Canto II: Umm ul-Banin

Reprinted from R Joseph Hoffmann, A Writing Tablet  (r)



When Dante visited the moon
Beatrice explained about vows.
“A vow’s a pact,” she said “between man and God,
but moons come and go, so don’t swear by them.”

Maybe he laughed at that, because she was young,
and had no right lecturing him in his dreams,
a spirit torn from his side. What can a girl know about vows?

When he first saw her, she was trembling like a dove.
She said “You’ll have to go through strange gates and dark alleys
into cities wet with spilled excuses.

You’ve got to pass this way. There’s no short cut.
You’ll see whatever you want to see.
“On the other side, there is a mountain
and from the top ledge you can see God.
It’s worth it, though–the crossing: He is beautiful,
and the best thing is, no one who sees him remembers
anything they’ve seen before,
not the crying, not being stung by wasps.
Not the smell of the Florentine women–
Donne, ch’avete intelletto d’Amore’–
Ladies who know all about love.’

“You’ll forget having your eyelids pierced
and weighted with leaden pendants so that you can can’t  see truth
staring you in the face.  It’s rumour of course,
but God’s more beautiful than the moon.”

So they walked towards the river and for the first hundred yards
she held his hand.  Then he stumbled.
It was dark when he climbed into the rotting boat
that smelled like all the sins he had committed as a child.
He wasn’t sure, in the dark, in the cloak,
But he thought it was her. He wanted it to be her.

He rode  the yellow sadness of Acheron, filled with naked men,
eyes alight with flaming  coals. He saw starved falcons overhead,
thick as mosquitoes over a dead lake.
He saw Charon lobbing his oar against bodies clutching the sides of the
boat, turning the way forward into a slow trawl.
He saw pale arms rising and falling back into the black torpor,
drowning in waltz time, in little circles.

“It’s too much.” he said: “Here’s an extra five dollars,
I don’t care how beautiful God is. Take me back.”
He turned to her, but he saw instead the shadow of a poet
who said,  “I’ll take you farther. You must go farther, because

As She said, there is a mountain you’re meant  to climb.
She wants it for you.”
“I have no legs, for mountains,” he said, “I do not want
To be a poet.  I do not want to drown.”

But by then the boat had forked upriver:
Charon grinned as the water widened.
She stood on the other side, a firelight on the shore
fading like the glow of the moon behind a broken cloud.

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