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Anew in the Inferno: The Circle of Lust (A Segment) (Barry Prize Poetry Winner)

1 Departing from the city of those men who

2 for want of baptism were heaven denied,

3 my teacher trod along the ashen path to

4 the second circle, and I walked by his side.

5 We came upon the dreadful beast who discerns

6 the place in Hell most fit for souls who have died.

7 The tongue of one head snatches the shade and turns

8 to throw it where the other head determines

9 it shall receive the punishment its sin earns.

10 As bright Hemera enters the dark heavens

11 to take the place of Nyx, then again departs,

12 allowing Nyx to fill Ouranos once more,

13 so the two heads of that great creature took turns

14 judging souls and flinging them to their demise,

15 yet as we approached, I asked of my leader,

16 ‘Who are these two who share one body and send

17 condemned souls to their sufferings, each in turn,

18 and where is Minos, whom Dante once met here?’

19 My master replied, ‘These conjoined magistrates

20 are Aeacus, who judges the western world,

21 and Rhadamanthys, condemner of the East

22 and brother of him who has the final say,

23 great Minos, whom Dante met here once before

24 and who presides when either of these two doubt.’

25 The beasts narrowed their four eyes as we approached

26 and moved their arms to prevent us from our way.

27 And my leader to them: ‘Hinder him no more

28 whose journey here was appointed from on high

29 with I as his leader.’ So the beasts withdrew.

30 The good master pointed and spoke: ‘Look ahead

31 to the ramparts of Sodom and Gomorrah,

32 those sinful cities which God Himself brought down

33 with fire and brimstone to this Inferno

34 as an example to all lecherous men

35 of the retribution for this wicked sin.

36 Onan and Amnon, the vile abusers,

37 are mounted on the towers of this city,

38 where each day a red snake arrives to pluck out

39 the parts of them which in their lives they misused.

40 Each took a Tamar to his bed and wronged her,

41 the former by refusing to have offspring

42 for his brother as Mosaic law commands,

43 and the latter by taking his own sister

44 to satisfy his perverted desire.’

45 With that we entered in through the hostile gate.

46 Continuing along the perilous path,

47 we came upon a dreadful abode of shades,

48 some whipped about in the air as Dante wrote,

49 others tortured more horribly on the ground,

50 all so feverish that their skin turned bright red

51 and perspiration obscured all their features.

52 Never have the Tiber or the River Po

53 covered a city in as much water as

54 cascaded from these burning, sweltering souls

55 who richly deserve their fiery punishment.

56 As we neared the forlorn souls, I saw that some

57 were covered, too, in sharp horns whose piercing points

58 cut deeper into each one’s skin as he moved.

59 I asked my leader, ‘Sir, be patient with me,

60 for I do not see the meaning of these sins.

61 Who are these souls who are thus tormented here?’

62 He answered, ‘Let us draw closer and perhaps

63 you will recognize some of these poor sinners.’

64 I said nothing more as we continued on.

65 We passed by a group of wailing spirits who

66 were using tools to carve out bloody pieces

67 from their bodies and those of other poor shades.

68 They mold them into instruments of pleasure,

69 yet those contrivances only feed their pain,

70 for there is no pleasure in that barren place.

71 Again I asked my master, ‘Who are these, and

72 for what punishments are they tormented here?

73 Can it be that they are those who kill themselves?’

74 My master shook his head, but then responded,

75 ‘Go, and ask of them their lascivious sins.

76 Perhaps they will teach you by their corrupt ways.’

77 So I drew nearer to the shades and called out,

78 ‘You who suffer so, explain your wickedness!’

79 Hearing me, all those poor, agonized souls whose

80 bodies are made tools of despicable sin

81 clambered over one another to reach me,

82 and I, startled by their frenzy, stumbled back.

83 I paled as I began to recognize

84 several of those sinners by their faces,

85 for they were once friends and companions of mine.

86 ‘Who are you?’ I repeated, ‘and for what sins

87 are you so agonizingly tormented?’

88 Just as the satyrs and the maenads rejoice

89 and all cry out at once at the arrival

90 of Dionysus, making such an uproar

91 that all the gods on Olympus plug their ears,

92 so the commotion of those tormented souls

93 caused me to wince and in that moment to wish

94 to hear no more. I withdrew a short distance

95 in order to hear them without going deaf.

96 I listened and heard a myriad of tongues,

97 all crying out their names and loathsome misdeeds:

98 ‘Have pity on us, you who still walk the earth!

99 Look upon our godless misdeeds and beware!

100 We are the ones who sell our bodies for lust,

101 we are the ones whose lewd artwork incites it,

102 we are the ones who use others for pleasure.

103 Woe to all who are condemned for sins like ours!’

104 I began to weep and tremble for the sake

105 of my deceased friends whom I saw before me,

106 and asked what I should do to avoid this fate.

107 They replied, ‘Transgress no longer against men,

108 treat them not like objects but with dignity,

109 and forgive all those who trespass against you;

110 else you shall receive our despicable fate,

111 which is not fit even for the beasts who crawl!’

112 Then they receded, and as they went, I wept.

113 Presently my master approached me and said,

114 ‘Come now, let us go, for we have more to see.’

115 And as we passed through that grief-stricken city,

116 the horror of the torment overwhelmed me,

117 and I covered my eyes, and asked my leader:

118 ‘Please, master, let us walk no further.’ But he,

119 knowing my troubled mood and its mournful cause,

120 comforted me kindly, as a good father,

121 and I gathered the strength to advance again.