Review: Seth Steinzor’s In Dante’s Wake

This review is a request and a tough one for me. Steinzor sent me three full length books written as a modern parallel to Dante’s Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. Steinzor’s respective books are called, To Join the Lost, In Dante’s Wake, Book 1, Among the Lost, In Dante’s Wake, Book 2, and (as yet unavailable on Amazon) Once was Lost, In Dante’s Wake, Book 3. I’m at a disadvantage because it’s been years since I’ve read Dante and am forced to admit that I intensely disliked Christianity as a child and rejected the religion in my early teens. I saw it as having no relevance to me or my life as a child. The worship of the bible struck me as a bizarre obsession among adults. Why this book as opposed to any other? Why believe these nonsensical fantasies as opposed to any other? When I was assigned Dante’s Trilogy in high school and college it felt (and still does) feel like the work of an alien worldview with which I have no connection. I wish that I could read it in the original. I’ve read that Dante’s poetry has a beauty that’s similar to Shakespeare’s but unfortunately (to my knowledge) no translation has ever approached the genius of the original. All that said, Steinzor’s take has led me to order the Ciardi translation from Abebooks and have another go because it is, after all, a masterpiece of world literature.

But back to Steinzor and Dante. Here is how Ciardi’s Dante began the Inferno:

Midway in our life's journey, I went astray
   from the straight road and woke to find myself
   alone in a dark wood. How shall I say
 
what wood that was! I never saw so drear,
    so rank, so arduous a wilderness!
    Its very memory gives a shape to fear

Death could scarce be more bitter than that place!
    Bust since it came to good, I will recount
    all that I found revealed there by God's grace.
 
How I came to it I cannot rightly say,
    so drugged and loose with sleep had I become
    when I first wandered there from the True Way.

 But at the far end of that valley of evil
    whose maze had sapped many very heart with fear!
    I found myself before a little hill

 and lifted up my eyes. Its shoulders glowed
    already with the sweet rays of that planet
    whose virtue leads men straight on every road,

 and the shining strengthened me against the fright
    whose agony had wracked the lake of my heart
    through all the terrors of that piteous night.

Translated John Ciardi 


And here is Seth Steinzor:

Midway through my life’s journey, I found myself
 lost in a dark place, a tangle of hanging
 vines or cables or branches – so dark! – festooning
 larger solid looming walls or
 trunks or rocks or rubble, and strange shapes
 moving through the mist, silent or
 howling, scuffling through the uneven dirt or
 dropping from the blotchy sky like
 thicker clouds, so close sometimes I ducked in
 fright so that they never quite touched me.
 
Someone I had trusted had led me there.
 Perhaps it was persons, I could not remember,
 only how their words and gestures, once so
 sensible and clear, gradually grew
 obscure, how their features, once so individual
 and expressive – this lifted tuft of
 eyebrow, that kindly smile, that belly laugh –
 smoothed to nothing in the murk,
 and how at last they turned away, gibbering,
 gone. Without them was no path
 
that I could see. A bit ahead to the right the
 curtain seemed lighter, its patterns more
 distinct and loosely entwined and permeable,
 so I stepped over that way, stumbling
 on the occasional root or protuberance,
 until I splashed ankle deep
 into a pool of sucking mud that spread
 among the blackened boles and mounds its
 unforgiving mirror far as could be
 seen, and I could go no farther.

That might give you some flavor of Steinzor’s modern rendition: somewhat of a retelling, borrowing imagery (and some of the same Angels and demons) along with landscapes, tone and some of his punishments (all updated with more contemporary sinners and Saints). Steinzor also, like Dante, names names, some well known and some less so. Dante didn’t hesitate to exact revenge, even condemning (as far as I know) still living contemporaries with whom he was enemies. Filippo Argenti being an example. A contemporary with whom Dante clashed politically and in personal matters. Argenti reportedly even slapped Dante at one point. Dante, in revenge, had Argenti dismembered and torn to pieces in the river Styx. Steinzor, mentions Reagan indirectly twice while in Hell, but Reagan himself appears in Book 2 (Steinzor’s Purgatorio) in the “memorial cube” where Reagan, along with other Presidents, suffer disfigurements (amputated body parts) befitting their sins as leaders.

To give the reader some sense of how Steinzor continues to “retell” Dante’s original, consider one of Dante’s most famous passages from the inferno, the punishment of Francesca de Rimini (for which, frankly, I wouldn’t mind knowing which circle of hell the priggish Dante suffers in).

I came to place stripped bare of every light
     and roaring on the naked dark like seas
     wracked by a war of winds. Their hellish flight 

of storm and counterstorm through time forgone,
     sweeps the souls of the damned before its charge.
     Whirling and battering it drives them on,

 and when they pass the ruined gap of Hell 
     through which we had come, their shrieks begin new.
     There they blaspheme the power of God eternal.

 And this, I learn, was the never-ending flight
     of those who sinned in the flesh, the carnal and lusty
     who betrayed reason to their appetite.

And here is Steinzor:

We followed,
 barely able to pick our way through the
 
deepening dusk, uncertain always of seeing
 what our eyes were looking at.
 At last, ahead in a band of almost blackness,
 I thought I saw red lights like coals
 scattered from an upset barbecue.
 Then they seemed to gutter, and a
 sound of gusty winds – but no: they twinkled,
 as if birds or was that moths,
 huge moths fluttered at them. The lights were moving.
 Rags of breeze brought the odor of
 
 unwashed crotches. Then I saw what they were:
 a horde of naked men and women
 whose genitals glowed so you might read by them.
 They shuffled uneasily around
 each other, avoiding contact. Despite the blazing
 wands and clefts and globes they carried,
 their bodies – that is, their limbs and torsos and heads –
 were strangely unilluminated,
 merging chameleon-like with the rubbish and rocks
 of their crepuscular habitat.

These two are, ostensibly, the same Canto and circle of Hell—both detailing the punishment of those who gave way to lust and their carnal appetite. Steinzor makes reference to the “gusty winds”, acknowledging Dante’s inspiration, then entirely alters the scene presumably because the carnal sin being punished is entirely different than that of Dante’s Francesca de Rimini (with whom I sympathize). The condemned sinner in Steinzor’s retelling is the man who molested Steinzor’s narrator when the narrator was a youth. Steinzor’s punishment, compared to Dante’s, is positively sedate. Whereas Francesca and her lover are battered with the rage of opposing gales that violently smash the erstwhile lovers against each other like knots of bone and flesh, touching but never able to embrace, comfort or express their love, Steinzor’s carnal sinners walk in the dark with genitals seared to a glowing and untouchable coal. There’s some poetic justice in that, for sure, but nothing like the violent rage of Dante’s indignation—nothing that would inspire Tchaikovsky musical vision of the hellish wins bruising and brutalizing the former lovers.

In fact, Steinzor’s Hell does, to me, lack the sheer physical cruelty, suffering and limb-rending torment of Dante’s Hell (Steinzor’s slicing and dicing demons read like something out of fantasy novels) . Dante’s imagined Hell no doubt arises from what was generally the short, and sometimes brutal, lives of 13th and 14th century Europeans. Violence was everywhere and on display. There was no squeamishness about crime and punishment for example. Criminals were strung up, left to die, and left to rot in full view of the public’s comings and goings — children and all. While it’s easy to overstate the suffering in Dante’s day, people did have fun after all, and ate and made merry, I’m certain that many of the punishments—the howls of agony, the torture and dismemberment—were either witnessed first hand or familiar to Dante. In Elizabethan times, the dismembered arms and legs of traitors to the crown were nailed, for all to see, along the shore of the Thames. Some of Shakespeare’s descriptions, of wounds, blood and their effects on the wounded, are so accurate that scholars speculate he must have either seen the worst first hand or through first hand report. I don’t get the same sense from Steinzor. The relatively civilized 20th/21st century has put him at somewhat of a disadvantage in that respect. I don’t get the same feel for human pain and suffering, reading his Hell, as I do when reading Dante. Steinzor feels a bit more secondhand and idealized (if that’s the right word).

And that brings me to Steinzor’s poetry. I agreed to review the books on the basis of their verse form:

This is metrical poetry, in a form I invented for the project. As described at my web site, the work “consists of 100 cantos, spread over three books, written in polyrhythmic, unrhymed, ten line stanzas. Each stanza consists of alternating lines of five and four stresses: 5-4-5-4-5-4-5-4-5-4. In the third book, Once Was Lost, each line begins with a stressed syllable, an added regularity that somehow seemed appropriate to that book’s more elevated status.”

In other words, Steinzor has written an accentual meter (as opposed to a syllabic or accentual-syllabic meter like iambic pentameter). I was interested to see if it worked. At first I tried to read the lines while being conscious of the accented syllables and their count. That didn’t go very well:

Midway through my life’s journey, I found myself
 lost in a dark place, a tangle of hanging
 vines or cables or branches – so dark! – festooning

I counted 6 accented syllables in the first, 5 in the second and, 6 in the third. Two things: First, counting stress in a line isn’t a science, and so I’m not going to assert that my count is right and Steinzor’s is wrong; second, I generally write accentual-syllabic verse and so what I read as accented might be flavored by that. The problem, though, is that unlike accentual-syllabic verse, which provides a regular pattern which the poet can exploit, accentual meter doesn’t. There is a “pattern”, quote-unquote, but it’s not regular. It’s “polyrhythmic”. We know that there are supposed to be five accented syllables in the line but, in my case, I have to go back and sort out which syllables Steinzor isn’t hearing as accented. In the first line that’s probably “life’s“, in the next “dark” and in the third “so“.

But reading three books worth of stanzas like this is exhausting.

So I quit trying. A reader will no doubt assert that the effect works at a subconscious level. Possibly. Being subconscious though, I’m not remotely aware of it—nothing like when reading accentual syllabic verse. (Also, there’s little to no evidence that the subconscious mind actually exists but we won’t go there.) As a guiding principle for Steinzor, accentual verse does provide a kind of structure to work within, but if the average reader is anything like me, they will soon stop trying to read his stanzas as verse but as prose and, functionally, that’s what it is and what I did. To illustrate, Steinzor quotes Wendell Berry at the start of his third book:

Sometimes too I could see that love 
is a great room with a lot
 of doors, where we are invited 
to knock and come in. Though 
it contains all the world, the sun, 
moon, and stars, it is so small
 as to be also in our hearts. It is in the hearts 
of those who choose to come in. 
Some do not come in. Some may stay out 
forever. Some come in together 

and leave separately. Some come in 
and stay, until they die, and after. 
I was in it a long time with Nathan.
I am still in it with him. 
And what about Virgil? Once, we too 
went in and were together in 
that room. And now in my tenderness of remembering 
it all again, I think I am 
still there with him too. I am there
with all the others, most of them gone 

but some who are still here, who gave me love 
and called forth love from me. When 
I number them over, I am surprised by how many 
there are.

The quote, as written by Berry and quoted by Steinzor, is actually prose. To show just how easily any prose can be lineated as syllabic or accentual verse, I lineated Wendell’s prose using Steinzor’s 5,4 pattern; and as with Steinzor’s verse, some may disagree with the number of accented syllables in each line, but that’s the nature of the “meter”. Does this lineation turn Wendell’s prose into poetry? In truth, some metrists don’t consider syllabic or accentual meters as true “meters”. And as with arguments over the dividing line between free verse and prose: Here there be Rabbit Holes. (The debate can be both informative and frustrating.) Things get a little more interesting in Steinzor’s third book, his retelling of Paradiso, in which he begins each line with a stressed syllable, but the effect is more nominal than structural. It’s easy to alter Berry’s prose, without changing a word (and given the normal latitude as to what is and isn’t accented) so that it fits the new constraint:

Sometimes too I could see that love 
is a great room with a lot of
 doors, where we are invited to
knock and come in. Though 
it contains all the world, the sun, 
moon, and stars, it is so small as to be
 also in our hearts. It is in the hearts of
those who choose to come in. 
Some do not come in. Some may stay
out forever. Some come in (etc.)

All this is to say that I never got the sense, reading passages from Steinzor’s books, that I was actually reading “verse” or “poetry”. There was never a moment when I felt as though “language [was being] used for its aesthetic qualities in addition to, or instead of, its notional and semantic content”. This, for me, is the dividing line between poetry and prose. Other readers disagree and, as the expression has it, your mileage may vary. And as a stylistic matter, I did find Steinzor’s style to be a little too curated at times—a little precious. The purpose, I suspect, was to introduce a certain formal and elevated grandeur to the narrator’s voice, but it too often comes off as mannered and self-conscious.

On a more positive note, I found his writing to be evocative. I especially enjoyed the synesthesia in some of his imagery and appreciated his attentiveness to the five senses—touch, taste, smell, sound and sight—a necessary skill set if one is going to be describing Hell and Heaven.

Do Steinzor’s books make compelling reading? The downside to retelling a masterpiece is that, well, you’re always going to be compared to the masterpiece. Like Dante’s Comedy, there’s really no overarching narrative or dramatic arc beyond the journey through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven. As Steinzor himself comments, the progress is episodic. We move from one tableau to the next and what happens in one canto is mostly forgotten in the next. Unlike Dante’s original, whose sheer force of originality, insight into the human condition and linguistic beauty create a sum in excess of its parts, Steinzor’s effort, by definition, is derivative and his verse falls well short of Dante’s linguistic genius. That leaves Steinzor’s insight into the human condition as the primary reason to read him (insofar as he offers something Dante doesn’t).

In that regard, Steinzor’s Comedy could be read as semi-autobiographical or as a kind of memoir; and, like Dante’s Comedy, as a critique of 20th/21st century figures, culture and politics through the lens of a medieval theology (that has been more or less relegated to history books). As to be expected, given my opening paragraph, I had a mixed reaction. I often felt as though the far greater moral and ethical complexities humanity has realized since the 14th century were being shoehorned into the moral edifice of a rigid and absolutist medieval one. Steinzor’s narrative felt, to me, more like a contrivance, a vehicle into which he could stamp his autobiography and/or life experiences (akin to the vehicle of his accentual verse) rather than as a unique and organic vision of the Comedy.

Is that an unfair standard? Would it be possible to write another Comedy without its feeling derivative? Is being derivative a bad thing; and isn’t its being derivative the point? Is Steinzor’s Comedy also a commentary on Dante’s vision of the universe? It isn’t; and that may be the real missed opportunity. Steinzor doesn’t question Dante’s theology but accepts its strictures and applies it to our own culture and dilemmas. That makes it a retread of medieval Catholic theology in modern dress.

All that said, the writing remains strong enough, honest enough, vivid and humorous enough to recommend to those interested in a modern writer’s tour of a medieval poet’s Hell.

And that’s that for today.

upinVermont | February 18th 2021

2 responses

  1. Interesting. Christianity presented the same obstacles to me as it did to you—mainly the nonsensical fantasies you allude to. It worked on the surface as a few mantras—“Jesus is Lord” and so forth—but when actually reading the Bible in depth I always felt a certain intellectual resistance. Or maybe this was just an artifact of my individual learning style. I never could get into Greek myth, science fiction, or even Walt Disney for the same reason. Yet I witnessed the same Biblical phantasms motivate classmates much smarter than me to learn Greek and Latin while double majoring in religion and chemistry, one of whom became a nationally recognized oncologist. As I got older, via Gibbon, I began to suspect Christianity of being an ideological hook calculated to soften up and eventually take down the Roman Empire, a view whose later bedfellows include both Alfred Rosenberg and Dietrich Eckart. However, I never became a professing atheist, perhaps owing to the evolutionary consolations religious feeling provides. See, for example, Dr. Robert Sapolsky’s lecture at the top of this link.

    Like

    • The world’s great literature (Dante’s Divine Comedy after all), art and music (thinking of Bach especially) owes a debt to Christianity (and in spite of Christianity in many cases). The West’s history of written music probably wouldn’t exist without Christianity, but I find the religion itself, and the text on which it’s based, does nothing for me (apart from the few sublime utterances of Jesus). I had this argument when I was in High School and profoundly offended (I think) my English teacher. He argued, for instance, that the tale of Adam of Eve was one of the world’s great works of literature. I argued that the only reason it’s considered that is less for the story itself but because of the truly great art, like Milton’s Paradise Lost, which it inspired. Take any stock story, burnish it with 2000+ years of religious idolatry, and the same thing will happen.

      Anyway, I’m not an Atheist though I am an Abrahamic Atheist.

      And worth mentioning, I didn’t realize until after I’d written the review, that Steinzor is an “agnostic-Jewish-Buddhist-American”. It’s hard to know how that influenced what he wrote. His Hell struck me as mostly an updated Dante. That said, I also should have mentioned some of the humor that Steinzor brings to his version of Hell, such as in the last circle of Hell where, instead of Satan, he finds this:

      A plaque by the door said , “You are within a cylinder
      taller than St. Peter’s dome by
      nineteen yards.” Looking up it, vertigo
      almost made me swoon. I dropped my
      gaze. It fell upon a souvenir stand,
      not much larger than the carts that

      surround the Mall in Washington, parked by the wall
      to our right. “Something For Everybody”
      proclaimed its awning. Its shelves were piled with lanyards,
      dolls and oven mitts woven from coarse, dark
      “Satan’s hair fiber 100%” (I swiped one).
      You could have your name embroidered
      with it on a bill cap, t-shirt, sweatshirt,
      hoodie, scarf, or priestly vestment.
      Nobody tended the stall. The only echoes
      were our own. “We’d better hurry

      before Security comes,” said Dante, walking
      towards the center, where there was nothing,
      no trapped Lucifer long as an aircraft carrier’s
      flight deck, just a hole in the floor
      emitting the faintest whiff of sulphur, and also
      a hint of the sweetness of new-mown hay.

      But typical of my reading habits, I was really more interested in how he handled the verse.

      I’m not sure what the “sweetness of new-mown hay” reference is, unless it’s a sly reference to this.

      Like

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