Cliff Forshaw transposes Dante’s Inferno to Hull, England.
HOLE: a poem in three cantos
Canto 1 nel mezzo del cammin
About the mid-point of this daggy track
– was trying to get to Hull-on-Sea – got well
lost and couldn’t scope just where the fuck
I was. The road had oddly gone below
sea-level. Right then I grocked the sign for STYX
Twinned with Hache-sur-Acheron and Hǿll.
(Hurl or Hole? Some sunless Scandi burg,
no doubt. As for lingos I don’t sprack much;
do sniff iffy drains and hear them gurgle:
despite its municipal claims, this was the sticks.
Twinned with Frig and Frack for all I cared.)
Getting sick of all this shit. It sucked.
No signal. Smartphone dumb or dead.
Was it further to schlep on or back?
It was doing in my head. Needed bed;
got squelch. Wet underfoot and getting dark.
The road was now a river with added stench.
Flash-floods had taken out that path. The reek
must’ve seeped from backed up drains. Did I mention
I was ankle-deep in Christ-knows-what muck
and sinking fast into the stinking trench?
I hadn’t chalked up much more than zero clicks,
or seen a living soul since I set out upon this trek.
Was then, right sick, upchucking in the mire, it struck
me hard – I really was off-piste, and up Shit Creek,
proper pissed-off to be in this rising dreck,
and stuck without a fucking paddle.
Well, I was losing it and feeling the world
was reeling round as I was whirled without end,
Amen. Muddled, maddened, addled, raddled
by the noxious crud that slopped and frothed from drains.
Stream of consciousness slashed and piddled odd words
while the sewer gushed its vapours into my brains.
Did I see or hallucinate those rats?
I retched to squint them boating past on turds.
My skin began to itch. It was sniff ‘n’ scratch.
Must’ve been then I blacked out. Crashed.
….Next thing I knew,
was coming to
on a yellow-lit city street.
Sign pointing straight ahead, said:
THIS IS HOLE
AND You are welcome to it.
Wrong road. Turned around. Then half-a-mile,
I came across another sign that said:
THIS IS HOLE, NOR ARE YOU OUT OF IT.
Truth to tell, I was feeling like Hell
and surely well out of it when, just then,
I heard yowls and howls, and then a closer growl
and my guts were pokered with the fear of God.
Almost dropped my bowels
to clock my road was fully blocked
by a monstrous, snarling, slavering Devil Dog.
Did it have three heads? Or were there here three dogs?
Or just one that mimicked a mutant nuclear family
with its serpent’s tail, its mane of writhing snakes,
and lion’s claws that gouged the street?
This Pit-Bull from Hell strained at a lead,
at the other end of which was another beast,
cross between Cro-Magnon and walking tattoo.
His face was veined with inky blue,
like some stinky cheese, between the shrapnel
of a thousand piercings. “She won’t harm you.
She’s a sweetie really. Just being friendly,”
this knuckle-dragger said, as six eyes, I think,
caught me in their beam and stared me out,
above the deadly gears of its chain-saw snout.
Next thing, this horror flick had skipped a scene
– the beast had slipped its lead and let
a roar so terrible and loud
escape that obscene chain-saw snout.
I saw the fear cloud the owner’s eye:
“Can’t do fuck all when she’s got a mood on!”
Then the only sign of that tattooed lout
was him legging it down the road with one last shout:
“You’re on your own now, mate!”
Then he was gone,
the dying echo of his yell
leaving me to the Hell Hound and my fate.
Its greasy black pelt was slick as death.
Its many eyes were red and its teeth were jagged
and I’m close enough to reckon the reek of its breath.
Nothing now to hold it back. It whips
the rope of snot and slobber that drips
from its chops like an ironic chain.
I must’ve fallen down some nightmare pit,
some anomaly where space and time were ripped
and the very fabric of reality had been rent.
And now I faced that huge Pit-Bull
from Hull or Hurl or Hole, or wherever the Hell
I was. And it bounds right up, about to lunge…
What’s next, again, gets really odd.
It just stops dead. Well, almost dead,
but whimpering, tail between its legs. Head
down on the road as low as it could go.
Then, it pulled back, fearful, and oh-so-very-slow,
leaving a slick of slime, the gunge from its tongue,
as a gaunt figure stepped from the shadows
and pushed the creature back with no more
than the presence of his presence
and his stare. O that stare I could not see. That stare.
I say he stepped out from the shadows,
but he was himself a shadow of a shadow,
black-clad, with raybanned eyes in a face
even as he turned I could not quite make out.
The street-light spilt like the amber liquid: the scene
all hosed with jaundice, as piss or piss-poor beer might mizzle
all but the ground where his shadow should have been
– and that Pit-Bull from Hell, Hull, Hurl or Hole
pulled its three-faced chops back into the night,
shitting as it went.
Shitting and whimpering as it went.
He turned and I looked into the… O shall I say,
the dark energy, the abyss of time and space
that was the very quiddity of his visage?
O the alternate physics of his physiognomy:
what quarks, what strange particularities,
what quantum leap into the anti-matter
of that place where face should be…?
“O Stranger, I owe you great gratitude.
O can you tell me whom it is I must repay?
Though there is something familiar about the attitude
of your darkly noble head; may I remark
that I feel you have rightly known renown, great fame?
O Stranger, will you divulge to me your name?”
His features in the darkness seemed to shift,
and he was all times and none. What were his clothes?
Biker’s leathers, Elizabethan slops?
Perhaps a doublet with medieval hose?
Was that a ruff I saw about his neck?
Was that a toga or Byronic cloak?
The Raybans had tortoise-shelled to librarian’s specs;
the head now glistened like a bald man’s dome.
And he was tall and voluminously macked
against the rain which only fell around his form
as he steadied an old sit-up-and-beg push-bike,
his ankles dully lustral with cycle-clips,
like some austere quicksilver messenger.
Shadows flickered. Time and light were fleet.
My Mercury merged with murkiness. Was gone,
and I was left on a mean and neon street,
air thick with boom-boxed bass, particulates
of inner-city fug, of much-fried grease,
reconstituted slurry, knitted meat.
Now this is odd, but I tell no lie:
I sniffed its whiff, looked down to grock,
in my mitt somehow, an awful pie.
Kicked it to the kerb of that sickly lit-up night.
High Street – block on block of fast-food outlets:
Ahmed’s Donor Kebab rotates
a recent donor’s (sic and sad) cadaver;
burgers, take-away Chinese, pizza, Dante’s
Tex-Mex Chilli Inferno, nothing fancy.
And the flies detonating in the harsh blue light,
the flies detonating in the light.
And all at once I heard – flight or fight? –
the belling, wailing, baying of another pack
of wild beasts, ululating, stridulant, reboant at my back.
Turned to catch…
this gang of girls out on the piss:
a fury of maenads in ekstasis
– I mean, outside themselves
and off their elaborately coiffed heads,
each girl as high as her hair, her hair so high, her lips so red
and eyes so lashed with millipedes so spiky black,
and all well bladdered and several squatting,
there on the High Road to Hole, tottering
on nine-inch wedges, pelmet skirts hoiked up high,
tights all laddered and lowered,
knickers stretched between the ankles,
for sweet Zephyrus to play between their thighs.
Ahhhhhh! O happy relief: a chorus of maidenly sighs.
Skirts wiggled or waddled up high over hips
as both tarmac and lips
as the maidens release
a torrent of filth from each Cupid’s bow,
and jugfuls of cocktails below,
and jugfuls of cocktails below.
I was aware again of that Shadow at my shoulder.
“Behold the forms of Womanhood,” he said.
“Youth and Maidenhood grow daily bolder.”
I followed the great moral index
of his accusatory finger,
aimed at these waddling toddlers
(bald flabby baby men, all bling,
tattoos and rompers) having sex
with loud Jezebels,
both ends occupied
by honking knee-trembling and awful pies
in the alleys and doorways of Hurl, or Hole,
or what was beginning to seem like Hell.
And the noise throbbed from cars
and windows and leaked
from every ear.
I was feeling weak
– was then I went AWOL,
glad to let that world all disappear.
I seemed to be underwater…
then rising up from the depths,
And in my dream came news
of Hull-on-Sea above:
abode of the Good and Great,
where all is Beauty, Love.
I saw… and then forgot.
Canto 2 the Mall of Hole
When I awoke, the air was full of light.
as if the season were already summer.
I found myself beneath an airy dome,
a palace of shining crystal and dazzling chrome
and everything was freshly-made and bright.
One thing only, this notice, was a bummer:
Welcome to the Mall of Hole
all rights of way granted SOLELY
By Permission of CadaverCorp plc
Please be aware, for your safety,
YOU are being monitored on CCTV
plus omni- rayo™, Procto® and Endovu™.
Your presence here signifies Full consent
to being thoroughly looked into and/or through.
This Mall was tall as any great Cathedral:
its transept crossed with a multiplicity of Aisles,
and each was piled with offerings high,
piled with offerings so high.
And there I counted Seven Great Side Chapels,
each like a burnished cave set with candelabra
in whose wondrous light burned altars of cornucopia,
each laden high with offerings from far and wide,
with offerings from far and wide.
One Chapel was so cold it chilled the bone,
with caves of frost, cabinets of humming ice
where each thing was set apart, alone,
prettily displayed, like a precious stone
upon a tray, covered with prismatic skin,
so delicate, gossamer thin,
to reveal the miracle within;
and, stamped upon each weightless tray,
its mystical avoirdupois, and country of origin.
And the avoirdupois
had the weight of a petit pois,
for here was indeed a tiny pea
set like an emerald on its plastic platter,
winged zephyr-fresh that day from Malabar,
or the ancient souks of Zanzibar.
And here was displayed a runner bean,
grown in the legendary Queen
of Sheba’s gardens.
Here – each tenderly tended by the minions
of Moorish caliphs, or the Abyssinian
maids of fabulous potentates – were onions.
Indeed the whole elephantine ear
of that dark and vasty continent did appear
to have in my sleep become a fertile Eden.
Much was there from Africk’s Horn of Plenty,
and all for sale, all could be bought.
Amazing what transformations had been wrought,
what transformations had been wrought.
Another Altar held cuts of Sacrificial Meat
that yet were not as the flesh of kine or swine,
nor yet of feathered game nor fleece-shorn lamb.
This too was mystical, perhaps Platonic flesh
made visible in rhomboid, trapezoid,
and other Ideal and Geometric Forms.
I peered within the cryo-vacuumed pack,
and saw, behind my visage reflected back,
those beasts now writhing in a sort of double void
of dirt and mud and constricted pain,
within both styrofoam and concrete cells,
through screens of cellophane, as tight as shells.
Visions of birds rose up before my eyes,
each debeaked, declawed in a tiny cage of wire.
I saw as if before me, I tell no lies,
pigs snuffling in a concrete pen,
hormone-pumped and terrorised
by the syringes of masked, white-coated men.
I saw the vats of blood and fat,
the sausage links that chained those sties,
and there upon the chiller shelf
long rows of awful pies.
I smelled the blood and faeces and fear
and knew I had to flee from there.
I passed Priests in ties and skinny black suits,
going their rounds in pointed boots.
They talked to their hands and appeared
distracted by wires corkscrewing from their ears.
And there were High Priestesses with hair
rising high as ziggurats, in tiny black dresses.
And oddest of all, I think,
each wore, outside her dress,
a bra of almost edible pink,
a bra of almost edible pink.
I was relieved to see my Bald Companion,
so unearthly wise, subfusc and tall,
wheeling his ancient bike
through the gleaming Mall.
“Tell me,” I asked, “O Tenebrous One,
why is it they wear their undergarments that way?
And why do they rattle such tins
and distribute pink ribbons and pins,
pink ribbons and pins from a tray?”
The light bounced off his immaculate bonce
as the Sombre Sage turned to say,
“Think Modes for Night, and Corporate Chuggers
– Harlots cashing in on another
National Awareness Day.”
Now came women who were thin,
with nails as long and sharp as knives,
prodding those mothers and wives,
whose bodies and lives
had long gone pear-shaped,
into suits of tautened skin.
Then came white-coated surgeons who,
with sinew-thread and sharp bone needles too,
laced them up and sewed them in
to their exemplary thinner lives.
But it was all too much,
for these to start afresh.
The women burst straight out again
and quivered ashamed
in their heaps of wobbling flesh.
But before I turned to flee that place
I saw each woman’s rueful smile
and heard each heavy sigh
before she filled her mouth again
with what looked like awful pie.
That Tall Shade, who’d stayed at my elbow still,
beckoned me on to a large cool store.
(Was everything in the Mall of Hole so chilled?)
A crowd pulsed at the beat-and-light-throbbed doors,
kept back by thick-necked guards
my Trick-Cyclist ignored.
I’d never seen him ride – a true push-bike?
Or his psychepompic gears and wheels?
Had I become this psychic’s side-kick?
How much of this was real?
He dinged the bell upon his bicycle
and somehow all fell still
as if he’d stopped the world itself
and all its frenzied din.
At once, the crowd had thinned – each body become a ghost.
I followed in his wake as he steered his barque-like bike
through the insubstantial host…
(O handlebars for bows! O sneer of cold command!
As if we were the only righteous there,
and passing through the drowned and damned.)
My Pale Companion led me in
and all was still that had been loud.
He leaned upon his Bike and said,
“Behold the Cut-Price Crowd!”
And here were tens of thousands of animatronications
and other curiously-wrought mechanical fascinations
labelled Pnid and Pnod and Tablets of God,
Pnipple and Pnapple, Eggsbox and Krapple,
and through each shiny thing my fingers went
as if it were not there,
but at my touch each shiny thing
darkened and turned to air.
My Guide now tintinabulated his bell,
and his knowing campanology
brought the crowd to most commotious life.
The Aisles were thronged with eyeless folk:
each face was set with screens
in holes on either side the nose,
where bright eyes should have been.
And each tapped sightlessly
with dextrous thumbs upon a pad,
cursing the local connectivity,
which all agreed was sad.
I heard the tinny leak from where
the buds and plugs had sealed
perhaps their souls up with their ears.
And the Aisles were full of noises
as distressed girls and sullen boys,
queued to exchange their gew-gaws
for newer, shinier toys.
And the Aisles were full of noises:
strange dragonflies buzzed through this chilled place.
And one fatter than my finger whirred
mechanically in my face.
I asked my Velocipedestrian Host:
What cold tropic was this? What zone?
He smiled and pointed to the ceiling:
“No insect, but a watchful drone.
Looking down from every ceiling,
or from outside in the skies
are ever-vigilant cameras.
All is surveilled by unsleeping eyes.
Luckily we don’t compute,
that drone has got confused.”
It stalled, fell groundwards, crashed
– with a tiny flash –
the thing had blown a fuse.
Next I saw where great-grandparents had
Facebooked themselves to screens,
where each Official Status read:
I friended All, but all were dead
(my only company a machine).
Now I’ve grown old, yet in my head
I’ve never left my teens.
The cacophony grew great.
The Faces all grew blank,
“It seems as if,” my Companion said,
looking down, so lean and lank,
“their real ID’s have been erased.
from some Cloudy Memory Bank.
The World that was the Word made Flesh
has dripped right through their cyber mesh.
Webbed life slips through the holey net;
they think they surf, but they don’t get wet.”
Many wore the garb of outlaws and pirates,
or dressed as outlandish buccaneers.
Some were heavily tattooed like Maori warriors,
with rings through lips, nose, brows, as well as ears.
Others resembled guerrillas or Stone Age tribesmen,
but all pushed shopping trolleys through the Mall.
Some Hunter-Gatherers lugged home beer and pizza,
each Noble Savage brought low by Man’s long Fall.
Was then it struck: most had no nagging doubts,
they’d bought a sort of liberty,
escaped (Agenbite of Inwit!) anxious uncertainty;
that these blithe spirits were truly happy,
and the only one in Hell, right here, was me!
[The Perambulators of the Gods]
Next I saw those deep in thrall
to huge capricious Baby Buddhas.
And these were named:
Tantrum, Well-Done!, Know-Nowt,
Incurious, Play-Station, Mardy-Arse, Text-Thumb,
Whinger, Gimme!, Dummy, Snot-Fair,
Petulant, Piss-Poor, Snigger and Sulk.
All ages they were from toddler to thirty,
bewailing the toys thrown out of their buggies
– Perambulating Contraptions of some Sophistication –
in the centre of which the Baby-Buddhas sate
like great Cuckoo-Birds surrounded by screens,
playing with their joysticks. And each machine,
powered by composted essence of Parent,
had a switch to cause a Dome Obscure to float in air,
and magick up a turreted crowe-blacke Chamber,
the better, when the Melancholy fitte should fall,
to prestidigitate most Gothic emotive selfies,
conjure snarly snare or the bass-boom ictus
or the doggerelising of other angry musicks.
And Parents (all fucked up, these mums and dads)
fell before the graven images their loins had engendered,
had them disseminated; reckoned
the bumptious jeremiads of their offspring;
copied their Apparel, Pithecanthropic
Shibboleths and Canting Lexicon;
fetched back the toys thrown down from the turrets
which stank of skunk smoke-oil and vaped goji-berries.
And hauled up paniers of divers extruded munchibles
to be snuffled, ear-cuffed, in the digital diaspora.
[The Kindergarten of Eden & The Graves of Academe]
And I came into a garden – O Hortus conclusus! –
whose walls bloomed with unpruned
galleries of Selfies.
Happy with apps, attitudinous in cellular solipsification,
Youth reflected on its own reflection
in an Edenic mise-en-abîme.
I was dimly aware of his bike clips’ dull gleam
as my Bespectacled Companion alighted to note:
“See how each treks forth on his Learner Journey
emboldened by classes in Self-Esteem,
towards where the sun sets low, o so very low,
on the Graves of Academe!”
And then I saw the students, each sitting
on a very golden potty.
Gold stars rained down as each started shitting
a torrent of degrees in Creative Arts
from the Faculty of Arse,
from the Faculty of Arse.
The Principal, in psychegaudelicall gown,
composed his pedagogically avuncular features,
and through his spectacles gazed down
and awarded Distinctions on his “wisest of creatures.”
My Guide explained the customs of this place:
“This year the tutors sport luxuriant beards
only on one side of each mournfully pious face;
but Fashion moves quickly – Look! in the last week
that lecturer there has, in the interests of balance,
shifted his moustache to wing the other cheek.
Others ostentate their jargoned jeans,
their dialogical discourse so distressed,
with gendered puns, to prove that, in all earnestness,
they have both their privilege and syntax checked.”
“They look like (ahem), hipsters,” my Guide now said,
“but they’re not quite what they would like to seem,
these dead who haunt the varsities,
who dig the Graves of Academe.
Let’s leave them to their odd curriculum,
where all the past is Dead White Pants;
where informed opinion’s been struck dumb
by the erotic semiotics
of Gothick fusion belly dance.”
I found myself now cramped into a stairwell.
Steps spiralled down into a deeper dark.
No way was up, as far as I could tell.
Through darkness made visible and dank,
I blundered down into an underground carpark,
where I saw a curious taxi-rank.
Here there was no need for wallets and purses:
all fares were paid in moans and curses.
Each cab was long and black and wide within,
and all were shaped like hearses.
[The Lost Estate]
“Those taxis ferry some here,” my Guide pronounced.
He’d shown me the way out of that place,
but here was also grim.
He bade me grip his handlebars,
dinged the bell, began to rise,
and I rose up with him.
We levitated, high
over caged and sickly saplings,
past windswept canyons, into a sky
that was alive with trash.
Up there, where air was stormy vortex,
parapets were circled
in ceaseless gales of plastic bags,
take-away trays, cartons, rags.
Mystically unbuffeted, we saw
as if we were the clear eye,
the very bleb of that litter storm.
Encarcelled babies played at narrow balconies,
about the feet of vigil-keeping crones
who saw us not but stared out to where
other balconies mirrored their constriction.
I sensed those women reflected on
the futures of the babes at their crippled feet
(whose playthings often dropped beyond the bars,
were swept into the ceaseless upper storm).
And all was cold, so cold and bleak.
“There was a film Towering Inferno:
wrong, of course, on several counts,” he said.
“The Infernal is below, and Hell is cold;
so little here of human warmth.
But I see you wonder about these towers.
Everything here is upside-down.
No heights, just depths.
It’s all Illusion in this town.”
We touched down, peered through
the concrete alleys of the escarpment.
Lifts: doors jammed, pissed-in and worse.
Stairwells fug-rugged, sole-gummed, sticky-needled,
as teen-girls see-sawed buggies, fought
up and down the countless floors
in a migraine of echoing noise and dodgy light.
They saw us not as we wandered
the wind-whipped walks and foetid alleyways.
I noted desperation in each downcast face,
wondered why they had been
condemned to such a place.
But then I looked into the eyes
of each perambulated babe,
saw how their souls locked mine,
read universes within each smile.
Oh, each was cool!
Each wordless intellect so fine.
Oh each should…
My guide had already read my mind,
and now he said: “Oh, yes, I joked
– though now that bon mot makes me ill –
that deprivation was just a theme I worked,
like Wordsworth’s daffodils.
But now I know this death-in-life
is undeserved, arbitrary, unearned.
Lately I see:
could be you or could’ve been be me.
Useful to get that learned.
The best of all is not to be born, not here.
(Others parachute into leafy suburbs,
where the children of the architects
who designed this place play tennis,
go off on school trips to ski.)
But there is yet worse. Much worse.”
We had risen to the highest tower
and from that summit saw
the moiling storm-tossed seas,
where overladen boats capsized,
and drowning in the waters
were ten million refugees.
“They gamble all, and pay the boatman
(too often Charon) their only coin.”
“But you have seen enough, almost.
Time now for the final stage.
Back and trapped within a urinous stairwell,
whose stairs had slimed to valve, I fell inside,
pumped by muscly walls through viscid bowels.
No choice but surf the peristaltic wave
(blind turns, appendix, caecum), tube the tide.
Wazzed! Dirt-vortexed, fairly grinded on this ride.
Shat out through some cloaca, dumped
upon a hump, a putrid lump of sewage.
A peak that reeks, hums, glows.
This giddy Mont Blanc quivers like blancmange.
Great lardy, putrefactant, upflung Grot,
dripping Glaciers of Night-Soil, Offal-Wash and Snotte.
A whoosh of fetid air,
the dinging of a bell:
that bike-borne revenant was at my side
(and suddenly very fat and palpable,
as if in this place so viscerally terrible
ghosts became more meaty, too.)
“Behold The Fatberg, aka Extinction’s Alp:
filthy Olympus of the Couch Potato,
sebaceous Mullock of exuviae and grunge.
It is the congealed lurgi of turgid pizzas,
colonic gunk, the phoned-in saturated gunge
of mouth-feel fat and, of course, those awful pies.
Those awfully gelatinous, mephitic pies
that fed these turdy gutbuckets.”
Loud wailing echoed all around. Oh fuck it!
It was a dirge most foul and horrible.
I peered and saw that mountain’s skin
was pustulent and warty like cankered flesh.
Closer inspection revealed what caused that din:
each wart and pustule was a human head,
open mouthed, and buried up to the neck
in its own feculence.
And each mouth screamed.
My ghostly companion’s glasses,
like rotten shellfish in a cellar, gleamed
as he said: “These poor blind soulless moles
comprise the only slope to get you out of this glum Hole.
I told you all was upside-down:
take this degraded gradus ad Parnassum.
It is your only hope for escape.
Else stay forever in this ghost-town.
Now you must scale this sordid Alp,
your foot upon each Head;
toeholds in the Mouths and greasy Scalps
of the greedy Living Dead.”
So I began my beastly Climb,
Boots deep in Flesh and Fat.
and scampering about me all the time
were huge marauding Rattes
which picked the jelly from their Eyes,
and nibbled at Cheeks and Noses.
They feasted on the awfully dainty Pies
of Livers riddled with Cirrhosis.
Was then that mount began to shake.
Rumbled a huge thrombosis:
an undergriddoning-going-going ’quake,
an almighty, sickening,
strickening, strackening, struckening,
Was juddered. Jiggered. Buggered.
Monstrous Thing with Monstrous Thing did mate.
A great horripilently shifting midden
too terrible to relate.
I lost my footing, slid, fell back.
Canto 3 Whole
Next thing I know I’m under sea,
and rising up through Davy Jones’
mute glattle of lockered bones
– strange thing is I’m bone-dry and breathe
through deafly gling and bubbly glug,
floating up, through waterlogged shrouds, o ghosts,
what’s dead cuttling the very sea-bed,
and then the shadow of that lyre-strung Bridge confirms
I’m not waking up dead,
but under Estuary.
I’m coming to terms with this,
when my head is haloed by strange angels;
the gigantic peep-show of The Deep is lush with fish:
sharks, eels, manta-rays slide through back-lit blue.
The mirror shatters, tiny penguins crash through,
fizzling bubbles, torpedo, snow slow-noise,
sampling the oddly clear turquoise.
And the fish are whispering to me,
or anyway they mouth;
one particular Golden Sole is bubbling on
about the Lower Depths,
a Snapper says he’s heading south,
see what’s beyond the Humber’s mouth.
Far above, as if I’d passed through a perverse
looking glass to a parallel universe,
I see the travelling skies shimmer,
all topsy-turvydom through water,
feel deep sleep washing over…
And in my dream came news of what’s above,
that Hull-on-Sea where all is Beauty, Love.
The Humber Bridge now starts its potent hum,
a vast high-tensile lyre as steel is thrummed
by thrones and seraphs,the hordes of cherubim,
in one almost transcendent diapason.
Aquarium and foreshore behind me,
here now, and for real, of course,
a hundred feet below the statue
of the liberator Wilberforce.
Here was a city, I could not help but feel,
where noble sentiments and high ideals
had been written in stone, made concrete, real.
I saw elegant couples walking hand-in-hand
by the tide of Humber, along the burnished strand.
The streets all hummed – café society
debating Art, the Classics, Philosophy.
At pavement tables over a decent bottle,
old sages traded quotes from Plato or Aristotle.
Words rainbowed like sun sliced through a prism;
the Policeman arrests you with an aphorism.
The Postman’s quips are worthy of a Wilde;
poetry spouts from the mouth of every child.
The natives were all beautiful,
the weather very fine.
Street cafés all glowed with sun,
repartee and wine.
Golden Lads and Lasses strode
with lithe and healthy grace
along the palm-fringed avenues
fit for this noble race!
Here rose a great university,
with Towers of Learning not of ivory
but steely intellect and perspicacious glass.
The dons wore stylish suits and raffish hats;
the women were great and learned beauties: Bloomsbury
without the privilege, pretention or snobbery.
Each wise Minerva had set her face
against the tyrannous and despotic,
yet each displayed a rarer grace,
both intellectual and erotic.
In cobbled quads all over town,
Truth and Beauty were interlocking:
flashing beneath professors’ gowns,
a hint of sheer bluestocking.
I wandered through the happy crowds,
noted well-attended lectures
in the city’s lovely parks:
talks on Palladian architecture,
debates on Engel, Lenin, Marx.
And, now I had arrived – O dear!,
It seems I’d quite forgotten
just why I’d come. Well, no idea.
Not a clue what had brought me here.
I cast my mind right back
to when I’d set out on this trek.
Couldn’t say why I’d needed to be
precisely here, in Hull-on-Sea.
Perhaps some kind of business?
Maybe I had to meet someone?
Were they still here? Or had they gone?
Was then I realised that I no longer knew
my name, where I came from.
Who I was. Just what it is I do.
Then I heard a heavenly voice
and turned to see an Angel,
a blonde and blue-eyed
… no black with eyes as green and deep as sea,
no, a redheaded Chinese Angel
who was addressing me.
My name is Bea
– I am why you’re here –
I have been known as Beatrice,
but you can call me B.
She touched my face
And I was stung,
(by Bea, Bee, or Be?)
And it seemed that She
was the answer to my prayer.
I tried to touch, but fingered air:
She was no longer there.
Had She been real, or in my head?
Was I still alive, or maybe dead?
And I was lost again,
confuddled and deep in Doubt.
I hadn’t the foggiest
what anything was about.
I remembered my Tall Companion
had directed me once before.
I was lamenting my lack of his wisdom
when I saw the sun
bounce off his bonce once more.
I glimpsed him, but briefly;
he was abruptly gone
somewhere near the station,
aptly known as Paragon.
Inside he started running,
as if late to catch a train.
He was, I saw, quite bikeless.
I lost, then caught again
something like his likeness,
but blurred as if by rain.
A rain that showered him alone
(like first when we two met).
A man who’s neither flesh nor bone,
to whom I feel I owe a debt.
His legs now moved so slowly fast,
his body splitting air.
Was then that Time and Now grew strange,
and flipped up Here and There.
You know how actors run on stage
while sticking to the spot?
He blurred quite still, he faded, cleared…
He shrank into a dot
of pure dynamic nullity which,
much like his shower of rain,
was just some aleatoric, metaphysical,
thaumaturgical thing I can’t explain.
In that moment I saw his statue,
the monument that he’d become:
that molten man now caught and cast;
the bronze had struck him dumb.
Deceased, he leaned out from his plinth,
dead-late to catch his train.
My Virgil through the labyrinth,
where I was caught again.
What had survived of him was verse
as clear or dark as glass.
But these lines cast here in burnished bronze
might not outlast this brass.
Had he finished with his poem-cycle?
Hung up his tarnished clips?
Was this bike-pushing Archangel Michael,
still peddling Apocalypse?
Black clouds had formed within the station,
air liquidised and blurred;
light gelled to viscous concentration,
twisted, whorled and stirred.
A storm now brewed to cover
the platforms and hotel.
I saw fragmented metaphors
from Hole, or Hurl or Hell.
The dome released around the statue
an arrow shower becoming rain,
as the stationary rush of that late poet
drew back his unescaping train.
And suddenly it seemed as if
gravity had centred on
the fixity of that unescaping,
his never leaving Paragon.
Perhaps some singularity
could explain just what I saw.
– a shift of earth’s polarity
drawing matter into its maw?
There was a din. I heard a cry:
“Oh, my God, we’re fucked!”
And another came nearby:
“I hate this stuff. It sucks!”
A drive of improbabilities:
here all that’s live meets all that’s dead
in dadaistic synth,
Wilberforce’s head zooms by
followed by his plinth;
fish fly from out the water,
sailing sky to dive right down,
in a rain of catfish and doggerel,
(O most horrible!) upon the town.
Everything that lies upon the coast
now rises on
this event horizon:
where Cinderella sings a capella
and a drunk fella with his unlobbed can of Stella
flies through the air to the chance meeting
on a dissecting table
of sewing machine and umbrella.
It all ZOOMS here, disappears
down the space/time plughole where we see – O what, my mole,
I scry obsidian glass, Daily Mirror
headlines give me broken Enochian,
the immemorial incanabula of some
Three-Headed Devil Dog Eats Triplets.
Is this Hole’s Worst Mum?
It all goes in, deserts, mountains, poles.
The Taj Mahal Tandoori,
chicken tikka, tarka dhal, bhel puri,
a bumblebee and the Humber Bridge.
A Boeing and a fridge.
And I am pulled…fall toward
and through that
And so, no pack to bundle on my back,
I set out once again. Back on track,
and ungobsmacked to find me trekking
through where earth was fracked.
It seemed like the Phlegraean Fields, gases
escaping fissures flickered spontaneous flame.
The day grew dark as the path
went steeply down,
led into a tunnel below the river’s bank,
came up the other side
in a familiar sort of town.
I’m under way again;
the sign for this place scratched out.
But par for the course to see
the municipality’s done a deal,
got it Twinned with Trouville.
Friday night. Any High Street in the land;
hordes of the loudly drunken, the damned crammed
into pub or club – or not seeing eye-to-eye
outside a chip-shop, alcopop in one hand,
in the other a donner, or an awful pie.
I’m considering the notion of Karma
and why it’s always Hole, or Hurl or Hell.
The crowd isn’t getting any calmer.
A woman stares at me and starts to yell.
Her boyfriend’s some out-of-town shit-farmer,
deffo psycho, and he’s coming over…
Just then, the clanking of an old push-bike,
the dinging of a bell…
A little note on Hole.
I’ve long been fascinated by the opening of Dante’s Inferno: how he finds himself, half-way through his journey through life, lost in a wild wood, and his subsequent descent into Hell led by his guide Virgil, and I’d used the theme, or variations on the lines, in several poems; my most recent collection Pilgrim Tonguesconcludes with “Andante”, a poem about getting lost on a hike. I’m also fascinated by satire and the grotesque, shifting worlds it conjures. I wrote my doctoral thesis on John Marston’s verse satires voiced through his psychopathic and hypocritical “barking Satyrist” persona W. Kinsayder, and, in various sequences, I’ve tried to summon up the ghost of the Elizabethan malcontent to see what he’d say about our world. These sequences seem like vacations from my normal lyric or elegiac mode—holidays of the sort that critics, following Bakhtin, might dignify with notions of the “carnivalesque”—but essentially they’re jeux d’esprit.
A figure you can’t avoid if you live in Hull is Philip Larkin, probably best known for the line “They fuck you up, your mum and dad.” Attitudes to Larkin and his work are sharply divided. I have mixed feelings myself, but I’ve had some good mileage out of him: the part of the university I work in calls itself “The Philip Larkin Centre for Poetry and Creative Writing”; the Larkin Society commissioned my anthology, film and exhibition project Under Travelling Skies in which contemporary poets and painters associated with Hull responded to Larkin’s landscapes and work; I’ve written a poem sequence exploring Larkin’s life and attitudes, and exhibited various paintings in which Larkin, pushing his bike, is confronted by the various mythological figures he had no time for. The shade of Larkin seemed a good guide to the Underworld.
I started “Hole” as a sort of diversion from a project translating French poems, and working variations on their themes. This is obviously more perversion than version of Dante and, as it has rumbled on, other elements have found their way into the mix: medieval Complaint and, hanging round the Larkin figure, an incongruous whiff of Ed Dorn’s Gunslinger. “Difficile est satyram non scribere” wrote Juvenal, and it often does seem difficult not to write satire; or as John Marston’s alter ego W. Kinsayder put it: “Let Custards quake, my rage must freely runne!”
Cliff Forshaw lives in Hull, England, where he teaches at the university.