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The Punishment of Flatterers by Gustave Dore, illustrating Dante's The Divine Comedy

The Punishment of Flatterers by Gustave Dore, illustrating Dante’s The Divine Comedy

The sign read Chez Blandissement: The House of Flattery,
in smaller print, By Consignment. Serious offers only.
A bell choir version of “Honey, Honey” announced me
to a somber man in black. I have some—he cut in: Outgoing
or incoming?—Pardon me?—Flattery to others or coming
in?—Oh. Coming in.—He sighed. Why am I not surprised?
He donned silk gloves. Place them over there with the rest.

In assessing my goods, his eyes and hands did not rest.
Allurements, oxgoads, speciosities—if these were outgoing,
you’d earn a fair penny. Whoa! He paused. Now I am surprised.
He held up, “You’re no dummy.” You don’t seem the type, only…
Only what? He flung the damned-with-faint-praise aside. Flattery,
he said, is an ancient artform. If I’d known you were coming—
he rummaged through drawers. Now where’d they go, dear me!

Ah, well, I’ll gather new ones. Afflatus was the divine outgoing
wind of the gods, from which we have inherited both flattery
and flatulence. He smiled, arranging his gloved fingers to rest
on his belly. I’d heard rumours that afflatus might be coming
into vogue again, charmers of otherworldly mien returning, only
you seem so . . . uncharming. Why, may I ask, did you come to me?
I googled. You’re the only flattery shop. Why are you surprised?

He brushed off my retort to say, flatterers, these days, are coming
to a precipice. They serve only themselves—what’s in it for me?
They manage, on the surface, to appear relaxed and outgoing,
while underneath they quake with terror. You might be surprised
at how many of your Fortune 500’s, film stars and all the rest
reached their lofty pinnacles of wealth and celebrity only
because they were fleeing the delicious absorption of flattery.

He peered deep into my eyes. So have you come here only
to offload all the kind things people have said that surprised
you? Or is it that you know they’re true and you condemn flattery
as a way to condemn yourself? Our inner judge will never rest
in his efforts to disqualify our beauty, wit, intelligence. A sad me
feels at home in a sad society, while the joyful and outgoing
risk rejection to stay focused on the more joy that’s coming.

I had simply wanted more inner space, so I was surprised
that getting rid of old compliments would create such unrest.
People I’d thought were friends were falling away; coming
in their place a serenity that every day surrounded me
with kaleidoscopic delights. Why aren’t we all outgoing?
I watched good people recoil from the simplest flattery
and then topple like dead trees into obvious traps, only…

The merchant of Chez Blandissement handed me
a few coins. That’s all? He shrugged. The incoming,
like I said, there’s no market. You want to hear only
good things about yourself, expect depreciation. Flattery
is like soft cheese. It doesn’t keep. Don’t be surprised,
though, if more and more fine things come to rest
at your door, now you’ve more room for the outgoing.

That night I rested like a baby and was surprised
coming to work by an outgoing message copied to me:
Only light travelers make the best uses of flattery.

“House of Flattery” is a septime, a contemporary form poem with one line more than the medieval six-line sestina. The seven end words are repeated, not in a spiraling fashion, as with its predecessor, but a fixed order that appears random. The three-line envoi, or “setting forth”, repeats the end words 1-7 from the first stanza, in reverse, 7-1.

© Elaine Stirling, 2013