122nd Virtual Poetry Circle

Today’s poem is from To Join the Lost by Seth Steinzor, which I reviewed earlier in the week and modernizes Dante’s Inferno:

Canto I (page 11-6)

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.

Perhaps, I thought, what I had followed, moth-like,
   was just the sky’s dim luminescence
the marsh cast back, and then I knew despair,
   and pulled my sodden shoe back out, and
turned, and a cry swelled in my throat. But just
   before I let it loose, another
shimmer caught my eye. Perhaps, I thought,
   I’d wandered off my course through tending
to my feet and not to where they were going;
   and holding my gaze level, and gingerly

feeling the way with toes that slid forward and sometimes
   up and around or suddenly down (so
my attention was sharply bifurcated
   while a third, unattended
part of me coordinated) towards that
   distant barely backlit scrim, while
yet a fourth part of my poor divided
   self was straining not to feel a
thing at all. Of all four tasks, this last was
   hardest. Hope and fear impelled me

“Run!” but who could run on that turf, rough and
   sharp as a grater? And vehement voices
muttering a flow of words so soft they’d
   lost their forms now clogged my hearing,
aural mush, except that here and there, as
   clear and hard as pebbles, numbers
struck me; and unseen hands behind me plucked my
   clothing, grabbed my shoulders, stroked my
hair. My knees gave way. I huddled there, in
   sudden lonely silence, long.

Then slowly, like a fern uncurling, I rose,
   not recalling having fallen
asleep or having passed the border into
   awareness of this dismal dawn.
Before me, jarringly stood the only straight
   and undistorted object in my
view: a man, tall and thin, head topped by
   what I took to be a red fleece
ski hat, barefoot, robed in simple brown he’d
   cinched about the waist with a cord.

His skinny neck, that sprouted from an itchy
   looking undergarment, upheld
a long and narrow face. A long and narrow
   nose, sharply hooked, ran like a
ridge between the hills of his high cheekbones,
   and the basins of his cheeks
converged upon a small and beautiful mouth.
   The upper lip was thin and long,
the lower shorter, plusher, so the top one
   drooped a little at the corners,

and they made an arc much like a bow
   whose arrows aim to pierce the clouds,
not quite primly frowning, more the meeting of
   strength and sensitivity. But his
great, sad, brown eyes! There’s a
   distant gaze that looks within,
and a regard like a net we cast upon the
   outer world, that in his eyes were
combined: alertly pensive, missing nothing.
   They were what held me. I stepped forward.

Glancing at my squelching shoes, “O voi che siete in piccioletta barca, ”
he said, “Oh you who follow me in
   little boats.” His voice was sweet and
soft, and the phrase was one of the few I knew in
   Italian. Odder to meet an Italian who
can’t quote Dante than one who can. Well!
   Humor was the last thing I’d
expected in that desolation. Taken
   quite aback, I paused, and at that

instant, growls, a vicious snarl, a rumble
   low and ominous, all issued
from behind the stumps of a shattered pylon
   thirty feet away. His robe
flaring, he whirled and faced the hidden beasts.
   “Whatever you were seeking, you won’t
find it here,” he said, glancing back.
   (Oddest: how I did not find it
odd to understand him.) “If you don’t lose your
   way yourself, those three will lose it

for you. Come, and I will show you the path
   out of here.” And backing slowly
towards me over shards and ankle-busting
   holes as if his feet had eyes,
he glided, holding all the while the animal
   danger at bay by looking at it with
fiercer focus than any predator, then
   guided me some yards away
behind a ragged rubbish berm. I thought he’d
   stop to talk, then. Instead, assured

I was still with him and unharmed, he whirled so his
   garment flared like a tulip again, and
strode away, impatiently gesturing at me
   to follow. Not that I had much choice,
but still I hesitated. Then I gathered
   in my hope and hurried after,
catching up with him a while before I
   caught my breath enough to ask him,
“Who are you? And what do you want with me?”
   He answered: “Last things first. You are

the one whose fifteenth year blossomed in the
   city by the Arno, where they were
drying the pages of books the river had drenched
   two years before?” My face froze. He nodded.
“And of course you’ve not forgotten her
   you stood with by the river wall,
your arms around each other’s waists, not holding,
   sweetly ratifying the seal your
bodies made from ankle to shoulder?” I could not
   move. He halted with me. “And how

you stood there, watched the brown-green flood,
   minute by minute on the brink of a kiss
that never came because you were afraid?
   Well, it was she who visited me
from one of those bright circles you cannot
   quite bring yourself to believe in, glowing
and slender and blonde and passionate, and she asked me
   to help you find your way. She called you
My Seth, whom I knew as a poet and one of love’s authors.
   She knew how to ask so her will would be mine.”

With finely calculated disregard
   for how much shock I could absorb,
he added, “As for who I am: that year
   you met and said good-bye to her
not knowing how long, you lived in my home town,
   the place they kicked me out of and
set death at the gate to keep me away. You lived
   in a small hotel off Via Fiume
named for her whose hand reached down for me
   as your Victoria reaches for you.”

Welcome to the 122nd Virtual Poetry Circle!

Remember, this is just for fun and is not meant to be stressful.

Keep in mind what Molly Peacock’s books suggested. Look at a line, a stanza, sentences, and images; describe what you like or don’t like; and offer an opinion. If you missed my review of her book, check it out here.

Also, sign up for the 2011 Fearless Poetry Reading Challenge because its simple; you only need to read 1 book of poetry. Please contribute to the growing list of 2011 Indie Lit Award Poetry Suggestions (please nominate 2011 Poetry), visit the stops on the National Poetry Month Blog Tour from April.

What did you think?

Interview With Seth Steinzor

After reading To Join the Lost by Seth Steinzor (my review), I got to thinking about why anyone would “dare” take on Dante and modernize it.  Given the daunting task ahead of Seth when he undertook  the project, its no wonder that there was a very organic germination of ideas as he wrote.

Although some of the epic poem worked better for me as a reader than other places (which is pretty typical with larger poetry works to begin with), it is a solid first book with a great deal to say about our modern world.  Whether you agree is another issue altogether.

Seth was kind enough to answer a few questions about the book and writing in general, so without further ado, please give him a warm welcome.

1. To take on Dante must have been a daunting task, so what prompted you to modernize the tale? Do you have plans to modernize the entire Divine Comedy?

It didn’t start out as a project of modernization, although it certainly was daunting at first. For a while, until I relaxed into it, I felt as if I were building a scale model of the Eiffel Tower out of toothpicks. The idea that got me going is a good example of the convoluted way my mind works. I had loved Dante’s work for decades, but, being neither a scholar nor a critic, I always found myself at something of a loss when I tried to explain to people what I saw in it.

At last I realized that, as a poet, I could speak most comprehensively, vividly and precisely through poetry, and I also realized that the best way to describe what I saw in the Commedia was to place myself in the middle of it. “Modernization” was a consequence of that, but not a goal in itself.

2. Your training as an attorney must have been informed by your younger years as a poet, learning how to use an economy of words and to play with meaning in an effort to reap a desired result. What first drew you to poetry and later to the law? And have the two facets of your life ever conflicted on the page or elsewhere?

Law shares with poetry an extreme sensitivity to the meanings of words and punctuation, and a strong concern with matters of form. Of course, “meaning” in law and “meaning” in poetry are two different concepts. As long as I can remember, I’ve written poems. What drew me to law is a longish story, but basically, after I graduated from college, law presented itself as an interesting and congenial way for me to use my natural abilities and proclivities in the cause of justice. I spent about a year and a half working as an investigator for a Public Defender in Vermont, and then went to law school.

Law school itself turned me off, and although I graduated and passed the bar exam, I didn’t practice law for another eleven years, until I was given an opportunity to do an appellate argument and had great fun with it. I started working as a lawyer not long after that. My experiences working as an investigator and as a lawyer have fed my life as a poet, most conspicuously in the “thieves” and “fraudsters” sections of To Join the Lost. The only conflict, really, is that I have to work to make a living, and that takes time and energy away from my writing.

3. How much of your day job was modified and adapted to fit into To Join the Lost?

A lot. Several sections of the book were drawn from my legal experiences and knowledge. Also, as a lawyer, I have evolved a habit of thinking syllogistically, which in turn has made it easier to relate to Dante, whose primary mode of discursive thought was through aristotelian logic.

4. What kinds of obsessions, habits, or requirements do you have when you write? (i.e. love of chocolate, total silence, raging metal music in the background, etc.)

I need it to be quiet and still. In my house, my computer is in a small room lined with bookcases. The windows are too high to see out of. There’s an oriental rug on the floor and too much clutter on the horizontal surfaces, but it is a still and calming place. When I’m away from home, I use a spiral notebook and a pen and I can jot thoughts down just about anywhere, but for sustained effort I need the isolation and quiet.

On the other hand, once I have settled into the right space – physical and psychological, and the work is flowing, my cat is welcome to come and sit on my lap. I type and she purrs, until she gets bored and goes away. I usually write in the evenings after dinner, or on weekend mornings. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and can’t get back to sleep until I have jotted down whatever lines had popped into my head. About half the time, that “inspired” stuff turns out to be worth keeping,and half the time, it’s junk.

5. What one piece of advice did you receive early on as a writer that propelled you to keep going and who said it?

This is a tough one! The temptation is to recall some bit of ego gratification I received, like when a beloved teacher told me,”You’re a poet.” But honestly, writing is just something I would have done anyway. I wasted a lot of years, time and energy going nowhere with it, however, due to substance abuse and other issues. The best piece of writing advice I ever got, the only one that has really made a difference, was so simple: write every day. I don’t remember where I first encountered it, or who said it in a way that finally sank home, and I don’t actually achieve it, but I actively aspire to it. Even if all I get is one line or phrase, even if I end up crossing that line or phrase out later, the discipline and constant attention to the work make all the difference. It took me years to understand this.

Thanks, Seth, for answering my questions. I wish you much success with your poetry.

To Join the Lost by Seth Steinzor

To Join the Lost by Seth Steinzor is a modernization of Dante’s Inferno, and the irony that Dante takes a lawyer with him on his next visit should not be lost on readers.  Seth infuses his epic poem with modern tools and vices from bulldozers to politics.  Traveling the same path as Dante into the depths of Hell’s nine circles, Seth sees those trapped in between and those who have sinned in a multitude of ways.

With each canto there is a flavor of “famous” sinners, but also references to the poet’s own sins and regrets.  Where the epic poem is strongest is where Steinzor references his own troubles, his own lack of faith, his own indecision, and his own failures. “loading racks and shoving them along a/track of stainless steel into a/box of stainless steel — lower the lever,/close the gate — punch the big red/button, wait — shuddering, hissing — raise/the gate, releasing white clouds –/reach in, extract a rack of formerly filthy,/now gleaming and steaming glasses, or shiny,/clunky porcelain, or scratched-up aluminum/knives, forks, and spoons so hot//” (page 18 of Canto II)

Yes, the poem references some events, many the most horrific in nature (i.e. the Holocaust), and yes, this may seem trite and unnecessary, but these are the moments that most of humanity knows either first hand or through study.  These historic instances of unmitigated evil correlate to the references Dante makes from his historical knowledge, such as the reign of Julius Caesar and family wars that existed during that time.  However, Dante relies heavily on mythology and religious text to craft each of his cantos, though there are references to his own love, Beatrice, within the poem.  This is how Steinzor’s and Dante’s poems are similar.

Unlike Dante who uses mythology and Catholicism to make his points, Steinzor relies more heavily on Buddhism.  “. . .  That flat little pebble’s the/world of your daily awareness.  The pond is/everything else.”  (page 43, Canto VI)  The line break after “is” signifies a Buddhist precept of being in the here and now without thought to the past or the future — to be in the moment.  Many parts of this epic poem are enjoyable, but are bogged down in parts by movement through the circles with Dante and similar pungent smells.  However, Steinzor’s verses shine beneath the mire with vivid imagery in stunning ways occasionally.  “crowd of moving parts that, overlapping,/layer almost to opacity,/the eye drawn in, each figure a mottled window/into unimaginable//dimension, an almost empty pane.”  (page 23 of Canto III) or “Then, suddenly, he dived down smack/upon the landfill — a belly-flop! I sat/on his back, and he body-surfed across/the writhing mass.  We regained our feet near an/idling ‘dozer.” (page 44 of Canto VI)

To Join the Lost by Seth Steinzor modernizes Dante’s Inferno in a way that is personal for the poet and tackles some of histories most evil moments and most controversial politically.  Some readers will not enjoy the comments about a former president or other topics touched upon in this epic poem, but the gems in this epic are the more personal aspects of the piece.

***Stay Tuned tomorrow for my Interview with Seth Steinzor.***

About the Author:

Seth Steinzor has been writing poetry nonstop since his teens. To Join the Lost is his first book.  Visit his Website.  Here’s a preview of one Canto.



Please check out the other stops on the tour by clicking the TLC Book Tours image at the left.




This is my 28th book for the Fearless Poetry Exploration Reading Challenge.


This is my 65th book for the 2011 New Authors Reading Challenge.

Mailbox Monday #145 and Library Loot #7

Mailbox Mondays (click the icon to check out the new blog) has gone on tour since Marcia at A Girl and Her Books, formerly The Printed Page passed the torch.  This month our host is Amused by Books.  Kristi of The Story Siren continues to sponsor her In My Mailbox meme.  Both of these memes allow bloggers to share what books they receive in the mail or through other means over the past week.

Just be warned that these posts can increase your TBR piles and wish lists.

Here’s what I received this week:

1.  To Join the Lost by Seth Steinzor for a TLC Book Tour in November.

2.  The Time in Between by Maria Duenas from Shelf Awareness.

3. Kill Me If You Can by James Patterson and Marshall Karp from my mother.

4. I Curse the River of Time by Per Petterson, which I won from Caribousmom during BBAW.

5. Tracks by Eric D. Goodman, which I received for review from the author.

6. Ladybug Girl Dresses Up! by David Soman and Jacky Davis, which I picked up from Penguin at the National Book Festival — first time books were given away for free.

7. Skippyjon Jones by Judy Schachner, which I also picked up from Penguin for “Wiggles.”

8. Stagecoach Sal by Deborah Hopkinson, illustrated by Carson Ellis, which is signed by the author and given away to 100 attendees at the Penguin tent.

9. The Chameleon Couch by Yusef Komunyakaa, which I purchased at the National Book Festival and got signed by one of my favorite poets.

Library Loot:

Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire and Marg that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write up your post-feel free to steal the button-and link it using the Mr. Linky any time during the week. And of course check out what other participants are getting from their libraries!

1.  Does the Noise in my Head Bother You? by Steven Tyler

What did you get this week?