Cleopatra

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Dante descends the seventh circle
guided only by flames from fissures
and staccato flashes of lightning
slinging down its coat of thunder
trailing tattered remnants of echoes.

He feels the heat of a brighter fire
and turns to view a specter
carved in the side of a hill:
a depression of molten rocks
shaped in the form of figs
engulfed by tongues of flame
writhing up in the form of asps.

Dante gapes and pities the soul
trapped there for eternity.
“I am Cleopatra,” says a voice
from within the fire.
“I beg you pour from that vessel.”
Dante sees a rusted chalice
braves its odor, steps up and pours
the brew into the caldron.
“Why must you suffer such a bitter drink?” he asks.
“In life I waged a playful bet with my lover.”
Dante pauses. “Marc Antony?”

At the sound of the name the asps
flame high and twist together.
“I bet him I could spend ten million
sesterces on dinner,” she says.
Dante rears back from the rank flames.
“How could you invest that sum in such a way?”
The asps seem to fix him in their stares.
“That night he mocked
my lack of style at table
but then I took a priceless earring
crafted of the finest pearl
crushed it in a chalice of vinegar
let it dissolve and drank the mix.
And thus I won the bet. I always win.”

Dante gazes at the asps which seem
to fix him in their range of strike.
He knows of love and longing, begrudges
the life of this Egyptian queen
how she loved both Ceasar and Antony
yet his love of Beatrice Portinari went unrequited.
The pain of memory forces him from the subject
and he falls prey to curiosity.
“I know you’re here because you took your life.
But why did you slay your sister, Arsinoe?”

The asps rise high from the rocks.
“To seal my ascension to the throne,” she says.
The cauldron overflows molten tendrils
which slither toward Dante.
“At least I loved in the flesh!” she says
“You played from afar in your head!
That’s living hell in life!”

He recoils as if struck by the asps.
The memory of Beatrice overwhelms him
how he’d watched her walking with friends
then knew he would love her forever
yet his parents had betrothed him to another at 12.
For years he’d lived for brief talks with Beatrice
and dreamed his fantasies along the Arno River.

Now he feels his face burn
and not from the snaking flames.
He backs away only to fall
then rises, turns and leaves this place
        trailing
                the reek
                        of truth.

Cleopatra was the last pharaoh of ancient Egypt. She lived around the turn of the first millennium, and although an Egyptian by birth, she was of Greek descent. She is most remembered in history for her relationships with the Roman statesman Julius Caeser and the Roman general Mark Antony.

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