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By Philip Terry
Carcanet Press LtdCopyright © 2014 Philip Terry
All rights reserved.
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
Then I retched on rising ground;
Rabbits without ears, faces eaten away
Crawled towards a bleak lake
The stink would revive a
sparrow, spreadeagled on
It so horrified my heart
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,
through speed and booze,
I cried out
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
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
'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
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
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
As daffodils, bent down and cowed
By the chill night air, lift themselves up
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.
THROUGH ME THE WAY TO THE DOLEFUL CAMPUS,
THROUGH ME THE WAY TO ETERNAL DEBT,
THROUGH ME THE WAY TO THE FORSAKEN GENERATION.
FREEDOM OF THOUGHT INSPIRED MY FOUNDERS;
POLITICAL EXPEDIENCY RUINED ME,
COUPLED BY BETRAYAL OF PRINCIPLE AND PLEDGE.
BEFORE ME NOTHING BUT ETERNAL THINGS
WERE MADE, NOW I SHALL MARK YOU ETERNALLY.
ABANDON ALL HOPE, YOU WHO ENTER HERE.
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
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.
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