The Underworld

The Underworld

Facilis descensus Averno.
(Descending into Hell is easy.)


I. The Trip

It isn’t difficult to visit Hell,
As long as you can follow the instructions.
Get on the Underground, the Western Line.
Go to the final car. Sit by yourself
In the last row. Don’t talk to anyone.
Don’t exit when you reach the outmost station.
Don’t move—not even when the lights go off.

II. The Fare

When the conductor comes to hand out tickets,
There’s a small charge. No money changes hands,
But you must offer something of your own—
Your book, your fountain pen, a lock of hair,
Your smile, perhaps the memory of your mother.
He’ll always notice something that he needs.
Each trade is final. There are no returns.

III. The Passengers

There will be other passengers onboard.
Don’t talk to them. They know much less than you.
There’s nothing notable about the damned,
Except how commonplace they seem—a clerk,
An engineer, a carpenter, a thief.
And frankly, they aren’t interested in you.
Sit quietly. Remember why you’ve come.

IV. The Passengers’ Perspective

The damned, however, likely disagree.
Perdition is a matter of perspective.
What makes them notable may not be visible.
Damnation is an essence not an outfit.
“Why this is hell nor am I out of it,”
The instruments of pain become internal—
Barbed memory, the lash of consciousness.

V. Their Secrets

Still, how can you resist surveying them—
The doctor dressed for golf, the blue-eyed girl
Who strokes the tiny scars along her arm,
The man with twenty fingers on his hand,
Or the tall bishop with his mouth sewn shut?
They sit like oracles bereft of utterance.
Theirs are the secrets Hell exists to hide.

VI. Baggage

Look at the baggage everyone has brought—
Suitcases, backpacks, elegant valises
(The hand-tooled leather fragrant with adventure),
Jewelry boxes, satchels stuffed with cash,
Briefcases, laptops, thermoses, and urns—
So many needful things, so soon forgot.
Their heaviest burdens are invisible.

VII. Your Luggage

How do you pack for an eternity?
Lightly, of course. No more than you can carry
Eternally. No wonder many choose
To wander naked. You don’t plan to stay,
Or bring back anything, except yourself.
Dress comfortably. Carry nothing on you,
Except a pouch of seven silver coins.

VIII. Two Rules

Assuming you still reckon to return,
Observe these rules. Don’t eat. Don’t fall asleep.
Taste anything in Hell—a piece of bread,
A sip of wine, a single pumpkin seed—
And you invite the darkness into you.
Sleep, and the memories of life will fade.
You wake a dry husk turning in the wind.

IX. Questions

The travelers who ventured here before,
The living ones, who crossed into the shadows
To violate this place, could not resist
From questioning the dead. They hoped to learn
Forbidden things and yet remain untouched.
There are some truths that only darkness knows.
Such knowledge never comes without a price.

X. Concerning the Legends

But who can touch a web without it sticking?
The deeper they explored, the more entangled.
The truths that darkness taught infected them,
Clouding their minds, goading their descent.
A few returned, the legendary heroes.
But most remained, not searching now but lost,
No different from the shadows they had questioned.

XI. Those “Legendary Heroes”

. . . will not include you. You abjure heroics.
No epic journey, just a private trip
Without ambition for reward or glory.
You cross the border between worlds to bring
Belated gifts to your uneasy dead.
No winged divinity spoke in your dreams.
Nothing compels you but your riven heart.

XII. The Question

The question should be asked—why have you come?
Why willingly depart the rain, the stars,
The gold abundance of the morning sky,
The dusty ripeness of the apple bough?
The question should be asked—but no one speaks.
The train jogs forward through the dark. You learn
No one will stop you on the journey down.

XIII. The View

Tunnels at first, then at long intervals
More subway platforms—dim and dirty stations
No longer used, it seems, by anyone
Except the dead. More passengers get on.
But no one leaves. The doors close with a hiss.
The train car shudders as it gathers speed—
Going nowhere but going very fast.

XIV. Into the Underworld

The train emerges to lowland plain
Bordered by mountains on either side.
Behind each range another range arises,
Higher and curving inward like a dome—
A space at once enormous and confined,
Not dark but dim and shadowed like the twilight,
A landscape without sky, an underworld.

XV. Composure

How calm you are. With such urbane composure
You notice that the woman next to you
Has turned to stone. Strange, but she now seems more
Beautiful in her alabaster skin,
So delicately weathered by the years.
No sudden Gorgon-gaze arrested her.
She drew this slow perfection from within.

XVI. Approaching the City

A trembling passes through the crowded car
As the dark city rises in the distance.
Even the damned are anxious to arrive.
They fumble with their baggage nervously.
Surely some revelation is at hand.
This world can’t be as indecipherable
As the last. Hell at least must offer order.

XVII. Disappointments

No fire, no furies, no ferryman,
No bleeding thorns, no waters of oblivion,
No triple-headed dog to guard the gate,
No gate at all as far as you can tell,
No burning wheel, no stones to push uphill,
No Titans bound in chains, no serpent king.
No sun, no moon, no stars, no sky, no end.