A Harrowing

The fire gave no light. It belched and sputtered as the clouds moulted their thick, black plumage and day let fall a veil of glass-jagged ashes and dust.

So veiled and feathered were the bodies wanting to escape and stay still, stay and sleep, stay and sleep in a state beyond the below, where the peaks were too low and the valleys brushed the snake-scaled ceiling of the sky.

Hooks hung for the tongues that the False Witnesses wore, twitching in a great cloud of  unneeded answers to unneeded questions about unneeded law that burned on the lips of the cowardly, the gullible. Their curious despair had left them adrift amid the sickly waves of a heat that cried.

Mystified, the flim-flam men lost their last fugazi to a pack of televangelists whose golden smiles stretched out for miles and swallowed all the seed faith in their way.

Wanting to stay, a Don Juan type waited ten minutes for his absent lover. Ten minutes more. Just ten minutes more. He stared and stared at the door while Avarice shuffled on the ground where the scraps (his scraps!) could not be found.

The Traitors shivered on the ice, quaking from cold and fright, because Dante was right and their fate was a frigid furnace.

The Narcissists nearly stopped talking when they saw a Man a-walking. A strange tree, strapped to his back, was scraping the liquid floor.

The Violent were jealous of his scars, which shone like Silver Stars; they truly seemed more real because they had had substance before. This Man had seen true war.

The Gluttons saw his skinny frame, joked and laughed, pitied His name. He wasn’t hungry? They were. They were. Yessir. They were.

His voice was never very loud. This really did disturb the Proud. How long did he expect to stay if they couldn’t hear what he had to say? There were other speakers on the list.

When He whispered ‘Freedom’ (as he often did) some followed, more hid. It was too warm. It was too bright. They’d stick with the fire they knew (thank you); the fire that gave no light.


In terms of both style and content, this piece is a bit different from other poems I’ve posted recently, so I thought I should include these notes to provide some context.

The Harrowing of Hell is a very old, and quite controversial, idea within the Christian tradition. ‘The Harrowing’ describes Christ’s post-crucifixion descent into hell (sometimes referred to as ‘storming the gates’ defended by Hades and Lucifer) to rescue the souls trapped there. Until relatively recently, I was not aware of this story. It doesn’t feature in very many Protestant traditions (at least, not the ones I am familiar with). The very idea that the Son of God experienced hell is rejected outright by some denominations and embraced in others. Furthermore, because it describes the rescue of souls from hell, The Harrowing raises questions about the nature of the afterlife and possible states between the absolutes of heaven and hell (purgatory, limbo etc.)

Stories about the Harrowing typically feature Christ rescuing the righteous who lived before his ministry and taking them to Heaven with him. This made me think; who was presented with this opportunity? Some people? Everyone? Did anyone refuse to leave? Was the offer a one-time thing? All  of these questions (and more) were on my mind as I spent time writing this poem.

Like every contested idea ever those on the affirmative side seem to have just as much argumentative ammunition as those on the negative. Like most of my other quasitheological content, this poem is a work of (hopefully) creative speculation more than anything else.

For those of you who find this debate interesting and/or have found my description wanting, I have included some links below. Some of these articles affirm the idea, some refute it, and others simply provide context.

In terms of stylistic influences, both Allen Ginsberg’s Howl  and Flann O’Brien’s novel The Third Policeman were in the back of my mind as I wrote.











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