Inferno Intoned 

Local well-knowns read Dante with Michael Mazur's art as a backdrop

I never thought gluttony was such a bad thing until I read Dante. What a vivid and frightening nightmare he created," exclaims chef Janos Wilder, of Tucson's elegant restaurant Janos and its casual sidekick, J Bar.

Wilder is one of a handful of disparate souls volunteering to orate sections of Dante's Inferno in next week's public marathon reading of the misdeeds of hypocrites, thieves, evil counselors, sowers of discord, alchemists and falsifiers.

Well, he didn't exactly volunteer.

"I got an e-mail asking me to read the section depicting the Third Circle of Hell," says Wilder, of the frigid spot where the gluttons suffered eternal pain. "My associations with food are all glorious. I don't want to tarnish them, but boy, there's no appetite left after this guy finished with them," he retorts.

Still, Wilder is game to participate in reading sections of the The Divine Comedy--an epic poem that begins with the Inferno and moves optimistically backward into Purgatorio and Paradiso. Written nearly 700 years ago, Dante painted a meticulously organized torture chamber in which sinners are carefully categorized.

The impetus for the reading bubbled up from dark and stunning etchings penned by artist Michael Mazur, whose visual depictions grace Dante's gnarly stories in the Robert Pinsky translation as well as the walls of a current show at the UA Museum of Art. While the Inferno has a long history of translations with accompanying images, Mazur's emphasize what Dante describes rather than illustrating the characters' pilgrimage through Hell.

UAMA's education curator, Lisa Hastreiter-Lamb, is excited to team up with the Poetry Center for the public reading, as the images are pretty abstract.

"They're not realistic renderings," she says. "So I think you can make of it what you want. The two skulls kissing could be the concept of both the embrace and death, likening them to a more contemporary experience of, say, AIDS."

Mazur slips in visual anachronisms--the tower in Canto VIII is the Pilgrim tower in Provincetown, where he lives--that meld well with Dante's own use of puns and topical references.

"We chose the Pinsky translation because of the Mazur paintings," explains Frances Sjoberg, literary director at the Poetry Center. "But more than that, is Pinsky's desire for accessibility. As poet laureate, he's interested in bringing poetry into the larger community. I think he'd be happy if Dante's Inferno were in airports, right next to the National Enquirer."

Dante's work is full of political spoofs and, in a season of partisan sparring, this is a potent time to have an Inferno marathon. Ironically, Dante wrote all the sections of The Divine Comedy while in exile. The winds of politics knocked him off his elected post as captain of the people of Florence.

"Dante was a victim of his political stance, but in the end, he gets his revenge via literature," explains Elizabeth Chesney Zegura, a Renaissance specialist and UA associate professor of French and Italian, who'll be reading the sections on lust. "The Inferno is a real work of personal and political understanding, of Dante's own synthesis of the world. It's an eternal voyage of self-questioning."

Zegura adds that there are many levels at which to read Dante.

"Parts of it unfold like a horror film. The encounters he writes about are really violent. The ways of death are horrendous, like boiling in oil. On the other hand, Florence was experiencing a time of great growth in the graphic arts, in cathedral building, in painting, in literature. Change was afoot. Dante was in the midst of all this in the early 1300s. He set the Inferno at the dawn of a new century. Think of all the connections to our own millennial era."

"It's very tempting to place contemporary people in these circles of Hell," says poet Charles Alexander, director of Chax Press. Alexander points out how, over the years, critics have substituted Dante's centuries-old allegorical characters with contemporary ones to fit their political stripes.

Alexander has chosen to read the last two cantos, in which Dante explores the icy parts of Hell, the most tragic stories about betrayal and cannibalism.

"It's where Dante and Virgil come out again. But we have to study who these characters are. While they're not contemporary, they are universal regarding ethical behavior," he adds.

"What I love about the work is that Dante, the poet, is at the center of the poem. Dante the pilgrim is Dante the author," offers Alexander.

Ultimately, says Professor Zegura, Dante was trying to get people to behave well.

"In Canto V, the characters are pushed about by the whims of their passions. They were reading a text about courtly love, and then they had an incestuous relationship. So Dante is showing the negative repercussions of literature. You could compare it to the relationship of porn today," Zegura adds.

For those participating in the reading who don't ordinarily plumb these scholarly depths, there are more nagging, contemporary questions.

"The ultimate, though maybe the stupidest, question would be 'Why?'" surmises KOLD-TV's news anchor Randy Garsee. "I interview lots of authors and ask them where they get their ideas. Dante would be one you'd want to gauge his reach. Would he be the next Salmon Rushdie?"

Garsee is scheduled to read about the sin against art because, he explains, "I'm a beast of an inferno when it comes to censorship."

He's also participating for another reason.

"I read aloud for a living."

More by Joan Schuman

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    Three well-known writers reflect on new, contemporary work
    • Apr 13, 2006
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    Rafael Campo preaches about the value of poetry in the healing process
    • Apr 6, 2006
  • Pondering Place

    Lucy Lippard helps MOCA bridge the gap between visual and textual arts
    • Mar 16, 2006
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