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To Join The Lost

November 7, 2011

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
relief…”

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?)

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20 Comments leave one →
  1. November 7, 2011 7:53 am

    What a well written review of this epic rendition. I really enjoyed the parts where you discussed the gift shop…I thought that was clever as well. I liked the description of Satan and agree that there is no bravery in including Hitler — we’d all expect him there.

    • November 8, 2011 11:31 am

      I didn’t mention the thing I liked most about the preparatory movie and the gift shop after, which was the absence of the actual feature in between! So beautifully done.

  2. November 7, 2011 10:03 am

    Hmm. I’m not sure “believe in” is the right construct for me in terms of weighing the existence of hell (or heaven, or God, for that matter).

    What I know for sure is that we all have at least one life, the one we’re aware of rightnow. What I know for sure is that when I am at my noblest, most generous, and most creatively open to life’s possibilities, I feel like I am part of what Tracy Chapman sings about in “Heaven’s Here on Earth.” When I’m hard-hearted, small-minded, and given to a mentality and behavior that are motivated by fear, shame, and/or scarcity, that feels like hell to me.

    My wife the Epixie priest says that when Jesus talked about heaven being close at hand, he wasn’t talking about some far off never never land, a place where all the good people go after they die. He was talking about what happens in the here and now when we feed people who are hungry, clothe people who are naked, free people who are captive, shelter people who are vulnerable, accompany people who are isolated, etc.

    In short, I guess what I believe in is life after BIRTH, and in life BEFORE death. There’s enough of heaven and hell in that to keep me occupied. When I find myself in hellish places, I like to remember Churchill’s famous quotation, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”

  3. November 7, 2011 10:41 am

    My feelings align closely with Joy’s. I don’t believe in a literal heaven or hell. I think both can be found right here in the present. I never read The Divine Comedy – missed that class in college. So….I can’t comment on any of the rest of it.

    • November 8, 2011 11:33 am

      So…no afterlife at all? I have trouble believing we just wink out and that’s it.

  4. November 7, 2011 10:52 am

    I vaguely remember reading the original Dante poem. I remember far better reading the Niven and Pournelle novel based on the poem and of course I read (and continue to reread) The Great Divorce. Even Iain Banks has written a book not exactly about Hell in the Christian sense but hell as a construct of those races who seem to need it.

    In the bell curve of your readers, I’m sure I’m the lonely outlier because I do believe in Heaven and in Hell. I may have a different take than some evangelical Christians. I believe Hell is the complete separation of a human from the presence of God. That’s true damnation. And in my belief system, that fate is far worse than anything written by Dante, Niven/Pournelle, Lewis or Banks.

    • November 8, 2011 11:35 am

      Speaking of The Great Divorce (C.S. Lewis), it was The Screwtape Letters that first made me consider the idea of a literal hell. The whole “father of lies” thing started to make sense.

  5. November 7, 2011 6:37 pm

    Jeanne, thank you so much for your well-written, lovely review. It is a slightly odd sensation, reading quotations from one’s work – sort of like seeing one’s child in a school play. There it is, toddling off into the world…

    • November 8, 2011 11:36 am

      So glad you liked it. I do like to quote liberally, so people can make up their own minds, to some extent.

  6. November 7, 2011 7:50 pm

    Enjoyable excerpts. This review me think of a college friend who was studying to become an environmental lawyer in Vermont. I lost track of him, but he was exactly the kind of person I can imagine furrowing his brow and saying thoughtfully, “Okay–just let me get my toothbrush,” if Dante walked up to him and offered him a tour of hell. It also made me look up the word metonymy. Your good deeds for the day.

    • November 8, 2011 11:37 am

      If I have a favorite rhetorical trope, it’s metonymy.
      Perhaps hell, for some people, would be a place where you don’t have a toothbrush.

    • November 9, 2011 7:54 am

      Trapunto, if you read the book, please drop by my web site (where you also can order a copy) and let me know what you thought. Also let me know the name of your friend – the legal community in Vermont is small, and I might know him.

  7. November 8, 2011 3:33 pm

    Interesting question about whether folks believe in an afterlife. I like your point that the sin most people are prone to is doing nothing. Whether anyone believes in an afterlife, I think that’s what makes The Divine Comedy and To Join the Lost a particularly interesting discussion — IF there was a hell, who would be there? Both you and Serena mentioned that Hitler isn’t a surprise, but the conversation then becomes, who WOULD you be surprised to see in hell? And what would they be there for?

    Obviously I like this type of discussion! Glad you liked To Join the Lost. Thanks for being on the tour!

    • November 9, 2011 8:01 am

      There are some surprises–I didn’t expect Strom Thurmond, for example. As one of the previous reviewers on the tour said, some of this was done better by South Park, because at some level, the speculation is funny. This poem isn’t trying for that kind of perspective.

  8. November 9, 2011 7:49 am

    Joyhowie, freshhell, and edj3 – There’s a tradition that Dante maintained that his Comedy was literal truth, that is, he supposedly claimed that he actually, physically visited hell, purgatory, and heaven. Dante’s son denied that Dante believed any such thing, and a careful reader of the father’s books will side, I think, with the son. Whether or not one believes in a traditional conception of an afterlife, however, the moral dimensions of our human universe are undeniably real and impact our daily lives in innumerable ways. Hell, purgatory, and heaven exist on a level somewhere between mere metaphor and physical reality.

  9. November 9, 2011 7:07 pm

    Hm. I read Dante in college and absolutely hated him. Maybe this would make me feel fonder of him. (But probably not.) I do remember having a revelation a few years ago that the reason Dante was using Virgil as an escort is because — this seriously blew my mind so much, I can’t even describe it to you — he didn’t have Homer. It was before Homer came back to the West! So weird.

    I do not believe in hell. Because there was this one episode of Touched by an Angel that I happened to see as a kid, where a character goes to hell because he rejects God’s love or something, and it was the most terrifying thing I remember from my whole childhood. And either my parents told me hell wasn’t real, or I just decided I couldn’t believe in something so goddamn terrifying, but I never believed in hell after that. God, that episode was so scary.

    • November 9, 2011 7:35 pm

      Jenny, the best thing I could hope for my book is that it would open the door to Dante for someone. I don’t believe in hell, either – certainly not in the sense that Touched by an Angel was talking about! There are some great lines about hell by William Carlos Williams, in his poem Asphodel, That Greeny Flower: “I cannot say/that I have gone to hell/for your love/but often/found myself there/in your pursuit.” That’s more like it. But don’t let that dumb TV show color your view of Dante. He’s talking about hell the way that Williams talked about it. Dante’s belief in hell was rather more literal than Williams’, but he still saw it as a multi-dimensional human reality – not as a scary story to bludgeon kids into virtue with between commercials.

      • November 9, 2011 9:52 pm

        Although, Jenny, I do think you could enjoy some of the bludgeoning Dante does. His punishments really fit the crimes.

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