To Join The Lost
To Join The Lost, by Seth Steinzor, is a retelling of the Inferno section of Dante’s The Divine Comedy. Except instead of Virgil as a guide, Steinzor gets Dante himself. And who is Steinzor? He “has worked for the State of Vermont since 1985 as a civil rights investigator and lawyer, criminal prosecutor, and in social services.” In other words, someone well-equipped to consider human crime and eternal punishment. That was one of the main reasons I decided I couldn’t pass up the offer of getting a copy of this book and joining the TLC blog tour.
The poem is more than a modernization of Dante’s. Steinzor says in his Afterword that the only way he could see to explain what he loves about Dante’s poem is to rewrite it “as if it had happened to me; not as a translation or as an adaptation, but as my own experience.” He also notes that his own references to contemporary political figures may not be as easy to decipher as Dante’s, and asserts that “some obscurity is unavoidable, if only because knowledge has become so atomized that two people, both thoroughly educated, may have very few points of reference in common.” I found him a bit less willing to name names. Yes, he does name a few American politicians, taking the risk of alienating some of his potential audience. But he takes no risk in naming Hitler in hell, although he puts him across Charon’s boat from “Strom Thurmond” who “sat/face to face with Idi Amin” and specifies that his “nose was buried in the groin of/Rabbi Meir Kahane.”
The poem is quite readable, though, and suitably liberal with descriptive detail, although perhaps a little less prurient in its focus on the suitability of each punishment to each crime than was Dante’s original. I love the way it brings a modern reader into the picture:
“…this is not what I,
or Gustave Dore, for that matter, pictured
from your book,” I called to him.
‘Yes, that puzzles you,’ he disappointingly
replied. ‘Consider the relation
between a word and all it represents.
And watch your step.’ As we approached,
our pace disjointed by hummocks of refuse—shell casings,
wrappers from military rations…”
I found myself fascinated by such descriptive lists, leading me further on into the poem.
It appealed to me especially by beginning the tour of hell with “the miserable many…who lived for neither good nor ill.” As I was trying to say in my review of The Help, this is the sin I find modern people most prone to, and certainly the one I live in the most fear of committing.
I also like the way Steinzor keeps the images creepy by periodically relating them to other images, like Gore, or “Henry Moore and photos of Auschwitz./So we use art to distance ourselves.” Somehow, that observation brings me back to the original horror of the image, as do other, more off-hand details, like a radio from which “seeped the music/that glazes shopping malls at Christmas,” especially since that season seems to have extended itself back to Halloween; I am writing this on November 6 at a table in a Barnes and Noble bookstore in Columbus, Ohio, fresh from a walk through a store that was playing Christmas music. Another of the off-hand details: “there is food in hell,/as any dumpster diver knows.”
Steinzor’s experience in the criminal justice system shows itself in the exactitude and almost the sympathy of the descriptions of some of the denizens of hell, like the rapist:
“all he sees is his own ugliness
pinned beneath him. He sees no person there,
only his own repulsive shadow.
And think: what is the means he is driven to use
to violate and exert power
over this mirage? The force that connects, that
binds one body to another
beyond words, that fuses them in a third.
He seeks rebirth, to make himself whole.”
Although much of the power of this poem is timeless, drawing me in with lines like “until my attention was led astray by that law/by which the mind deprived of distractions/creates its own,” some of the baby boomer history and description featured in the poem brings me back out of the world of the poem, an outsider standing with my hands on my hips, tapping one foot impatiently:
“’When I was small, in school, we kneeled in the hall,’
I answered, ‘our foreheads touching the cold,
metal lockers. We waited quietly.
I could hear the other children
breathing and the teachers’ shoes squeaking
behind me in the hallway, a long time.
At last, the buzzer told us we could raise
our heads, go back to class, it really
was a drill. No bombs, today. They called it
civil defense, not child abuse.”
But then a clever part–like this one–will come along and invite me back into the poem:
“…lately we’re swamped with
what I call the Devotees of Metonymy,
those who took their part of mankind
(love that word!) for the whole.”
Because most of the description is either clever or evocative, the few points where it misses seem to fall very wide. Saying that “my tongue had clapped my teeth” seems almost like a transliteration error, and claiming that “If you know what/color to wear, the rainbow collapses” is nonsensical, even in context (it’s followed by “If you/fear what they tell you to fear, the knife will/find you from the darkest corner”).
This poet, however, never lets you off the hook. Only a reader “unhampered by the pain of empathy” will fail to be moved by some parts of this ambitious work. Although I don’t think it takes much bravery to locate Hitler in hell, I have to admire the description of him in this one:
“…Thousands of tiny,
human forms composed his mass,
an assemblage of rococo subtlety
and power, limbs and torsos wrestling,
clenching, leaning, bending, stretching, grasping.
A muscle in his jaw twitched:
committees leaped. He waved his arm: armies
marched. Backs impossibly bent to
hitch his belt. His stomach rumbled: they wept. He
shrugged his shoulders: hundreds slumped with
The ultimate expected image, that of Satan himself, is brilliantly described and seems wickedly accurate, complete with tourist-shuttling lines and a historical museum-like preparatory movie which announces that
“…the Prince of
Darkness, Father of Lies, Beelzebub,
Lucifer, Sheitan/former first
among the angels/today is preserved where he fell
in this magnificent structure that pierces
the sky/from the center of his kingdom/modeled
upon the humble agricultural/
and military storage facilities/that
dot America’s heartland…”
The gift shop on the way out is a crowning touch, with its “dolls and oven mitts woven from coarse, dark/’Satan’s hair fiber 100%.’”
If you’ve read Dante’s Inferno, this is a wonderfully funny and perceptive updating. It does succeed at giving me more of the feeling that Dante’s topical references for his own time do not, despite footnotes—the feeling that if I don’t watch my step, this is where someone like me could end up. Even though as a modern secular American, I don’t actually believe in hell. (Do you?)