Inferno, Canto XII, 37-45
And after the fight the moment of awakening
to treelight filtering down, leaves jittery,
mountains saying nothing, parental hovering
somewhere in the wings. And lying there
the boy who’d lost just breathed. The tough kids
we all hated and admired mirrored
in our shouts, inner shakings, terrified rants
gonna kill you asshole shitbrain shithead.
And what was going on between the fighting giants
was a force inside us that watching them subdued—
movies of the sons of Hercules killing lions
versus hot stickiness of real blood.
Another day of life when you theorized
that the current of the blood-boiling river
could make you the terror. Or the terrorized.
Before the rockface shuddered into itself,
if I’ve got it right, that was just before
he plunged into this stinking, bloody gulf—
he who carried off from the circle up there
the lucky ones—while down here his power
made the earth shake so badly that I wondered
at how the universe felt love, water
and earth and air and fire no longer at war
and that harmony driving everything asunder…
and when the loser got up a tremor
would pass through us as if this were
the chaos that kept everything together.
No: forget Dante’s world, the world of Samuel Doe,
unending avenues of tanks rusting into scrap—
forget the paradisal palaces and the army
of pillow bearers running out of pillows
to soften an emperor’s fall: for ones
like you there’s only the bombed causeway
over the earthquake-shattered valley
for you to cross: and when you look up
you see it’s fifty years on, that the boy
still refuses to look at you or anyone, the flow
of blood down his shirt showing up as radiance
you can’t turn away from or turn to.
Tom Sleigh, a Distinguished Professor at Hunter College, is an American poet, dramatist, and essayist. He has published eight books of poetry, a translation of Euripides’ Herakles, and a book of essays. Five of his plays have been produced. His most recent book, Army Cats, won the inaugural John Updike Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He has won numerous awards, including the 2008 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, the John Updike Award and an Academy Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Shelley Prize from the Poetry Society of America, an Individual Writer’s Award from the Lila Wallace Fund, an Artists Foundation Award in Playwrighting from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation. He currently serves as director of Hunter College’s Master of Fine Arts Program in Creative Writing and has previously taught at Dartmouth College, University of Iowa, University of California at Berkley, Johns Hopkins University, and New York University. Sleigh’s poems frequently appear in the New Yorker and other publications. New work will appear soon in The New Yorker, Tin House, and Poetry.