Dick Allen’s poem “The Road to Hell” appears in our Winter 2010-11 issue edited by Terrance Hayes. It opens:
For a long time, walking it,
we sang Woodie Guthrie songs,
This land is your land, this land is my land,
and got along
Here, Allen discusses the contemporary Hell he thought about while writing this poem:
At one time or another, I think most of us have walked the road to Hell. On this particular walk, I was thinking of the Iraq War. That’s probably why there’s American imagery, with a song by Woody Guthrie and an eagle breaking west.
Trying to do right by someone else, whether the person desires your aid or not, is a lonely business. There are warning signs, but if you’re on the road to Hell, you’ll likely ignore them. In the poem, I found (sometimes led by rhyme into these discoveries) that preparations for going to Hell were totally inadequate (Spam, brie), even trivial; others were adequate, like proper shoes. As the poem walked me along that road, I think the pictures in my mind were those horrific pictures of the bombing of Baghdad (a “kind of red halo”).
All of us walking into Hell are too often smug and self-satisfied, feeling like those proverbial birds: grinning from ear to ear (do birds grin?), knowing best, even while Hell is about to engulf us.
At the end, there’s a real difference between “good” and “well.”
Anyway, I often hope for a narrative poem to be literal and vivid in what it describes, but also hope what it describes might become symbolic, evoking both universals (may the poem apply to any and all of our own individual misguided walks to Hell as we try, with paved good intentions, to help others) and particulars (this particular war).
And now, as I write this, we’re still in Afghanistan—another quagmire, another Hell.
Photo by Lawrence Russ