Guest Writers

"Flux of Thieves" - Dante's Inferno, Canto XXV
Translated from Italian by: Howard O'Brien

Then he stopped talking, the bandit,
launched two stiff middle fingers skyward
and screamed, "Fuck you, God, sack of shit!"
Thank you, snakes, for choking that blow-hard,
one coiled round his throat, squeezing it
as if to say, "Shut up, retard."
Snake two bound his arms, handcuffed fist
to fist so tight his arms turned blue
like they'd been severed at the wrist.
Pistoia, queen of piss, some stew
you've spawned. Why not spill your own blood
before the whole world stinks like you?
Your son spews the foulest black-biled cud
I smelt in hell's disgusting pit.
He makes Capaneus look good.
Then he ran off, biting his lip.
Enter a centaur, mad, he rages,
I hear him shout, "Where's the cynic?"
Snake-plagued Maremma's barren ranges
hold fewer asps than his horse's ass
till to a man's back it changes.
Sprawled on his neck- and shoulder-mass
lolls a spreadeagled basilisk
that scorches all it sees to ash.
My mentor tells me, "That's Cacus,
beneath Mount Aventine he made his bath
in a lake composed of bloody detritus.
He's shoved deeper into this shaft
than his brothers for his slick theft
of the great herd he drove in front to back.
Hercules him of his warped life bereft.
He used his club to whack the beast
until the senseless skull was cleft."
Cacus exited. Virgil ceased.
Three souls entered into the pit
below, unknown to us. Ill at ease
they looked up, flinched, shouted, "Who zat?"
Virgil's mythology class was over.
We gazed down at hell's latest drek.
Who were they? They didn't seem familiar. . .
but as their colloquy unwound
a name exploded on the ear,
"Where's Cianfa at? Wa'nt he around. . . ?"
Lest my guide interrupt, I put
finger to lip, made a "shh!" sound.
Really, reader, you really should
've seen it. Unbelievable. Ugh.
I followed it as best I could.
I gawked. A huge lizard-like bug
with six quick reptilian legs, flung
its middle legs around one thug
at gut-level and tightly clung,
tied up his arms with its front
legs, bit down on the screaming tongue,
wrapped its hind legs around his butt
and poked its long tail through the fork
of his loins so it stuck way out.
Strangling ivy never did work
so tight as the way this mutant
entwined those limbs in its monstrous torque.
Neither body was now extant,
a blent half-melted wax-like mess,
shapeless, synthetic, miscreant,
hueless, like paper kindling in a dish,
half-crumbled as flames make it blush,
not yet black, no more white, vaguely brownish.
The other two gaped at the hybrid slush
and yelled, "Wow, Agnel, you changed, son!
You ain't two or one, fish or flesh."
Two skulls contorted into one,
both faces were lost but mishmashed bits
of each forged one gross compilation.
Two arms congealed out of four flesh-strips,
thigh gobbled calf, belly ate torso,
unheard-of limbs like hieroglyphs.
What nature made gone all askew,
two things, nothing, twisted image, sick.
Slowly it slithered out of view.
Think of a lizard, watch it flit
by you on a dog day of summer
into a bush like lightning. Quick
as that a small serpent-like creature
flashed near the stomachs of the two men,
sleek and mean as a chili pepper.
It stung one guy right in his belly button
then flopped down onto its own belly,
stretched out there before its victim
who stared back at it quietly,
just stood there, opened up his mouth,
yawned like a feverish man deprived of sleep.
Man and reptile checked each other out.
Smoke from the wound, smoke from out of the beast's
mouth was billowing, forming one great cloud.
Forget Lucan's poem, where he treats
of putrid and bloated war carcasses,
this next metamorphosis defeats
Ovid and his myth-apparatus.
Arethusa as fountain, Cadmus
into serpent, need not impress us.
Two distinct natures did he show us
whose individual forms, juxtaposed,
swapped their essential substances?
So here's the way they trans-metamorphosed.
The lizardy thing bisects its tail,
the man blends two legs into a long thin hose,
legs and thighs coalesce, joints fail
of all articulation, bone abates
in one sinewy organic flail.
The fissured tail itself inflates
to form the legs the other shunned,
its skin grows soft, his like a snake's.
His arms shrink up inside his trunk
while the beast's short fore-feet expand
as much as the man's arms had shrunk.
Its hind paws entangle in a flange
of dangling skin like the thing men conceal.
His dick splits into little hands.
Smoke bedims each and both. Unreal.
Hair emerges on the hide of one,
the other's hair falls out unsheared.
One stands upright, the other flops down.
They never break eye contact. Next?
Transubstantiation of the snout.
The erect one scrunches muzzle-flesh
temple-ward where folds of fat cheek-skin
bunch up into ears. From the excess
tissue still left where his snout'd been,
human nose blossums out of reptile skull
and lips grow thick that'd been thin.
The other one, prone, jet-propels
his snout. His ears retract back into
his head like horns into a snail shell.
His tongue, discreet organ, soul mate to
his reason, cleaves. The forked beast-tongue
stitches up. Smoke cloud fades from view.
The shamed soul that these staves have sung
fled hissing from the ditch of grifters,
the other spat, coughed, cursed and swung
around his newly fabricated shoulders,
saying to the third, "I want Buosa
to drag his belly on the boulders
like I did." This canto's very raw,
thief fluctuations in the seventh pouch.
Hard to put into words the bizarre things I saw.
At the time my eyes were popping out,
my mind was blown, but I scrutinized
the mugs of those scumbags as they slouched
out of their cockpit and recognized
Puccio Sciancato, the only pissant
in that threesome not transmogrified.
The other guy was Cavalcanti, called "Squint."

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