Dante's Inferno (Canto XXI) translated by Mary Jo Bang

One bridge ended and the next began
As we walked and talked about things
Outside the range of this Comedy;

At the high point we stopped to inspect the next valley
Of Malebolge, expecting to see the usual set of sinners
Weeping in vain. It was oddly dark,

Just like in winter at the Venetian Arsenal Shipyard,
When the soft sticky tar
For caulking leaky ships is bubbling,

And where, since they can’t set off,
One person builds a new ship from the bottom up,
Another plugs the seams of a well-worn hull,

One hammers at the bow, another at the stern,
One planes oars, someone twists rigging rope,
One mends the staysail, another the mizzen-sail.                       15

So it was here, not by fire but by divine ingenuity,
That a thick pitch was boiling below,
Turning the banks into a glue trap.

I saw it, but nothing in it, except the bubbles
That rose from the boiling and the surface as a whole
Swelling up, then settling again.

I was focused on the pitch
When my teacher yelled, “Look out!”
And with a single sudden motion, yanked me closer.

I quickly wheeled around like someone in a hurry
To see what needs escaping, and who then,                   
Panicked, keeps running while looking

Without stopping to stare. Behind us,
I saw a devil in a black leather jacket racing
In our direction across the rocky ridge.                                     30

He looked fierce and acted wild—
Touching down from time to time,
Then scurrying along with his wings still outstretched.

He had a sinner slung over his shoulder,
Which was sharp and held high; his talons were hooked
Through the tendons of the ankles. 

He shouted down, “Hey Psycho-Clawz of the Fifth Bridge,
Here’s an Alderman from Santa Zita;
Push him under while I go back to the city for another.

It’s endless. Everyone there is on the take,
Except Bonturo! You know how money converts
Every No to a Yes over there—snap—like that!”

He tossed him in, then ran back
Along the stony crag; a pit bull unleashed
On a burglar never ran faster.                                                   45

The sinner went under, then rose doubled over,
Tarred bottom up; the devils under the ridge yelled,
“This is no place for an ebony Holy Face!

You can’t jellyfish float here! It’s not the Serchio!
Unless you wanna piece of claw,
Don’t come up out of the pitch.”

Over a hundred jabbed him with pitchforks,
Taunting, “You have to live undercover now! That way,
When you’re on the take, you can keep it a secret!”

They poked him down like a cook has the kitchen help
Plunge the meat down with a skewer
When it floats to the top of the pot.

My street-savvy teacher said,
“It’s better they don’t see you’re here.
Crouch down behind this rock.                                                 60

And don’t worry when they come at me.
Everything will be fine. I know about these things.
I was once in a turf war exactly like this.”

He strode the length of the bridge
To the bank of the sixth crevice; at that point,
He needed to look like he knew what he was doing.

With the unchecked fury of a pack of feral dogs
That rushes to attack a beggar,
Forcing him to freeze and beg from where he is,

They bolted out from beneath the bridge
With forks raised—but Virgil shouted,
“Stand back! Don’t be rash!

Before you touch me with one of those forks,
I suggest someone come forward to hear me out—
After that, you can decide whether to stab me.”                        75

They all agreed: “It has to be Badass.”
We waited until he emerged from the pack,
Muttering, “As if this will do him any good—”

My teacher said, “Think about it, Badass,
Could I have safely come this far
In spite of the countless obstacles

Unless I’d been guided by divine will and a promise
Of success? Let us through. Heaven wants me
To show someone this soul-crushing way.”

With that, his high-blown pride broke under him
And he dropped the fork at this feet and turned
To the others: “Fine, don’t anyone stab him, at least for now.”

My teacher called out, “You,
Behind those boulders on the bridge,
It’s okay to come out here with me.”                                        90

At that, I stood up and ran over to him;
The devils lunged forward, making me doubt
They intended to keep the agreement.

I thought of the cease-fire at Caprona—
The terrified departing troops marched out
Into the midst of a mob of jeering enemies.

I pressed my body close against my teacher’s
And kept my eyes fixed on their faces,
Which were far from friendly. They were gesturing

With their forks and goading one another; one said,
“Wanna see me poke his butt?” to which the other
Answered, “You gotta make sure you really gouge it.”

The devil named Badass, who was speaking to my teacher,
Quickly spun around and snapped,
“Down, Scumbutt! Down!”                                                      105

He then told us, “You can’t continue along this ridge
Because here the arch over the sixth ditch
Is nothing but a pile of rock at the bottom of the fissure.

If you still want to go forward, walk along the lip of the cliff
Between the pitch and the next pocket;
There’s another ridge you can cross not far from here.

In five hours, precisely one thousand and two hundred
Sixty-six years plus one day
Will have passed since this bridge collapsed.

I was just getting ready to send some of my workers that way
To check to see if anyone’s taking the air above the pitch—
Go with them, they won’t hurt you.”

“Come here, Killer Clown, and Ilse the Witch,”
He began. “You too, Mad Dog;
And Barbie, you be squad leader.                                             120

Let’s have Qaddafi too, and Dragan Nikolic,
Roadhog with his tusks, and Irma the Beast,
Fubar, and Crazy Rummy.

Look all around the boiling glue pot.
Take care of these two until you reach the next intact ridge
That crosses the crevice.”

“Really, teacher!” I said, “This does not look good!
Please, let’s just the two of us go on alone;
As long as you know the way, I don’t want an escort!

You usually know what’s what! Don’t you see
They’re showing their teeth
And making ugly faces?”

“Don’t act like a baby. They can show their teeth
All they want. They’re doing it for the benefit
Of the sorry ones boiling in the tar.”                                         135

They swung around to the left and proceeded along
The bank—but first, each used his tongue
To signal their leader with a raspberry;

He, in turn, responded with a toot from his bugle-butt.

Notes to Canto XXI

N.B.: Various commentators have made convincing arguments that the names of the twelve demons who appear in Canto XXI are all corruptions of names of Florentine leaders responsible for Dante’s banishment. The Italian names he assigned them in the original are provided in the following notes.

3. My Comedy: In a letter to his patron, Cangrande, Dante explains that he calls his poem a “comedy” because it begins in difficulty and ends in happiness; other have also pointed out that the poem is a comedy because it’s written in the vernacular style. Dante refers to Virgil’s poem as “tragedy” because it is written in a lofty style and has an unhappy ending. Hollander (376–377, 392).

7. the Venetian Arsenal Shipyard: Built in 1104 and enlarged in 1303–1304 and 1325, the Venetian Arsenal was one of the most important shipyards in Europe. It had a perimeter of approximately two miles and a fortress-like construction with high walls and watchtowers. Today parts of it are used as exhibition spaces during the biannual international art fair known as the Venice Biennale.

37. “Hey Psycho-Clawz of the Fifth Bridge: The devils are called Malebranche, a combination of the word male (“evil”) and branche (“claws”—also “talons” or “clutches” or “jaws”). These demons carry pitchforks and have long birdlike talons and a wide wingspan.

38. Here’s an Alderman from Santa Zita: According to Singleton (2:367), the fourteenth-century writer Guido da Pisa identified the unnamed soul as Martino Bottario (or Bottai), a corrupt magistrate from the city-state of Lucca. The city’s patron saint is Santa Zita (c. 1212–1227), a servant who became the patron saint of domestic workers and an aide in the finding of lost keys; she came from a village not far from Lucca.

40–41. It’s endless. Everyone there is on the take,/Except Bonturo!: Bonturo Dati (d. 1324), head of the popular party of Lucca, while maintaining an official anti-corruption stance, was profligate in his buying and selling of public offices. It is said he owned the city.

48. This is no place for an ebony Holy Face: The Volto Santo (Sacred Face) is a first-century crucifix carved from dark wood. It was brought to Lucca from the Holy Land in 742.

49. You can’t jellyfish float here! It’s not the Serchio!: The Serchio is a river near Lucca.

63. I was once in a turf war exactly like this: Virgil may be referring to a scuffle he had with the same demons when he was sent to Hell by Erichtho (Canto IX, 22–27), or he may be alluding to his more recent standoff with the demons at the gates of Dis (Canto VIII, 83).

76. They all agreed: “It has to be Badass.”: The demon’s name in the Italian, Malacoda, is formed by combining mala (“bad” or “evil”) with coda (“tail” or “tail end”).

85. With that, his high-blown pride broke under him: Shakespeare, The Life of King Henry the Eighth (III.ii.422–427):

Cardinal Wolsey.     Like little wanton boys that swim on bladders,
This many summers in a sea of glory,
But far beyond my depth: my high-blown pride
At length broke under me, and now has left me,
Weary and old with service, to the mercy
Of a rude stream, that must for ever hide me.

94–96. I thought of the cease-fire at Caprona . . . a mob of jeering enemies: In 1289, shortly after the death of Count Ugolino, the Guelph leader of Pisa, the Guelphs were expelled from the city. Guelph troops from Lucca and Florence besieged the city and captured several castles, including the one at Caprona. According to Benvenuto, Dante took part in the siege. 

105. “Down, Scumbutt! Down!”: The demon’s name is Scarmiglione. The word scarmigliato means “disheveled” or “unkempt.” Samuel Beckett borrowed from both Canto XXI and Canto XXII for his poem “Malacoda”; he gives the name Malacoda to an undertaker and the name Scarmilion to his assistant. In Beckett’s poem, Dante’s Posa, posa, Scarmiglione becomes “stay Scarmilion stay stay.”

111. There’s another ridge you can cross not far from here: As Virgil and Dante will soon discover in Canto XXIII, the demon is lying; none of the bridges from the fifth valley to the sixth are intact.

112–114. In five hours, precisely one thousand and two hundred/Sixty-six years plus one day/Will have passed since this bridge collapsed: This very exact reference is a way of indicating that it is 7:00 a.m. on Good Friday.  The earthquake that occurred when Christ died also caused damage to the seventh circle, where the violent are punished (Canto XII, 45).

118. “Come here, Killer Clown and Ilse the Witch”: The name Alichino is possibly from arlecchino, Italian for “harlequin”; this clownish acrobatic character of the commedia dell’arte is thought by some to have originated in a clown-devil character in early medieval passion plays. John Wayne Gacy, a serial killer from Chicago, who, between 1972 and 1978, raped and murdered at least thirty-three teenage boys and young men, was referred to as “the killer clown” because he entertained at children’s parties as a clown called Pogo. John Kifner, “Man Who Killed 33 Is Executed in Illinois,” New York Times, May 10, 1994.

The demon Calcabrina’s name has been variously translated as “grace stomper” (Lansing); or one who “can walk on brine” (Mandelbaum); or one who “tramples on the hoar-frost” or “tramples on the Bianchi” (Scartazinni). The Bianchi (Whites) were that faction of the Guelph party to which Dante belonged. They took their name from Bianca Cancellieri. Ilse (pronounced “Ilsa”) Koch was known as Die Hexe von Buchenwald (“the Witch [or Bitch] of Buchenwald”). She was the sadistic wife of Karl Koch, the Nazi commandant of Buchenwald, where she served as an overseer. She was notorious for her cruelty to prisoners and kept a collection of tattooed skin removed from the bodies of prisoners. After she was initially sentenced to death by a U.S. military tribunal, a U.S. Army review board, “in a series of clandestine procedures,” commuted her sentence to four years. She was later retried by a German court and sentenced to life in prison; she committed suicide in her cell in 1967. Joshua M. Greene, “Military Tribunals: A Cautionary Tale of Secret Trials Past,” New York Times, July 22, 2003.

119. You too, Mad Dog: This demon’s name, Cagnazzo, is translated variously as “low hound,” “mad dog,” “nasty dog,” and “raging and biting dog.” The word appears to refer obliquely to the purplish color of the nose of the dog. MD 20/20, also known popularly as Mad Dog 20/20, is an inexpensive high-alcohol American wine fortified with sugar and artificial flavors such as pink grapefruit, wild berry, and Hawaiian blue. Also known as “ghetto wine” and “poverty punch,” the product is marketed to inner-city low-income groups and university students. Some cities in the Northwest have banned the product. Chelsea Bannach, “Fewer Alcohol Crimes in Ban Area,” Seattle Times, April 17, 2011. It is bottled by the Mogen David Wine Company in Westfield, New York.

120. Barbie, you be squad leader: Barbariccia’s name derives from barba (“beard”) and riccia (“curly”). Dante designates him the leader of the group of ten. The name has been linked to that of Jacopo Ricci, corporal of the city of Florence at the time Dante was exiled. In medieval times physiognomists associated a curly beard with fraud and malice. A barb, in addition to being the curled hair of some animals, is a sharp hook. Nicholas “Klaus” Barbie, a member of the Nazi Gestapo who reached the comparable rank of captain, was known as “the Butcher of Lyon” for the extravagant brutality of his sadistic torture. He escaped immediate postwar prosecution for war crimes, initially with the aid of American intelligence agents, and lived in Bolivia, where he was involved in drug trafficking, until he was extradited to France in 1983 to stand trial for crimes against humanity. “Klaus Barbie and the United States Government: A Report to the Attorney General of the United States, August 1983, U.S. Department of Justice" (available as a pdf at www.justice.gov/criminal/). He was sentenced to prison in 1987 and died of cancer there in 1991.

121. Let’s have Qaddafi too, and Dragan Nikolic: In the original poem, the name Libicocco may gesture toward Libya—as in “Libyan Hothead” (see Richard Lansing, ed., The Dante Encyclopedia, 302) or to lustful desire, as in libido, from the Latin libere (“to be pleasing”). Vernon (2:173) points out that the deserts of Libya “were thought to be peopled by multitudes of demons.” In 1969, Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi, the eccentric dictator of Libya, led a military coup that toppled the first and only king of Libya, Idris I, who had served as monarch for seventeen years. A civil war supported by NATO air strikes began in Libya in February 2011. “Allies Open Air Assault on Qaddafi’s Forces in Libya,” New York Times, March 20, 2011. On October 20, 2011 Gaddafi was captured and killed by Libyan rebel forces. “An Erratic Leader, Brutal and Defiant to the End,” New York Times, October 21, 2011.

The name Draghignazzo appears to be a portmanteau word formed from drago ("dragon") and sghignazzo ("sneer" or "smirk"). Dragan Nikolic was a commander of the Susica detention camp at Vlasenica, near the Bosnian-Serbian border, during the Bosnian War (1992-1995); he pled guilty in 2003 to allowing “guards and Serbian soldiers to come, night after night, and abuse and rape Muslim and other non-Serbian girls and women.” He took personal responsibility for at least nine murders and multiple incidences of extreme torture, including using an iron bar to knock out prisoners’ teeth and break their ribs. Marlise Simons, “Serb at Hague Pleads Guilty to Brutalities,” New York Times, September 5, 2003.

122. Roadhog with his tusks, and Irma the Beast: The devil Cirïatto has tusks like a boar, or wild hog. Webster’s dictionary defines a road hog as "a driver of an automobile vehicle who obstructs others especially by occupying part of another's traffic lane." Its first known use was in 1891. Today the term is commonly used to describe any selfish or aggressive driver.

Graffiacane’s name can be roughly translated as “Scratchdog” or “dog that scratches like a cat” or “one who likes to rend sinners with his prongs.” Vernon, Readings, 2:173. Graffiacane may be an adaptation of Raffacanni, the name of one of the Priori at Florence. Irma Grese, a warden at Auschwitz and at Bergen-Belsen who was nicknamed “the Beautiful Beast,” was known for using both physical and mental torture, and famously went around with a plaited cellophane whip with which she was known to give severe, sometimes fatal, beatings. “Belsen Girl Guard Blames All of SS: Irma Grese Admits Guilt in Prison Camp Murders—Prosecution Ends Today,” New York Times, October 6, 1945. From the transcripts of the Belsen trial:

Q: You thought it very clever to have a whip made in the factory and even when the Commandant told you to stop using it you went on, did you not? A: Yes.

Q: What was this whip really made of? A: Cellophane paper plaited like a pigtail. It was translucent like white glass.  

Q: The type of whip you would use for a horse? A: Yes.

Q: Then most of these prisoners who said they saw you carrying a riding whip were not far wrong, were they?  A: No, they were not wrong. 

Q: Did the other Aufseherinnen have these whips made too? A: No. 

Q: It was just your bright idea? A: Yes.     

Q: In Lager “C” you used to carry a walking stick too, and sometimes you beat people with the whip and sometimes with the stick? A: Yes.   

Q: Were you allowed to beat people? A: No. 

Q: So it was not a question of having orders from your Superiors to do it. You did this against orders, did you? A: Yes.

“Irma Grese: Excerpts from the Belsen Trial and Biography,” Holocaust Education and Archive Research Team, http://www.holocaustresearchproject.org/trials/grese.html.

123. Fubar, and Crazy Rummy: The demon Farfarello’s name possibly means “goblin”; goblins are mischievous or evil sprites. The acronym fubar stands for “fouled up beyond all recognition.” The earliest print usage is in Yank, the U.S. Army magazine, on January 7, 1944. “The FUBAR Squadron . . . FUBAR? It means ‘Fouled Up Beyond All Recognition.’” A related term, snafu, was already in use: “The Army has a laconic term for chronic befuddlement: snafu, situation normal; all fouled up.” A series of animated cartoons commissioned by the U.S. military during World War II featured characters with these names. The 1944 cartoon Three Brothers also included Tarfu: "things are really fouled up," or "totally and royally fouled up." In speech, the F-word is commonly substituted for "fouled." Sheidlower, The F-Word.

The demon Rubicante's name may also have been the nickname of Pazzin’ de’ Pazzi of Florence, who might have had a ruddy complexion and red hair. Rubicondo means "red" or "ruddy." Dante calls him "Rubicante pazzo"; pazzo means "crazy," "mad," "wild," or "foolish." Rummy is a card game based on matching cards; an alcoholic who primarily drinks rum; and the nickname for Donald Rumsfeld, secretary of defense under George W. Bush from 2001 to 2006.

125–126. Take care of these two until you reach the next intact ridge/That crosses the crevice: The demons, knowing there is no unbroken ridge, understand this to mean they should attack Dante and Virgil later.

137–139. but first, each used his tongue/To signal their leader with a raspberry;//He, in turn, responded with a toot from his bugle-butt: The demons’ crude gestures can be read as a sly nonverbal conversation about their evil intentions.