Once Was Lost: Book Three of In Dante’s Wake
by Seth Steinzor
Fomite Press

"Faith may reside in aspiration,
...as lunging, snarling dogs,
water cannons, police batons, and
hooded incendiaries bloodied negroes for
asking politely to live like me."

In this modern-day retelling of Dante's epic Divine Comedy, this third volume shapes itself structurally after Paradiso, with Steinzor's vision of the Garden of Eden taking form on a North Atlantic Beach. Beginning with a breakfast of clams at sunrise, Steinzor's poetry progresses through the day with a series of interactions and encounters with individuals whose impact on the world reverberates even now. With Dante and a woman named Victoria as guides, Steinzor's heavenly journey begins with a reflection of "dumpster diving" for food while progressing through Hell. Perhaps what makes this rendition compelling in its own right is the poet's ability to unearth the perspectives and contributions of history's players that would not immediately strike the reader's mind.

Undoubtedly, many facets of Dante's original work are present in this retelling. From an incredibly long list of character interactions to the consistent use of literary devices, particularly the epic simile, Steinzor brings his vision of heaven to life through a strong and consistent use of sensory images. Right from the onset of "Canto I," Steinzor's work takes on an almost surreal, musical quality as he juxtaposes all of life's worries with simply appreciating the magnificence of breath. While this narrative-based poetry does not have the same commitment to rigidity exhibited in Dante's poetic language, it is evident from early on that this is not the goal. On the contrary, through the musings of the various characters—from Freud and Marx to Beethoven and John Lennon—that range wildly on all spectrums, the audience is privy to Steinzor's social commentary on the direction of the universe.

With so many figures featured from history, it is not surprising that a series of themes are delved into at length in this work. In a particularly humorous and intriguing exchange between Freud and Marx, they speculate on evolution, pondering the notion that, "We did pretty well for critters / bred to elude the tigers long enough / to eat a banana and raise a child." Digging deeper, this quote demonstrates the heights to which humanity has reached and yet, in some ways, how it is still fallible to its most baseless primitive instincts. Specifically, gender norms and sexuality are explored in depth, along with notable topics like faith, fidelity, and politics. In some cases, these are all rolled into the same character encounter. Later in the work, readers are exposed to historical references of inherent racism as they play out in modern times. More than anything else, Steinzor's knack for bringing Dante's original concepts of good and evil to life as they pertain to modern life is commendable.

On a stylistic level, Steinzor's use of repetition drives home the messages he is trying to convey. For example, the repetition of "I taught" integrates not just equality between men and women but an appreciation for and normalization of sexual intimacy, "shameless as breathing if love is its inspiration." In the same vein, one segment that highlights the constantly chirping voice of hope impeccably uses the repetition of the word "that" to cycle through an entire lifespan of experiences including, but not limited to, "that the war will end in four years" to "that the condom does not break." Hope speaks incessantly irrespective of how much one has or doesn't have until the final breath leaves, speaking to the unintentional disease of more that is seemingly humanity's birthright.

The commentary traverses a gamut of topics such as slavery, religion, the women's suffrage movement, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, the "under God" inserted within the pledge of allegiance, and learning compassion from the Dalai Lama. While the content is certainly captivating throughout, the final scenes punctuate the splendor with which Steinzor illuminates the work with color and imagery, imbuing readers with an almost hypnotic sensation, a fitting culmination for a memorable retelling.

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