Dante’s nostrils flare from a rotting scent
that seeps the path, every step a trudge
through cloaking heat torn by staccato flares
thunder haunting the maze of rocks
that clutch his clothes and skin.
His sweat seems as heavy tears
wept at the thought of Beatrice.
The next turn yields a loathsome sight,
a dead and bloated horse
trapping its rider’s leg
the victim dressed in battle gear,
starred epaulets of a British general.
“Pilgrim, I am Benedict Arnold.
Can you free me from this anchor?”
Dante steps back, repelled.
“Shot down at Saratoga!”
Dante senses the breath of irony.
“Shot down by troops whose side
you’d later join.”
The General’s face flames.
“I fought and won!
And did you fight the White Guelphs’
foe in Florence!
No, you danced the fringes
your weapons mere voice and pen!”
Dante feels his face grow flush.
“You wrong me, Sir!
I fought in the battle of Campaldino!
“I loved Florence and did not turn on her!
Nor slay those whose colors I had worn!
Nor run up debts and hatch financial schemes!
Arnold leans back and stares, as if
beseeching the aid of a vulture.
“I had grounds! They passed me over
for promotion! Congress spurned
my war expenses! And then court-martial!”
He points his finger like a sword.
“Show me your wounds!
Banished from Florence forever!
Reduced to roam your country alone
to dream of your beloved Beatrice.
At least I married Becky
knew her love in the flesh
not in my head like some sonnet!”
Dante recoils as if struck by a British ball.
He lifts his head to the roiling sky,
as if he could fly like the circling vultures.
“Blank pages yield up battles of their own,”
he answers. “And ink can flow like blood
from wounded hearts!”
“And wounded pride!” shouts Arnold.
“Why place your mentor in hell!
Brunetto Latini, who harbored and taught
you, inspired you, loved you!
I smell the rot of jealousy!”
Dante’s legs weaken and he leans
against a rock with fingers
that seem to prick his spine.
“I will answer the call of love.”
“Don’t leave!” shouts Arnold.
“What news of Gloucester Place?”
“Please speak of the River Severn!”
Dante walks toward the far horizon
roseate flashes through black
as if his fate mocks with winks.
Benedict Arnold was an American Revolutionary War general best known for his defection from the Continental Army to the British side of the conflict in 1780.