Inferno Canto XXVIII
Who could ever capture in words,
Even using prose and retelling countless times,
The bloodbath and carnage I was now seeing?
Every tongue would prove inadequate
Because speech and intellect have strict limits
And can only accommodate so much.
Even if you reassembled all those
From the troubled land of Apulia
Who cried over their blood
Shed by the Trojans; plus those who fell in the long war
That ended in a heap of rings cut from corpses—
As Livy, who was never wrong, writes;
Add in those who gasped in pain
When wounded resisting Robert Guiscard;
And those whose bones still cover the field
At Ceperano, where every Apulian turned traitor;
Plus those near Tagliacozzo who fell
To old Alardo, who won without using weapons;
Even if one held out a stabbed arm, and another the stump
Of an amputated leg, it still wouldn’t come close
To the horrific spectacle of the ninth pocket.
No wooden casks, not even one missing a top-middle
Or side slat, have a wider gap than the soul I saw
Ripped open from chin to where one breaks wind:
His insides were hanging between his legs;
Heart, lungs, liver, were visible, as well as the sorry sack
That makes merds from whatever one swallows.
While my stare was pinching him like a pair of tongs,
He looked at me and tore open his chest,
Saying, “Look, I’ll tear myself open
And show you a mutilated Muhammed.
Alì is in front of me, in tears, his face split open
From his chin to the lock on his forehead.
And all the others you see here,
While alive they spread strife and divisiveness;
That’s why down here they’re now torn in two.
There’s a devil back there that sticks it to us
With such cruelty, cutting us all with his sword
As if we were a ream of paper
Every time we circle this sorry road,
Since all our gaping wounds
Will have closed before we pass him again.
But you on the ridge, regarding it all intently,
Maybe you’re trying to delay serving your sentence
For your own self-confessed sins?”
“Death hasn’t gotten to him, and neither has guilt
Brought him here to be tormented,” said my teacher,
“But so he can learn what he needs to know.
I’m dead, so it’s my job to lead him through Hell,
From circle to circle—which is every bit as true
As that I’m here speaking to you.”
Hearing that, over a hundred stopped suddenly
To stare at me in awe,
Forgetting for a moment their agony.
“In that case, since you might see daylight soon,
Tell Fra Dolcino that unless he wants to follow me
Down here shortly,
He’d better stock up on provisions
So a blizzard doesn’t hand the Novarese a victory
They wouldn’t otherwise so easily earn.”
Muhammed paused midway through a step to say this,
Then shifted his weight forward
On his foot and walked on.
Another one whose throat was cut
And whose nose was hacked off
To just below his eyebrows and who had only one ear,
Having stopped with the others to gape in amazement,
Stepped forward and pried open his throat,
The outside of which was smeared with red,
And said: “Since you haven’t been sent here by guilt,
And since I saw you above in Italy,
Unless I’m mistaking you for a look-alike,
If you ever find your way back to that plain
That gently slopes down from Vercelli to Marcabò,
Remember Pier de Medicina
And tell the town of Fano’s two men of import,
Misters Guido and Angiolello,
That unless our future-sight lies,
They’ll be tossed off their ship
Wearing ankle weights near La Cattolica
Because of a double-crossing brutal despot.
Between the islands of Cyprus and Majorca,
Neptune never saw a crueler crime,
Not by pirates nor by seafaring Greeks.
That one-eyed traitor who rules the city
That someone down here with me
Wishes he’d never laid eyes on
Will call them to a meeting; when he’s done with them,
They’ll no longer need prayers or promises
To escape the shipwrecking winds of Focara.”
I told him, “If you want me to talk about you
To those up above, name and point out the one
Who bitterly regrets having ever seen that city.”
He took the jaw of one of his companions
In his hand and yanked his mouth open; he said,
“This is him, but he can’t talk.
After he was thrown out of Rome, he hightailed it
To Caesar and convinced him to act, in spite of his doubts,
By telling him, ‘He who hesitates is lost.’”
I thought he seemed stunned,
His tongue cut out from the back of his throat.
It was Curio, who’d been such a confident speaker.
Then one who’d had both hands chopped off
Raised the stumps up in the murky air,
Turning his face into a blood-spattered canvas,
And said, “You’ll also remember Mosca. I’m the one
Who stupidly said, ‘A done deed deserves an end,’
Which was the seed of misery for the Tuscan people.”
To which I added, “And the death of your nearest
And dearest.” Sorrow heaped on sorrow,
He ran off like Lear, raging with grief.
I stayed, looking into the crowd,
Where I saw something I’d hesitate to report
Without a corroborating witness,
Except that I’m reassured by my conscience—
That best friend that backs someone up
Beneath the bell jar of a pure heart.
I distinctly saw, and can still envision it,
A headless body walking along, moving
Just like the others in the unhappy mob.
He held his severed head by the hair,
Letting it swing in his hand as if it were a lantern;
It looked up at us and said, “Oh, my!”
He had made a lamp of himself;
They were two in one, and one in two.
How this can be, only He who decreed it knows.
When he reached the bottom edge of the bridge,
He lifted the arm to bring the head closer,
So we could hear him. He said:
“Take a look at this mortifying punishment—
You, observing the dead while still breathing air
In and out—see if there’s any more awful than this.
So you can carry news of me back to the world,
I’m Bertran de Born, the one
Who egged the Young King on with wicked advice.
I turned father and son into enemies;
Even Ahithophel wasn’t worse
When he evilly incited Absalom to rebel against David.
Because I divided people united like that,
I carry my own brain, divided from its beginning—
Which, regrettably, is in this body.
When you look at me, you see perfect retribution.”
Mary Jo Bang’s most recent collections are The Bride of E and Elegy, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry. Her translation of the Inferno, with illustrations by Henrik Drescher, is just out from Graywolf Press.
If you find yourself stopped mid-motion in the middle of what we call our life, why not reinvigorate yourself with a tour through The Poetry Section’s archives? You may contact the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.