Author: Seth Steinzor
Genre: Poetry (Contemporary / Hell / Current Events / Politics / Social Commentary / Satire)
Publisher/Publication Date: Antrim House (5/1/2010)
Source: TLC Book Tours
Rating: Okay, to liked (at moments) and eh (at other moments)
Did I finish?: I did, in about three days!
One-sentence summary: A middle-aged agnostic-Jewish-Buddist American travels to Hell with Dante.
Reading Challenges: Fearless Poetry
Do I like the cover?: Actually, I rather do -- it kind of fits the feel of Steinzor's writing style!
First line: 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/trucks or rocks or rubble, and strange stapes/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.
Did... I veritably decorate my book with a metric ton of stickies, marking lines I liked, disliked, wanted to research, savor, or repeat?: YES. (Photographic proof.) I'm sure I looked like a crazy person on the subway, with my tabs stuck on my hand while I pretty much marked at least one thing on every page.
Did... I understand many of the political and literary references in this book?: YES. Now, I'm a bit a current events nut, so that helps, but Steinzor writes in his Afterward about trying to minimize the amount of allusions to keep from confusing readers, and I think in that regard he is successful. Still, now and then I googled something I was fuzzy on, which helped me 'get' a little more of what I think Steinzor was after.
Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow if you like poetry, or current events, or if you muddled through a high school class on The Inferno and you're curious about how it might be relevant now.
Why did I get this book?: I haven't touched Dante since high school but being a recovering Catholic, I spent much of my childhood imagining Hell. Visiting Steinzor's Hell was a trip I couldn't resist!
Review: I have pretty mixed feelings about this volume of poetry, which isn't a bad thing necessarily. This narrative verse is a modern-day take on Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy - Inferno. Steinzor, a self described "agnostic-Jewish-Buddist American", loves Dante's Divine Comedy, and his Afterword with a Note on Notes was a lovely mini-essay from someone who is deeply inspired, moved, and rejuvenated by Dante's work. (Maybe my favorite part; I love passionate pieces by readers on what they love to read!)
I'm not attached to classics remaining untouched (I enjoy the Austen-ish mutations so trendy these days), but I sadly found this book a little too literal to be a personal flight of fancy 'inspired by' Dante but not literal enough to be a contemporary re-imagining (Christopher Logue's War Music comes to mind as a successful example).
My biggest quibble is about Steinzor's use of (mostly) 19th and 20th century criminals to inhabit his circles of Hell. (Dante mixed historical and mythological figures in his version, although I presume he considered the mythological figures historical.) I think it's fairly universal that, for those who believe in a Hell, Hitler will be there. To see Hitler in Steinzor's piece didn't feel particularly nuanced or creative; neither were the references to the innumerable other criminals of our recent centuries. It feels too easy to say, 'Welcome to Hell, here's Hitler, Mussolini, Imelda Marcos, and McCarthy' and have the landscape littered with Dachau's notorious 'Arbeit Macht Frei' sign and the noxious detritus of an oil spill. The horrors Dante described were an articulation of an afterlife his readers believed to be real; it seems ludicrous to expect everyone who reads this to feel Steinzor's Hell is real and so I felt as if Steinzor name-dropped, so to speak, to force me to believe this Hell of his. The inclusion of the less-often damned, such as Robert F. Kennedy, also felt 'done' (perhaps because I've seen the December 1999 South Park episode "Mr. Hankey's Christmas Classics", featuring the song 'Christmas Time in Hell', it doesn't feel particularly clever or moving to run into a Kennedy in Hell.)
That Steinzor is a lawyer might explain his righteous indignation, but when he condemned living figures to Hell (Bernie Madoff and Ahmed Chalabi, for example), this touched a nerve for me. I'm wildly judgmental, don't get me wrong, but as a rule, I don't really like to let even theologians and philosophers decide who is in the right and who is going to suffer in the next life (should there be one). Literature has a place in imagining and envisioning where the sinners go, but I'm not super keen on that kind of work. Still, in a time when poetry is ignored by many readers and seen as perhaps irrelevant, difficult, or unnecessary, Steinzor's work is a timely articulation of one man's perception of what earns a person eternal judgement and punishment. For the philosophically-minded, this might be a discussion-inspiring read.
However, this wasn't all doom and been-there-done-that for me. When Steinzor grew personal and/or autobiographical, I found myself gripped, absolutely mesmserised by the intimate confrontation of punishment and eternal justice. An early scene where Seth-the-pilgrim runs in to the man who sexually abused him at 13 is moving, uncomfortable, and provocative; the exploration of sin, our expectation of punishment (divine or otherwise), and justice are wrought in Steinzor's brisk but moving lines. I found more impact in that brief passage than the numerous name-dropping.
Steinzor's writing style is easy, quick, and snappy; this doesn't require a lot of pondering or lingering to appreciate (although one could). For those intimidated by the idea of a poetic work, give this a try, as it reads fast and includes many allusions that are easy to appreciate. The subject manner certainly invites conversation and meditation, and I spent the last three days discussing it with folks because it prompted me to consider my own feelings about Hell.