Dante in the 21st Century

“If the halls of the Hermitage were suddenly to go mad, if the paintings of all the schools and great masters were suddenly to break loose from their nails, and merge with one another, intermingle and fill the air of the rooms with a futurist roar and an agitated frenzy of color, we would then have something resembling Dante’s Commedia.”

-Osip Mandelstam

from “Conversations with Dante”

Of all the supernatural and surreal elements contained in this evocative quote of Mandelstam’s it is the inclusion of the word futurist that has always struck me. It implies that all the vivid masterpieces lining the walls of one of the world’s greatest museum, even though they come from centuries following the Italian poet’s lifetime and even though, in Mandelstam’s image, they go airborne and form a collage, it requires the edge of 20th century art for us to be able see the Divine Comedy for the striking, innovative writing that it is.

In this spirit American poet and translator Mary Jo Bang has just published a new translation of the Inferno, one which makes a daring attempt at recapturing Dante’s bold originality (And no, she hasn’t gone to the Hermitage and pulled the paintings off the wall and tossed them skyward. The Pussy Riot trial has Russia’s cultural and religious guardians all booked up).

At Bomb Magazine there is an interview with Bang in which she talks about the translation. Bomb also has an excerpt from the poem available online.

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