ISSN 1556-4975

OffCourse Literary Journal

Published by Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998


"Introduction to Purgatory" by Sarah White


Introduction to Purgatory


Dore's Purgatory

Dore's Illustration for Dante's Purgatory

mountain in the middle of an ocean,

poem in the middle of a poem,
revealed to me a lifetime ago
by a man too famous or too shy
to look his student in the eye.

I want to meet him somewhere
on the mountain
in recovery from Pride or Envy,
but that won’t happen.

He’ll never be forgiven
for what he did one afternoon
as a widower alone
on his Maryland farm—

took his tractor from the barn,
drove it out beyond the rows
of precious Tuscan vines
into the deepest water of a pond.



The Loneliness of Purgatory

            not for the penitent soul—
it’s the island itself

afloat in the Southern Sea
with no neighbors—
no Mallorca, Minorca,
Lesbos, Lemnos,
no spent volcanoes
or boulders cast off
by a friable coast.

Beyond the Gates of Gibraltar
lies nothing but ocean
and this one mountain
with so much to bear—

heavy remorse, forgiveness
in sudden convulsions.
Only the sight of another body
could lighten its burdens.




The Heaviest Part of the Story

One friend of mine
used to let his sandy curls
fall along his face 
in the manner of an adolescent girl.
Who cares if he was vain
about his hair?
                        In time
he’ll come to Purgatory,
Terrace One,
and plod around the mountain,
shouldering a stone.
                        Each living soul
is proud of  something—a farm,
a library, a loom, a prize.
On the mountain,
it is weighed
to determine the size
of the load.
                        But why
burden my friend at all
when subtle medicines
have changed
the fair young man with curls
into an aging man with none?




The Opposite of Sin is Another Sin


Say, Didi of Connecticut, are              you                  on the Mountain? It’s me,

your former roommate            from Chatham Hall.        I remember how good you

were—all saintly                ambition. I’m the one you            wanted to recruit in your

quest to lose                the Ego and reduce the Self to zero,         though I wondered

what an Ego          would do after God set it loose. One day, you      threw me a dark

look: “Sarah,    you and I had planned to find true Humility at the same        time but 

you have        not. How come?”  That day, I gave up the pursuit of Virtue.       Now I’m

                  with the Slothful on the Fourth Terrace. Where the Hell are you?




 Blessed are the Lustful

As a First Responder spends
a minute in the sweet
air to rest, smoke a cigarette,
or speak with a journalist, then
rushes back, joins his friends
and climbs a smoke-filled stair
into harm’s way because
harm is what counts, just so,

on the last terrace, a Soul
steps from the flame, speaks a poem
to his Visitor, excuses himself, turns
away, and chooses another hour, day,
or century of fire because the more
he burns the sooner he’ll be saved.




News from the Pilgrim

He says he went through Hell,
came out the other side and saw
the stars again.
He scaled a mountain, rose
through the spheres so far
he was blinded for a while
by love, sun, and other stars.
Some finale!
                        My light
comes mostly from the moon.
I’ve seen the slim moon fatten
and the white moon redden.
I’ve seen the old moon climb
into the new moon’s arms
                        but now
I think about stars all the time.



Sarah White's recent book, Alice Ages and Ages (Blaze Vox, 2010) was reviewed in Offcourse #44 by Ricardo Nirenberg. She is also author of a poetry collection, Cleopatra Haunts the Hudson (Spuyten Duyvil, 2007), a chapbook, Mrs. Bliss and the Paper Spouses (Pudding House, 2007), and a lyric essay, The Poem Has Reasons: A Story of Far Love (online at She lives, writes, and paints in Manhattan. See her poems in Offcourse #44, "You mean you are allowed to do that?", "The Devastation of the Indies", in #45 "Nabokov Writes His Wife From Coker College" in #46, Victoria de los Angeles in Issue #48 and Paris Notebook in #50.

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