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Among the Lost

January 30, 2017

poeticbuttonAmong the Lost, by Seth Steinzor, is a timely reminder of what we must struggle with on earth if we ever want to get a glimpse of paradise. Not ostensibly religious, it is a re-imagining of Dante’s Purgatorio for the modern era, a follow-up to his modern version of the Inferno (To Join the Lost), although you don’t have to have read the first in order to enjoy this second volume. (I got my copy of Among the Lost from the author, who wanted my response to it after reading my response to his first volume.)

Because it is told from a very personal point of view, the details may not seem to invite a female reader or anyone under the age of fifty in, at first, but the universality of the struggle to move past each of the seven deadly sins is inescapable. We are recognized and are each complicit:
“You, who scrape the tops off mountains for coal,
who fill the valleys with garbage, who scrape the
meadows level for parking, who fill the marshes with
concrete and pylons, who build and tear down,
who level the high places and raise the low…”

Our struggles to do better are the point of this journey. The viewpoint is from outside, where we can recognize ourselves, as in the description of rush hour:
“A man is annoyed by this big-assed pickup truck
he can’t see over or around
and all the other things that block his view.
A man is anxious he’ll be late.
And another. And a woman. And a
string of them, anxious; anxiety tinged with
anger or nibbled by fear or just barely controlled or
writhing like a restless sleeper
in the pit of this man’s stomach. He punches his
radio’s scan button every time it
settles on a station. There’s a trucker
pondering where she’ll be at lunch time.
And, boxed in behind the eighteen wheeler, a
ton and a half of SUV to his
left (the driver’s wondering did he leave the
stove turned on) and two blue tons of
SUV to his right (the driver’s regretting
what she did with her hair) and a hungover
twenty-year-old in a bread truck close behind…”

The poem gives us images of our world from outside of it, like a “pro-life” protestor:
“’Honey,’ she says, ‘Please don’t kill your baby.’
What she thinks she is feeling, she would
like to label ‘love,’ this mixture of stage fright,
sentimental fantasy (the
infant pink and mild), and iron compulsion to
bear her witness into the world.”

References to the current affairs of yesterday–scandals ranging from hurricane Katrina to the welfare fraud of the woman who accused Michael Jackson of being a pedophile–are listed, and in an attempt to remind us of how inured we have become to such evils, the guide comments:
“Where I live, to witness violent death
stops us where we stand, startled.”

In some of the cantos, the “deadly sin” that we struggle with is explicit, as in Canto XI: “We’re Talking Proud!” which describes a school that has a
“…signboard,
a white rectangle like a movie marquee.
Its block letters spell ‘WELCOME
TO ROMAN HRUSKA ELEMENTARY SCHOOL
EXEL ENCE IS NUMBER 1”
The irony of this image, with its comment on the public school system, is almost unbearable in the wake of the nomination of Betsy DeVos for US Secretary of Education.

In the section on overcoming wrath, a former union worker, a black man, recalls
“I kept my head down, did my job as good
as I could do it, never, never
let them pathetic cracker bastards rile me
to where they could see it. Bought myself
a damn fine case of hypertension!”

The section on how to battle avarice seems oddly prescient, given the current state of the nation:
“They make government their bitch and plaything,
and claim it’s for the common good.
They keep to themselves what the poor most need, and when
from lacking the means to soften their lives
the poor are toughened, stunted, and deformed
they damn the poor for being so damaged.”

Working through gluttony, however, is just about the same in any age:
“I watch the people
feeding appetites that have nothing to
do with food. Comfort? Mmmm. Safety?
Stretch your belly. Spirituality?
Chew, chew, chew.
Nourishment?
Fuggedaboutit. They’ve forgotten
what food is and where it comes from and why
their maws can’t get no satisfaction…”

The cumulative effect of the volume is to wake readers to the nightmares we’ve been helping to create in our country by ignorance and inaction, the nightmares that many of us have finally been forced to confront in the wake of the last presidential election:
“How hard can it
be to care for one another? Your rich
begrudge the poor their mite. Your poor
begrudge each other. The ones in the middle fear
the ones below them, bend the knee to the
moneyed, and keep an eye on their neighbors. The space a
dollar takes is more than you would
spare the creatures around you. You’re free with this:
you shit your nest and everywhere else. You
stomp around the world with an anxious smile and a
big knife, taking whatever you
want, and whoever gets in your way had better
look to god for help…”

Like the characters in Little Women read and think about Pilgrim’s Progress, today’s Americans could stand to read and consider this volume, reminding themselves at each stop, each “deadly sin,” of how far we have let things slide in this country, and how much work we’re going to have to do to be able to catch up, much less offer a new version of the “city upon a hill.

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11 Comments leave one →
  1. January 30, 2017 10:36 am

    Sounds really interesting! Must have been quite an undertaking to re-imagine something like that!

    • January 30, 2017 12:14 pm

      Yes, and it’s ongoing; I’m pretty sure he’s working on a version of the Paradiso. Although as with everything else about our shared vision for American political life, there may be a delay while we have to struggle with some of the issues in these first two books. I really hope we can come out of it with a shared vision again.

  2. January 30, 2017 6:46 pm

    Oof, yeah, the idea of a “city on a hill” is seeming like a very faraway vision right now, doesn’t it?

  3. January 31, 2017 2:29 pm

    Thanks so much for being on the blog tour

  4. January 31, 2017 2:31 pm

    Thank you so much for this wonderful review.

    • January 31, 2017 3:28 pm

      Glad you like it. I think you know by now that I’m going to say whatever I really think of a book, no matter who sends it to me (so I’m increasingly picky about who can send me books). I’m looking forward to a third in this series, however hard it may be to write about what paradise could look like in the next few years.

  5. January 31, 2017 4:01 pm

    Ooh, this sounds fantastic! I might have to figure out a way to fit this into my poetry reading plans for the year!

    • January 31, 2017 4:05 pm

      I think you would find the fitting-in of it worthwhile.

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