[Inspired by Inferno, Canto III, where Dante and Virgil travel through the Ante-Inferno and cross the river Acheron with the help of the ferryman, Charon. The performer, called ‘Nick’, is loosely named after the singer Nick Cave, the frontman of the Australian Rock Band ‘Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds,’ who is imagined to be playing in the Ante-Inferno as Virgil, Dante, and Beatrice, here conceived as the narrator, are transported by Charon to the First Circle of Hell.]
I felt like Saint Sebastian with his arrows
Below the shadow of the red rock
Hanging like a silver pendant,
Glazed by fine mist and intermittent rain.
The skiff’s bow was only a gleam
In the haze, cutting swiftly through black waves.
Dante held my hand, as he once did
In the wooden groves and chiming streams
Of Florentine gardens. Across the water,
The mob rankled with impatience,
Yet there was no response – the cavern was
Deathly quiet. Huge speakers, rooted in the sky,
Coiled like prehistoric bones around the pit,
And gleamed with millions of oily blackheads.
Every grotesque customer scratched their body
In a mazy and rabid motion. Cataracts fired
In muddy bronzed display, a thunderous echo
In the subterranean hollows, a theatre
Of absurdities and damaged things.
Gales threw the skiff sideways into flying
Shrapnel-spray – Charon’s brow
Creased in irritation, nightmarish
Tempests rolled under a Selenic sky.
The firmament shook with a mighty boom
As a hoary rocker, opalescent, appeared
Like a piece of black bone skewered in the stage.
I, Beatrice, feel my breath
Narrowed in canine gasps,
The world gripping the cortex,
Infecting the optic nerve,
Lens pulsing with fleshy heart:
The engine out of control.
As if through the eye of an electron
Microscope I could see the colosseum,
Nick was accompanied by Nereids –
Naked, their skin glistening and glassy,
Bowing in supplication before the glossy-haired
King of subterranean stars. Teams of minor
Daemons, bristling with spines, barnacles
And extra eyes, work a steampunk panel
Of lights, whilst magma erupts from great
Fissures in the surface of the earth.
Recusant, preferring bloody rites,
Nick is the enabler of evil.
He slowly strips his blood-red robes, viewed
By all on crystal screens – skin translucent,
His scarred bone-body is made beautiful,
The human form of the malignant one,
Invites the crowd to poke dirty fingers in his scars;
The cross on the hill was his gallows-tree.
Behind him I see a bearded figurine
Swinging his violin as if on a ship
Smashed from side to side, the thing is engraved
With crosses and wild women, the strings
Matted hair in his hands, the bow curling
To smithereens. Nick’s darkly coloured suit
Was plastic in the night, one of his song-characters
Haunting my dreams – the mind
Of a painter flicking through a highlight
Reel of boat-songs and murder, sorrowful
In the silent spaces of the past –
It’s all the same kind of song to me,
A ghostly recording embracing me with feeling.
Transformed to the punky values of his
Youth, losing that self-conscious crease of skin
Between his black brows, discovering the peace
That only performers at the eye of
A spinning song have felt, the crowd was
Scaffolding to Nick’s hardened heart.
Out of those bone-white lips came these
Twisted words, a song of the rose-girl,
Dripping with blood, the one the highwayman
Left on the road, the misfit creatures left in
Misery, left to self-destruct.
I wondered if Nick would be
Paid thirty pieces of silver after,
Judas never looked so good.
They have chosen this, said Virgil weakly,
As if to conclude and pass over the matter
Without offering help or a singular
Path of salvation. But I could not close my eyes.
I, Beatrice, was the third hooded figure
On the path of the righteous, at the battlefront
Of chaos, seeing all and forgetting nothing.
The spectre of that starless hinterland
Would forever be resurrected in
The shifting cave-wall shadows of my dreams. ∎
Words by George Adams. Art by Dowon Jung.