To Join the Lost – Canto I

May 21st, 2010

Canto I

Midway through my life’s journey, I found myself
lost in a dark place, a tangle of hanging
vines or cables or branches – so dark! – festooning
larger solid looming walls or
trunks or rocks or rubble, and strange shapes
moving through the mist, silent or
howling, scuffling through the uneven dirt or
dropping from the blotchy sky like
thicker clouds, so close sometimes I ducked in
fright so that they never quite touched me.

Someone I had trusted had led me there.
Perhaps it was persons, I could not remember,
only how their words and gestures, once so
sensible and clear, gradually grew
obscure, how their features, once so individual
and expressive – this lifted tuft of
eyebrow, that kindly smile, that belly laugh –
smoothed to nothing in the murk,
and how at last they turned away, gibbering,
gone. Without them was no path

that I could see. A bit ahead to the right the
curtain seemed lighter, its patterns more
distinct and loosely entwined and permeable,
so I stepped over that way, stumbling
on the occasional root or protuberance,
until I splashed ankle deep
into a pool of sucking mud that spread
among the blackened boles and mounds its
unforgiving mirror far as could be
seen, and I could go no farther.

Perhaps, I thought, what I had followed, moth-like,
was just the sky’s dim luminescence
the marsh cast back, and then I knew despair,
and pulled my sodden shoe back out, and
turned, and a cry swelled in my throat. But just
before I let it loose, another
shimmer caught my eye. Perhaps, I thought,
I’d wandered off my course through tending
to my feet and not to where they were going;
and holding my gaze level, and gingerly

feeling the way with toes that slid forward and sometimes
up and around or suddenly down (so
my attention was sharply bifurcated
while a third, unattended
part of me coordinated) towards that
distant barely backlit scrim, while
yet a fourth part of my poor divided
self was straining not to feel a
thing at all. Of all four tasks, this last was
hardest. Hope and fear impelled me

“Run!” but who could run on that turf, rough and
sharp as a grater? And vehement voices
muttering a flow of words so soft they’d
lost their forms now clogged my hearing,
aural mush, except that here and there, as
clear and hard as pebbles, numbers
struck me; and unseen hands behind me plucked my
clothing, grabbed my shoulders, stroked my
hair. My knees gave way. I huddled there, in
sudden lonely silence, long.

Then slowly, like a fern uncurling, I rose,
not recalling having fallen
asleep or having passed the border into
awareness of this dismal dawn.
Before me, jarringly stood the only straight
and undistorted object in my
view: a man, tall and thin, head topped by
what I took to be a red fleece
ski hat, barefoot, robed in simple brown he’d
cinched about the waist with a cord.

His skinny neck, that sprouted from an itchy
looking undergarment, upheld
a long and narrow face. A long and narrow
nose, sharply hooked, ran like a
ridge between the hills of his high cheekbones,
and the basins of his cheeks
converged upon a small and beautiful mouth.
The upper lip was thin and long,
the lower shorter, plusher, so the top one
drooped a little at the corners,

and they made an arc much like a bow
whose arrows aim to pierce the clouds,
not quite primly frowning, more the meeting of
strength and sensitivity. But his
great, sad, brown eyes! There’s a
distant gaze that looks within,
and a regard like a net we cast upon the
outer world, that in his eyes were
combined: alertly pensive, missing nothing.
They were what held me. I stepped forward.

Glancing at my squelching shoes, “O voi che
siete in piccioletta barca
, ”
he said, “Oh you who follow me in
little boats.” His voice was sweet and
soft, and the phrase was one of the few I knew in
Italian. Odder to meet an Italian who
can’t quote Dante than one who can. Well!
Humor was the last thing I’d
expected in that desolation. Taken
quite aback, I paused, and at that

instant, growls, a vicious snarl, a rumble
low and ominous, all issued
from behind the stumps of a shattered pylon
thirty feet away. His robe
flaring, he whirled and faced the hidden beasts.
“Whatever you were seeking, you won’t
find it here,” he said, glancing back.
(Oddest: how I did not find it
odd to understand him.) “If you don’t lose your
way yourself, those three will lose it

for you. Come, and I will show you the path
out of here.” And backing slowly
towards me over shards and ankle-busting
holes as if his feet had eyes,
he glided, holding all the while the animal
danger at bay by looking at it with
fiercer focus than any predator, then
guided me some yards away
behind a ragged rubbish berm. I thought he’d
stop to talk, then. Instead, assured

I was still with him and unharmed, he whirled so his
garment flared like a tulip again, and
strode away, impatiently gesturing at me
to follow. Not that I had much choice,
but still I hesitated. Then I gathered
in my hope and hurried after,
catching up with him a while before I
caught my breath enough to ask him,
“Who are you? And what do you want with me?”
He answered: “Last things first. You are

the one whose fifteenth year blossomed in the
city by the Arno, where they were
drying the pages of books the river had drenched
two years before?” My face froze. He nodded.
“And of course you’ve not forgotten her
you stood with by the river wall,
your arms around each other’s waists, not holding,
sweetly ratifying the seal your
bodies made from ankle to shoulder?” I could not
move. He halted with me. “And how

you stood there, watched the brown-green flood,
minute by minute on the brink of a kiss
that never came because you were afraid?
Well, it was she who visited me
from one of those bright circles you cannot
quite bring yourself to believe in, glowing
and slender and blonde and passionate, and she asked me
to help you find your way. She called you
My Seth, whom I knew as a poet and one of love’s authors.
She knew how to ask so her will would be mine.”

With finely calculated disregard
for how much shock I could absorb,
he added, “As for who I am: that year
you met and said good-bye to her
not knowing how long, you lived in my home town,
the place they kicked me out of and
set death at the gate to keep me away. You lived
in a small hotel off Via Fiume
named for her whose hand reached down for me
as your Victoria reaches for you.”

2 Responses to “To Join the Lost – Canto I”

  1. Vermont Author Seth Steinzor, Writing in the Blog Form | Says:

    […] years of slogging away at a multi-volume narrative poem to which nearly nothing human is extraneous because its subject is the moral universe, it’s an […]

  2. Rod Sud Says:

    Buddha~ Even death is not to be feared by one who has lived wisely.

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