First, let me just say that this is the first poet whose modern take on a poet of the past has inspired me not only from beginning to end in this modern take of Dante’s Inferno but has also inspired me to seek out the original collection for reference and insight. Seth Steinzor’s To Join The Lost is a modern take on Dante Alighieri’s collection Dante’s Inferno. Seth Steinzor was born to a Jewish family in California in 1952 and has been writing poetry since his teen years. After studying at Middlebury college he then studied Law at the University of Maine School of Law and his knowledge of law comes into play in this collection in a most refreshing way. Steinzor’s version is modern, smart, at times humorous and at times grotesque in the best possible ways. With Dante as his guide to the underworld we journey through Hell and experience Hell alongside Steinzor and Dante. The poems themselves are long and while I cannot include them in their entirety I can certainly share sections of them with you and if I could, I’d urge you to read both versions in their entirety. They are illuminating, frightening, and inspiring.
Excerpt from Canto XIV:
They were so grimy they seemed to be clothed. Perhaps
that hid from me what was untoward.
“Who are these?” I asked. “Ssh! Listen and watch.”
At Dante’s words a bulky man
straightened his back and turned from the group, and my stomach
flipped when I saw what his shoulders carried
over to our feet. What do you see
when I say faceless? Maybe a smooth
ovoid, perhaps with a cute potato-ish bump where the
nose should be, and dimples for eyes, and a
lipless, toothless hole, of course, for a mouth.
Focus on that hole. Surround it with
bruised, swollen, pulped and ragged tissue.
Some of the blood is congealed, some runs.
It’s said that Serbs would beat their Bosnian captives
beyond individual recognition
until they were brokenly, broadly, barely human.
Like this. Words frothed from him. The voice
was like a wind among rocks. He spoke at length,
and when at last my comprehension
stumbled into action, my horror eroded
to astonishment to hear
the two of us berated for our “errors”
by this pitiful wreck, who offered
“correction” and with each correction raised
a quivering arm and smashed his fist
into what uncorrected had been his face,
exclaiming “nono!” with each punch.
Once, I had to step back to escape the spatter.
Of what he said, I remember little.
The blows with which he destroyed his person also
drove from my mind the ideas that drove them.
“Who is this?” I repeated, sidled behind my
guide for protection. “Pius the Ninth,”
Dante answered, “and in his circle, those who
presumed to rise above fallible mankind
and speak for god. Here’s Jim Jones, a gaggle
of Southern Baptists, the ayatollah
who lowered the fatwah on Salmon Rushdie, Hindu
fanatics, a gang from the Thirty Years War.”
In this excerpt I have to say I think it’s clever that the religious zealots appear in Hell as I have often thought that those who loudly condemned others for not believing in their particular take on religion could not possibly be speaking for God. The fact that Pius punches himself into unrecognizable flesh in Hell is also something that makes sense as those that preach the loudest are often the biggest sinners from what I’ve seen in life. I have to say, I really enjoy Mr. Steinzor’s take on the religious zealots.
Excerpt from Canto XXI:
Remember that package of pork ribs you brought home
the day it was marked for expiration?
You slid it onto the shelf beneath the drawer
in which you keep the cheeses and cold
cuts, meaning to grill tomorrow, but it rained.
It rained the next two days, and then you
forgot the ribs for a few days more. Remember what
blossomed forth when you pierced the shrink wrap?
That scent, blended with undertones of urine
and diarrhea’s rounded sourness,
filled the ditch we came to now, and greeted
us before we reached its lip.
Within, the sources of the stench sat slumped
in rows of wheelchairs facing outwards
to the iron-colored walls, much like the
residents of a nursing home I’d
visited several decades ago, who’d lined both
sides of a windowed hallway. But they’d been
positioned so that the things before their eyes
were each other, to whom their indifference
equaled that of those in the recreation
room to the snowy imbecility
of the ceiling-mounted television
they were parked beneath. These,
unlike those still awaiting death at L.A.’s
Veterans’ Administration, reposed in
pools of their own filth and – even from our
perch so many feet above – the
oozing pressure sores that cratered legs and
buttocks sometimes to the bone…
…”Not even you, my
heavenly wop, are going to spring
one of my wards from here.” At that I almost
gave up hope, but faith in Dante
kept me on my knees. “Ah, Malacoda,
lording it over these fraudsters so long has
robbed you of any sense of the truth, not even
if it bit you on that musical
ass of yours,” my leader said, “though even when
fewer scam artists clogged this sewer,
you were dim enough. So I will put it in
terms of the kind that you are used to.
Do you know Winston Crawfield? He is yet a
countryman of my companion’s.”
In this scene, Dante is trying to hid our poet, Mr. Steinzor, as he speaks to the keeper of the “residents” in the Nursing Home from Hell where it turns out the damned are former scam artists. I share this passage because I have been and will be working in long-term care and it has always been disheartening to hear people refer to such places as a living hell. In this, Steinzor notes that “unlike L.A.’s Veterans Administration” the damned sit in pools of their own filth so while he is not saying that nursing homes are hell he does take the collective populace’s imagination and pushes it to the extreme in this scene which I thought was interesting. Especially since it is reserved for scam artists who frequently target the physically vulnerable and the elderly.
I will end the excerpts here as there are so many sections that I would love to feature in great length but do not have the ability to choose among them. I can only say that Seth Steinzor personalizes his own experience traveling through Hell with Dante as his guide and it is a page turner to the end. I really am jealous of his modern take on Dante’s Inferno and my father-in-law bought the original by Alighieri for me with uncharacteristic enthusiasm since I was so enamored with Steinzor’s version. I urge you again to read both versions, it is well worth it.
I hope you enjoyed this review, this book inspired me to dive into the original Dante’s Inferno by Dante Alighieri and that is rare for me. To be honest, I don’t think I can possibly do this collection of poems justice and I promise you that it is worth every penny if you decide to purchase a copy of Seth Steinzor’s To Join The Lost for $23.00 at the link below or at least seek it out at your local library:
Seth Steinzor is part of the TLC Book Tour which I am proud to be a part of, to learn more go to:
Thanks always for reading, please click in again tomorrow for more Poems Found by Poet Hound…