Mary Jo Bang's Dante

Writing about Mary Jo Bang's new translation of Dante's Inferno (Graywolf Press, 2012) in Vanity Fair, Elissa Schappell declares, "readers who once considered Dante's terza rima rhyme scheme and allusions to 14th-century Florentine politics as their own circle of pain will find Bang's free-verse approach, wit, and poetic pyrotechnics heavenly."

Below we present Bang's translation of the first Canto, with illustrations by Henrik Drescher (all of which can be enlarged with a click). The book party will be Friday, September 7, at 7:30 PM, at A Public Space (323 Dean Street, Brooklyn).

Canto I

Stopped mid-motion in the middle                              

Of what we call our life, I looked up and saw no  sky—
Only a dense cage of leaf, tree, and twig. I was lost.

It's difficult to describe a forest:
Savage, arduous, extreme in its extremity. I think
And the facts come back, then the fear comes back.

Death, I believe, can only be slightly more bitter.
I can't address the good I found there
Until I describe in detail what else I saw.

I don't know for certain how I entered it—
I was so sleepy-faced
At the place where I took a wrong path.

When the wooded valley I'd just passed through
In heart-rending terror
Dead-ended at the foot of a hill,                                                                      15          

I looked up and saw the sun bright on the body
Of the hill's high spot—like a headlight
That helps the lost find the way.

The turbulent fear that had filled my heart
During the night I had passed in such sadness
Calmed some when I saw it.

Like someone breathless after an escape
From the deep end, who stands at the side of the pool
And looks back on the danger and list of close calls,

That's how I looked back—my mind a stopped top
In the middle of a turn—for a glimpse of where I'd been,
A place no one leaves alive.

I rested for a while and then started up the sandy slope.
I lifted one well-intended foot
While the lower one acted like a post.                                                           30

Suddenly, at the base of a rise, just where the hill begins
Its steep incline, I saw a leopard with a patterned coat,
Light on its feet and lightning fast.

Wherever I looked it was there, blocking the path,
So that several times I turned back
And began to retrace my steps.

It was daybreak, the sun rising with the stars
That were with it when the first clock started—
The spring wound by the hand of a love supreme

Who set in motion those beautiful things.
In spite of the beast with his showy coat
I felt hope, reassured

By the fact of morning and the hint of spring,
Although the promise hollowed                                     
When I caught sight of nothing less than a lion.                                       45

He seemed dead set against me, head high,
Crazed with hunger. It made not just me
But even the air around him tremble.

And after him: a she-wolf, her frame so emaciated
Her body seemed defined by the cravings
That had caused so many to live in misery.

Looking at her bitch-kitty face
I felt an odd sense of solid defeat and lost sight
Of any hope of climbing higher.                                                                      

You've seen the one at a roulette wheel who whispers
Sweet nothings to his winnings, but when he loses whimpers,
"How did we come to this?" and wrings his hands—                                                                                  
I was a sad sack like that, as the impossible beast
Inch by inch drove me back into the shadows
Where the sun keeps a stopper in its mouth.                                             60

I was rushing backward into ruin when I saw someone
Who, given I'd been alone for so long,
Seemed almost like a mirage.

There on that wasteland, I called out,
"Take pity on me, please, whatever you are,
Ghost or material man."

"I was once a man," he said, "but now I'm not.
Both my parents, both Lombardi,
Were born in Mantua.                                                                                        

I was born late in the day of Julius Caesar
And lived in Rome, under the reign of good Augustus,
Back when the gods were false and told sweet-talking lies.                            

I was a poet. I sang the song of the righteous son
Of Anchises, who came back by boat from Troy
After smug Ilium had been burned to black ash.                                       75

But you, why return to what made you unhappy?       
Why not climb the meringue-pie mountain ahead of you?
It's the ultimate end, and means of all pleasure."            

I said, "You're Virgil, aren't you? You're that rainmaker
Who creates a torrent of speech that turns into a riptide."
Then I felt bashful and hung my head.

"The best and the brightest in the class of poets,
I read you and loved you and hope
That what I learned from you will now serve me well.              

First of all authors and master of me,
I borrowed from you and to you I owe a debt
For the music that's brought me success.                          

Can you see the beast I had to flee? Can you save me
From her? You, Mr. Übermensch, you Mr. Man
Of the World. I'm shaking with fear."                                                            90

When he saw that I was now in tears, he said,
"In that case, you have to take a different route
To escape this place that is only rock and the sandy road.

The beast that drove you back and made you cry
Ends the life of any who try
To pass her on their way through.  

She's insane and insatiable. She eats more and that
Just makes her more malignant with craving. She kills
All she comes in contact with. All with whom she comes. 

She takes many to her bed
And many more are coming, until the day
The big dog arrives and deals her an agonizing death.

The dog doesn't need property or money but lives
On knowledge, love, and truth.
He'll be born between two layers of felt.                                                     105

He'll be the savior of a now-humbled country
For which the gallant Camilla
And three loyal boys died of their wounds.                          

He'll search for her in this city and that, chasing the bitch
Back to the hole where Envy first undid her chain
And choker and set her loose.                                                      

As we go forward from here, it's best if you stay behind me;
I'll play the part of your guide. It's my plan
To lead you through a place neverending, i.e., eternal

Hell, where you'll hear the worst kind of wailing,
See the ageless shades writhing in pain,
Sense their vain request for a second death.

After that, you'll see those who are happy in the heat
Of the fire because they hope at some point to pursue
The path to Purgatory and so achieve a Bible clerk's bliss;                120

To those, if that's where you would go, up and farther up,
You'll need another escort, one more honored
Than I. When I leave you, I'll leave you with her.            

The Emperor on high says I can't enter His city;
I wasn't obedient to His unbendable laws. He says
I'm smudged by Adam's ink and so must live in Limbo.    

He reigns in all parts of the empire. His city is there;
So is His chair, poised at the edge of Heaven.
Happy are those He asks in."                                                                                                

And I said to him, "Poet, I beg of you,
By the God you never knew, help me out of this Denmark,
Which threatens to go from bad to worse. Lead me                                                      

To where you just mentioned, so I can see the door
Of Purgatory and meet Saint Peter at the Gate and,
Along the way, see the dolorous souls who are designated                 135

Damned." Then he set out, and I at his back.





































































Notes to Canto I

1–2. in the middle/Of what we call our life: The poem is set in the year 1300. Dante, having been born in 1265, would have been thirty-five years old—so, in the middle ("nel mezzo") of what was generally considered at the time to be a typical life span of seventy years. Commentators note that Dante doesn't say in the middle of his life but in the middle of our life ("nostra vita"). Charles Singleton, among others, points out that this gesture of inclusiveness immediately opens the poem up to being read allegorically (Inferno, 2:3–4).

32–51. I saw a leopard . . . a lion . . . a she-wolf, her frame so emaciated/Her body seemed defined by the cravings/That had caused so many to live in misery: There is a biblical history for this specific constellation of animals in Jeremiah 5:6: "Wherefore a lion out of the forest shall slay them, and a wolf of the evening shall spoil, a leopard shall watch over their cities: every one that goeth out thence shall be torn in pieces: because their transgressions are many, and their backslidings are increased." Robert Hollander provides a brief history of the various interpretations of this bestial trio, some moral and some political. He states that there is renewed support for the earliest formulation of lust, pride, and avarice. (Inferno, 16–17).

37–38. the sun rising with the stars/That were with it when the first clock started: Dante's journey begins on Good Friday. Some commentators argue that we are meant to read the date as March 23, which many in the medieval era considered to be the date Adam was created. (The Crucifixion was believed to have occurred on March 25. The Annunciation was thought to be March 25, nine months before Christmas.) Others have argued for April 8 as the poem's date, since Good Friday fell on that day in the year 1300. In either case, the sun would have been in Aries (March 21–April 20); since this period ushers in the growing season, it's the "hopeful" time of year.

39. The spring wound by the hand of a love supreme: A Love Supreme is a studio jazz album recorded by John Coltrane's quartet on September 9, 1964, and released the following year. The liner notes to A Love Supreme begin, "Dear Listener: All Praise Be To God To Whom All Praise Is Due. Let us pursue Him in the righteous path. Yes it is true; 'seek and ye shall find.' Only through Him can we know the most wondrous bequeathal." They go on to detail a personal Dantean struggle and end with, "May we never forget that in the sunshine of our lives, through the storm and after the rain—it is all with God—in all ways forever. ALL PRAISE TO GOD. With love to all, I thank you, John Coltrane."

41. with his showy coat: Genesis 37:3 mentions that Jacob gives his son Joseph "a coat of many colors" (all biblical quotations are from the King James Bible); this interpretation of the Hebrew phrase kethoneth passim is, however, only one of several. Other translations include "a long coat with sleeves" and "a long coat with stripes" and, much more recently, an "amazing Technicolor coat" (in the Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat). Similarly, the description of the animal's coat as "la gaetta pelle" in Dante's original Italian is open to interpretation; it has been variously translated as "gaudy fur," "beautiful skin," "gay skin," "sparkling hide," "spotted pelt," and, by C. B. Cayley, in Dante's Divine Comedy, as "comely-checkered skin."

52. Looking at her bitch-kitty face: "Bitch kitty" is a slang term that gestures to the fact that "[t]he thing referred to is very impressive, very difficult, very complicated, very sad, or in some way extraordinary." (Kipfer and Chapman, Dictionary of American Slang, 273). The other two animals cause fear, but this animal, who appears to stand for greed, is the one that provokes the wayfarer's sense of utter defeat. Dante will later refer to Plutus, the god of wealth, as "humanity's great enemy" (Canto VI, 115).

73–75. I was a poet. I sang the song of the righteous son/Of Anchises, who came back by boat from Troy/After smug Ilium had been burned to black ash: Publius Vergilius Maro (70–19 BCE), known today as Virgil, was a Roman poet and the author of the Aeneid, the Eclogues, and the Georgics. In the Aeneid, Virgil relates the story of the Trojan War and the fall of Troy. The question of why Dante chose Virgil, a pre-Christian Roman poet, to be his guide through Hell has been much debated by Dantists. Hollander writes, "Virgil is the guide in Dante's poem because he served in that role in Dante's life. It was Virgil's Aeneid and not the works of Aristotle or of Aquinas which served as model for the poem; it was Virgil who, more than any other author, helped to make Dante Dante" (xxxv). In Dante: A Life, R. W. B. Lewis notes that because of Virgil's prediction in his fourth Eclogue of "a newborn child who shall rule the world and bring it peace" there was a medieval belief that "under divine inspiration, [Virgil] had foreseen the coming of Christ and the age of Christianity" (147).

77. the meringue-pie mountain: Gerard Manley Hopkins, "My Own Heart Let Me Have More Pity On":

Soul, self; come, poor Jackself, I do advise
You, jaded, let be; call off thoughts awhile
Elsewhere; leave comfort root-room; let joy size
At God knows when to God knows what; whose smile
's not wrung, see you; unforeseen times rather—as skies
Betweenpie mountains—lights a lovely mile.

89–90. You, Mr. Übermensch, you Mr. Man/Of the World: Übermensch is a concept introduced by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche in his 1883 book Thus Spoke Zarathustra, first translated into English in 1896 by Alexander Tille. Tille translated Übermensch as "Beyond-Man." George Bernard Shaw later translated the term as "Superman" in his play Man and Superman, and the same term can be found in Thomas Common's translation of Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Many later translators found the term "superman" reductive and have chosen to translate the word as "overman." In the most general sense, the term and concept allude to a moral authority that isn't dependent on the idea of a god. In spite of the fact that Nietzsche was critical of anti-Semitism and German nationalism, the Nazi regime appropriated the concept to support its notion of Aryan racial superiority.

"Man of the World" is a song composed by vocalist and lead guitarist Peter Green and recorded by the British-American rock band Fleetwood Mac; it first appeared as a single in 1969 and was later included on their 1971 Greatest Hits album.

93. only rock and the sandy road: T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land (5.331–332), "What the Thunder Said":

Here is no water but only rock 
Rock and no water and the sandy road . . .  

101–102. Until/The day the big dog arrives: Dante uses the word veltro ("hound" or "greyhound"); the identity and meaning of the veltro has long been debated by Dantists. Many believe that it refers to Can Francesco della Scala (1291–1329), a young nobleman and general who ruled Verona from 1311 to 1329. Better known by his nickname, Cangrande—from the phrase cane grande, meaning "big dog"—he was the leader of the Ghibelline faction in the north, and Dante's patron. Others argue that the veltro represents Jesus Christ and the Second Coming, and still others believe it expresses the hope for an ideal ruler. There are also those who argue for other historical personages (such as Henry VII of Luxembourg), or for an ideal leader—namely, a perfect pope.

105. He'll be born between two layers of felt: Virgil predicts the birth of the hound as falling "tra feltro e feltro" ("between felt and felt"), which has been variously interpreted as (1) a person born under the sign of Gemini—since the twins Castor and Pollux are often pictured wearing felt hats; (2) someone who lived and/or ruled between the northern Italian town of Feltre and the area called Montefeltro, in Romagna (namely, Cangrande—see note for 101–102); (3) a Florentine dressed in the kind of coarse cloth woven in Florence; (4) a mendicant monk who wears robes of coarse fabric; (5) someone dressed in rags, i.e., of a humble birth; and (6) Dante himself (Florentine and Gemini-born) and his Commedia. A more recent argument put forth by Barbara Reynolds in Dante: The Poet, the Political Thinker, the Man, is that "between felt and felt" refers to the sheets of felt that were used to absorb the water from new-made paper in the medieval era—in other words, "salvation" would come from following the "texts of canon and civil law" that were recorded on paper (118–120). In an 1889 letter to William Vernon, Dean Church writes: "The Veltro, I fear is hopeless: nothing better can be suggested than Can Grande. But Dante himself must come to explain tra Feltro e Feltro" (quoted in Vernon, Readings on the Inferno of Dante, 1:36–37).

107–108. For which the gallant Camilla/And three loyal boys died of their wounds: In the original text, Dante has Virgil mention by name four mythological characters from the Aeneid who all died fighting, on one side or the other, in the Trojan War; the "three loyal boys" are Euryalus, Turnus, and Nisus.

126. I'm smudged by Adam's ink and so must live in Limbo: Like all those Dante will meet in Limbo, Virgil suffers not from any personal sin but from Adam's curse, original sin. Therefore he's barred from entering Heaven by God's unbending law.
131. help me out of this Denmark: The fictional Denmark in William Shakespeare's play The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is a place that seethes with grief, madness, duplicity, and revenge.




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