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

I’ve seen a troop unit break camp,
Launch an attack, pass in review,                   
And retreat when it had to.

I’ve seen cavalry horses race through the Aretine
Greenbelt, raiding parties, opening ceremonies,
And hand-to-hand combat

Begun with bugles, bells, drums, or from the castle
Smoke by day and fire by night,
And with both simple and imported whistles;

But honestly, never ever have I seen
Men or armor move, or ships launch,
In response to such an outrageous call to arms.

We were going along with the ten devils—
What barbarians!—but, as they say,
In church you meet saints; in dive bars, belchers.                      15

I was intent on the pitch,
Trying to sort out the details of this particular pocket
And the people burning in it.

The way dolphins arch their backs
When a storm approaches as a signal to sailors
To batten down the hatches,

Occasionally to ease the pain
One of the sinners would arch his or her spine—then
Quick-like-cat hide it again.

Or the way frogs will sometimes sit at the edge of a ditch
With the bulk of their bodies and feet in the water
And only a nose poking out,

So the sinners did that, on both sides.
The minute Barbie appeared,
They immediately bobbed back down beneath the tar.               30

I saw one (I still shudder)
Who hesitated an extra second (it happens:
One frog leaps, the other waits)

And Irma the Beast, who was closest, speared him
With a fork in his pitch-dripping locks
And plucked him out; he looked like an otter.

I knew all their names by now,
Having heard them once when they were selected
And again on the ridge when they called to each other.

“Work those talons, Crazy Rummy,”
The whole disgusting group was cheering.
“Rip every last ounce of flesh off his back!”

“Teacher,” I said, “if there’s any way,
Could you find out the name of this poor guy
Who’s fallen into enemy hands?”                                              45

My teacher walked over and stood next to him
And asked him where he’d come from.
“I was born in the kingdom of Navarre.

My father was a slacker
Who wasted away the little he had,
So my mother got me a position in the house of a lord.

I parlayed that into a position at court with the very kind
King Thibault, where I began to take bribes
And cook the books—for which I’m boiling now.”

Now Roadhog, tusks protruding
On either side of his mouth, let him know how it feels
When a single tusk rips through a torso.

The mouse was in the clutches of the evil cats!
Barbie, however, locked him between his outstretched arms
And said, “Back off, I’ve got him.”                                          60

He then turned and looked at my teacher.
“So ask,” he said, “if you wanna know more
Before they make mincemeat out of him.”

My teacher said, “Sorry, but do you know
Any Italians in there among the others?”
“I just left one,” he said,

“From Sardinia. I wish I were still with him
Beneath the pitch where I wouldn’t have to fear
The fork and the claw.”

Then Qaddafi said, “This has gone on way too long.”
And with that, he dug his fork into the guy’s arm 
And gouged out a tendon.

Dragan Nikolic made a move for his legs,
At which Captain Barbie quickly turned his head
From one to the other, glowering at both.                                 75

Once they’d settled back down,
My teacher quickly asked the sinner,
Who was sadly inspecting his arm,

“Who was it you said you were with
When you made the mistake of surfacing?”
“Fra Gomita,” he said,

“Of Gallura, a fat piggy bank full of fraud
Who handled his master’s enemies so shrewdly,
They complimented him on it.

As he tells it, he wasn’t just a petty loan shark
But a mafia boss. For a fee, he’d sell anyone
A get-out-of-jail-free card.

Don Michel Zanche of Logodoro
Is his pal down here; they never tire
Of speaking Sardinian and trading stories—                              90

Uh-oh! That one’s showing his teeth!
I’d love to keep chatting but I’m afraid
He’s getting ready to carve his initials in my neck.”

Captain Barbie shot a look at Fubar,
Who was making bug eyes, as if about to pounce,
And said, “Don’t even think about it, dung-bird.”

“I could call up some Tuscans or Lombards,”
Said the sinner, who was terrified out of his wits,
“If you’d like to see or talk to any.

You’d have to make the Psycho-Clawz get back a bit
So the sinners won’t think there’ll be a price to pay.
That way, instead of only me sitting here

In front of you, you’d soon have seven—
They’d pop up as soon as I gave the whistle we use
To say the coast is clear.”                                                        105

Mad Dog lifted his head
And shook it. He said, “He’s a dirty trickster.
He’s just trying to buy time to go back in.”

And the sinner, who had artifice to spare,
Replied, “I guess I am a dirty trickster,
Since I’m causing more misery for my friends.”

Killer Clown had clearly had enough;
He took the side of the soul but said,
“If you dive back in, I won’t run after you—I’ll fly

And I’ll grab your ass out the pitch.
Now let’s get off this ridge and hide behind the bank.
We’ll see if you alone can outsmart all of us.”

Now, Reader, here was a whole new game!
They all scrambled to conceal themselves behind the ridge;
First in line was the plan’s most vocal critic.                             120

The Navarrese chose his moment well: He stood,
Both feet planted for all of a half-second, then leapt—

At this, they were all sick with self-reproach,
But most of all Killer Clown, whose fault it was.
He lit out, yelling, “I’ve got you!”

It did him little good; his wings couldn’t
Outperform terror. As the soul plunged under,
The devil rose, head up, heart high.

The scene was like that of a duck avoiding the talons
Of a falcon by diving down, leaving the raptor midair
On his way up, fuming and feathers ruffled.

Ilse, furious at the con,
Flew behind him, glad he’d gotten away
So she could go toe-to-toe with him.                                        135

As soon as the cheater was no longer seen,
She turned her talons on her fellow devil
And grappled with him above the ditch.

Killer Clown, however, had the force of a full-grown falcon
And more than matched her, talon for talon,
Until together they plunged into the boiling pitch.

Less than a second in the hot mess and they parted,
But now their wings were gummed with tar
So there was no way to rise.

Barbie, every bit as furious as the others,
Had four fly toward the opposite bank,
Each with a fork in hand. 

In no time they descended—half on one side,
Half on the other—forks extended
Toward the trapped pair who were already crisp                       150

As burnt toast. That’s the mess we left them in.  

Notes to Canto XXII

19–21. The way dolphins arch their backs/When a storm approaches as a signal to sailors/To batten down the hatches: A medieval belief. From Jocopo Passavanti (1302–1357), Specchio di vers penitenza (The Mirror of True Penitence), a collection of sermons preached in 1354: “When the dolphins come swimming on the surface of the sea, drawing near to ships, it means there will soon be a storm.” Quoted in Singleton, Inferno, 2:380.

48. I was born in the kingdom of Navarre: Early commentators identify the speaker only as Ciampolo (or Giampolo, a variant of Gian Paolo) and offer no additional information. The kingdom of Navarre was an area between Spain and France.

53. King Thibault: Theobald II, born in 1238, was king of Navarre from 1253 until his death in 1270. He was popular with the middle class because although he levied high taxes, he also respectfully granted them rights and political power.

81–82. Fra Gomita . . . Of Gallura, a fat piggy bank full of fraud: Gomita was a friar from an unknown order who served Nino de’ Visconti of Pisa (d. 1298), lord justiciary of the judicature of Gallura in Sardina. Visconti had ignored rumors of Gomita’s corruption for years until he was presented with evidence that Gomita had accepted bribes to free prisoners who were Visconti’s sworn enemies. He then ordered Gomita to be hanged.

87. A get-out-of-jail-free card: What was originally an element of a popular board game has become a commonly used metaphor for something that will allow a person to escape the consequences of a difficult situation. Charles Darrow originally sold the rights to the board game to Parker Brothers in 1935; today the rights are owned by Hasbro, Inc. The game cannot be referred to in print without permission from Hasbro. In the 2006 United States Supreme Court case Hudson v. Michigan (No. 04–1360), regarding “whether the violation of the ‘knock-and-announce’ rule requires suppression of all evidence found in the search,” Judge Antonin Scalia, writing for the majority, wrote that suppression of such evidence would amount “in many cases to a get-out-of-jail-free card.”

88. Don Michel Zanche of Logodoro: Commentators differ in their accounts of this figure. Singleton (2:385) states: “It is probable that he was much involved in intrigues aimed at gaining political power and that the date of his murder by Branca d’Oria was 1275.” Branca d’Oria was Zanche’s son-in-law; the reader will see him in the ninth circle, where those who murder their relatives are punished (Canto XXXIII, 137–146).