States of Poetry 2017 - ACT | 'The Undiscovered Country' by Melinda Smith

The Undiscovered Country

When an exasperated soul
tears itself from its own body
Minos condemns it to the seventh abyss.
It falls into the forest, lands nowhere special -
wherever Fortune casts it, and there
it germinates, like a dropped grain of spelt.
...
The leaves here are not green, but some colour
drained of light; the branches not lithe, but gnarled,
knotted to each other, bearing no fruit but poison thorns.

From Dante, Inferno, Canto XIII

Waking here, it seems I have taken root
in a stand of coastal trees, of a kind I have seen sometimes
by tidal rivers, where the air smells bad.

Each of us has tiny needles for leaves
our bark is almost black
the wind scrapes us against each other, and we moan.

Our ground is grey sand, pitted
with an impossible number of ant-holes.
We block so much light nothing else grows but ivy,

escaped from some place it would be more welcome.
Mosquitoes rise from the river in the evening
to sing in our ears like tinnitus

(our ears which we have lost) -
somehow it has been arranged that we can still hear
that which is unpleasant -

and the harpies are real, yes,
but they remind me of choughs,
red-eyed, wheezing pack-birds

they perch, tear at our leaves,
feed bits of us to their chicks.
We feel their claws and beaks as if we still had skin.

I never once loved my body.
At first I hardly noticed it
then later - when it bled every month

when my breasts swelled, intruded themselves,
complicated my every move - it felt more
like a punishment, a humiliating

costume into which I had been sewn.
Too big, too floppy, too pale, too slow.
Sometimes I tried to take control

to starve it, cut it, knock it out with drink.
Later I simply bore it as a burden
as one does. I can barely believe

I had the gall to get out,
to rip the seams and shed it to the floor.
I will be a long time growing in this grey sand, a long time

missing every fleshy inch, every organ,
regretting my frenzied exit.
No coming back from that.

On the last day, we will be sent
to find our bodies again. We are to drag them
back here, through the ants and the ivy,

to hoist them on these black branches.
Others are permitted to wear theirs once more -
coats fetched from a cloak-room -

but we have forfeited that right. Mine will be dangling
just there, turning slowly in the bad air
from the river. Every so often I will meet her eye

(with my eyes, which I have lost). Somehow
it has been arranged that I will always see
that which is unpleasant.

Melinda Smith


Canto XIII of Dante’s Inferno describes the second ring of the seventh circle of hell, where suicides are condemned to grow without their human bodies, as stunted thorn trees. The epigraph to 'The Undiscovered Country' is my (re-ordered) translation of the following stanzas:

Non fronda verde, ma di color fosco;
non rami schietti, ma nodosi e ‘nvolti;
non pomi véran, ma stecchi con tòsco.
...
Quando si parte l’anima feroce
Dal corpo ond’ ella stessa s’è disvelta,
Minòs la manda a la settima foce.
Cade in la selva, e non l’è parte scelta;
ma là dove fortuna la balestra,
quivi germoglia come gran di spelta.

 

I also consulted the translation by Robert and Jean Hollander (Anchor Books, 2000).