Hearing Canto V
The spare Italian lesson slipped down along the second ring of grief in the slanted light of that late afternoon, as the 'connoisseur of sin', the judge of horribleness, lassoed souls, amidst the din of those imprisoned in a house of suffering. Against these academic windows no hurricane contends, no lamentations rise or stir the static air of scholars who are listening to a lecturer compare the female figures who in tragic acts had killed themselves for love and left behind a thousand stories of the flesh. One by one they curse and we ourselves recoil, as if this crowded verse named our secret sins, a lust so customary scandal gave no shade, unlike the window blinds we drew to block the sights our vagrant eyes had glanced of beauty, young and fragrant. The lords and gentle ladies in romantic verse met love and battled it in mind and limbs. Then they joined the shades who found in death the one long rest from loving's labored breath. Pity, like a starling's fan-shaped wings, brushed the poet's heart and mine. Two battered souls disturbed the air. The woman spoke; her lover – mute as when the serpent coiled – moved as a dove might hover. She spoke a prayer to give the poet peace for visiting their souls that marred the world with blood on leaving it. But could not say the holy name, anymore than I. The love that lay ahold of them releases no beloved from loving. Beauty was the spur that led the two of them to come at last to this sad end, beauty strong as death not even iron hands can bend. These bruised and injured souls that made me weep, let me look at longing I had known myself, outside the gates of hell; and words of pity flooded up and fell upon the page and city of an endless night I read about and feared. But how did love allow such longing – wordless, silent, and uncertain – to arise, unguessed at first, except in hungry eyes? The book of Lancelot – how love had overcome him – that was all they read to pass the time. Time then passed away. And lips that made the words met lips no longer so afraid. While both their bodies trembled with a kiss, that day the book, unread, was closed. I sat quite still, and now recall the end of class. And faint, I felt my longing body fall.
Royal Rhodes is a retired educator. His poetry has appeared in various literary journals, including: Last Stanza, Ekstasis, Lothlorien Poetry, Cholla Needles, Allegro, Dreich, and The Montreal Review. His poetry and art collaborations have been published by The Catbird [on the Yadkin] Press in North Carolina.