Tuesday, December 10, 2013

10 December 2013

Mary Jo Bang [Musing for Amusement]

from Mary Jo Bang's new translation of Dante Alighieri's Inferno:
Canto I
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.

It's difficult to describe a forest:
Savage, arduous, extreme in its extremity. I think
And the facts come back, then the fear comes back.

Death, I believe, can only be slightly more bitter.
I can't address the good I found there
Until I describe in detail what else I saw.

I don't know for certain how I entered it —
I was so sleepy-faced
At the place where I took a wrong path.

When the wooded valley I'd just passed through
In heart-rending terror
Dead-ended at the foot of a hill,                                                                      15        

I looked up and saw the sun bright on the body
Of the hill's high spot — like a headlight
That helps the lost find the way.

The turbulent fear that had filled my heart
During the night I had passed in such sadness
Calmed some when I saw it.

Like someone breathless after an escape
From the deep end, who stands at the side of the pool
And looks back on the danger and list of close calls,

That's how I looked back — my mind a stopped top
In the middle of a turn — for a glimpse of where I'd been,
A place no one leaves alive.

I rested for a while and then started up the sandy slope.
I lifted one well-intended foot
While the lower one acted like a post.                                                           30

Suddenly, at the base of a rise, just where the hill begins
Its steep incline, I saw a leopard with a patterned coat,
Light on its feet and lightning fast.

Wherever I looked it was there, blocking the path,
So that several times I turned back
And began to retrace my steps.

It was daybreak, the sun rising with the stars
That were with it when the first clock started —
The spring wound by the hand of a love supreme

Who set in motion those beautiful things.
In spite of the beast with his showy coat
I felt hope, reassured

By the fact of morning and the hint of spring,
Although the promise hollowed                                  
When I caught sight of nothing less than a lion.                                       45

He seemed dead set against me, head high,
Crazed with hunger. It made not just me
But even the air around him tremble.

And after him: a she-wolf, her frame so emaciated
Her body seemed defined by the cravings
That had caused so many to live in misery.

Looking at her bitch-kitty face
I felt an odd sense of solid defeat and lost sight
Of any hope of climbing higher.                                                                    

You've seen the one at a roulette wheel who whispers
Sweet nothings to his winnings, but when he loses whimpers,
"How did we come to this?" and wrings his hands —  

I was a sad sack like that, as the impossible beast
Inch by inch drove me back into the shadows
Where the sun keeps a stopper in its mouth.                                             60

I was rushing backward into ruin when I saw someone
Who, given I'd been alone for so long,
Seemed almost like a mirage.

There on that wasteland, I called out,
"Take pity on me, please, whatever you are,
Ghost or material man."

"I was once a man," he said, "but now I'm not.
Both my parents, both Lombardi,
Were born in Mantua.                                                                                      

I was born late in the day of Julius Caesar
And lived in Rome, under the reign of good Augustus,
Back when the gods were false and told sweet-talking lies.                          

I was a poet. I sang the song of the righteous son
Of Anchises, who came back by boat from Troy
After smug Ilium had been burned to black ash.                                       75

But you, why return to what made you unhappy?    
Why not climb the meringue-pie mountain ahead of you?
It's the ultimate end, and means of all pleasure."          

I said, "You're Virgil, aren't you? You're that rainmaker
Who creates a torrent of speech that turns into a riptide."
Then I felt bashful and hung my head.

"The best and the brightest in the class of poets,
I read you and loved you and hope
That what I learned from you will now serve me well.            

First of all authors and master of me,
I borrowed from you and to you I owe a debt
For the music that's brought me success.                        

Can you see the beast I had to flee? Can you save me
From her? You, Mr. Übermensch, you Mr. Man
Of the World. I'm shaking with fear."                                                            90

When he saw that I was now in tears, he said,
"In that case, you have to take a different route
To escape this place that is only rock and the sandy road.

The beast that drove you back and made you cry
Ends the life of any who try
To pass her on their way through.

She's insane and insatiable. She eats more and that
Just makes her more malignant with craving. She kills
All she comes in contact with. All with whom she comes.

She takes many to her bed
And many more are coming, until the day
The big dog arrives and deals her an agonizing death.

The dog doesn't need property or money but lives
On knowledge, love, and truth.
He'll be born between two layers of felt.                                                     105

He'll be the savior of a now-humbled country
For which the gallant Camilla
And three loyal boys died of their wounds.                        

He'll search for her in this city and that, chasing the bitch
Back to the hole where Envy first undid her chain
And choker and set her loose.                                                    

As we go forward from here, it's best if you stay behind me;
I'll play the part of your guide. It's my plan
To lead you through a place neverending, i.e., eternal

Hell, where you'll hear the worst kind of wailing,
See the ageless shades writhing in pain,
Sense their vain request for a second death.

After that, you'll see those who are happy in the heat
Of the fire because they hope at some point to pursue
The path to Purgatory and so achieve a Bible clerk's bliss;                120

To those, if that's where you would go, up and farther up,
You'll need another escort, one more honored
Than I. When I leave you, I'll leave you with her.          

The Emperor on high says I can't enter His city;
I wasn't obedient to His unbendable laws. He says
I'm smudged by Adam's ink and so must live in Limbo.  

He reigns in all parts of the empire. His city is there;
So is His chair, poised at the edge of Heaven.
Happy are those He asks in."                                                                                              

And I said to him, "Poet, I beg of you,
By the God you never knew, help me out of this Denmark,
Which threatens to go from bad to worse. Lead me                                                    

To where you just mentioned, so I can see the door
Of Purgatory and meet Saint Peter at the Gate and,
Along the way, see the dolorous souls who are designated                 135

Damned." Then he set out, and I at his back.

Dante Alighieri [Dante Alighieri Society of Pueblo]

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