Thursday, November 3, 2011

To Join the Lost by Seth Steinzor

Title: To Join the Lost
Author: Seth Steinzor

Genre: Poetry (Contemporary / Hell / Current Events / Politics / Social Commentary / Satire)
Publisher/Publication Date: Antrim House (5/1/2010)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Okay, to liked (at moments) and eh (at other moments)
Did I finish?: I did, in about three days!
One-sentence summary: A middle-aged agnostic-Jewish-Buddist American travels to Hell with Dante.
Reading Challenges: Fearless Poetry

Do I like the cover?: Actually, I rather do -- it kind of fits the feel of Steinzor's writing style!

First line: 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/trucks or rocks or rubble, and strange stapes/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.

Did... I veritably decorate my book with a metric ton of stickies, marking lines I liked, disliked, wanted to research, savor, or repeat?: YES. (Photographic proof.) I'm sure I looked like a crazy person on the subway, with my tabs stuck on my hand while I pretty much marked at least one thing on every page.

Did... I understand many of the political and literary references in this book?: YES. Now, I'm a bit a current events nut, so that helps, but Steinzor writes in his Afterward about trying to minimize the amount of allusions to keep from confusing readers, and I think in that regard he is successful. Still, now and then I googled something I was fuzzy on, which helped me 'get' a little more of what I think Steinzor was after.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow if you like poetry, or current events, or if you muddled through a high school class on The Inferno and you're curious about how it might be relevant now.

Why did I get this book?: I haven't touched Dante since high school but being a recovering Catholic, I spent much of my childhood imagining Hell. Visiting Steinzor's Hell was a trip I couldn't resist!

Review: I have pretty mixed feelings about this volume of poetry, which isn't a bad thing necessarily.  This narrative verse is a modern-day take on Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy - Inferno.  Steinzor, a self described "agnostic-Jewish-Buddist American", loves Dante's Divine Comedy, and his Afterword with a Note on Notes was a lovely mini-essay from someone who is deeply inspired, moved, and rejuvenated by Dante's work. (Maybe my favorite part; I love passionate pieces by readers on what they love to read!)

I'm not attached to classics remaining untouched (I enjoy the Austen-ish mutations so trendy these days), but I sadly found this book a little too literal to be a personal flight of fancy 'inspired by' Dante but not literal enough to be a contemporary re-imagining (Christopher Logue's War Music comes to mind as a successful example).

My biggest quibble is about Steinzor's use of (mostly) 19th and 20th century criminals to inhabit his circles of Hell. (Dante mixed historical and mythological figures in his version, although I presume he considered the mythological figures historical.) I think it's fairly universal that, for those who believe in a Hell, Hitler will be there. To see Hitler in Steinzor's piece didn't feel particularly nuanced or creative; neither were the references to the innumerable other criminals of our recent centuries. It feels too easy to say, 'Welcome to Hell, here's Hitler, Mussolini, Imelda Marcos, and McCarthy' and have the landscape littered with Dachau's notorious 'Arbeit Macht Frei' sign and the noxious detritus of an oil spill. The horrors Dante described were an articulation of an afterlife his readers believed to be real; it seems ludicrous to expect everyone who reads this to feel Steinzor's Hell is real and so I felt as if Steinzor name-dropped, so to speak, to force me to believe this Hell of his. The inclusion of the less-often damned, such as Robert F. Kennedy, also felt 'done' (perhaps because I've seen the December 1999 South Park episode "Mr. Hankey's Christmas Classics", featuring the song 'Christmas Time in Hell', it doesn't feel particularly clever or moving to run into a Kennedy in Hell.)

That Steinzor is a lawyer might explain his righteous indignation, but when he condemned living figures to Hell (Bernie Madoff and Ahmed Chalabi, for example), this touched a nerve for me. I'm wildly judgmental, don't get me wrong, but as a rule, I don't really like to let even theologians and philosophers decide who is in the right and who is going to suffer in the next life (should there be one). Literature has a place in imagining and envisioning where the sinners go, but I'm not super keen on that kind of work. Still, in a time when poetry is ignored by many readers and seen as perhaps irrelevant, difficult, or unnecessary, Steinzor's work is a timely articulation of one man's perception of what earns a person eternal judgement and punishment. For the philosophically-minded, this might be a discussion-inspiring read.

However, this wasn't all doom and been-there-done-that for me. When Steinzor grew personal and/or autobiographical, I found myself gripped, absolutely mesmserised by the intimate confrontation of punishment and eternal justice. An early scene where Seth-the-pilgrim runs in to the man who sexually abused him at 13 is moving, uncomfortable, and provocative; the exploration of sin, our expectation of punishment (divine or otherwise), and justice are wrought in Steinzor's brisk but moving lines. I found more impact in that brief passage than the numerous name-dropping.

Steinzor's writing style is easy, quick, and snappy; this doesn't require a lot of pondering or lingering to appreciate (although one could). For those intimidated by the idea of a poetic work, give this a try, as it reads fast and includes many allusions that are easy to appreciate. The subject manner certainly invites conversation and meditation, and I spent the last three days discussing it with folks because it prompted me to consider my own feelings about Hell.


  1. It does sound like a book that gets you thinking, but I'm not sure it's my cup of tea.

  2. Interesting! I'm kind of a sucker for poetry set in hell, so I'll probably check this out!

  3. I'm not into the name dropping either, but I see why it was done...and I liked that universal-ness for readers who don't necessarily read poetry.

    Unlike you I don't like the cover at all. I think it says nothing about the work at all. I feel like its disconnected.

    And I have to tell you that my book pretty much looks like the one in your picture. I couldn't help myself with those tabs!

    I think it would have been intriguing for more pop culture stuff in lieu of the mythological references Dante used.

  4. btw, thanks for joining the Fearless Poetry Challenge!

  5. I don't think this one would work for me, as I am not a huge fan of poetry, and something as subjective as this one might just go over my head. I do like that cover though, and every time I see it, I can't help but think of a red-eyed monster! Great and very detailed review. You explained and defended your reactions to the book both elegantly and wonderfully.

  6. @Anna: Fair enough -- a lot of lit is like that for me. This one struck my fancy but if you're not digging the feel, it'd probably be more effort than it's worth!

    @Serena: Yes -- I really appreciated Steinzor's attempts to make the journey relate-able to readers. I too would have loved to see some pop culture deities feature more prominently in this -- that would be fascinating!

    @Heather: I know it's a long review but I wanted to give it a fair shake -- when it was good, it was very good -- and I really was moved at times. I really just love the cover for some reason!

  7. Audra, thank you for all the time and attention you gave my book. I love the picture with all the tabs! And I like the idea that you expressed on Serena's site, that this would be a good book for reading groups.

    Atlantisfly girl, thanks for your interest. Stop by my website after you've finished the book and let me know what you thought of it!

    About the cover - I drew it. It's an art form I learned in first grade. You scribble something freehand and then find the face in it. I looked for demons.

    - Seth Steinzor

  8. What an interesting book! Granted, I'm not a huge poetry fan, my current events knowledge is shaky at best, and I have never read Dante, so I'll be passing on this one, but I appreciate your very thorough review and love the picture!

  9. This sounds superb! Reading some of the newer translations of Dante's Inferno is on my 2012 list of epic poetry to read, so I'll be sure to find Steinzor's poem to accompany it.

    I simply can't believe you mentioned Logue's War Music! I have all three of his Iliad poetry (i.e., War Music, All Day Permanent Red, and Cold Calls). I did an extensive blog posting about All Day Permanent Red and few weeks ago. Logue's poetry is some powerfully affecting stuff, and I consider it one of my favorite poetry collections. Great posting, Audra! Cheers! Chris

  10. Our expectation of punishment (divine or otherwise) seems like a great topic to explore, and I imagine was quite cathartic for the author!

    Thanks for being on the tour, Audra!

  11. Any book that makes me underline, doodle and babble in its margins and look for further information is a success, even if not the Nobel Prize-worthy (The Da Vinci Good is a good example).

  12. @Seth: Thank you so much for coming by and commenting -- I appreciate it! This was a very thought-provoking read for me. I appreciate your sharing the info about the cover -- I love it even more now that I know it was made by you -- I found it fit perfectly with the book!

  13. I am about half-way through, and so far, I'm really enjoying this one. Then again, I love Inferno with an all-encompassing passion.