Canto 4 by James Sale

Canto 4

James Sale

And how I ran – in terror from those cries,
And in my heart of hearts the sense I’d failed,
And everything was breathless, full of lies,

Including my own life, until I stalled:
Collapsing, knee-caps cracking on the floor,
Lungs bursting, and all my balance derailed.

Only my guide’s firm hand held me back, sure.
He waited, as I wailed and tried to grasp
What had happened – why? – a life in a sewer?

Why had I, his teacher, not done my task
Which is to teach, and introduce the good,
The true, the beautiful? If I’d been asked

Back then how I’d done, in all rectitude
I’d say I did well. But this? How far wrong
Can human beings go – he in manhood,

Me in thinking my example had been strong.
At last, my sobs subsiding, Dante said:
‘Do not blame yourself; we all once were young,

But youth’s no protection against the bad.’
I thought of England, how far fallen now.
Its education, the world it once led,

And in its place A-plus Stars, First Class shows,
Diplomas, tests, exams, all up for cash;
Vocations gone, careers the way to go:

Head teacher-in-just-five-years, make a splash;
Know nothing but lead the blind anyway,
Let learning stay rummaging in the trash.

So many skills equip us for today,
But knowledge and its greater counterpart,
Wisdom, where was that? Work? Yes. But play?

The mind a slave to idols without heart:
Kids sold a mess of pottage, futureless.
No music, drama, poetry, no art.

Within myself I felt a great weight press,
Constrain me, and a surging of despair
For all the lost souls, all the emptiness.

My guide felt so, and said, ‘We must leave here.
Under heaven keep in mind what is true:
One gift the One who made all can’t forswear –

Who, making the weave of being, can’t undo –
I mean part of His divine nature is
Freedom of the will; we must share it too.

Love, then, created hell, allowed this mess
No order can reverse – for they refuse
It, preferring pain to another bliss.

Yes, Love made the gate here, framed the door we choose;
Love strong enough to fuel its own resistance,
Love -’ and here, as if his ghost had lost its muse,

Dante, contemplating One’s existence,
Was overwhelmed even in spirit – as
If ichor once more were subject to chance.

I felt him shaking – a tremor – that passed;
Then sober, sober as water from spring,
He said, ‘To know the unbelievable is

To know -’ but again, his voice was quavering,
‘All those who tread this path still do His will,
Strive as they might to make some other thing.’

He would, perhaps, be contemplating still,
But some power woke him. He said, ‘We must go.
There’s One with whom we cannot force a deal.’

If contemplation had, a moment, slowed
Him then, now – like some match that’s newly lit –
He flared up, urging me to the pitched road.

‘Where to?’ I said. ‘You know: where there’s less light.’
I followed in his steps, but lagged behind.
The shock of Kip had bruised with such a weight

I had to carry, process in my mind.
But darker yet the road ahead appeared,
And all the while I felt our path declined.

Its gradient shifting – ever down – steered
Us where unhallowed tiles absorbed the sound
Of footfalls landing with dulled, crude thuds. Weird.

Some echo – evil in intent to wound
By driving mad through its hypnotic beat
The careless soul enraptured by its round –

Surfaced, confident it too could create
Meaning from mimicking forward movement,
Not be its empty self, lifeless and flat.

So flat, there never could be improvement;
Hearing – dismayed body and sickened soul;
Was everything towards emptiness bent?

How doubt consumed me then, all being foul.
Where was goodness, and what my heart longed for?
Instead, my thoughts kept echoing: Is this all?

But reading my thoughts, Dante turned, knew more:
‘If Adam had stayed true, in the garden stayed,
And we, too, without fault, observing law

Would happy gardeners be, his offspring made
To walk with angels in eternal sun;
There would be no darkness, no darker shade

As this sick ward to which we stagger on.
None.’ Stopping, both his motion and his words,
He smiled at me. ‘But look – at what is done!’

He waved, and I as one who hadn’t heard,
Heard only groans, saw filth, and smelt the blood,
Of Adam’s legacy which we all shared.

So Dante perplexed. ‘Don’t you see the good?’
How could I – this road to ruin’s deep depths,
Aware of being’s unbearable load,

And how at every stage each human wept?
What good was there to see? And now a twist
Ahead I saw, where empty beds were kept

Awaiting restless souls who’d never rest;
And strange to note as well, not uniform:
Some large and bare and iron, others nests,

Small and comfortable. No one size the norm.
I quite forgot what good I was to see,
Intrigued instead, sure there’d be no harm

As I sought to speed up, be instantly
There. And as I sped ahead, through the door,
A voice, acid and aside, greeted me.

I turned to see him glowering at the floor,
Or rather, as my focus grew acute,
He stared, bewitched, in bed, at shoes he wore!

So polished shiny black – only a suit
Was lacking, else the sense of his importance
Would be visible not just on his feet.

‘Brian!’ I blurted out. He returned no glance.
His shoes held his gaze; I could not see why.
He spoke robotically, as one in trance,

As one using words whose words are empty.
‘Lie down, this bed here.’ Without looking up
His arm gestured, casual, to one nearby,

The smallest of them all, that scarce would fit
My size. I hesitated – after all,
Why lie down now when guests might better sit?

His order, too – ‘lie’ – invoking control,
Made me uneasy, as did his fixed gaze
On shoes: what was it mesmerising his soul?

I noticed then ill-aspects bound to faze
That hadn’t first appeared to consciousness:
Each bed had – despite attempts to erase

Debris – slight remnants of surgical mess
Adhering, sticky plasters, blood clots, skin,
The horror of humans undone, undressed.

Minute traces maybe, but women, men
Had been here before, who had not got well.
I stopped my forward motion. ‘Brian, when

Did you get here? How long under this spell?’
I waited. Behind me I sensed my guide
Arrive. Emboldened, ‘Brian,’ I said, ‘tell.’

Like some vicious swell of water, riptide,
Carried across his whole face in deep rage
As if I’d said something undignified

Offending him, like my presence upstaged
His own – with such an attitude he turned,
Determined to put me back in the cage

He once had held me in when his star burned
Across the educational wastelands
Of Christchurch and Hong Kong; with nothing learned

By nobody. Headmaster of the bland –
The high-achieving parents’ friend and aid –
All knowledge, like examinations, canned.

And I his deputy! I shivered, afraid;
Remembered what I’d tried to do back then;
How Brian took credit for all I’d made.

But suddenly, a whisper, keeping in
His real intentions, hoarse – and his breath stank –
But nevertheless sounding like a friend,

‘James,’ he began, ‘the school is at the brink,
We need your expertise to reach new levels;
Together, what could we not achieve, think?’

Somehow his words – who can resist the devil? –
Had their effect; I found myself wavering.
Why not accept? Lie down now and be civil?

Play his game, not see his trap there, just hovering.
How weary now all seemed; I ached for rest –
A bed, duvet perhaps, or some covering.

I made to move towards – thought it best –
The shortened board, when suddenly Dante spoke
Decisively: ‘Stop, you are not his guest.

Remember how it felt before, his yoke?
So now consider what Procrustes did –
How many bodies, souls his tortures broke?

You were not made to fit this demon’s bed,
But like great Theseus must break the breaker
Before you leave – ’and it was like some lid

Removed – his words – revealing in the beaker
The foul putrescence of that whole career;
Now, too, I saw a change in Brian’s features:

Mr Reasonable no longer here;
Instead, he croaked with fiery venom: ‘I’m
In charge’ – spit curled up his lip, lined his leer.

But the effort all too much, he resumed
Abruptly staring back at his bright shoes;
As he did so, I saw at last his crime:

There, there, in the glass his own perfect view:
Himself, the peak and peacock of invention;
In love with himself, imagining his dues

In a perpetual cycle of willed intention.
I barely could contain my rage – the sight –
Evoking his erstwhile strictures and unction!

All those subtle distinctions: for him height –
His suit and manner, impeccable cant,
Babble; his own sense his own words had weight;

Of governing bodies supreme hierophant;
But now reflected in his own shoe-black
Only, the faintness of his own drab cult.

I broke. In one motion made to attack.
He flinched. Even his shoes could not compel
Attention as I raised my arm to whack

His head. A sound, uttered like some congealed
Squeal, of ‘No! James!’ issued from his throat,
And all his hidden fears surfaced, revealed.

The self-confidence and nauseous gloat
Gone. Now the little boy without his clothes
Lay there – utter nobody of no note.

My hand struck – struck all I had come to loathe,
And as I did two things jarred me, not him:
His head, not hard, but rather soft and smooth,

So that my blow slipped through his skull, as skin
And bone were absent, though he seemed to hurt;
But more, my anger, too, had turned to sin.

I stood shell-shocked, hand stuck in his vile dirt –
The sick imaginings of Brian’s brain,
Now with all its force seeking to subvert

My own resolve to be myself again,
Not some drone in his colony of schools.
But here my mentor saw my danger, pain.

‘Your rushed anger has tripped you like a fool.
Stop struggling with your hand, and instead, think:
What teacher was it, principled and tall,

Who led you to waters where you could drink
Learning?’ I felt hot poison up my arm
As Brian’s malice surged to do its thing.

J. E. Williams – he who did no harm;
He’d helped, gave me a chance, gave confidence
; Against all humbug he’d stood, kind yet firm,

And with him you knew, just knew, no pretence.
His image then, from so long, long ago
Formed in my mind, and as it did, so ice

Flowed torrential, an avalanche of snow,
To meet the poisonous heat, and quench it quite.
My hand snapped free – and Brian slumped low,

While Dante caught my body’s ricochet,
As stumbling back, we moved to get away.

About the Author

James Sale is the Creative Director of Motivational Maps Ltd, a training company which he co-founded in 2006, and the creator of the Motivational Maps online diagnostic tool used by over 400 consultants across 14 countries. He has a poetry website at and a personal website at The first 3 Cantos were published by The Society of Classical Poets, with the first one found here; and a video performance here.