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South Park Meets Dante: Mary Jo Bang’s Infernal Riff

by Kat Laskowski

Fogyish. Stilted. High-flown. Bowing to the terza rima, a form created for another language rife with rhyming sets like “chammino-battino-davino,” “lamenti-genti-dolenti.” This type of translation was the reason Mary Jo Bang decided to take on an old titan. And ones like these:

In the midway of this our mortal life,
I found me in a gloomy wood, astray
Gone from the path direct.
(Henry F. Cary, trans.)

Halfway along the path of this existence
I found that I was in a gloomy wood,
My right way being blotted by the distance.
(Louis Howe, trans.)

These two versions of the opening tercet of Dante’s Inferno are among those that poet Caroline Bergvall gathered in her found poem “Via (48 Dante Variations).” This fractious bunch, spanning two centuries of translation philosophy, fascinated Bang.

She first met Dante while studying poetry in the MFA program at Columbia University: she and classmate Timothy Donnelly read through the poem aloud in two translations. After each canto, they compared differences and pored over notes.

At the same time, a seminar with William Weaver—translator of Italo Calvino and Umberto Eco—in which the class scrutinized three versions of Don Quixote, made her contemplate what a translator brings to a piece: not just the target language, but a bit of herself.

“[The Quixote translations] could have been three separate novels,” she wrote in the translator’s note introducing her daring new translation of Dante’s Inferno, released by Graywolf and illustrated with primal panache by Henrik Drescher.

In an interview with The Days of Yore’s Astri von Arbin Ahlander, Bang described herself as the type of person who has to learn things “the hard way, through experience.” It was no surprise, then, her urge to jump in to this mess of variation and get her hands dirty. She started with the first tercet; then one thing led to another.

“It was fun, although admittedly difficult, since the possibilities seemed, if not endless, at least myriad,” she wrote.

“You know the story: Heaven, but not yet,” Bang writes in the first line of her introduction to the Inferno. At the poem’s opening, the speaker is midway on his life’s journey, but has lost his way. The speaker is a version of Dante himself, as he was in 1300, eight years before the poem was written. As Bang lets us know in her well-researched end notes, Dante then was an exile from his native Florence for having taken the wrong side in a two-house feud—the side that opposed the ruling pope.

But just when all seems lost for the speaker—his steps dogged by a leopard, a lion, and a ravenous wolf—Virgil, one of his poetic idols, steps in. The Roman poet takes the speaker on a tour of Hell, where each sinner is cast into one of nine circles according to his or her transgressions. Their punishments meet their crimes: gluttons are chewed on by the three-headed hound Cerberus, schismatics are rent apart.

After crossing deserts of raining fire and rivers of boiling blood, the speaker and his guide reach Hell’s final circle, a frozen waste over which Satan himself reigns. His job done, having shown the speaker every type of sinner and punishment the nine circles have to offer, Virgil carries him through the center of the earth to its opposite pole, where he awaits his next lesson, in Purgatory. “There’s nothing more to learn here,” Bang ends her introductory synopsis of the poem — a deceptively offhand line. The idea is anathema to Bang herself, who has five degrees and has said that she gradually found her voice only by pursuing every fork in the road.

Bang, like Dante, was midway through her life’s journey when things clicked into place. Her first collection, Apology for Want, came out when she was just past 50. But her path before that had no small number of kinks and bends—divergences into photography, medicine, social work.

Growing up in a semirural suburb of St. Louis, where workers at the nearby MacDonald aircraft plant took refuge in ranch houses and carports, Bang knew she wanted to be a writer: she read voraciously, writers like Dickinson, Cummings, Pynchon, Nabokov, loving the escape they offered. But then, life intervened.

Bang, a self-described “overachiever,” has always thrown herself wholeheartedly into subjects that have piqued her interest: She wasn’t satisfied with the photographs she took on a vacation in France, so she studied photography, eventually getting a degree from Polytechnic of Central London. She was concerned about social justice and the Vietnam War, so she studied sociology. Medicine captured her attention next, so she got a physician assistant degree.

She married, had a son, divorced, remarried again (to a man who also had a son from a previous marriage), divorced again. Her son, as an adult, died tragically. She worked as a secretary, a community organizer, an ironer of clothes and linens, a physician assistant, a commercial photographer, a busgirl, a babysitter, a department store model, a poetry editor. She taught at Columbia College, Yale University, the New School, the West Side Y in New York, and Washington University in St. Louis, where she now teaches.

Though this path was winding, these experiences pooled into the broad body of knowledge from which her allusive poems have drawn. And more than knowledge, they gave her the sense of self that has shaped her distinctive voice, with its quirky blend of whimsy and dead-serious philosophical searching. Bang told van Arbin Ahlander:

If you steadily [work] at something, what you don’t know gradually erodes and what you do know slowly grows, and at some point you’ve gained a degree of mastery. What you know becomes what you are.

Her books are often developed around central organizing principles. Louise in Love is a set of persona poems loosely based on ’20s film star Louise Brooks. Eye Like a Strange Balloon is a type of ekphrastic “History of Art According to Bang” (heavy on Sigmar Polke). Elegy, her most heart-wrenching and immediate collection, was written in the year following her son’s death. And The Bride of E is an abecedarian meditation on existence.

Bang is often lumped into a group that critic Stephen Burt dubbed the “Elliptical Poets,” along with Susan Wheeler, Mark Levine, and Lucie Brock-Broido. Their poems are deeply personal—though not always in a way that’s obvious to the reader. The work is characterized by compression, fragmentation, disjunction, associative leaps. Their narration is polyphonic, their stories not so much told as alluded to. Reading them is a bit like using a kaleidoscope to watch the ballet.

“The poets sought to project their own experiences, in sparkling bursts of voluble utterance,” Burt wrote of them three years ago in the Boston Review.

I’ll admit I don’t get all of Bang’s poems. At their worst, they can be baffling, opaque, or whimsical to the point of silliness. Surrendering context for fragmentary images, grammatical acrobatics, and strings of non sequiturs, they become all objective and no correlative, leaving the reader unmoored.

But even many of the ones I don’t get have the power to set off a visceral sort of déjà vu—a tip-of-the-tongue feeling that yes, I’ve felt precisely this.

It happens most often when the abstractions, non sequiturs, and fragments are rooted in a more straightforward physical reality, where setting and characters remain constant even as language and image roam less rational plains. For instance, in the poem “What Is So Frightening” in Elegy, lines like:

… The force filled
With persistence demanding dominance.
The plate changing. The green moved over
And made room for emptiness.

The storm scream came and went.
Comes and goes. The warm day was caught
In a watch.

are anchored by more direct ones preceding:

What Is So Frightening

She said as the cab passed the building
She’d passed in her childhood, is pathos.
Its mean little whip of pity.

And now the yellow car
Was passing near another corner she knew.

A mourning woman rides in a cab through a city she has known all her life, the familiarity of its sights painful as she sees them now through the lens of her grief. Knowing the poem’s situation, the reader can ride along in the cab, past lines like “The green moved over / And made room for emptiness” as past images in a dream: not quite knowing what they connote (is the green a grass green, or a sickly one?) but feeling deeply the sense of loss they evoke.

At their best, Bang’s poems explore the condition of existence —its loneliness, its absurdity, its humor. (Beckett is a favorite of hers.) They undermine the world’s seeming transparency, pointing out its clay-foot materiality with their feats of assonance, alliteration, echolalia, and occasional rhyme. They mix high culture with low, as in The Bride of E, whose poems have titles like “B Is for Beckett” and “C Is for Cher.”

And her Dante is no different.

Dante wrote his Comedy in vernacular Italian, rather than church-ordained Latin—a bold move, in his day. And in peopling his hell, he scandalously undermined certain powerful contemporaries, charging Pope Nicholas III with simony and nobleman Farinata degli Uberti with heresy.

Bang’s translation is just as daring and cheeky. She warns us in the translator’s note that her take on Dante will be “postmodern, intertextual, slightly slant”—no more same old, same old. Bang’s version of the Inferno is meant as more “cover song” than traditional translation—she aimed for a “cyborgian hybrid” of her voice and Dante’s story.

Drawing on contemporary slang, Bang enlists an army of voices from all life’s registers: Frank Lloyd Wright, Stephen Colbert, Muammar Gaddafi, “Nighthawks at the Diner,” “Mad Dog” 20/20, Pink Floyd, Donald Rumsfeld, “Star Trek”, John Wayne Gacy, Sylvia Plath, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, John Coltrane, Joseph Cornell, the Boy Scouts, Woody Allen, Gerard Manley Hopkins, “Hotel California,” Jell-O. Even Eric Cartman— the fat, greedy, foul-mouthed “South Park” character—makes an appearance in the third circle of hell: in Bang’s version, he takes the place of a man who in the original was called Ciacco—a nickname that translates to “hog” or “glutton.” T.S. Eliot also shows up: Bang borrows the line “only rock and the sandy road” from “The Waste Land” and “Let us go then, you and I” from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”

Critics have been divided on whether Bang’s translation is innovative or gimmicky. Bookforum’s Mark Ford and Stanford University’s Cynthia Haven have opined the latter, while Publishers Weekly, Vanity Fair, National Public Radio, the New York Daily News, and BOMBlog sing its praises. Lydia Davis and Eileen Myles like it, too.

I’m inclined to agree with the fans. Bang’s pop-culture allusions do justice to an important aspect of the original: the Inferno was chock-full of the celebs of its day (at that time, nobility, clergy, and other poets). Just as much as it was a moral treatise, a literary classic, or a timeless epic, it was an artifact of its time; and by recruiting cartoon characters, African dictators, and classic rock stars for its cast, Bang makes that palpable for the contemporary reader.

She also preserves some of Dante’s idiosyncracies. For example, she maintains his use of the first person plural (emphasis mine):

Stopped mid-motion in the middle / Of what we call our life.

And later on, when Virgil tells Dante,

we’re coming close to a coast
Of a river of blood where they boil the souls
Of those who cut, rape, maim, or murder others.

Dante responds,

What a thing—blind want and insane rage egg us on
For the few minutes we’re alive, then we’re trapped
Forever after in a tub of scalding blood!

Neither Dante’s, nor Bang’s, use of this plural narration is arbitrary: we, the readers, are right behind Dante on his voyage through the underworld, and we, like Dante, cringe in sympathy with the sinners we see boiling in their river of blood. With this attention to the original, Bang is able to bring the poem alive for modern readers without losing the dangerous particularity of Dante’s medieval epic.

Bloom Post End

Kat Laskowski lives and writes in New York, where she is a senior editor for a legal news website and a contributing reviewer for Publishers Weekly.

Homepage photo credit: WashULibraries via photopin cc
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One thought on “South Park Meets Dante: Mary Jo Bang’s Infernal Riff

  1. Pingback: Bloomers At Large: Following Through | Bloom

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