Rendezvous in Hell
“The best part of writing is that you get to be someone else,” Francesca said. “Get out of your skin. I was always fascinated by my namesake in Dante's Inferno. One day, that person took up residence in my head and and told me what really happened.”
of Lancelot and that book,
that kiss, and the fatal day
when Paolo and I read no more.”
“It was a good story,” I reply.
“It made everyone weep for you,
Francesca. It made you famous.”
“No use for fame here,” she says.
“God doesn’t care. He’s gone away,
busy building other Hells.”
I ask where Paolo is. “Up there,”
she says, nodding toward a ragged
slash in the sky—not like cranes at all.
“I’m done with love, with men,” she says.
“I made an idol of my lust
and called it love—well, so what?
For this, the pious poet put me
here in his palace of torture.
And yet isn’t it all a lie?
Hasn’t nature given us all
the same itch it gave the beasts?
Only we in our arrogance
say it’s a blessing from God.
I betrayed my jealous husband,
which is a worse sin, requiring
a more ghoulish punishment.
So where is the justice in that?
One expects more of a God.
One day a far better one
whose mercy is truly boundless
will come along, abolish Hell
and set free all the poor creatures
tormented there for your delight.”
“What about Lucifer?” I ask.
“What about him?” she replies.
“Is this God any less evil?
Surely, sir, in a better world,
where no one's beyond temptation,
and no one's beyond redemption,
there’s a rest home in Florence
for retired sinners, where they
can play scopa in the Tuscan sun
and recite the Commedia.
Tourists would stop and beg them
for autographs, for they love
make-believe evil so much more
than make-believe good. As for me,
I would write my own book and tell
my story as it really was.”
This smaller circle brims with pain
and the howling of the damned,
while Minos snarls like a dog
as the listless throng waits to make
a last confession–though everyone
is always guilty and the sentence
is always the same. Even so
It’s clear how much he relishes
his work, the drama of the scene.
A connoisseur of wickedness
and poetic justice, he knows
what sort of pain to serve up next,
and the way he coils his tail
about himself is meant to impress—
but whom? A flippant flourish
flings each sinner screaming down
into the pit like so much trash.
Seeing me, he pauses in his work.
“Nobody visits Hell!” he roars.
“Who are you? Who let you in?
You have no business being here!”
I tell him, “Who are you to ask?
Just someone’s nightmare, not even
a credible one at that!”
Descending now into the gloom,
I’m soon in a new place, dim
as dusk, howling like the sea
flayed alive by wild winds.
Like birds borne on a winter blast,
the spirits are tossed and roiled
in the eternal storm, no hope
of rest or a lesser ordeal,
hurling curses at the loving God
who damned them for whoring reason
to their lust. In all of Hell, it’s
the kindest expression of his wrath.
Without a Virgil, all are strangers.
Who now is damned for desire
when men can marry other men,
and women marry each other,
and boys and girls, still children,
frolic like nymphs and satyrs?
“You there, sir!” someone calls out.
It’s a lady who says she knows
a living man when she sees one.
“I recall another, long ago,
the homely poet who fainted
dead away at my silly story
Inside River Run