Two Poems by Michelle Penn


Retablo for Galileo, measuring Dante’s Hell

exactly where the dark wood led to the first circle then through lust, gluttony
avarice, heresy, each ring of sin, all the way to the frozen floor

Hell the shape of a giant funnel, its diameter the radius of the Earth, even the height
of its dome calculated, the thickness needed to keep it from crushing the damned

then the relative height of Satan, over a thousand metres but what is that really, except
a space and a body within it — air enters you, your body is air, like a ghost, like mourning
and why not measure the walking distance of anger or the sound of faith stagnating in sun

you could conjugate Hell instead, infinitive, present, past, and future, maybe add
a few prepositions: beneath, below, under but never through

from the melted ice cube, a river — air enters you, the strange equation of breath
temperature of nap or nightmare, the bridge between mirror and nothing, apologies
squeezed on the head of a pin, a single opening that seems so narrow

Retablo for a parabola

In theory, science can build a perfect fire: exactly
enough oxygen to burn exactly all of the available fuel.

A perfect fire doesn’t blaze crimson or scorch orange.
It’s transparent. So hot, it’s colourless.

After the fire burns its fuel (wood or books or maybe
anger) there might be — hypothetically — no sign
that something ever existed or burned. No ash
or soot — a nothingness with nothing to reclaim. In this

symmetry of air and substance to be consumed, this nearly
impossible congruence, a single misdeed might stoke
a single clean flame —

Could that translate to an undoing?

If we were finely measured fuel instead of turbulent dirt
would our fire be so clear, we’d think we were under water
swimming in the oxygen that annihilates us? Maybe
every history would burn, its flame a parabola, which I think

means side-by-side, although I don’t really remember
geometry and I was more naïve then.

About the Author

Michelle Penn’s pamphlet, Self-portrait as a diviner, failing, won the 2018 Paper Swans Prize. Her book-length poem, Paper Crusade, is forthcoming in 2022 (Arachne Press). Recent poetry has appeared in Queen Mob’s Teahouse, PN Review, Tentacular, The Amsterdam Quarterly, The Rialto and The Interpreter’s House. New work is forthcoming in The London Magazine, Bad Lilies and Stand. Michelle plans innovative poetry/art/music events in London as part of Corrupted Poetry.

Post Image

Gustave Doré, Lucifer, King of Hell, c. 1861 (detail)

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