Today’s guest is Seth Steinzor, author of Among the Lost (In Dante’s Wake: Book 2), who is here to discuss his inspiration for the poem about giving birth and how it serves as an opening for his take on Dante’s Purgatorio. Please welcome Seth Steinzor:
Fresh in my mind when I began writing Among the Lost was something that W.S. Merwin had pointed out in the Foreword to his translation of Purgatorio. I’m sure he’s far from the first to have noticed this, but it made a forceful impression on me: of Dante’s three canticles, Purgatorio is the only one to take place on earth. Inferno trudges through an idealized subterranean environment; Paradiso flies through the heavens; Purgatorio climbs a mountain.
Another thing sets Purgatorio apart from the first and third books of Dante’s trilogy. Each of the characters in Inferno and Paradiso has reached an ultimate end point in his or her personal development, and exists in a state of stasis. Unlike them, the denizens of Mount Purgatory continue to work through the moral muddles that were produced by their manners of living. The ones who were angry in life are still plagued by anger. The ones who were apathetic still have to overcome that. And so on. Admittedly, in Dante’s view, the Mount Purgatorians possess the certainty of salvation, not only the hope, and so might be said to have reached a sort of fruition; but they haven’t actually found it yet. Their experience of their own sure perfectability is frustrated temporarily by themselves. That’s pretty much my experience of life, in a nutshell, although I tend towards a somewhat less optimistic view of the overall human condition. (There’s a buddha within, but nobody’s sure of realizing it.) So add to the idea that the book takes place on earth, the idea that it depicts a state of being unfinished, unclear.
Also in my mind was the means whereby Dante escaped to Purgatory from the underground Inferno. He clung to the back of his guide, Virgil, as Virgil climbed up Satan’s enormous body and then through a tunnel to a sunlit beach at the foot of the mountain. So…our hero enters this earth through a narrow dark tunnel, from which he emerges unfinished and unclear. What else could one think of but a birth canal?
When I put it this way, it sounds rather more consecutively thought out than it was. I was fortunate enough to have attended the births of both my children. There is no more meaningful event than that, except perhaps one’s own coming and going. I knew as soon as I began to contemplate writing Among the Lost that the book would begin in a birthing room. And yet, at the same time, the rationale for doing so, which I have outlined above, accompanied this undeliberated intention fully formed.
About Among the Lost
Among the Lost, set in the modern American rust belt, is a meditation drawn from Dante’s Purgatorio. To Dante, Purgatory was the mountain where souls not damned went after death to cleanse themselves of sin in preparation for entering Paradise. What, Steinzor asks, are we preparing ourselves for, having lost the fear of hell and the hope of heaven, in the course of our daily urban existence? And whatever that is, how do we go about preparing for it?
About the Poet
Seth Steinzor protested the Vietnam War during his high school years near Buffalo, New York, and his years at Middlebury College, advocated Native American causes after law school, and has made a career as a civil rights attorney, criminal prosecutor, and welfare attorney for the State of Vermont. Throughout he has written poetry. In early 1980s Boston he edited a small literary journal. His first, highly praised book, To Join the Lost, was published in 2010.
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