Philip Terry: Purgatorio, Canto XI

“Our first mover, who relates to another in a
Way mirroring the relationship of father and child,
Living as resident in the revolving spherical

Shells in which, according to ancient
Astronomy, the celestial bodies are set,
Not forced by imposed stricture there to live

But freely choosing so to reside because of your
Undying affection for your first creation, those spiritual
Beings usually depicted as being winged,

Venerated be the phrase designating your person,
Venerated the authority and influence you have
Over others, by all created beings, for it is

Appropriate to the situation to make an expression
Of gratitude to your animating principle
Inducing that one of the four basic taste sensations

Typically triggered by sucrose. Let the state
Of tranquillity of the sphere in which you hold a
Pre-eminent position move towards us, for we

Cannot reach it by motion, growth or effort of our own,
If it does not move towards us, even with all the
Mental and physical resources at our disposal.

As those spiritual beings usually depicted as
Being winged give up or lose the mental powers by
Which they control their wishes and intentions to you,

Uttering Hosannas in musical notes with
Inflections and modulations, so let the members
Of the family of biped primate mammals anatomically

Related to the apes but distinguished by
Greater brain development and capacity for
Articulated speech and abstract thought give up theirs.

Give us on this solar day of twenty-four hours
Beginning at midnight our daily sustenance – as you
Miraculously gave it to the Israelites in their journey

Through the wilderness, without which in this unduly
Exacting region uninhabited by members of the family
Of biped primate mammals anatomically

Related to the apes but distinguished by
Greater brain development and capacity for thought,
He goes backwards who most strives to advance.

And as we cease to resent all others for the
Acts causing discomfort or offence that we have
Been forced to endure, do you cease to resent

Us in a manner showing devotion and tenderness,
And do not regard too closely our undeserving
Moral or personal merit or demerit. Our capacity for exertion

Or endurance, which is conquered and brought into
Subjection without difficulty, do not entice to evil
By promise of pleasure or gain from the ancient adversary,

But set it at liberty from this ancient one who
Would turn us from the right path by pricking us with
Sharp pointed metal accoutrements usually

Used to encourage the forwards and rapid movements
Of domesticated quadruped equine mammals.
This last petition to your being, oh dear one who has

Power and authority over others, we do not make
For our own individual selves, since there is no need,
But for those beings who have stayed or remained to our rear.”

So, praying for their wellbeing and for ours,
Those souls moved slowly beneath the weight of their
Washing machines, like creatures we might meet in a dream,

Or in a painting by Hieronomous Bosch reworked by
Magritte. They were not equally tormented by their loads,
For while some lugged Bosch Titans and Hotpoints

Others carried smaller machines, Zanussi Compacts
And Candy Aquas, going around and around on the
First ledge, washing away the filth of the world.

If these souls, up here, pray so zealously for our good,
Think what we down here can do for them,
If we only think of them from time to time.

We ought, indeed, to help them wash away the stains
And the dirt they have picked up here on earth,
Like careless children playing in the mud, so that they

May emerge in blue whiteness amidst the wheeling stars.
“I’ve seen showroom scrambles on Black Friday,”
Said Berrigan, my guide, “but this is something else.

Where’s the manager here? If the customer’s still got
Any rights at all, someone should take pity on you
And free you from your loads, so you can stand up

And give us a hand. Can someone here show us the way
To reach the stairs, and if there are several paths,
Tell us which one is the shortest and the least steep?

This man who travels at my side bears his own weight –
He still carries the body he was born with on earth
And so, against his will, is slow to climb.”

A few words were muttered in response to Berrigan’s
Bantering – I’m not sure they all appreciated his jokes –
But it was unclear to me who spoke them.

Then someone piped up, saying: “Come with us,
Along this bank to the right, and you will find
A path a living person can easily climb.

If I were not weighed down by this Bosch
That presses down on my proud neck, so that
I must keep my eyes glued to the ground,

I would look up at this unnamed man
Who is still living, and see if he recognises my face
So that he may take pity on my burdened back.

I was born in Edinburgh, where I was adopted
At four months by Labour supporters from Aberdeen.
Gove is my name, perhaps you’ve heard it before?

I started off in the state sector, but quickly won
A scholarship to Robert Gordon College, then read English,
When it was still English, at Lady Margaret Hall.

My achievements, I confess it here, made me arrogant,
And I held all men, and women actually, in such disdain that
I became incapable of listening to anyone but myself.

Many suffered because of my decisions in
Office, as any child in a state school in England
Could tell you. I took pride in taking soft subjects

Off the curriculum and replacing them with Grammar.
I took pride in the part I played in sending pupils back to school
Prematurely during the pandemic. Pride didn’t just ruin me,

But the whole of my party, dragging them with
It from calamity to calamity until we delivered Brexit.
And once we’d achieved this calamitous goal we were

So wrapped up in our success that we didn’t even notice we
Were in the epicentre of a global pandemic until it was too late.
The weight which I refused to bear when alive

I am now forced to bear among the dead
Until my back has felt the pain it inflicted
On others down on earth – I’m here for the long haul.”

I had my head bent down to the ground, to hear his
Grating words, when someone – not he who spoke –
Twisted around beneath a Siemens Avantgarde,

And seeming to recognise my face, he called out to me,
Straining against the weight of his machine to keep
His eyes on me, as I walked bent down amidst those souls.

“Oh my God!” I said, “aren’t you Damien Hirst,
Pride of Bristol, who did the shark in formaldehyde,
And reinvented the art of spin painting?”

“The works that Rachel Whiteread casts,”
He said, “shine more radiantly now;
Hers is the honour today – mine is far less.

I wouldn’t have been so generous to her,
I must admit, while I was still down on earth,
That would have been career suicide –

You don’t rise to pre-eminence in the art world
By promoting your competitors. But for such
Arrogance the price is paid here – I’ve swapped

My spin paintings for this spinning drum I carry.
I wouldn’t even be here, were it not that,
While I still had the means, I set up a charity,

Strummerville, to help young musicians,
After the death of Joe Strummer in 2002.
How up themselves people are in the art world,

It makes me sick, and how short a time fame lasts,
Unless some generation of fuckwits follows!
Once Emin held centre stage in the

Media; Perry now is all the rage,
Dimming the lustre of the other’s fame.
So, in the book world, one Gilbert Adair

Takes pre-eminence from the other,
One Smith wins the prizes while the other
Goes out of fashion; and already making a splash

At the book fairs is a young gun who’ll drive
All of these writers out of the limelight.
Commercial success is just a gust of wind,

It blows about, now here now there, and as
It changes direction it changes name.
Were you to reach a ripe old age like Beckett,

Or die screaming in your crib like Chatterton,
Would it make any difference a thousand years from now?
And what are ten centuries to eternity?

Less than the blinking of an eye in the
Context of the geological
time span of the planet.

You see that soul ahead crawling along under
The weight of that giant twin-tub? All the
TV channels once resounded with his name,

Now it’s hardly whispered in London, where he
Was once Mayor, before his mad ambition
Made him turn Brexiteer – once so proud,

But, now, become as venal as a pimp.
Your earthly fame is like the green grass
On a fairway; it comes and goes, and the

Chemicals that make it grow from the soil
Are the same ones that make it wither and fade.”
And I to him: “Your words ring true, friend, they remind

Me of what Lyotard says about postmodernism,
And they make me wonder about my own ambitions, too,
But tell me, who’s the one you spoke about just now?”

“That’s Boris Johnson,” he replied, “and he is here
Because he treated Brexit and moving into number 10
like nothing more than his next career opportunities,

Without stopping for a moment to think. So puffed up with
Pride was he when he was elected into office that he
Dismissed the threat of Covid-19 with a swish of his hand,

And from that moment one calamity was quickly followed
By another: he locked down too late, failed to protect care homes,
Failed to supply PPE to the NHS, failed to introduce testing

Quickly enough for it to have any meaningful effect, failed to
Introduce an effective system of track and trace, and failed to
Dismiss his Chief Advisor when he broke lockdown rules,

Inaugurating a national free-for-all culminating in half a million
People descending on Bournemouth beach, which helped ensure
The UK had more deaths per capita than any other nation on earth.

So he crawls around and has crawled since his soul died,
Knowing no rest. Such coin is paid up here
By those who were up themselves down there.”

And I: “If it is true that any soul
Who has put off good deeds till the very end
Must wait down below before they can ascend,

Then how come he’s got up here so fast?”
“You may well ask,” he said, “not
Much good can be said of this man.

He’s a liar, an opportunist and a serial
Adulterer, he fucked us over with Brexit,
And messed up on Covid-19, as I’ve said,

And then he was the worst Foreign Secretary
In living memory: it was his careless words
That caused Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe

To be shut up in Tehran’s Evin Prison.
And when he had a chance to right the wrong
He had done in Iran, he said nothing.

His pride stopped him, for he is a man who
Can never admit he has made a mistake,
A sorry inheritance from his father.

And yet, in the fight against Covid-19,
Amidst his serial blunders, he did one good thing,
In backing then rolling out the vaccine.

It was this act that sped him here.”




In 2014 I published a version of Dante’s Inferno with Carcanet. Among other translations it was unusual, if not eccentric, in that it relocated the action of Dante’s poem to modern day Essex and Ireland. This may seem a strange approach at first sight, but it is one which enables Dante to become more readable, as his now forgotten contemporaries can be substituted for our own, and it is not without precedent in the history of translation. Back in the fourteenth century, in Dante’s time, as Matthew Reynolds notes in his study The Poetry of Translation, we find in the Wycliffe Bible that Solomon “translatide” Pharoah’s daughter from the city of David to the house he had prepared for her. One of the earliest recorded meanings of the word “translate”, then, is to shift places, and in shifting Dante’s action from Tuscany to Essex and Ireland, this version pays homage to this now forgotten sense of the word. The translation from the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries to the present, on the other hand, is inspired, at least in part, by the Oulipo (the French Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle, or Workshop of Potential Literature), specifically the method “up to date” which was first developed by Harry Mathews in his volume of poetry Trial Impressions, first published in 1977, where he updates and otherwise metamorphoses stanzas from John Dowland’s Second Booke of Ayres. Dowland’s poem, declaring undying fidelity in love, begins: “Deare, if you change, Ile never chuse againe,” which Mathews changes to: “If you break our breakfast date, I’ll go begging in Bangkok”.

When it came to translating Dante’s Purgatorio in the same way, things became more difficult. At once I realised that while it was relatively easy to find contemporary equivalents for the villains inhabiting the Inferno, the more positive emphasis of the Purgatorio, where Dante begins to imagine a better world, was more of a challenge – we live in a culture more at home with dystopias than utopias. Another challenge, as my version was set in Essex, was the inescapable fact that the island of Purgatory was a mountain, and Essex is flat. I resolved this by setting the action on Mersea Island – at least Essex has its islands – in a parallel world, where climate artists have constructed a mountain on Mersea out of Flexible Rock Substitute (FRS), and the island has metamorphosed into a kind of nature park, with a visitors’ centre and walks of varying difficulty. Canto XI from this work-in-progress, where we encounter the punishment of those who were proud, is presented below. In Dante, these figures labour under the weight of huge slabs of stone – here they carry washing machines on their backs, and Dante’s boastful Oderisi (famed for his illuminated manuscripts) is replaced by Damien Hirst and his spin paintings (he carries a Siemens “Avant-Garde”).



Philip Terry was born in Belfast, and is a poet and translator. His poetry and experimental translations include Oulipoems, Quennets, Dante’s Inferno, and Dictator, a version of the Epic of Gilgamesh in Globish. He is currently translating Ice Age signs from the caves at Lascaux. The Penguin Book of Oulipo, which he edited, was published in Penguin Modern Classics in 2020.


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