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Poetry review: To Join the Lost



Dante’s Divine Comedy — that poetic tour of Hell, Purgatory and Paradise written in the 14th century — never seems to get old. The latest proof is the new video game by Electronic Arts, Dante’s Inferno.As in the poem, the game’s Dante character and his guide, Virgil, travel down through the nine circles of Hell, hearing sinners’ stories and witnessing their horrifying punishments. But — this being a video game — Dante is armored like a Greek warrior and can choose to absolve the shades or slash them to bits.

If that raises your literary hackles, you’ll appreciate another, rather different, Dante-inspired release: the book-length poem To Join the Lost, by Seth Steinzor of South Burlington. This achingly personal, contemporary version of the Inferno is both truer to its prototype and more daring.

Preserving Dante’s structure of 34 cantos, Steinzor’s unrhymed but rhythmical poem is spoken by a poet named Seth. (It takes some guts to invite comparisons between the Tuscan bard’s poetic voice and one’s own.) Like Dante’s character-self, the middle-aged Seth finds himself lost in a murky, obstructed landscape at the poem’s opening. All is despair until out of the gloom steps Dante — the Florentine poet, that is — who, 700 years after penning his own tour of Hell, has become a guide.

Some updating is immediately apparent. Seth is no late-medieval Christian but a “Twentieth Century secular Jewish Buddhist” — a fact that augurs some interesting discussions of religion in this entirely Christian-imagined underworld. Dante, for his part, sports a red fleece ski hat and an “itchy looking undergarment” beneath his Franciscan robe. (Images of Vermont flavor Steinzor’s poem, just as Dante infused his with details from his native Florence.) Together, the two poets head through the gates of hell — uncapitalized in today’s secular world — to that place “where all is lost.”

There is rich narrative potential here: Think of all the souls who have been added to hell’s population since Dante’s time, or how the City of Woe’s architecture may have changed over the centuries. Consider the insights another living visitor might add to Dante’s 14th-century observations, which were often hampered in the poem by fainting spells. Steinzor indulges in these opportunities with the finesse — and humor — of someone who has read the classic closely and lovingly.

The gates, for example, have taken a beating: Only the first three lines of the famous nine-line inscription over the lintel remain. (Steinzor leaves them in the original Italian, as if Seth were encountering an artifact.) Nietzsche, it seems, knocked down the rest when he barged through.

James Joyce makes an early, droll appearance as one of the virtuous pagans once confined to Limbo. (Denizens of Limbo have been released by the modern era’s lack of religious belief. They now roam about and hold literary soirées.) Realizing Seth is breathing, Joyce is prompted to reveal how he regards his academic fans: “May you [Dante] be luckier in your followers / than I have been in mine, a bunch of idolatrous / stylesnatching gaseous vacant ismists!”

Other reconfigurations are less humorous. Charon has become unequal to the task of ferrying souls below, “there being too many bound for hell from your sweet century,” as Dante explains to Seth. These days the “scuffling throng” streams down a tunnel like commuters who, with “eyes downcast, sink as smoothly as if they were riding / an escalator.” Minos no longer reigns over the sorting process, flinging souls to their appropriate punishments; now a kind of corporate office does the job. (See sidebar.) The river Styx is now practically an ocean, which Dante summons Gandhi to part, Moses-like. The walls of water on either side of their path hold a “cataract of names” — “Mao, Mussolini, Tojo, / Pol Pot” and so on — that causes an “appalled” Dante to comment, “There once were shallows in this place where lesser / evils soaked their feet.”

Much of the poem, in fact, is a commentary on our modern era’s disproportionate tide of evil. Suicide bombers stagnate in pools like mangroves “pickling their roots.” The oversized heads of Karl Rove, Dick Cheney and George W. Bush form a totem pole down which Seth and his guide clamber to reach “hell’s lowest foundation.” That puts the trio a mere step away from Hitler.

But, as in Dante’s poem, many other sinners Seth encounters are figures from his personal past, like the man who molested him in a public showerhouse at a state park beach. Canto XXII introduces readers to an unnamed resident of Warringham, Vt., who skimmed profits from a dummy corporation he started ostensibly to care for mentally disabled children. Seth was his prosecutor. (Steinzor has worked for the last 25 years for the state of Vermont as a lawyer and criminal prosecutor, among other positions.)

Ultimately, Steinzor’s poem is not merely a rewriting of Inferno — the kind of exercise given to undergraduates in which they’re asked to consider who would populate Dante’s hell today. It’s both a paean to Dante’s unendingly enthralling vision and — given Seth’s visceral, even hotheaded emotional reactions to each shade — a personal meditation on humans’ transgressions against one another.

And, while Steinzor recapitulates many of Dante’s unforgettable images — murky, boiling pools from which faces and fists eternally erupt; lines of sinners plodding backward, their heads rotated to face over their buttocks — his poetry enhances the journey with succinct, striking language. A lot of sensory ground is covered, for example, in the single verse pair, “We rose from fetor to the fresh stinks of a / hardpan beach in clotted darkness.”

How Steinzor portrays the end point of Seth’s tour — Satan’s lair — is a feat of imaginative wit readers will have to discover for themselves. One can only look forward to To Join the Lost’s companion volumes, promised on the back cover, in which Dante will lead Seth through Purgatory and — phew! — Paradise.