Lake Effect, Spring 2011, Volume 15: Beautiful Hell

David Kirby


Beautiful Hell

             Fat babies climb toward the mother of God
                        in this fresco on the wall of Santa Maria della
Scala, the hospital in Siena founded in 832 as

            a place where the orphaned children of the plague dead
                        could go for milk, clothing, education, a place
in the world, for taking care of your poor is not

            merely good morals but good government, thought
                        the Sienese, who knew that boys left to grow up
on the street become violent criminals and girls

            prostitutes, though none of this means a thing
                        to the fatties in the fresco, their chubby bottoms
quivering with glee the closer they get to

            the Virgin’s outstretched arms. If only it were
                        that easy. Our own mommies die, and our dads,
too: if only we could find the ladder

            that leads from our world to theirs. What 
                        do we know of death other than what Ross
says as he describes Macbeth’s dark deeds

            to Macduff, “Your castle is surprised;
                        your wife and babes savagely slaughter'd,”
and Macduff can’t believe it. “My children too?”

            he asks, and Ross says “Wife, children, servants,
                        all,” and Macduff says, “My wife kill'd too?”
and Ross says, “I have said,” but Macduff still

            can’t believe it and says yet again, “All my pretty ones?
                        Did you say all?” But this time Ross is silent.
If we’re lucky, we’ll see them go, our pretty ones;

            we’ll listen as they tell the story of the time we all went
                        on that picnic, then see them fall asleep,
their heads on our arms as though dreaming. In wartime Florence,

            local fascists storm the synagogue and scar
                        the door to the Ark with their bayonets and then,
when they can’t get in, go off to get drunk,

            though when the more efficient Germans
                        arrive, they round up the old folks first thing
and send them away to die, and the Piazza della

            Repubblica, the people’s square, becomes the holding
                        pen for the remaining Jews who are prodded up
loading ramps and onto trucks that begin their journey

            to Auschwitz, Belsen-Bergen, Therezienstadt.
                        And you’re thinking, Wait, this isn’t right,
it shouldn’t be this way, and then you think,

             I can fix this, because how are you going
                        to look at it except as a film run backwards,
the unseen atoms turning to smoke which disappears

            down chimneys and hardens to bone clothed
                        with flesh, then suits, dresses, hats, gloves, the trains
rolling backward to Florence, Siena, Prato,

            the passengers backing down their streets,
                        up their stairs, unpacking their suitcases, sitting
in the chairs they expect to sit in forever with a glass

            of vin santo, a cup of tea before the pounding
                        on the door, the snarling of the dogs, the cries
of men no better than animals themselves, their voices

            howling words you’d think no one could say
                        except in nightmares they’d awake
from shaking with horror, yet here they are, mouthing

            the unutterable to your husband or wife, your family,
                        as though they were telling a shopkeeper
to bring some salt, a jar of oil, a loaf of bread,

            and be quick about it, time is money, you know,
                        we don’t have much time. How will you
see death except as the pictures that haven’t been painted yet,

            the movies that haven’t been made? In the Sienese
                        fresco, the babies are going back down the ladder
followed by their moms and dads, good women

            and men with whole flesh, smooth skin, putting one
                        foot down, then another, finding a place
to spread a cloth, to make, not a heaven in this beautiful hell

            of an earth but a place so like heaven that you can’t tell
                        the difference—look, someone is saying,
here is a cup of milk for you, some bread, some jam, a peach.