Monday, December 7, 2009

Kurt Vonnegut Goes to Hell

I recently (well, over a month ago) changed apartments. I'm still not entirely unpacked, but I am down to those large boxes in which items were thoughtlessly tossed just to get them packed and out of the old place.
While wading through one of these boxes this weekend, I discovered a paper I had written during my senior year of high school for my Classical Literature class. We had been studying Dante's Inferno, and our assignment then was to choose a famous person, decide which Circle of Hell he or she belonged in, and explain why.

I chose Kurt Vonnegut, who was and still is one of my favorite writers, and placed him in the Sixth Circle, among the Gluttons. The essay itself is nothing to write home about, but a decent job for a high school senior who thought he was going to be a professional musician. (You can read the whole thing here.) But at the end, whether it was part of the assignment or not (I'm guessing it wasn't), I wrote my own Canto about Dante and Virgil coming across Vonnegut down there. Reading this today, I think it's mostly awesome. I also think that it might be partly plagiarized — if it isn't, I'm even more impressed with the me of 18 years ago. Some of the language, especially in the first half, may have been "borrowed" to some degree from whichever translation we used for class. Certainly the rhyming structure is based on that

No, the rhythm isn't very good. I understood the mechanics of poetry just slightly less back then than I do now, and I don't really understand poetry now. But still . . . when I reread this nearly two decades later, it still excited me. So here it is. If you think it sucks, that's fine. Just don't waste anyone's time commenting about it.
A few quick notes about this. This is extremely based on what I have read about Vonnegut's stint in the army during World War II, and especially on his time as a POW in Dresden when it was firebombed. "The Florence of the Elbe" is what Dresden was called back then.

My guide and I edged closer to the brink
of screaming, for our heads and stomachs churned
because of the most rank and putrid stink

that spewed forth from the level on which we stood.
Greyed and browned slush hailed from the sky
onto shades who, lacking umbrella or hood,

could do naught but turn their heads away
in hopes that their head-backs might catch
the brunt of the eternal storm, and take anguish away.

But anguish did still spring from pale lips
soiled grotesque tints of brown and black from the storm.
These sinner's shades were buried to hips

in thickish waste, wailing and weeping and moaning
their hellish plight. Said I to my Guide:
"What sin is it that brings these shades here groaning

to this wasteland of suffering dolor where forever
must they mix tears with this rain of refuse?"
And he: "These are sinners who never

partook of anything in divinest moderation.
They chose their one material love and pursued it
with all unending hope and aspiration

of yet still more of their superfluity. Never mind
these gluttons." So we turned to continue deeper,
but then I spotted a quaint shade. "How is it I find,

in this most odorous of levels," said I,
"where every breath is filled with eternal anguish,
a single shade whose weary-caked eyes

are not wet with tears; whose mouth moves
not to bemoan its fate, but mumbles softly
to any ears? I do believe he speaks of doves!"

My Guide was astonished. Said he: "Let us meet
this curious shadow." He seemed not to notice
our approach, for he continued, mumbling "Poo-tee-weet?"

Apparently he had just finished his tale, for he raised
his face to us as we were upon him. The vile slush pummeled
his features, but he noticed not as it rolled down his glazed

figure. My guide spoke first: "Who art thou
that denies Hell your grief and scorn?" Spake he:
"I am one whose witty intellect hast bowed

to verbosity, of a sort, for I loved words so much
that I metamorphosed myself into a string of them,
and transferred my identity onto pages into such

fictitions as Billy Pilgrim and Kilgore Trout.
I am the Master of Black Humor." I intoned:
"But how is it that your words come without

a twinge of sorrow or suffering? Do you not smell
the mephitis emanating from this sludge
to which you are interred forever here in Hell?"

Thus he answered: "The effluvium of my prison
is fragrant to my nose when juxtaposed
to my living experiences, for after I had risen

from the Slaughterhouse to see the destruction
wrought upon the Florence of the Elbe by my
supposed allies, I was given German instruction

to exhume the German civilian dead
and pile them high, alternating human flesh
with wood for the pyre. I uncovered

these bodies for two months' time, and not
one day's rest was I given. The bodies soon
decayed, and forth from every foxhole the rot

from decomposition and pain was on all noses.
Hell cannot compete with that two-month tang.
When compared to that, this smells like roses!"

"But do not the sighs and moans of fellow shades
bring tears into your eyes?" Virgil continued.
"I have heard the moanings on European glades,

beautiful hillsides, and sandy beaches, of children wishing
for death to come quick; children with fresh festering wounds,
lacking limbs, bloody immature digits twitching

as life holds no to make them suffer.
Those infants' moans can overpower any
sound in Hell, and have provided my with a buffer

from emotion that might stem from seeing
shades thrown down in muck and mire."
"But surely throughout all this, your being

must still be affected by the icy deluge
forever beating your brow with splashes
of brown and grey, making stains of huge

proportion upon your skull!" "This icy cold
is the wonderful winter following the
fire-storms of a fiery summer of old."

A thought occurred to me, and I could hold
it back not long. I thus exclaimed: "What in
heaven's name is keeping you here in this cold

dank dungeon? How can Hell confine
you without the benefit of your anguish?"
As I uttered these final words, his eyes began to shine,

and hope, ever a stranger here, appeared upon his face,
and he began to arise from the grime
like one reborn, he rose into space

like his very own Harrison Bergeron, dancing to some
unheard tune. My senses overtook me and I
swooned. The shade, free at last, thought I had come

to my end, but showed no sign of woes,
for as I stumbled into the quagmire,
I heard him mutter "So it goes."

But that is not the end of his tale,
for he is free of his prison in circle three,
but forever must be confined to all of Hell.