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Once Was Lost

June 1, 2021

Once Was Lost, by Seth Steinzor, is book three of In Dante’s Wake, his poetic retelling of Dante Alighieri’s Commedia. I previously reviewed his retelling of L’Inferno, To Join the Lost, and his retelling of Il Purgatorio, Among the Lost.

Once Was Lost begins and ends with descriptions evocative of a seaside holiday, the smell and taste of fried clams, and that’s enough to establish it as paradise for me and other beach lovers. Each canto contributes to building a picture of paradise and describes those who have worked towards it in their lifetimes on earth, many of them already dead, like Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, but some still living, like Greta Thunberg. Steinzor’s poem is a critique of 20th and 21st century people and politics viewed through the lens of medieval theology, which is a narrow although often illuminating fit.

For example, when Freud describes what he did in life, saying “I spun a/web of polymorphous perversity,/psychosexual development, Oedipus complex,/ego, id, and superego,” the reply he gets is that “we did pretty well for critters / bred to elude the tigers long enough / to eat a banana and raise a child.”

We meet famous people but also ones who tell us things like “don’t be abashed by those two lusters/you just met: you might meet almost anyone/here, among the bulbs that flickered” or even “that’s the problem with these tours, they focus/too much on the famous folks” before describing a few we’ve never heard of, but who, we are told, stood up to injustice or defended their neighbors.

Even lesser-known people like poets–who when famous are often known only to other poets–have a place in paradise. Dante, the guide, asks “who said poets are unacknowledged/legislators?” and compares himself to Vaclav Havel.

But of course, as in all three of Dante’s books and in Steinzor’s first two books of this series, much of the enjoyment is in spotting the famous people who have made it to his version of paradise:
“Please say hello to Muhammad Ali,
Bill Russell, John Carlos, Tommie
Smith, Karim Abdul Jabbar, and
Colin Kaepernick. Their brave insistence on
decent treatment for humans, as such,
elevated every person a tiny
baby step closer to heaven.”

Amid the mentions of famous names are some lovely and thoughtful lines of verse, turning things we think we already know this way and that to see what might be reflected through them under the light of heaven:
“That is
not Ms Thunberg. It’s the dreamer’s image
of her. What, you wonder, will or
did she do to merit veneration?
She was a child, and will be a child.
In her childish truthfulness, she’ll shame the
leaders of nations to their faces
for their dereliction of the primal
human duty to care for children.
Shaking with passion, she’ll proclaim to them a
child’s need, a child’s right, to
feel and know that it’s safe and will be protected.
On them, like a tongue of flame, will
play her anger at their pursuit of money and
fantasies of endless growth while
what’s in store are drought, flood, and pestilence.
Did she scorch them into shame?
She’ll be loved for asserting the claims of love.”

Some of the best lines are about the law, which is no surprise from a poet who has worked as a civil rights attorney, criminal prosecutor, and welfare attorney. “Law,” the guide Dante says

“may outgrow the/laws, but only if infused with love,
otherwise remaining forever a
sad and arid trap in which humanity
catches merely itself, and is caged.”

This paradise is not a frozen, perfect state. The guide tells them that “this is not a heaven/where no sin, nor the memory of it, is/granted admittance. Nothing is unmixed,/here like anywhere.”

There’s a really interesting apology for St. Paul, found here in paradise explaining that he’s been misunderstood: “they/state a standard for relations/that, had all who’ve heard it truly listened,/might have saved a world of pain.” The next two lines are particularly interesting in a poem sorting out the sheep from the goats: “people cling to words but forget what’s in them,/eat the wrappers and leave the chocolates.” Personally, I’m not so willing to consider that what have always struck me as deeply misogynistic words might be chocolates, rather than wrappers. But our guide continually urges us to keep an open mind, and that’s reassuring to those who fear they might eventually be classified as goats.

Like all mortals, the poet displays prejudices that we’d hope would be nonexistent in heaven, like blaming the south (“where they dip their pickles in mayonnaise and/eat boiled peanuts”) for the rise of the 45th president (“I’m-So-Famous-I-Can/Grab-A-Random-Woman-By-The-Pussy”) and claiming that “the women/there will mostly give him a pass on that, it’s/just the kind of thing their guys say.” Rather than inviting readers into the circle of those who want to get to paradise, lines like that exclude those of us who don’t live “in the Northeast” part of the United States.

However, because this imitation is based on medieval theology, readers are not invited to think for themselves but brought down a path defined for them by the poet. We are shown that under late-stage capitalism, our bosses “want someone who will work for cheap,/ask for nothing, live invisibly,/quit when body and mind are all worn out,/go home quietly, and die.” And there is only “one thing they’re afraid of:/workers uniting for each other./If you want democracy, join a union./Solidarity forever!”

Too much time thinking about the parts you might not agree with will dampen the fun of this long poem. You might miss the part where “Franklin leaps from his wheelchair and wingfoots a jig to/Eleanor’s stylings on the harmonica” or a recipe for reaching paradise:
“being true to oneself while holding true to
friendship, that is a great challenge.
When we rise to it, we are half the way to
heaven; when we both love and forgive
others for doing the same, we have arrived.”

Or even the end of a canto saved from despair by humor, like this one:
“’What about lawmakers in it only
for themselves, who use the law as a club to
get what they want? Where do corrupt,
brutal police fit in?’ I ask. ‘Two-headed
toads are born, but that don’t stop the
evolution of toads. Well, maybe.’ Thus speaketh
Bunky, Angel of the Lord.”

The titles of the cantos are interesting and sometimes amusing all by themselves. Two of my favorites are “Canto IV: Sometimes Like a Particle, Sometimes Like a Wave” and “Canto XXXIII: It’s Like, You Know, Indescribable.”

This is a worthy end to Steinzor’s series and an admirable imitation and adaptation of Dante’s original themes for contemporary readers.

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