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Free Verse: Richard Cecil

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 15, 2011 - Our summer begins to dwindle into shorter days and cooler evenings. School has started up again or soon will. This summer's vacations happened too long ago, and next year's seem impossibly far away. As we head into fall, it's a good time to contemplate our place in life--or where we'll be after. This poem kicked off River Styx's newest "Circles of Hell" issue.

Richard Cecil

My Place in Hell

"Where would you put yourself in Dante's Hell?"

I ask my Classics students every fall.

Invariably the punishment that wins

is spinning with their lovers in lust's whirlwind.

Their second favorite torture's being dipped

with the flatterers up to their necks in shit

though they're the opposite of slimy creeps

who suck up to succeed -- Uriah Heeps

with nothing going for them but desire.

But shit's less painful to wade through than fire,

so the class's atheists, whom Dante dooms

to lie forever in their flaming tombs,

and the gays, whom he makes race on burning sand,

choose to endure the awful stink and stand

amidst the sycophantic politicians

who never take unpopular positions

and humble evangelists whose preaching soars

through reeking air above their pompadours.

My students don't yet know the agony

of having to endure such company

for half an hour, much less eternity.

"And where do you belong in Hell, Professor?"

they ask me in turn. Should I confess or

should I lie about my master vice?

For many years I've given bad advice

at Honors registration to skip Science

and take Art instead. But tongues of flame

wrap Evil Councilors in Circle 8,

so naturally I'd try to dodge that fate

by confessing to one of my lesser sins.

I'd like to go to Limbo with pre-Christians --

Homer, Virgil, Ovid, Horace -- wise

pagan poets who were never baptized.

But I can't claim that I was unenlightened.

I learned that Hell gaped open and was frightened

that I'd be sent there when I was a child.

But as a teen I let myself go wild,

wallowed in both gluttony and lust

and felt the icy thrill of the Treacherous

by dating my best friend's steady on the sly.

But youthful vices have abandoned me;

the only thing that stirs my cold blood's money.

That means that I could join the Avaricious

smashing heavy stones against the vicious

Wasters in Circle 4. No meretricious

Hypocrites or Thieves, just honest Misers

converted into hearty exercisers

working out in Hell's health club for free --

a fairly pleasant sort of misery.

Beam me down there, please, signor Dante!

Richard Cecil's most recent book is Twenty-First Century Blues (Southern Illinois University, 2004). He teaches at Indiana University.

To learn more about River Styx, click here. Richard Newman, River Styx editor for 15 years, is the author of two full-length poetry collections, "Borrowed Towns" and "Domestic Fugues." He also co-directs the River Styx at Duff's reading series.

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