Mary Jo Bang and I talk frequently. We talk because we walk. We both teach at Washington University in St. Louis and, several years ago, started a routine of walking together in Forest Park, a jewel among urban parks that is larger than Central Park. Topographically varied, Forest Park offers everything from manicured gardens and elegant fountains dating to the 1904 World’s Fair, to enchanted forest paths and flamboyant wild savannahs. In controlled burns, ignited and monitored by the local fire department, the savannahs are regularly leveled. While hard to witness, the burns are necessary, unleashing seeds and nutrients essential to the savannahs’ healthy growth.
For its renewal, nature sometimes needs an assist, a do-over guided by experts, and it’s not always pretty. A similar narrative animates Purgatorio, where Dante Alighieri’s long poem takes the form of a morally-probing magical mystery walking tour, now in its 700th season. This second volume of Dante’s Divine Comedy has just been gifted to readers in a bracing new translation by Bang, following her critically acclaimed 2012 translation of the Inferno.
Bang’s Purgatorio (Graywolf Press) chronicles Dante’s peripatetic journey in a vernacular style true to the poet’s original intent—playful, perspicuous, and grounded in the language and cultural referents of our own time. It ends on an optimistic note:
I came back from those most holy waters
Remade, no longer past repair,
A new plant, renewed with new leaves—
Pure and ready to climb the stairway to the stars.
Bang was still at work on the project as Americans collectively entered pandemic purgatory in the spring of 2020. We each got the vaccine as soon as we could and, observing social distancing and other health protocols, we never stopped walking. During these past 18 months, I’ve spent more in-person time with Bang than with any other human. We so often talk in person that we decided, for a change of pace, to conduct this conversation in writing.
Sylvia Sukop You and I have different social needs. I remember when lockdown started how freaked out I was. I really need to be connecting with people, feel bereft without that. I immediately adopted a cat, which didn’t solve the problem but it helped. My Laszlo. You didn’t seem to need a Laszlo. How was it for you, adjusting to quarantine, in terms of your work and life in general?
Mary Jo Bang You could say Dante was my pandemic pet, although he wasn’t newly adopted. I’ve been living with him for fifteen years. As a pet, he’s nearly perfect: he doesn’t need to be fed, no twice-daily walks. The reason he’s only near-perfect is because he demands a great deal of attention. And, like a furry pet, he will occasionally wake me from sleep. I worked on the Purgatorio notes during much of the pandemic. After I finished them, I was suddenly aware of how many hours there are in a day (Yikes!), so then I began to revise the poems I’d written over the last five years (since A Doll for Throwing was published) and that began to fill the days. Periodically, the press would send me the Purgatorio manuscript to review and there I was, back with Dante. After that, I began to translate the early cantos of Paradiso. And I was teaching online both fall and spring semesters.
SS So, Dante kept you busy and also kept you company. And you never had to clean a litter box!
What do you do for breaks? Or when the day’s work is done? Since we’re discussing the Divine Comedy, is comedy a form you’re drawn to? Do you have a favorite comedian?
MJB I do like comedies and especially satirical comedies where the satire stays in the realm of the possible. I don’t like to find myself continually thinking, Well, that couldn’t happen. And yet, as soon as I say that, I realize there are exceptions, like The Good Place. I don’t think I do have a favorite celebrity comedian, but if I had to choose, I might say Tina Fey. I also like British and European crime shows that have parallel story lines: the team is trying to solve the complicated crime and, meanwhile, their own complicated lives are falling apart.
So, complication on top of complication: Vera, Broadchurch, Unforgotten, Silent Witness, Prime Suspect, Wallander, the Dutch version (but not the British) of Professor T. In terms of the Divine Comedy, Inferno and Purgatorio can both be read through the lens of satire. And there too, one could argue, that couldn’t happen—a nine-circle Hell peopled with sinners and overseen by Minos, the King of Crete from Greek myth; a seven-level Mount Purgatory with Eden at the top, from which you get beamed up directly to Paradise—but like with The Good Place, Dante pulls it off. He asks us to suspend our disbelief and what he gives in return is so interesting, and so matches our human experience, we’re willing to do it.
SS You did an interview with Zachary Lazar for BOMB in 2012 when the first volume—Inferno—came out. As you described the various characters in the Inferno, you said, “they do the work that characters do in literature: they mirror us.” Dante’s whole poem, you say, is a mirror of human behavior. It’s now almost a decade later. In those years, we’ve seen mass shootings, ongoing racist police violence, #MeToo reckonings, continued global warming, an insurrection, and on and on. From our current vantage point, who mirrors us most in Purgatorio?
MJB In Purgatorio, each terrace is devoted to one of the “seven deadly sins” (or “capital vices,” as they are also called): pride, envy, wrath, spiritual apathy, greed (and its opposite, wasteful extravagance), gluttony, and lust. How long someone stays on a particular level depends on the degree to which they were guilty of that sin when they were living. The one level where everyone spends time is the first one, that of pride. It’s apparently part of being human.
However, the ticket that gets you to Purgatory, instead of Hell, is contrition. As Manfred, the last King of Sicily, who reportedly called out to God when he fell in battle, points out to Dante: “In spite of being cursed, no one is so lost / That Eternal Love can’t restore them.” So, the anti-vaxxers, the NRA lobbyists, and the gun traffickers, still have time to stop what they’re doing and repent for the deaths to which they’ve contributed. The same with the climate deniers, sexual abusers, and police officers whose vengeful anger, mixed with pride, takes the form of an obsessive rage that often results in the death of unarmed suspects.
SSThe thing that people find most surprising—people outside the field of translation—is the fact that you can translate poetry without a mastery of the language from which you’re translating. Did that come as a surprise to you when you first started? How did you get past any insecurities that might have come with that? What languages besides Italian have you now translated from?
MJB That I was able to translate Dante’s Inferno without being fluent in Italian wasn’t a surprise because the number of previous translations—over two hundred—makes it possible to establish the parameters of the original. When I began, I was just playing with the Inferno text, and initially with only the first three lines! That was such fun, I decided to translate all of Canto I. As I went along, however, and learned more, and began to use an unabridged bilingual dictionary, I decided to try to make my translation into contemporary American English as accurate as I could.
That I have been able to translate from other languages, using many of the strategies I developed over time with the Dante translation, has been a bit of a surprise. I’ve translated poems from Japanese, German, and French, but in almost all of those cases, I’ve had either a co-translator (Yuki Tanaka for the Japanese poems, Jacqueline Coti for the French) or someone who was a native speaker with whom I could consult (Matthias Göritz for the German).
SS Among the hundreds of translations of Dante, very few are by women. What does being female, and queer, bring to this project?
MJB I’m reluctant to generalize in terms of female translators but I do find it interesting that there have been a number of women who have recently translated ancient texts and achieved what I, and many others, find to be more energetic versions of the original. I’m thinking especially of Emily Wilson’s Odyssey and Maria Dahvana Headley’s Beowulf. I wonder whether women are better at understanding that to make a poem as radical and as memorable as it was in its own time, you have to create a radical and memorable equivalent.
Being queer makes me more sensitive to the fact that poems often encode information. The natural ambiguity of language—the ability of words to mean more than one thing—enables a writer to use ingenious indirection to layer meanings that are available only to those who recognize them. This is especially necessary whenever being queer is outlawed. As a translator, I try to be alert to the vastness of desire, as well as to how language changes over time. There was a time, for example, when the word “amphibian,” which literally means “two (or both) kinds of life”—land and water for animals in the amphibia class—coded for bisexual. If you’re not aware of that, you could misread a poem, thinking it was about “nature” but leaving aside the fact that people are part of nature.
SS In Elegy, your 2007 collection chronicling the year that followed the loss of your son, Michael, the poem “Talk to me,” like other poems in that collection, grapples with a different kind of translation, that of grief into language. In the last line of that poem, there is a question that goes unanswered: “Which side of the lake, he asks, / Is the near side of Lethe?”
Lethe, of course, comes up again in Purgatorio. There, along with that river, Dante invents a second, Eunoe, which, as you explain in a note “combines the ancient Greek eu (well or good) plus nous (mind or memory). The combination literally means “well-minded” (or “good memories”); figuratively, it translates as “peace of mind,” “nirvana,” or “bliss.” I like Dante’s invention of a new river, and the peace it promises. Eunoe as a counterpoint to Lethe. Can you talk about Lethe in Elegy and Lethe in Purgatorio? And what it means to you?
MJB In Greek myth, the “near” side of river Lethe (the word in Greek means oblivion) is where you enter the water after death in order to have your earthly memories erased. So the dead won’t grieve for the life they leave behind. On the far side, are the Elysian Fields, a type of paradise where the souls endlessly play games and listen to music. The speaker at the end of my poem, “Talk to Me,” is a boy who isn’t yet dead, but soon will be. Because he is looking at a circular lake, he’s confused. He’s desperate to be freed of his grief but can’t find a way to do it. In the end, he metaphorically drowns. It’s a sad poem.
In Purgatorio, Dante revises the idea of Lethe so that immersion in its water erases not all memories but only the sinful ones. Eunoe then restores every memory of goodness. You have to drink first from Lethe before drinking from Eunoe because all of the negative memories have to be wiped out before you can unambivalently enjoy the good—otherwise, you’d continue to be tormented by your regrets. That is the essence of Dante’s Paradise: no bad memories, and all the good in easy reach. What does Lethe mean to me? I guess you could say it’s the impossible dream of achieving inner peace without self-annihilation. (Good luck with that!)
SS I would describe you as one of the most dedicated, disciplined writers I know. You readily eschew social events and other distractions. But I don’t like the phrase “married to one’s work.” Work can’t cook us dinner or massage aching shoulders or be there for us in a medical crisis. Although the phrase speaks to the artist’s absolute fidelity to their art, to its primacy in their life, it suggests nothing of the reciprocity that marriage entails. I also hate the term workaholic, which suggests something beyond one’s control as opposed to something highly intentional. In your own words, how would you describe your capacity for deep, concentrated, energized, and energizing work? What does that look like from where you sit, as opposed to how those of us looking on (in envy!) might describe it? Were you like this even as a child?
MJB As a child, books were a way to escape a chaotic family life. My older sister was outside playing softball in the lot across the street and I was inside reading. She was sledding, or riding a bike, or just hanging out with the other kids in the neighborhood, and I was inside reading. When I did tag along with her, I never felt as engaged as I did when I was reading a book. I was always on the outside looking in, like a child-anthropologist. I noticed how comfortable they were, doing the things they did. But I was never comfortable. There is still that social unease in most situations, although I do engage in some social events, usually with like-minded friends who have a similar sense of being an outsider. Like me, they are usually inside writing, or translating, or reading, or making art. It’s just another way of being in the world.