Exquisite Corpse - Issue 4
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Dante, a Girl's Guide to The Divine Comedy (continued from Cyber Corpse #3)
by Shelley Berc

A girl named Dante goes on a trip through hell with her guide, Virgil, the worm of reason, whose duty it is to make her finally disappear by eating her heart out while she is doomed to write the stories of the damned in disappearing ink.

The Circle Of The Violent Against God

-There we saw hands everywhere we turned and hands only, the veins and muscles that once tied them to their bodies flying behind their corpseless wrists like hat ribbons. They were macabrely dancing, beating their fists against the nothingness upon which they imagined the deity lay as they chanted at us:

The dance of wretched hands is never done.
the cha cha cha of destruction in the name of God, the Almighty.
The dance against the dream of cosmos.

As the girl and the worm watched the peripatetic hands, their gyrations turned into a formal dance of articulated fingers and thumbs stretched to represent equations that elaborated the relative gravity of various evils. The twisted hands became nothing more or less than the algebraic symbols of comparison: the signs of greater and lesser than and equals and not equals. With the aid of these appendages in her hands, the girl must decide bad, worse, or worst from a list of debacles. It is her job to place between these horrors the correct comparative sign upon a billboard announcing the following:

The burying of Pompeii by the eruption of Mt.Vesuvius
The dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima,
World War I
World War II
The San Francisco Earthquake
Tianneman Square
The Holocaust
Stalin's purges
The Black Death

     But the poor ghostwriter could not choose. Not for the life of her.
"Oh master guide," she implored of the worm, "these signs of comparative calamity are too weighty for me to hold up. Please take this burden from me."
     Virgil grinned widely and said, "my pleasure dear girl, yes." And he did nothing but slither away and return posthaste with the monk from the Middle Ages, that scribe who hates her to death, who wishes she was never born, who wishes she had never come down here to cause trouble, that is to question and to think.
     She watched paralyzed as he came forth, pushing his calligraphic brush into the harsh paper. His brush dipped in the gold ink bleeds the page until it has no whiteness only black blood, no meat but the gristle of symbology. The language he makes up by slicing open every word that ever was starts to fall fast on the parchment like hail out of a broken sky. dante follows the trail of blood that is the language of the illuminated manuscript concocted by the monk/scribe she thinks she is, the monk who hates her, body and soul. Things come out of dante's head transformed by the scribe's ink and stylus--the scribe who despises her, who will never listen to a word she's saying--not in a million years, who knows the exact number of lines in his paper and how the pigments must be crushed and how many characters shall fit upon a line and what size and hue each of the letters should be and what deserves illuminating. And so she goes, getting nowhere.

Screen Interlude or :

Why Is Dante A Girl And Not A Guy?

By Beatrice, the body and soul of Love.

dante is a girl because: she is in love with someone who does not know who she is.
dante is a girl because outside her beloved she is not supposed to exist.
dante is a girl because having no culture of her own she is a thief.
dante is a girl because she believes she is invisible.
dante is a girl because she believes if she's not invisible then she better be.
     "Everywhere I go," said the girl ghostwriter, "I believe I'd better disappear, that I should hide myself and send out my letters from the dead and people reading them will say, "they're so real its as if they were alive!"
And the girl dante, proud of her ghost writing skill, wanted to hang herself in a big way.
     "Because," she reasoned, with the help of the worm mouth of reason-"if my fate in life is not to exist except through the actions of others, then in fact, I don't really exist at all which wouldn't be a problem except for living in this age of individualism which everybody knows in their heart of hearts is too brutal selfish and immoral to ever push civilization forward. But who can help the times they're born into or the sex?"
     So it was left to the girl dante but one thing--to retire from life, that is the ability to kill one's self and write, the only subject left her divine comedy, with the only tool she had left--the white blood of a ghost. But she couldn't avoid committing the sin of envy.
-I'm so jealous of those damned souls of suicide-at least they could turn against themselves.
     And Virgil grown full of concern for his anguished charge, made the girl dante take off the cord she kept around her waist like a noose just in case she decided to hang herself. He made her take it off her waist and knot it around her throat til she could barely breathe. The girl dante gasped
-How nice it feels not to have this rope so tight around my waist! This rope by which I was hoping to hang myself.
     Then the guide dropped the rope to which the neck of the girl was attached; dropped it into a ravine that had no end...See how the girl swings, he exclaimed so that all Hell could hear him! And the worm yelled down to dante--"Now there shalt come what your paranoia has prayed for!"
     -Suddenly, a creature so bizarre came climbing up upon my body. A giant beast with the body of a serpent, the tail of a scorpion, the wings of an eagle and the face of a dignified and honest old man. The Beast Geryon who bore more than a passing resemblance to some politician or other the girl had seen in her long ago life, began to console her

-It's me--the beast with the dagger's tail
who crosses mountains, smashes weapons and walls.
     The one whose stench fills the world!
I'll save you, dante, I'll lend you a hand,
save you from strangulation, the final deficit of the lost soul

"He's our only way out," whispered Virgil. "He knows the ropes."

     Never shall I forget the countenance of this creature or his form.
He had the face of a good man. But his body was the body of a snake, with its venomous tail quivering in the void. We had no choice for escape so we mounted the back of the filthy beast whose name is Fraud.
     So it was that they flew on the back of the beast down to the Eighth Circle of Hell and arrived at the subway stop to The Circle Of Fraud.


The Circle Of Fraud

wherein burned eternally all manner of liars, fakes and thieves, panderers and seducers, dealers of dreams, lenders of flattery, heart stealers. mind fuckers. Their eternal punishment--to swim in their own shit.     

     Virgil helped the girlghostwriter come down off the back of the beast and survey the new landscape. He said:
     -There is a place in hell called Malebolge, made all of rust but it looks like gold. The eighth circle: hypocrites, thieves, fraudulent advisers, sowers of scandal, counterfeiters of money and words. Home sweet home for fakes, con men, and out and out thieves. Here is punished all varieties of fraud, all forms of deliberate deceit. Here pity only lives when it's dead.
     -The bottom of this circle was so deep that no matter where we stood, we could not see it. There was a swarm of snakes and among them people were running naked, terrified, with no hope of hiding place or escape. Their hands were tied behind their backs by snakes and snakes wrapped around their loins. As I was watching, a snake with six feet gripped one soul's belly with its middle feet and with its forefeet bound his legs, and with its back feet squeezed his head, then sank its fangs into his cheeks. The two heads became one, the snake head and the man's. Their bodies, just as if they were warm wax, stuck together. They merged, the serpent and the dead soul, so that they were neither man nor snake but both--man and snake in one, the Thief.
      Then one of the snake-men came forward and began to speak: Ways To Be A Thief.

Ways To Be A Thief

     To take what is not yours without pretense of it ever belonging to you in the first place--simple theft.
     To make what is not yours, yours, til everybody including you believes it is yours--complex theft.
To have everybody believing what is not yours always was is and will be yours, including the person or persons you ripped it off from--truly sophisticated theft.
     To be born a girl: the quintessential theft--because everybody knows that girls steal everything including history because they don't have one of their own--even Eve had to steal the apple which proves that although she may be responsible for original sin, she never had an original idea.
     Then yet another of the snake-men came forward and began to describe the Profile Of A Thief.


Profile Of A Thief

Someone who takes what is not hers. Women are the perfect thieves because having no world of their own, they have to appropriate everything, even themselves. A thief is half man, half snake because those are the two creatures woman stole from to make herself. From man, she robbed the rib and from the snake, she stole the fruit of knowledge. So in fact, since a woman is a thief, she cannot even be a woman. The body and soul she has appropriated --the snake man, that's the only real live girl.

"Hey," said the girl, "I never wanted to be a thief, but I can't help it--I started in a bastard tongue, a tongue ripped off from the loins of Latin (that's Italian). The language of my origin made me a thief. Virgil the worm, the mouth, of reason, squeezed the truth of it out of me, finally."
     With gentle care, he wrapped himself around her and rescued her from self delusion, that is the hope that one is better than one knows she is. They continued their crawl down. And what the girlghostwriter saw below her filled her heart with misery-that is, the final morsel of it that the worm had not yet eaten. They had arrived at the final subway stop in hell and its most labyrinthic. It was named: The Circle Of Betrayal.


The Circle Of Betrayal

This is it! Said Virgil triumphantly, the final ring of the final frozen circle of hell--the place saved just for traitors who betrayed those who helped them, the violators of hospitality, of generosity, the advantage takers of those who sought nothing in return. The sight of these traitors is sealed blind in their freezing tears. Here Lucifer chews ferociously, his three bottomless mouths full of them, dripping cold blood.
     There was a choir there to greet the sojourners and it sang in a beauteous acapella which the angels in Heaven would have surely envied. The song went something like this--

traitors to kin in cold blood traitors to country in cold blood   
traitors to public interest in cold blood
traitors gnawing at each other in the frozen lake
in cold blood
until they are too frozen to be dead.

-Do not ask what happened to me there, even now I shudder to think on it. All words fall short of what it was--I didn't die and yet I was not alive.

What is it I've become, wondered the girl, deprived of both death and life?
"The Circle of Deep Betrayal," announced Beatrice shivering with both cold and pleasure. "Here goes:

-To deliberately make those love you who would not love you, whom you do not love.
To deliberately make those dependent on you who did not ask to be so.
To deliberately encourage love when you only mean to use.
To deliberately say it is for the good of the many when it is for the good of the few.
To justify the act of betrayal until promises mean nothing
Until you feel nothing
Until you only look like a human being
Until you are really only a ghost."
     The girl dante the ghostwriter could see Him now, finally after all her travels she had found him.
-He had three faces--one in the middle that was red as blood, one on the right that was as yellow as piss and one on the left, black as night. Beneath his faces a pair of wings spanned out--they had no feathers, but scales. They were like bats' wings and when he beat them a constant bitter wind blew. All Hell froze beneath this wind. He cried out of his six eyes and down his three chins. The tears ran in a bleeding torrent and in each of his three mouths he tore apart a sinner as if he were a meat grinder instead of a fiend gnashing his teeth. I have no story for what I saw. Unaccountably, I fell to my knees in the unforgiving abyss and I prayed:

Dear God          
I know from my readings of the Good Book, that a state of grace is one in which there is no spiritual deficit--
How do we know when we are in this grace state?
Do you know it because you feel at peace?
How do you know you're not just sleeping?
Do you know it because your own deeds have made you feel good about yourself?
How do you know you're not just self righteous?
Do you know it because you feel no guilt, no remorse?
Maybe you're just amoral.
How do you know you're doing the right thing
when nature no longer controls anything?
How do we know what is just
when there are so many possibilities?
How do we know what is wrong
if the context is always changing?
How do we know famine is wrong
if there are too many people, too little planet?
How do we know that a forest fire is bad
if that's the way a wilderness regenerates itself?
How do we know the line over which we cannot step
and still live with ourselves?
And how do we judge love if it is, as you suggest, the principle of life
when that principle causes such great devastation?
How do we judge it, put it on trial when you say it is the absolute numeral--
the point from which we must begin all our mathematical gymnastics.
I put the concepts here:
good deeds
good thoughts
good intentions
and I put the numbers here:
100,000 dead of flood and quake in one year
10 million infected with deadly disease in a decade
50 million dead of starvation
70 million dead in wars
how do we judge
when I can't balance your books of atrocity?

     Beatrice shook his pretty head and mourned the girlghostwriter who had used up her pot of disappearing ink in the circle of betrayal. In its frozen blood bath the girl finally saw her face, in its victims' tears, her words dissolved and froze.
     "The more rotten, the less avail is meaning," muttered dante as she ran to the side of her worm. "I want my heart back," she demanded. "I want it back."
     "It's too late, dante," said Virgil the worm mouth of reason. "Ym--mm good to the last drop."
     "Can you grow back a heart," the ghost girl wondered, "grow it back like a starfish his limb?" She wonders as she sits, paralyzed in the pit of hell. In the belly of Satan.
     The image of her monk appeared robed head to toe in linen, words and words and words imprinted on his robes, rising and falling with his ragged breath.     
     "Watch yourself in the middle ages, dante," said the worm, "a phantom of your other self-the monk at his stool, hunched over his parchment and ink. Where are you, lost in the labors of your magnificent concentration Illuminating the letters--G for gluttony, F for fraud, P for pride. You are sure your beautiful elaboration of words shall give them more weight, more meaning, that is: more reason for being, that is: more credibility. Are you ghost writing or are you lying?"
     "I'm not, NOT lying," insisted the girl. "Just look--the letters are so intricate-so full of demons and snakes that the written script is only legible to the initiate. Are the letters letters or some form of new number. Or are the letters pictures of the events of history--the laborer and the lady, the lord and the manor, the monk in the scriptorium? Or are the letters he is making circles: the concentric globes of hell funneling down to the depths of obsession. Look! Hidden in the tapestry of script, the gold leaf, the flowers, rabbits, sweet monkeys, the figures of the naked--a man and a woman. What is it--picture or letter, abstraction or story?"
     And then with fearful hesitation, she blurted out
     -I know he's painting a story--beautiful pigments, gorgeous shapes. He has made a home for himself here in hell with the expansiveness of his cramped style. The picture he is illuminating is her story, her Comedy. He's making her visible in and around the flourishes and details of a bestiary. Now in the intricacy. He draws her picture, he makes her appear.... the homeless cowled face. The creature he created....Me...
     The girl went up to the scribe and kissed the folds of his robes. She thought she saw the letters there breathing, laughing, and weeping as if they were human beings. But then she looked again and they were rigid and still. She thought she saw the monk that is she smiling down at her but then she looked again and she saw he was just admiring his calligraphy, nodding his head with pleasure at the little charges of his brush, the a the b the c that to the girl would mean so much. She left him there, illuminating. She grabbed hold of the neck of her guide and they climbed down Satan's massive ice fired body and when they reached the place where the hip joined the flank, they flipped ourselves over. To the girl's surprise, they were not upside down at all for they had passed the deepest part of this world and come out the other side. It was there that they emerged to see the stars in the sky again. Shining.





The Art Of Illumination

A Morality Play

Wherein the girl dante is no longer a ghost writer but a monk/man illuminating the divine comedy, in specific-purgatory. Here Beatrice has grown up to be a transvestite porno star and Virgil occupies his reason as a vacation home real estate agent

*To course across happier waters now
my talent's little vessel lifts her sails
and sings of Purgatory, that second kingdom
in which the soul is purged of hell.*
The setting is prime beach front property somewhere in California    

I am in Purgatory because I got used to Hell and as soon as familiarity breeds contempt, it disappears. Purgatory however, shares a distinct resemblance to Hell--same circles of sins, same class of monsters and sinners but the rules are different--here, there's always an escape clause.

Enter Virgil in a Hawaiian shirt and Frank Sinatra-esque hat

: Purgatory! the investment chance of a lifetime.
A once in a life time opportunity bonanza for the well-heeled soul.

I had left behind me the underworld of death. I was on the shores of Purgatory, the island where the soul can make amends. To this end, I not only became spirit made flesh--I changed my sex.

Rejoice dante! Now you have the body of a man. Thanks to my voice of reason, you have given up the desire to be a girl, that is--a ghost. By this action you have certainly come up in the world.

(Stuttering and toying with his brush): This ascension business is difficult for me to understand. While I have a desire to be seen, I am not at all sure I want to be seen like this!

The figure of Beatrice lights up, she is taking a bubble bath, and drinking bourbon.

Oh dante, love of my life only I didn't know it, if you want to be the hero of this tale, you have to be a boy because a girl can never come back alive from the dead. If a girl comes back at all, she's brain dead This is not the route for a would be hero; an individual who can prove himself, who can be heard, has to be alive in this world and therefore a guy.

But the monk scribe who is dante the ex-girl is thinking what for this struggle to get into Purgatory? A place where sins bleed into each other with no struggle, no fixed position, no hierarchy moral or otherwise. A place lacking in...discrimination
That's democracy!

Here souls, unlike those in hell, are addicts of change, sexwise and other--making the whole purgatorial atmosphere of perpetual improvement volatile, or violent, or dangerous, or worse... fashionable.
Beatrice begins singing the blues:

     Love that talks to me in my mind
          Love that creates good and bad
          Love that moves the heart to weep
          Love that moves the mind to think
          Love that makes love
          Love that makes hate
          Love that always talks to me.
The Angel of Humility appears. He crawls across the floor in a sanitary body bag. He has the longest finger nails in the world.

Then, in the distance, there was a heavy whoosh of wings.There appeared a light that crossed the sea so fast, no flight of bird could surpass it. From the light, a white shape. But I did not know what it was.Then, my guide recognized the Angel of Humility.

The Angel crawls out of his white body bag
. The angel looks almost exactly like Howard Hughes at his most emaciated, paranoiac, and reclusive.
(aside): dante--that's the angel who holds the keys to Purgatory. Humor him. He's a real mogul.


(He does so, shaking hands once he has put on a white surgical glove)     

(with great pluck): Angel, I'm ready. Lemme in!

: Have to register you first.
The Angel paints a series of snake like S's that resemble $dollar$ signs all over dante's body and on the scrim behind him. The S's shine like ghosts or old home movies through dante's body.

(aside): The S's are the seven deadly sins by which, more or less, every human is marked.
I know I know. I got the scars--Just gimme the goddamn keys.
The keys to Purgatory are enormous. dante places one under each of his arms. They are his crutches up the Mount of Purgatory. At times he must carry his brush in his teeth.

Now you're talking. Enter herein--Purgatory! The place you and your loved ones can always buy your way out of sin.

The spiritual perks of capitalism.

The angel with his calculator computes sinfulness. On backdrop various sins and their dollar value light up and are put on sale by the Angel of Humility. dante is confused but Virgil gets him through this. The Angel gets the cash off of dante for each sin and one by one, they get erased.

pride, envy, anger, sloth, avarice and prodigality, gluttony and lust...bye bye sins.

OK you're clean. Ascend the Purgatorial stair, my dear.

And here dante took off his costume and started to scream: But, but what about the Sins Against Humanity--hunger, exploitation, violence, treachery...Then there are the sins of hiding: hiding from the different skinned, the different gendered, the different sexually oriented, the different thinking. The sin of hiding from violence, hiding from love, from helplessness, from change. Then there are the sins against eternity: Comparing one atrocity to another, logic when it comes to the horrific, rationality when it comes to the irrational, bureaucracy when it comes to innocence, language when it comes to starvation...
     Beatrice drew close to dante's side and began to rub her naked body up and down against him. She licked her finger and pressed it into his mouth and threatened tenderly: SHUT UP, LOVE. SHUT UP SHUT UP SHUT UP.
But he could not listen. dante has followed the illuminated manuscript concocted by the monk/scribe she has become, the monk who hates her, body and soul. Things come out of dante's head transformed by the scribe's ink and stylus--the scribe who doesn't like her, who will never listen to a word she's saying--not in a million years, not even though she has become herself a man, not this scribe who knows the exact number of lines in his paper and how the pigments must be crushed and how many characters shall fit upon a vellum page and what size and hue each of the letters should be and what deserves illuminating. He'll never hear the ex-girl who has so shaped what he has become. His brush dipped in the gold ink bleeds the page until it has no flesh only black blood, no meat but the gristle of symbology. The language he makes up by slicing open every word that ever was started to fall fast and furious on the parchment like hail out of a broken sky. And dante picked up the sheet to see what was inscribed therein. It was


Oh America Purgatory --you island of dreams
you ship without captain in angry seas,
you queen of no-tell motels
you maker of mega stars, every one of us
famous for fifteen minutes.
*You with your riches, peace, justice, and equality.
you with your schemes, plans and dreams so fabulous
that whatever threads October sees you weave
come mid November you've sent them all unraveling.
How many times have you changed laws and sides, offices
and customs and if your memory serves you right
then you will see yourself like a sick person
who finding no rest upon his bed, turns and tosses
but can find no place to ease his pain.
     "Hey Dante," screeched the Angel of Humility to get his attention, "you passed already-now if you ever want to get beyond the waiting room, shut your mouth, stop thinking and take up the golden keys."
     "Come on son," said Virgil, placing an avuncular arm around him and crumpling up and tossing out the vellum sheet. "Let's get going. See, dante, Purgatory is a very upwardly mobile place, where ambition holds the golden keys. Where a worm is not a worm, but a salesman of prime property. And the values keep going up, up, up, and the interest rates down. Look at this place--It's you. The beach fronts of Purgatory have your name written all over them. There's the D for Dante. (And now that you're a guy, you deserve to have the first letter of your name capitalized!). Check out the H for hero. Be happy with your epitaph here in Purgatory-it's a steal!"
     "Well," thought dante, "I always hated being a ghost; that is--a girl. Here I can put my name to absolutely everything--whether it's mine or not. Ownership and originality have nothing to do with this quest, for without my skills the truth would never be heard and therefore it would not exist. Like the girl I once was, it would be less than useless, that is--lacking visibility which is the true measure of all real things."
     But Hell's blackness was never as deep as the smoke that suddenly encompassed me. I stumbled blindly behind my guide, grabbing his coat, afraid of losing my way. The smoke so strong, I could neither see nor stop crying.
     Poor Dante wept so much that a river came of his tears...a river of misery. So it was that the three pilgrims swam their way upstream. It was then that they chanced upon a new ring of Purgatory, where the repentant sewed their eyes shut with barbed 14k wire and sang. It was the circle known as: The Circle Of Passing The Buck.

The Circle Of Passing The Buck

Wherein souls, their eyes sewn shut with gleaming golden thread, frolicked in a foaming hot tub and did sing plaintively:

I'm a victim of circumstance.
Just a poor old victim of circumstance
He's a victim
you're a victim
the state is a victim
the people are a victim
it's not my fault, it's my heritage
it's not my fault, someone else pulled the trigger
it's not my fault, I was brought up wrong
it's not my fault, it was the medicine I took
it's not my fault, its the pollutants in the air
it's not my fault, its not my responsibility.
I'm a victim of circumstance, just like you, too
I have no accountability on earth
I have no accountability on earth.
     The scribe dante upon hearing this lament no longer knew what to write on his parchment to assure his ascent. And he was worried that he had not sewn his own eyes shut which seemed to be the right thing to do here. But still he disputed the verity of this place as the blind souls began another song, a tune far happier in tempo. Twas The Song Of Just Looking


The Song Of Just Looking

Transmitted over the jack hammers of the regentrification crews, through the scraping of the gardener's hoe against the subterranean terrace stones:

Just looking, just looking--
don't want to buy, just looking.
Looking out a lovely window onto a lovely park,
safe and sound behind the bullet proof glass
while a block away they say there's another world
poor and broken, in violence you can't hear
except for the tremors felt
underfoot our oriental rugs, overhead our security alarms
of rapes, robberies, and shootings.
Beneath the rumble, our immaculate kids play hopscotch
While we're just looking. Not doing anything wrong looking.
We're just window shopping with our eyes snapped shut,
We walk around like it's blind man's bluff
dizzy with our companion's twirling.
We stumble around--our arms held stiffly out.
We would never disobey the rules of play and take our blindfolds off.
They were very happy with their song it seemed to Dante which he really could not understand and when he tried to question them on the matter they all took a deep breath and jumped under the water for a time inhumanly possible. So Dante, made bold by his perplexity, turned on his guide.
"Hey,Virgil, you loud mouth of reason, I thought the whole point of Purgatory was learning to take responsibility. If that is not the truth that will get me to Paradise, please teach me what is..."
     To this his wise guide replied: "Mergers and buy outs, you silly."
     "That is--the business of loving," added Beatrice amicably.
     "I don't get it." said the girl, "I just went through hell giving up love so I could get to heaven."
     "That's right," replied Beatrice eager to help.
     -And now you tell me that love is all there is. So therefore, as it stands, I'm nothing.
     -No, dante--you still listen with the ears of a girl, that is: a masochist. Here in Purgatory, things are different. The rules of redemption are different. Love is different. Here, you don't need a heart to know love; as a matter of fact, a heart in such a matter in Purgatory would be...a handicap.
     -Then, from the perspective of your vast knowledge, teach me what love is so I may get it and get out of here.

And so it was that Beatrice got out her love paraphernalia.

She put upon her radiant penis a red leather g-string and she placed over her red painted toe nails a pair of black steel toed boots. Thence she tied up the scribe, hand and foot, to the four poster bed with crimson velvet ropes and proceeded to beat him mercilessly with the gold linked Lash of Love while Virgil took this opportunity to worm his way back into the hole that was left by the ex-girl's devoured heart. Here in this hole, he delivered unto her Virgil's Discourse On Love.

Virgil's Discourse On Love

There's your good love and your bad
Your happy love and your sad
You can love yourself too much and your friends too little,
You can love distortedly or perversely or out of key
but no matter what, love is the seed of every good and evil deed.
Love is absolutely everything.
The soul responds to everything that makes it happy.
The soul seized with longing
never rests until it possesses that beloved thing.
No Creator and no creature who ever was, was without love.
Love is the seed of every good and every evil deed.
Love is absolutely everything.
And with that, the worm fell to snoring.
"But I don't understand," gasped Dante curled up in a ball of reasonable agony, "I thought that in the free market democracy of Purgatory all are created equal. Sins and good deeds all are equal, sinners and saints equal, with everybody having an equal opportunity to get to heaven. Right?"
"Relative and equal, dear," lisped Beatrice between licks. "One big happy family."
     -So, OK...if everything and everyone is equal, how can love, divine or otherwise, be any more important than any other quality?
"Please Dante," said Virgil, awaking from his slumber and not a little disappointed with his pupil, "love is NOT a quality. Love is the divine principle itself and therefore without limit or definition. Subject to change and interpretation, it is the infinite variable, the reason of reason, the jewel of the chaos theory."
     Dante had reached the point in his pilgrim's progress wherein he was beaten to a pulp. He bled from every orifice, especially his unsewn eyes and he pleaded:
-Are we finished, dear teacher, with your discourse on love? I think I get it now.
-Yes, my child, to understand it any deeper you must depend on faith.
Virgil the worm mouth of reason pointed at Beatrice who still towered over the prostrated Dante, smiling down with her whip.
     Virgil looked kindly upon the couple and said "And with such a faith you no longer need me. Now you have reached the place past which my powers of reason can guide you. Your will is your own now--whole, erect, free. I crown you sovereign all over yourself. I'm going back home to hell. I'll send you a postcard when I get there. Ciao!"
     Beatrice alone at last with her man, crawled into his lap and slipped off his monk's vestments and biting down upon his nipples cooed "I'm going to take you to heaven, big boy."                                             
     "Dear God," implored Dante, falling upon his knees with the Body and Soul of Love hanging onto his bleeding breast:
     -I know from my readings of the Good Book, that to get your ear I better be brief. Well, this is it: I don't want to live anymore God in the United States of Purgatory, where everything is equal in the eyes of the lord money, one nation filthy rich with liberty and justice for all... where I cannot live in this shit. Dear God--
     Send me back to hell where evil and its punishments make sense.
     "Aw," said Beatrice, licking away, "don't take things so serious."
But it was the hour of day that turns the homesick wanderer weeping for home. And Dante was determined. His beloved guide, Virgil the worm the mouth of reason was gone. His heart was gone. His sins were gone. He had this terrible craving to be a girl again; that is: a mutilated heart, a broken ghost.
Now, thought he, I am too clearly in the land of shadows. Betwixt and between; In the halfway house of the soul; the house of good intentions; the house of maybe and I hope so; the house of I appreciate your position; the house of both sides now. Having left the murderous hole of black and white, yes or no that has led to so much slaughter, I have found no respite in the gray lands herein. Times like these...I want to be a girl again--someone whose thoughts and decisions in the long run batting average of history don't count.
     These were my thoughts then in the world of Purgatory proper where to make a clear cut choice is to be a coward. But then suddenly my hearing failed me. My sight, as well. And I was moved to move beyond my mind.

     Now keen to search within, to look around that dense forest, he took the plain to the wood. There he came upon a rivers that blocked his advance. Its waters came up from a pure and changeless stream which flows with the power to end one's memory. Dante followed the shaky blue line that is the River Lethe, the waters of forgetting, the road to man's salvation. It led to the turgid River Eunoe, the river of selective remembering, in whose waters you can only recall the good you've done and none of the bad--a kind of a fluoride system for the soul. These two rivers of forgetfulness and remembering flowed together. He knew he could not wash in one without stepping in the other--that would be like soaping up without the rinse cycle, he decided. Virgil has left him, the monk he was has left him, the constellations in the sky have left him, an eclipse of the soul has hunkered down like smoke stack smoke over his self absorption where no one can make him out. He figures to guide himself now, poor deserted one, by the sound of those rivers--the one senility, the other exaggeration--the double laned highway to heaven.
     He stood there, paralyzed upon the slippery bank. How he wanted to jump in and forget everything bad thing he'd ever done, anybody else had ever done, anything bad that had ever happened on earth below or in the heavens above. But...he couldn't do it, no he just couldn't make that leap of imagination. Holding himself to the river banks with his teeth, those strict wardens of his vulgar tongue, he called out, a foghorn of himself, with the salt and worms and mica of his shattered life bursting out of his skin.
"I know nothing," wept the desperate one. "But my heart which no longer exists, still hurts. My heart hurts. It hurts."
     "No it doesn't, dante," called Beatrice from afar. "Its just your imagination, this imaginary heart. Like when a soldier in war has his leg blown off, for years after he still feels like the limb exists. But it doesn't. You can do this, dear Boy, you can. Come one now-jump in."
     So he immersed himself and swam the waters of forgetting and selective remembering, his promised salvation. Why not, he thought in cold despair. Beatrice has left him, Virgil has left him, the monk he was has left him, the constellations in the sky have left him, an eclipse of the soul has hunkered down over his self absorption and no one can make him out. He guided himself now by the sound of that river of forgetfulness. He goes with his tongue and tears to find his way out of what he's become--the absence of memory, the travesty of real love. He's soaked in tears, tears define his body and coat the speechless tongue that licks the earth like a blindman's walking stick, tasting out the route that will take him to paradise.
Suddenly under the waters he sunk beneath, he saw before him an enormous electronic book of computer generated images and computer generated sounds in the sea of his tattered memory and he marveled how similar this virtual reality was to the stained glass illuminations of his monkish middle aged past. But unlike those images, he would reach out his hands to touch these and his hands went right through them as if they were ghosts, as if they weren't really there at all. There before him in sea-light he saw the images of A Book Of Hours For An Earthly Paradise, a book whose pages turned on a spine of invisibility.

A Book Of Hours For An Earthly Paradise

Therein its nonexistent pages that turned imperceptibly was a world of pictures that bled one into another until the time and space between them was nothing and each picture was indeed every picture that ever was-there was a priest kneeling before an altar, his tonsured head bent in prayer, a woman bent over her tax returns sighing, a sun squinting man dressed as a cowboy smoking a cigarette against a wide blue sky, a knight slaying a dragon with a blood dripping sword, a scribe at his scriptorium, a word processor at her monitor, a stained glass window with biblical scenes, a selection of rock video cuts from MTV, a virgin taming a unicorn, her hand outstretched in his mouth, angels, a 50 foot boat with sails like wings, Bruegel's paintings of beggars, a street so terrifying that no one walks it; a bleeding heart, Marilyn Monroe, the scales of justice, the equation for the speed of light, a supermarket, a car wash, a baptism,

     Unable to stand any longer what he could see but never touch, he shot up to the surface of the water and swam to the farther shore. He was alone in the middle of night now. He held a butcher knife in his trembling hands, grasped tightly to his body. In the fat blade he saw the pictures of his whole life, one by one and then all at once. Illuminations. They shone in the silver of the steel, shone and shone until he couldn't see. But he could touch, over and over his fingers slid along the blade. He swore he could hear it singing. Singing like an angel sings.He whispered to the river that had washed him up on the shore. It was he was sure by now, the only thing that would listen to him:
     -Twist the ragged filaments of blown fluorescent tubes and make a seat for yourself in the crushed place where junk has an everlasting peace--a divinity Over and over the question, the same one a child asks: What is good? What is bad?
     Bad must be what's ignored or laughed away or cowered from or beat out of. Good? good? An action that's praised or rewarded? By whom? For what?
The small questions a child asks.
     Who can say lust is bad when you may never have anyone in your life to love? Who can say avarice and greed are bad when you may grow old and have no money in a country that won't care for you?
     Instead of digging at the core of-----
     Dig at your own hands, your own scalp, your ear canals
     dig in places that will never betray you. Dear God, here is my prayer:
     He tore the knife from his hands with his teeth and clutched it there in his silenced mouth. He stretched out his arms before him. The palms of his hands he lay pointing up to heaven. He slammed the blade down on his two outstretched wrists. The blood made a little trail between the poor severed hands and their body. He grew light headed, the world shifted and seemed to fall away as he reached out for it with his stumps.
     The heavens turned upside down now -there's more light in the dirt than in the sky.

     He is looking for the sky everywhere he turns, he's thrown his brush and stylus into the river, he's chopped off his offending hands. The stubs that are left are all that's left of his memory. She's happy.




The Girl Of Maps

Wherein dante has become a child, the girl of maps.

As upon smooth and transparent glass, or through clear and tranquil waters, yet not so deep that the bottom is lost, the outlines of our faces come back to us.

Canto I, Paradiso
Down in the world so endlessly bitter and up on the mountain from whose summit i was lifted and above, drifting through the heavens from light to light, i have learned so much that will anger so many men of my time. But if i am a timid friend to truth, i will lose my life there, among those who only call this time a dead and gone one.

Canto XVII, Paradiso

     And so it came to pass after much travail, I had arrived in Paradise. Here I was a girl again, but a different girl now, a Child Who Has Not Yet Bled, that is: a girl before she is really a girl: that is before she is really dead.

"Oh," gasped the young girl as she surveys her new surroundings. "The constellations are all deranged here. No hunters, no victorious lions, just the saturated creatures--the shark, the sea horse, the coral colony."
     The landscape divided like a red sea and the girl fell through its eye. The Paradise of her fumigated memory opened up and took her in like a freezing kitten at the door stoop. All the sins that ever were hers have been cleaned out just by the accounting for--the slate wiped clean by the soul's self audit.
A list of her good deeds appeared on the platter of her flapping tongue:
     --the old lady she escorted across the street
     --the alms she gave for the poor
     --the hand me down words she gave away for the wearing.
Everything she ever worked for in her whole life disappeared into the new.....
     Once Upon A Time she cried:
     Because the words were lost and the images disappeared, it was given to a ghost writer, to make them appear again.

     She mapped the world before the world knew its size
with the palm of her hand stretched out to the night sky she figured out the shape of things. She blamed it on the room she was given as a child. A glass room with a glass roof, high up, so that the air was really her earth and the ground below seemed as distant as the sky. She walked the sky with her hands, but only at night, when she could be guided by the hunters and the lions, the fish and the half horsemen that lit it.
     She couldn't remember anything about her real family except the dark smell of closets. She was six when she was taken, but the difference in the life before and the one since was so extraordinary that it was if that first child died and a new one lived.     
     Her new parents gave her everything a child could dream.
     A shepherd dog and a pony.
     A golden top and a silver ball
     A crystal balcony
     where she could watch the heavens and the sea.
     A chamber of exquisite clothing
     A chamber of illuminated books.
     A chamber of the most delectable treats.
     "Read these", said the man
     "Wear these", said the woman
     "Play with these " they told her, pointing to the beasts.
And with these words, they left her alone in her room until she turned sixteen. She wore the clothes and read the books, ate the food, played with the beasts. Every night and day, watching out her window, she watched the world change. And she grew to be both wise and beautiful.
     She had one vanity, though and that was her hands. She would hold them up to the light and the light would travel through them. She could see their blood and bones and veins because they were translucent. She would stare at these hands for hours on end as if they were beautiful strangers and she did not belong to them. So the seasons passed until she was sixteen.
When her parents returned in her sixteenth year, they had a birthday party for the girl. All the important people of the land were there. The girl was, for the first time in her life, introduced to people, which was very strange for her as her life had been limited to the glass room, the clothes, the beasts, the books, the food, and the window.
     She didn't know what to do or what to say to them as they looked her over, inch by inch. They extended their hands to her but she didn't understand the sign of welcome. In her confusion she lifted up her hands, too--not to them but to the firelight. The light shone through her hands and everyone could see all her blood and bones and veins. The people gasped in wonder, but what surprised them the most was that as she held her hands up, a gigantic map of the world was illuminated through them like the sun striking stained glass window panes. There in the girl's hands were the seaways and the highways and the landmarks of the nations of the world and the demarcations of all their boundaries. But there were also whole countries and continents, rivers and seas that the people had never seen before. It was as if the room, itself, held its breath. And then:
     "How do you know such things," they jabbered at the girl.
     "I...I" she trembled, "I know nothing."
     She put her hands down in her lap and the map vanished.
After the birthday feast, the guests said goodbye and the girl went to sleep. When she woke up, she was not in her own room at all but another glass room and the door was locked and her beasts were gone and her beautiful clothes were gone and her parents were no where to be found, only guards like toy soldiers who brought her meals and cleaned her things. She tried to make friends with this, her new family. But they told her she was their prisoner because to know the whereabouts of the world is always a state secret.
     "You must be good," said the old men who came to her window from time to time to check her progress. "You must be good," which they explained meant to draw for them everything she saw that could chart the world. They gave her a large round room, all of glass, the walls, the roof, even the floor, was glass. They gave her sheets of charting paper, a sextant, all of gold, a jeweled compass, and two enormous blank globes on which to record her knowledge. But in one thing, the girl kept her secret. The ones who locked her up, who gave her the measuring instruments, didn't understand that her hands traveled away from her body at night and this was how she gained all her knowledge of the world. At night when the guards thought she was sleeping, her hands would fly away. They went to Africa and wandered its deserts and its jungles. They went to the River Ganges and bathed, they went to the holy city Jerusalem and prayed. By intimate touch, they knew all the wonders of the Ancient and Modern and Future Worlds.When her hands returned to her each dawn, she held them up to the rising day and extracted from their shining veins the web of their journey. And she would transfer their impressions to the transparent vellum sheets that covered the windows, walls, and floor of her glass room. She would take from the hands only that information which would help the old men get where they wanted to be going--the mountain passes, the rivers, the deserts, seas, and plains. She ignored the other knowledge that the hands brought--the cartography of the far away future and the buried past, the galaxies built up from words like sweet, and free, and hurt, and love; that is the cartography of feeling. She did what she was told and ignored these maps of the soul that the hands were bringing her for those that delineated the lines of latitude and longitude.
     When at noontime, the guards appeared, she would point wordlessly to the new charted sheets which they would take away, replacing them with fresh blank ones. She wondered what would happen to her after she completed mapping the world and she was sure it would end, as she was certain that the world had its limits. As she starts to worry--because she knows when her job's over they will kill her to keep her secrets--she begins to chart the other information the hands bring her--the images, the feelings, the lost histories, the fantasies.
     For the first time, she charts fantasy--trees taller than the sky, giants with tusks, fish with wings and serpents with such powerful tails they sweep aside whole cities. And she maps out feeling--the routes of love and hate, anger and compassion and the distances between them. But she tears these documents up as soon as she makes them.
     She becomes fascinated with mapping cities, present and past, real and imaginary. For she has only lived three places in her life, the closet of her infancy, the square box in the forest of her childhood and now in the mapmaker's tower and all these times, desolate of people. As her hands continued to travel and bring back vast stores of information about the roads and the sea, the landmarks of earth sky and water, she searched them hungrily for just one thing--the image of the city because it was the one thing that destroyed her own lonely exile. She sent the hands far and wide to discover these places of many people and fantastical buildings. Thus, the discovery of the world proceeded at an unexpected pace.
     Once she had became a connoisseur of cities, north, south east and west, the girl constructed a model in her mind of a city made up of the finest attributes of each. And during the day as she automatically trudged through the graphing of the maps, she lived in her heart in city after city in many great houses, with a great many friends. The images of cities the hands brought back awed her. The roofs clamoring over each other like a stack of almanacs, the faces of the houses set staring at each other in attitudes of compare across the narrow winding streets. The things she could see in the large plate glass windows--cakes and loaves in one, a shower of fine dresses in another, sparkling jewels in yet another. Then she observed the people streaming in and out of their houses, announced by a ringing set of chimes on each door. Through the moving pictures engraved on her tiny hands, she could almost see their desire and sometimes their despair as they hurried through the honey comb of their city--each as isolated as she, but somehow connected to one another in a way she lacked--as if they were one entity, at least when they bustled through the streets or as they extended arms and goods in their shopping. These new maps she did not destroy, but she concealed.
     As her knowledge piled up and up, it threatened to burst the seams of her tower. So they built her another one--bigger with a great telescope through which she could see the Earth and the stars. She had a great sadness inside this new house for she could sense by the look and feel of her hands as they returned each day that they had mapped practically the entire physical world. And when the job was done, she knew she would be murdered.
     When she had been younger, before the hands had brought her the visions of the cities, she had not been so afraid of death, because she believed that when one is dead, one is still simply alone with one's self, and she was quite used to that. But now, she grew lonely for these populated places that came to her in the moving images each morning. And she made up her mind to expand the information of her hands that went into the maps for the old men so she could stay alive just a little longer. So this is what she did to make her work go slower
     She no longer gave them just the charts of the physical world at all. No, she mapped the desire of the heart, the longing of the soul, and the persistent hope that ties people together from one end of the world to the other. No longer did she keep these invisible things secret. She drew them.
'We don't want this junk," the old men told her angrily, "they make it hard to see the roads. We don't want such things unless they are made from silver or gold. You're not concentrating!". She tried to do as they commanded...but she couldn't anymore--she did not want to die.



It was in Ravenna that Dante saw the hands for the first time. They were laying outside the cathedral. He was old and sleepless and he liked to walk around the church at night, thinking. He thought the hands must have fallen off one of the statues of the saints. And so he took them to his hotel room for safe keeping until he could return them to the priests.
     Holding the hands in one hand, he opens the door to his room with the other. He places them on the little table under the reading lamp. He puts one palm up, the other down. He marvels at their definition--the veins, the nails and their half moons, the lines and the wrinkles, the soft round pads under the joints of each finger, the articulation of these joints, the distinctive posture of each of the hands, definitely a pair but highly individual unto themselves.
     He cannot at first ascertain the material of their making. They have a marble quality, but they seem too soft, too flesh to be really stone. He stares at them. He has to pick them up. He has to kiss them. It is the most beautiful kiss he has ever experienced. He turns off the light. He lies down on his poor bed. He sleeps very deeply, breathing hard as if he were trudging up a steep cliff--the hands are in front of him, dancing, they lead him down the muddy terraces of this cliff, down to the sea. With their palms stretched out, they make two little boats, like slippers for his feet and he enters the water on this craft. The hands take him everywhere on earth and in heaven that they had once taken the girl. Night after night, he dreams the girl's hands. They tell him of her discoveries, all of which have vanished from earth--the geography of love, the topography of trust, the many byways of desire and despair and the tangle of routes to divinity.
     In her hands, the old man sees the fear in the young girl's eyes as they throw in her food and slam the metal door on the glass room she cannot leave. He sees her there, centuries ago or ahead, he cannot be sure which--living as flesh, a picture in her own hands. He sees the old men strangling her and the shock on her face when they tell her it is not for finishing her map of the world that she must die, but for mapping far too much, cities that were too grand, emotions that were too strong, seas that were too deep, galaxies that were too far, ideals that were too ideal. When the man tries to rescue her from her room, the hands he sees her in become opaque. She vanishes inside, where they have already finished her off.
     The old man begins to weep for the dead girl he loves more than anyone. Meanwhile in his dreams, her hands continue to carry him, tugging him by his hands, floating him on his feet, as they sit folded and pretty on his little desk on a sheet of blank paper. They see the whole world--the old man's dreams and the dead girl's hands--the actual things, and then the outlines of the things. Then they begin to see exactly what the girl was charting when they murdered her--he saw she had been mapping the inside of being--the soul of the earth; the monsters and angels of our breathing; the atomic particles of our hunger. And if we had her map, thought the old man, our world would have a different shape; it would have a different size and many, many other dimensions than what we have now.
     In her hands, he saw a living worm crawl out and the worm said " the world is defined by the makers of its maps and limited by those who control their vision.'
     These are the things he learns at night when he holds up the hands to the lamplight in his little hotel room. The hands that reveal a map of the soul. "Here is love" they say, "the heart of any map".
     "These are not concepts" the girl trapped in the hands says to the old man. "These are real places like Detroit or Washington. You have to experience them like that or you won't get anywhere." The obscura of flesh covers her up and she's gone.
     The old man sitting in his dark room outside a cathedral in Ravenna takes up the dead girl's hands and transcribes what they see for all those without love or home or life--a divine comedy for a homeless humanity.
Meanwhile-she's dead and the only thing that matters to her poor ghost body is vision. By now mapping is everything to her. She has a job to do in the underworld that is her paradise--to map the land here, the dead of course but also the millions who have just been disappeared and who are not acknowledged to be dead because they are the land here--one big charnel house of bone and dirt and flesh--the individual aspects of which can no longer be distinguished. So the Girl moves the memory of her hands that have been lost to her in her own death, over the underworld to measure its tongue and unloose its speech. After we die, she thinks, in her first night in death from where she can see--our job, like that of Atlas, is to hold up the living.
     And dante the girlghostwriter thinks she knows this girl and those hands and that poet centuries ago dying in Ravenna. She knows them as she knows her own heart beat, as she perceives her own death and destiny. She knows them it could be said, like the back of her own hand. She writes in her eternal pot of ink these words that she knows, seen or unseen, will outlive her :

*I think I saw the universal form
I think I saw a light stronger than the sun
and it was running in circles.
             one circle reflected the next and the third was a ball of fire.
How incomplete are words for this...
 I was like a mathematician trying to square a circle
                          who cannot find the principle he needs.
   I wanted to see the way in which humankind fit in this circle of light on      light,
           but no matter how I struggled, my senses were too weak.
     Suddenly my mind was struck by a light
    And I disappeared into the flame of that light.*

     Here my imagination fails me, or perhaps there are neither thoughts nor words for what I saw in that last lost world beneath my city's streets. Nor can I tell you how exactly I resurfaced to the city, the memory of that final journey which destiny washed away from me for I believe had I the choice I would have never come back. I can only tell you in poor conclusion that the journey sent me turning and turning, like a perfect wheel, by the love that turns the sun and all the other stars in the universe. I can only tell you that I can't tell this story. There are no words for it as I follow my worn foot steps day after day down the subway stairs to the train that takes me to my job and resurfaces me two miles hence upon a broken stinking concrete world of endless high-rises and cement streets. But I have never found my way back and I think the story I had lived below makes no sense here. But in my heart, which still beats steadily and tells me a time more truthful than hours or days or years, I know it makes the most perfect of all sense. . . Here on Earth. As it could be.

* denotes a passage from The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri

Publications: The Shape of Wilderness



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