Steinzor notes in the book's "Afterword" how much Dante has inspired him over the years, and it is clear to see that great care has been taken to respect the original without simply tweaking it to look a little more contemporary. After all, Inferno was Dante's story, but To Join the Lost is Steinzor's. He starts the work out with the following statement:
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...
And this does a fairly good job of envisioning in a new light Dante's famous first lines:
(You mean you don't read Italian? Tsk, tsk, tsk ;)Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita mi ritrovai per una selva oscura ché la diritta via era smarrita.Ahi quanto a dir qual era è cosa dura esta selva selvaggia e aspra e forte che nel pensier rinova la paura!
I should note started this work with a measure of skepticism, but within a couple of pages I knew I was going to be zipping through it -- but not because it's excessively simplistic. This is some excellent poetry, and I don't say that easily. Steinzor is a truly gifted poet, fusing words and ideas together perfectly with exactly the right rhythm and tone. There were moments when I simply had to stop and admire the word choice of a line or a stanza. I was reminded of Owen Barfield and the poet's ability to surprise and delight when he conveys a complex idea with a serendipitous selection of words.
In developing this re-imagining of the classic work, Steinzor is himself the subject of the journey, with Dante as his guide. He even includes a counterpart to Dante's Beatrice (meaning "blessed") with his own Victoria (no doubt you can figure out the meaning, and symbolism, of this). I really appreciate this feature. Victoria is only a memory in To Join the Lost, unlike Beatrice who is an angelic being that offers guidance to Dante in Inferno, but Victoria still represents an important element without the poem. She appears in memory at important moments and counters the mood of whatever is being experienced in hell.
Where the poetry soars, and the reader becomes truly engrossed, is in those autobiographical moments where Steinzor discusses his own life experiences or runs into people he knew. The one that haunted me for some time was his description of seeing the man who molested (or attempted to molest) him during his early teens. It is here that the reader practically feels the racing pulse of the sojourner and steps into the memory with him. In the way that only a good poet can. Steinzor conveys the moment without saying too much, and it is almost surprising to go back and realize that such a striking, almost gut-wrenching, description is contained within only a few lines.
What's interesting in Steinzor's vision is that identifies himself as "a very contemporary agnostic-Jewish-Buddhist American." I'll admit that I'm not entirely sure what this means, but I'm more than a little confident that he and Dante don't share a worldview. This is reflected throughout the poem. While Steinzor remains true to Dante's overall vision of hell, with its structure and assignment of certain forms punishment, there is lacking a sense of consistency in what it all means. Dante's vision of hell was founded on the reigning Catholic theology of medieval Europe. For good or for bad (and I decline to take a position either way), there was at least a strong sense of underlying morality that governed it. In place of this moral foundation, however, Steinzor seems to rely on his own socio-political ideology for meting out punishment in hell. Nowhere was this more apparent than with the startling discovery that St Paul seems to have found his way into Steinzor's vision of hell, due to what looks like an exceptionally poor reading and interpretation of Paul's epistles to the Ephesian and the Corinthian churches. What is more, Steinzor has no problem filling hell with modern political figures that don't fit his own ideological views. Honestly, I would have liked to see a little more creativity in this, not to mention a little less political finger-pointing. It comes across as petty, rather than driven by conviction. To be sure, Dante had his own moments of peopling hell with those he must have disliked intensely, but again there was always the larger sense of Dante applying the theological vision that shaped Europe's worldview. Dante, I suspect, could also have argued his case for these inhabitants of hell with a little more success.
I will point out, though, that To Join the Lost is first and foremost a very personal work from a poet who has been influenced by Dante and is interpreting the medieval poet's work from his own perspective. Cast in this light, I can't fault Steinzor for filling hell with the people he did. Unlike Dante, he is not necessarily creating a metaphorical vision of punishment for those who have broken God's laws. Instead, he is simply viewing Dante in a new light and applying his own life experience to the work. In looking at it this way, I can't say I'd want the poem to be any different. I'll also note that viewing hell through the eyes of someone without a Christian background forced me to consider my own convictions a little more carefully.
In the end, the discussion of who Steinzor places in hell is ultimately quibbling in what remains a beautifully crafted work of poetry. I would be interested to know if Steinzor intends to continue his journey, as Dante did, with a trip through Purgatory and then Paradise. The frontispiece (do people still use that word?) notes that To Join the Lost is "Book 1 of La Mia Commedia," so I hope there are more works to follow. I'll also be interested to see how the thematic arc develops, because Dante ends each part of The Divine Comedy with the word "stars." Steinzor, on the other hand, ends To Join the Lost with the word "void." This word is by no means representative of the poetry itself, but it offers an fascinating hint at what the larger vision might look like.
Year of publication: 2010
Number of pages: 216
Seth Steinzor's website: To Join the Lost
TLC Book Tours site for To Join the Lost: November Tour
This book was sent to me, by Seth Steinzor and through TLC Book Tours, for the purposes of review.