POETRY: Dante’s The Inferno, Canto I: A New Translation by Mary Jo Bang

Dante’s The Inferno, Canto I: A New Translation by Mary Jo Bang

Stopped mid-motion in the middle
Of what we call a 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 think can only be slightly more bitter.
Good comes from bad but before getting there,
I have to describe in detail what else I saw.

I can’t say for certain how I entered it;
I must have become so tired
I ended up following a bad path.

The wooded valley I’d just plodded through
In heart-rending terror,
Dead-ended at the foot of a hill.

I looked up and saw the sun
Was on the body of the hill’s high spot:
A torch for the path to the lost.

The lake of fear that had filled my heart
In the night I had passed in such sadness,
Calmed somewhat when I saw it.

Like someone breathless after an escape
From deep water who stands at the side of the pool
And looks back on the danger and trail 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 has ever survived alive.

I rested for a while and then
Started up the sandy slope. My willful left foot rose
While the right foot trailed behind.

Suddenly, at the foot of a rise, just where the hill begins
Its steep incline—I saw a mottled leopard,
Light, agile, and very fast.

It shadowed the future so closely, that it kept blocking the way
And time and time again I thought I should go back
And retrace my steps to where I’d been.

It was daybreak, the sun in the sign of Aries, the same
As it was when the first clock started, the spring
Set by the handoff a love supreme

Who set in motion all beautiful things. All this
Disarmed my fear of the beast with the freckled coat.
I was reassured by the fact of morning

And the hint of spring—
But the promise hollowed
When I caught sign of nothing less than a lion.

He seemed to be dead-set against me, head high
And ravished with hunger. It made not only me
But even the air around him seem nervous.

And after him, a she-wolf appeared, 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 a sense of solid defeat, and lost sight of the hope
Of climbing any higher.

Like one who at a casino wheel whispers sweet nothings
To his winnings but when it’s his turn to lose whimpers,
“How did we come to this?” and wrings his hands.

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

I was rushing backward into ruin
When I saw one whom, given I’d been alone for so long,
Seemed no more than a mirage.

There on the waste land, I called out,
“Take pity on me, please, whatever you are,
Ghost-man or tangible 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 Julio Caesar and lived in Rome under the sword
Of good Augustus, back when the gods were false
And told sweet-talking lies.

I was a poet, singing songs of Aeneus—son
Of honest Anchises—who found his way back by boat
From Troy after vain Ilium had been burned to black ash.

But you, why are you returning to this tedious plain?
Why not climb the peaked 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, a far-famed bell, I read you and loved you and hope
That what I learned from you then will now serve me well.

First of all the authors and Master of me, I borrowed from you
And to you I owe any inkling of the passing success
I’ve been lucky enough to accrue.

Can you see the beast I had to flee? Can you save me
From her? You, Mr. Ubermensch, you Mr. Man
Of the World. I’m trembling with fear.”

When he saw that I was now in tears, he said,
“In that case, you must leave this rock
And no water and the sandy road.

The cat that drove you back and made you cry
Ends the life to 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 comes
And tracks her down and dastardly does her in.

The dog doesn’t need property or money but lives on
Knowledge, love, and truth. He’ll come at the end of the year
When Castor and Pollux arrive dressed in matching felt caps.

He’ll save a once-regal country, glimpsed in the distance
Of time, and once fought for by those who died
Displaying great gallantry, and those who were gorgeously loyal.

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 pointed her to the brick road that beelines into the world.

As we go forward from here, stay at all times behind me,
And I’ll play the part of your guide. It’s my plan
To lead you through a place never-ending, 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.

To those, if that’s where you would go, up and father up,
You’ll need another escort, one more honored
Than I am. When I leave you, I’ll leave you

With her. I can’t enter the city of the Emperor,
So says He, since I was pagan and outside His unbending laws. He says
I’m smudged by Adam’s ink and ergo 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 the angel at the Gate and, along the way,
See the dolorous souls who are designated DAMNED.”

Then he set out, and I at his back.

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