Achilles in Hell

He emerges from a fog of smoke

coughs a grouted smoker’s cough, repetitive,

a machine gun sound

that disgusted and excited him

when he was alive.


A cigarette hangs from his mouth

like an old-fashioned gangster

in a 1930s flick –

he’d like that look, I think

he always craved to be a movie star.


He flicks the tip on the ground,

where it joins a carpet of slag,

coalmine thick. I’ve never seen

so much ash – piles of black dust

that gathers in drifts, shifting, restless


and shapes into forms, dissolves, reforms

volatile stalactites – hints of lives extinguished

old, young, women, men, the famous,

the beautiful, the plain, the secret rulers,

the obscure, the ignored


all together, all alike, as he is –

his greatest fear accomplished –

his substance an illusion.

He moves toward us

the same jerky walk as in life –


not a gangster’s swagger –

and though he sneers, he is a shade

of himself, a ragged animation

of his quirks and tics – jabbing finger,

mocking lips, jutting chin, erratic eyes.


He is not alone –

in death as in life, he is surrounded

by sycophants, gophers, deadpan

men and silent painted women –

his mouth puckers, he wants to talk –


and words fall out like vomit

unhinged and disjointed, a parody

stream of consciousness whining

through him, gasping through him,

he speaks and speaks and speaks –


easily swallowing the air around him:

every word bloats him

and robs oxygen from the lungs

already tight and gasping

of his pale court.


‘I won, I am a winner, I hate the dead –

give me back my life, come on come on

you can give me 11,000 little lives

for my big one, 11,000 souls,

I’m worth that


at least – make me immortal,

save me, save me, die yourself!’

But his voice is a rasping drone.

Here, nothing saves him

nor the wraiths around him,


nor those beyond him, the others,

those he crushed or shrugged off;

here winning and losing

have no currency: it’s the end

of the deal, an eternal lockdown –


no reward, no punishment, no change, no glitter, no gold –

just a whisper in the drear

and silence.

Urge not my death to me, nor rub that wound,

I rather wish to live in earth a swain,

Or serve a swain for hire, that scarce can gain

Bread to sustain him, than, that life once gone,

Of all the dead sway the imperial throne

Homer, The Odyssey, Book 11, translated by George Chapman.

The first flight of English fantasy


a large bird approached and then

entered her room. It looked like a hawk

but unlike most birds it could talk.

The creature alit on the chamber floor

and folded its wings. Then, before

her eyes, it changed its form…

This poetic story is more than 800 years old, and a woman wrote it.

The poet known as ‘Marie of France’ lived and worked in late 12th century England.  We don’t know her real identity, only her first name. In one of her pieces, she tells us that that she is from France, but her main writing language was Anglo-Norman, a kind of franco-English dialect used by the educated people in England from a generation after the Norman Conquest until the 14th Century.  This suggests she came to England as a child. As well as Anglo-Norman, she knew Latin, Breton and the language that became Middle English.

She wrote a form called lais – a cycle of twelve narrative poems of courtly love, featuring powerful and passionate women, the men they loved and the men that persecuted them (usually horrible old husbands!).  She was also a translator. She adapted Aesop’s Fables from Middle English into Anglo-Norman, several texts from the Francian (the French spoken in France), and Latin texts. Because of her popularity at the court of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, and her intimate knowledge of it, she might have learnt Occitan as well,  the language of the troubadours and jongleurs who arrived in England with Eleanor.


Her stories are filled with fantasy and fantastical elements – instances of faery intervening in human affairs, strange coincidences, dark, Gothic passages.  She started a literary tradition in England of fantasy and gothic literature that continues to this day.

Yonec is one of her loveliest lais. In the passage below, a sad lady prays for deliverance and happiness, when a hawk flies in through her window:

Yonec, translated into modern English by David R. Slavitt

The poor girl’s eyelids, as she prayed,

were closed. But, then, at the moment she made the sign of the cross and said Amen,

a large bird approached and then

entered her room. It looked like a hawk

but unlike most birds it could talk.

The creature alit on the chamber floor

and folded its wings. Then, before

her eyes, it changed its form to that

of a noble knight — exactly what

she had been praying might appear.

She was stricken nonetheless with fear

and she covered her eyes. But into her ear

the creature spoke: “Be not afraid,

for I am the one for whom you prayed.

I mean you no harm. A hawk, as you know,

is a noble bird. I swear this is so,

and I also swear that my love for you

is as ardent and steadfast as it is true.

I have never loved another but I

could not come to you save by

your invitation. I heard your words

floating upon the air where birds

soar and swoop. And now I am here.”

Yonec – in the original Anglo-Norman language.

Quant ele ot fait sa pleinte issi,

l’umbre d’un grant oisel choisi

par mi une estreite fenestre.

Ele ne set que ceo puet estre.

En la chambre volant entra.

Giez ot es piez, ostur sembla ;

de cinc mues fu u de sis.

Il s’est devant la dame asis.

Quant il i ot un poi esté

e ele l’ot bien esguardé,

chevaliers bels e genz devint.

La dame a merveille le tint ;

li sans li remue e fremi,

grant poür ot, sun chief covri.

Mult fu curteis li chevaliers,

il l’en araisuna primiers.

’Dame’, fet il, ’n’aiez poür,

gentil oisel a en ostur,

se li segrei vus sunt oscur,

Guardez que seiez a seür,

si faites de mei vostre ami !

Pur ceo’, fet il, ’vinc jeo ici.

Jeo vus ai lungement amee

e en mun quer mult desiree ;

unkes femme fors vus n’amai

ne ja mes altre n’amerai.

Mes ne poeie a vus venir

ne fors de mun païs eissir,

se vus ne m’eüssiez requis.

Or puis bien estre vostre amis ! ’