Dante descends to a swamp
that breathes its stink, the heat
made worse by three Hellish furies
stalking him in the trees that flank
this trackless realm
their blood-stained, naked forms
and moans unwelcome as the flying
stinging pests that welt his skin.
He longs for the guidance of Virgil
whose presence would lend solace
yet the Roman must be elsewhere.
Critiquing verse with Horace?
Then a scene so rank it stops him
a mound of human skulls
pyramid of the damned
encircled by embered rocks
which hiss and steam the blackened
stream that hosts them, the water
not water but blood.
“Pilgrim! You stop now!”
An Asian voice, casting out
from one skull among the many.
“Who are you!” Dante shouts.
“Pol Pot, Prime Minister of Kampuchea!”
Dante recoils from a vision:
killing fields, torture, a nation enslaved…
“Do not insult me!
Has Cambodia reverted for the better?”
That country has healed
from your wounds.”
“What would you know!
Whose only wounds have been pride.
Scorned by your city of birth!
Cast out to wander, wish
and write verse!
Cross over here…it’s only blood.
Lift me from this mound.
I schemed to right this place!”
Dante steps back.
“This place is hell enough.”
He turns from the heat and stench
walks away, mocked
Pol Pot became leader of Cambodia in 1975, when his forces captured Phnom Penh. He presided over a totalitarian dictatorship that forced urban dwellers to relocate to the countryside to work in collective farms and forced labor projects. Through executions, forced labor, malnutrition, and poor medical care, approximately 25 percent of the Cambodian population died during his four-year regime.