A season in hell

“Dante Alighieri’s ‘Inferno,’ ” translated by Mary Jo Bang, illustrated by Henrik Drescher (Graywolf Press, 352 pages, $35)

Inside the magnificently decorated 14th-century Gothic Cathedral in Orvieto, Italy, sits a chapel full of floor-to-ceiling frescoes, depicting the Last Judgment.

The painter is Luco Signorelli, who portrays himself at the Apocalypse, staring back at us, as if to say: Do you understand the meaning of my masterpiece, that I am painting your destiny here, among the damned and the saved?

I think I do, even as I’m drawn to a corner of the room, where I detect the unmistakable portrait of Dante Alighieri working on his masterpiece, “The Divine Comedy,” and directly below him, the more Mediterranean profile of the great Roman poet Virgil, looking up for inspiration for his masterpiece, “The Aeneid.” Signorelli considered them the two greatest poets of Italy.

Mary Jo Bang, an American poet who has won the National Book Critics Circle Award, likes Dante, too. She tells us so in the introduction to her new “translation” of his “Inferno,” Book One of the three-volume “Comedy,” in which he describes his harrowing descent into Hell, under the guidance of his poetic, but incorrigibly pagan, hero and tutor, Virgil.

I don’t know whether Bang has been to the San Brizio Chapel, but if so, she likely would have scribbled this note, pitching it at Virgil’s (and by extension Dante’s) unpainted feet, before leaving:

Dear D.,

I love you, man. I love your great big beautiful poem. It’s so . . . out there.

But you need to know that I’m the kind of Midwestern girl who, if she loves a man, she has to change that man. She has to make him better than he is, to make him who he really could be.

That’s why I want to make your poem better, too (at least the third of it that I’ve read). I want it to speak to the world here and now, the real world, the 21st-century world. Like Florence in the 1300s, only cooler.

Otherwise, your poem is just hell on the postmodern reader.

BFF, Mary Jo

Dumb it down

Make it new. That was the motto of the 20th-century modernist poets, who thought the formally uptight, sentimental, Victorian verse of the last 1800s failed to express their existential station in life. They were right, of course, and T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound really did make something new. A new kind of poetry that was difficult, allusive, brilliant, prophetic, free of all constraints except the poet’s authenticity and erudition.

Bang seems to want to do something different in her notion of a “new” “Inferno.” She wants to fix what’s broken, creating “an English-language version . . . that would adhere to the original but would seem neither remote in time nor elevated in diction.”

She got the idea after reading the poem “Via (48 Dante Variations)” by Caroline Bergvall, who collected 47 translations (plus the original Italian) of the first three lines of Canto I of the “Inferno,” which describes Dante’s mid-life crisis after the death of his great love Beatrice – the crisis that leads him down the circles of Hell, guided by the ever vigilant and wise Virgil.

When I had journeyed half of our life’s way,

I found myself within a shadowed forest,

for I had lost the path that does not stray.

(– Allen Mandelbaum’s 1980 verse translation, one of “Via’s” 48)

So why shouldn’t Bang add a 49th variation, her own special twist?

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.

Bang’s version is breezy, catchy, if somewhat redundant in its word play (“mid-motion in the middle” could use a little editing). And her sense of “lost” sounds too literal for a journey driven by Divine Love. (And Dante is all about Divine Love.) Likewise, the poet in these opening lines says nothing about “looking up.”

But Bang likes to play fast and loose with the Tuscan’s diction, putting “it into a spoken form of English that is rich with idiom, and even occasional slang.”

Bang baffles, however, by also claiming that “Dante’s Hell never ages, nor do our basic human failings ever change.” Really? Then why update the “Inferno” for at least the 49th time? (The actual number is much higher.)

Here, Bang runs smack dab into the conflicting urges of her performance art. (We can’t call it a “translation” – can we? – since she doesn’t know Italian, and merely glosses her favorite English texts.) She desperately wants Dante, but she doesn’t want to take him too seriously. No elevated language, remember?

That’s why, for instance, she finds the term “peasant” charmingly archaic. No one these days knows what a peasant is, she muses. Hmmm. Has anyone seen the 2010 movie “The Last Station,” about the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy’s final days? Peasants abound at Yasnaya Polyana estate. We have no trouble recognizing them.

But we do have trouble believing in Bang’s synonym, “worker”: a generic, urban, political, bland word that carries none of the connotations of a peasant’s intrinsic connection to the land, and adds nothing to our understanding of Dante’s poem.

That leaves Bang holding the bag. She so earnestly wants to succeed at being “hip” that she forfeits the postmodern irony (and self-scrutiny) that would help her realize she’s gone too far in the wrong direction. Like being lost in a dark wood.

High, low? Nobody knows

As with so many knee-jerk postmodernists, Bang’s poetics hinge on the belief that the “distinction between high culture and popular entertainment has all but ceased to exist.” So she’s free to throw in references to John Coltrane, “South Park,” Emily Dickinson, Andy Warhol, John Wayne Gacy, Stephen Colbert and Woody Allen, whenever it suits her purposes. Her Dante dwells in a pluralist’s paradise, even if he is in Hell.

But to say that contemporary culture no longer recognizes the difference between high and low art is not to say that there is no difference. It simply means that our culture has given up making the effort to sustain the difference. It is (again, ironically) a form of sour grapes.

Let’s look a little closer at Bang’s big idea. Doesn’t the fact that she, an award-winning poet, has to dig 700 years into the past to find a poem worth laboring over ultimately indict the vacuity of contemporary poetry?

Doesn’t her need to focus so intensely on Dante simply reinforce the unshakeable distinction between high and low art? Contemporary poets still idolize the author of “The Divine Comedy” because his grand, celestial achievement overreaches the centuries. His aim is sky high and heart deep: Divine Love and human love, reflected in the radiant visage of Virgil, and fulfilled in the heavenly reunion with Beatrice, his beloved.

Art doesn’t get much higher than that.

This is not a pipe

One of my favorite paintings by the Belgian Surrealist Rene Magritte is a simple, realistic image of a tobacco pipe rendered against a monochromatic background. Underneath the pipe, an elegant script reads, “ Ceci n’est pas une pipe.” This is not a pipe.

No, it is an image of a pipe. Flat, two-dimensional, an illusion. At the same time it is an image of a pipe. The circles of reference, self-reference, refinement, then further self reference form a maddening melange of words, images and meanings that is truly Dantean in scope.

So let me say this:

Bang’s book is not a pipe. It is also not the “Inferno.” It is her poem, a jazzy riff on the remains of an old Italian, occasionally beautiful, often clunky, more self-therapeutic than enlightening for the reader.

Thanks to Henrik Drescher’s multitudinous drawings – by turns touching, awestruck, horrific and funny (think Hieronymus Bosch on steroids) – Graywolf Press has issued the “Inferno” in hardcover, printed on high-quality art paper. The book literally has weight.

It’s a first for the publishing company, and perhaps the world’s most expensive graphic novel. (If a novel can be a poem.) Rich, young readers will eat it up.

But is it Dante?

“Translation,” according to Bang, “is a method of bringing the past back into the present . . . and sharing what is common to all.”

No, that is history. Translation is not about making the old new, but about creating a spirited equivalency of a literary work in another language.

A great translation must contain the original, to be sure, but it must also reshape it into a fresh, artistically integral whole that speaks to the reader directly, powerfully, profoundly in his or her own language. It must enact, in foreign words, the closest approximation of the original it can muster. It must be beautiful, compelling, ensouled.

Translation doesn’t need contemporary bells and whistles to pull this off. It doesn’t need pragmatic theories of art. It genuinely aspires to the heavenly exchange of language, even if it must descend to Hell to get there.

Anything less leaves us feeling cheated, still lost in a dark wood, facing our fears, facing death, facing eternal punishment, and praying for a luminous guide to come our way.