At an annual reading of Dante’s Inferno
a bit more than midway through my life’s journey,
I find myself raising Cain at the Cathedral
of Saint John the Divine. It is Maundy Thursday—
Hallow’s Eve for fans of the Infernal.
When I was just a bit less than a quarter
way through the same hellish pilgrimage, an aging James Merrill
of my high school) stood like an immortal
Limbo-bent, before a room of sighing adolescents,
and taught them how a man makes himself eternal.
as if to mingle breath with incense,
I mutter with the cantor, Ah, Ser Brunetto,
are you here? and make tactile his winded spirit’s omnipresence
a shade as ethereal as that patrician ghost’s.
One reader finishes. Another adjusts her glasses,
declaims a Medievalist’s Florentine. At my elbow
my own miglior fabbro, Rachel Hadas,
for whom my alma mater’s James was simply Jimmy.
Under her chair, wrapped in plastic shopping bags,
a tiny, wood-framed portrait of Sr. Alighieri
she tells me belonged to him. When at last that maestro moored
his lithe craft along the verge we make out so dimly,
companion found it sitting in a drawer,
and passed it on to her, who took it home
and, as if gliding back from the same murky shore,
the little treasure in a chest of her own.
At midnight, she, in turn, will pass it on
to me, who will carry it, through this Dis’ divinely comic underground—
subway, ferry, rail—further down, like the baton
at Verona, where the green cloth waves at the foot of the stair
to flickering stars, and the last man in, panting for Marathon,
like the damned at blank space, through dead air,
to proclaim himself, if not the winner, there.
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