Mary Jo Bang, whose last collection—Elegy—won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2007, gives us an über-contemporary, post-modern translation of the 13th-century Italian poet’s most well-known work. And, OMG (to use a phrase she might have used in this new work but doesn’t), Bang rocks this poem and rolls it around to make it her own; it’s fascinating, beautiful on occasion, and a bit bizarre.
Succeeding with a desire that her translation be “one with this particular historical moment, it’s destined to become an artifact of its era,” Bang incorporates modern-day references from popular culture (a South Park character), technology (a smart card), weather phenomena (El Niño), and everyday language (“Fighting our way up the ladder…”); and integrates these with allusions to John Coltrane, Fleetwood Mac, Joseph Cornell, and the Wizard of Oz, along with quotes by Eliot, Plath, Berryman, and Browning.
The result is a odd mash-up of Dante’s harrowing tale with Virgil deep down into the concentric circles of Hell where Bang’s elegant words remind us this centuries-old message still rings true: “What can hurt me here? What should I fear? / What beast can do me in that doesn’t live within? / One shouldn’t fear what isn’t.”
Painting Credit: Hieronymus Bosch
Jim Carmin is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. He regularly reviews for The Oregonian and the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune, and occasionally for Oregon Humanities, Cerise Press and his blog, Solar Mirage. On the side, he writes short stories in Portland, Oregon.
Inferno, by Dante Alighieri; translated, with an introduction and notes by Mary Jo Bang; illustrations by Henrik Drescher. Graywolf Press. 2012. 340 pages. $35.