As at the start of the Autumn term,
    When the leaves begin to fall,
    Covering the ground with a slippery carpet,

    So did the doomed freshers
    Drop from that shore into the bark,
    Lured by the siren song.

    Off they go across the swamp waters,
    And before they reach the opposite shore
    A new crowd gathers on this side.

    'My friend,' Berrigan said to me then,
    'Everyone who wants to get a degree
    Gathers here, from all corners of the globe;

    They want to cross the swamp, they are eager;
    It is the fear of being left on the
    Scrapheap that urges them on

    Into debt and toil and hardship;
    Only a fool would follow, so if Dr May
    Warns you off, you see what he's saying.'

    As he finished, the ground shook with a violent
    Tremor, as the Wivenhoe fault opened
    Anew in the Palaeozoic rocks.

    A whirlwind burst out of the cracked earth,
    A wind that crackled like an electric storm;
    It struck my body like a cattle prod

    And as a man in Guantanamo Bay, I fell.


Excerpted from Dante's Inferno by Philip Terry. Copyright © 2014 Philip Terry. Excerpted by permission of Carcanet Press Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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