Memento Mori in Middle School
When I was twelve, I chose Dante's Inferno
in gifted classan oral presentation
with visual aids. My brother, il miglior fabbro,
said he would draw the tortures. We used ten
red posterboards. That day, for school, I dressed
in pilgrim black, left earlier to hang them
around the class. The students were impressed.
The teacher, too. She acted quite amused
and peered too long at all the punishments.
We knew by reputation she was cruel.
The class could see a hint of twisted forms
and asked to be allowed to round the room
as I went through my final presentation.
We passed the first one, full of poets cut
out of a special issue of Horizon.
The class thought these were such a boring set,
they probably deserved their tedious fates.
They liked the next, though bodies blown about,
the lovers kept outside the tinfoil gates.
We had a new boy in our class named Paolo
and when I noted Paolo's wind-blown state
and pointed out Francesca, people howled.
I knew that more than one of us not-so-
covertly liked him. It seemed like hours
before we moved on to the gluttons, though,
where they could hold the cool fistfuls of slime
I brought from home. An extra touch. It sold
in canisters at toy stores at the time.
The students recognized the River Styx,
the logo of a favorite band of mine.
We moved downriver to the town of Dis,
which someone loudly re-named Dis and Dat.
And for the looming harpies and the furies,
who shrieked and tore things up, I had clipped out
the shrillest, most deserving teacher's heads
from our school paper, then thought better of it.
At the wood of suicides, we quieted.
Though no one in the room would say a word,
I know we couldn't help but think of Fred.
His name was in the news, though we had heard
he might have just been playing with the gun.
We moved on quickly by that huge, dark bird
and rode the flying monster, Geryon,
to reach the counselors, each wicked face,
again, I had resisted pasting in.
To represent the ice in that last place,
where Satan chewed the traitors' frozen heads,
my mother had insisted that I take
an ice-chest full of popsicles to end
my gruesome project on a lighter note.
"It is a comedy, isn't it," she said.
She hadn't read the poem, or seen our art,
but asked me what had happened to the sweet,
angelic poems I once read and wrote.
The class, though, was delighted by the treat,
and at the last round, they all pushed to choose
their colors quickly, so they wouldn't melt.
The bell rang. Everyone ran out of school,
as always, yelling at the top of their lungs,
The Inferno fast forgotten, but their howls
showed off their darkened red and purple tongues.
The Dark Horse (Scotland), 1999.
co-winner of the New Millennium Writings Award IX, 2000.