Dante’s in Portland, OR

Dante's in Portland, OR

This was another one of those coincidental moments* in my travels around the US. Having just come from presenting my work at the Association of American Italian Studies Conference in Eugene, OR, I wandered past this club, Dante’s (Booker T. Jones was playing that night), and was deeply happy to find out they had the warning words from the gates of hell above their doorway:
Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate!
(Abandon all hope, you who enter!).

*The grainy photo is courtesy of my phone camera, my proper camera having been lost a week earlier.

On chanting from the Hawick Missal

one side of the Hawick Missal fragment

one side of the Hawick Missal fragment

A little context: not long ago a fragment of a 12th century manuscript missal (a book containing instructions for carrying out the mass) was found in an archive in the Scottish borders. It inspired a project which has involved performances, audio-visual art, installations and new compositions.


I’ve sung in two of these events, performing plainsong chants from the manuscript and a new composition by Seán Doherty responding to its contents. While practicing and performing for these events, I’ve been prodded by the experience to write poems, the first of which (written in November 2012 at an event in Hawick itself) is here:


You want to see a soul?

A near immortal something,

a life

that sings on in a resonance of ink

nibbed to each page

with extraordinary care;

words on skin in skin, fragmented,


now exhumed and rising

word on note on tongue

from lungs expelling songs of other times

and people

and geographies

and realms entirely;

so old they’re new,

so strange they hang in air

unbound, aloud, beyond

Gender-Flipping Dante: what a meme tells us about gamers and poets

This article on the importance of the gender-flipping meme* may seem a little off my stated topics, but gender-flipping, or at least, a gendered role-reversal represents the main problem I have Dante’s Inferno as reinterpreted by Visceral Games.
I have no qualms at all with it becoming a video game, in fact, I think that Dante’s level based hell has been crying out to become a game since games have had level. Sure, there are some problems of interpretation – how do you turn what is essentially a contemplative (if unsettling and potentially terrifying) guided tour through the underworld into something with engaging game play?

The answer? Dante fights his way through the various monsters and reinterpreted damned souls to get to Satan, the ultimate end boss. Obviously, huge liberties have been taken in this department (I don’t remember anything in the text about demon babies), but even this doesn’t send me rushing for the smelling salts, as it seems to be the logical transition from the textual to the game idiom, a sort of media translation.

If I’m happy with all of that, though, what am I griping about? In a word, Beatrice.

Beatrice, Dante’s beloved (in the chaste, courtly sense) and later the agent of his salvation (as she becomes a Christ-like presence in the poet’s life, an intercessor for his sins). I use the term agent intentionally, because if there’s one thing Beatrice doesn’t lack, it’s agency. Yes, she conforms to certain tropes of idealised and inherently patriarchal representation of women in literature, but she doesn’t lack power. And I’m not just talking about the power to grant or deny love (and/or sex).

Beatrice’s power stems from the fact that, after her death, when Dante has gone astray (his ‘diritta via era smarrita’, the straight path was temporarily lost), she takes pity on her earthly admirer and intervenes to save him from himself and from damnation. Virgil, may be Dante’s guide in hell, but don’t forget who sent him:

‘”Set out, and with your polished words

and whatever else is needed for his safety,

go to his aid, that I may be consoled.

I who bid you go am Beatrice.”‘

(Inferno II, 67-70, translation by Robert and Jean Hollander)

In the poem Beatrice is a major player, but in the video game she is reduced to supporting cast. In the Divine Comedy she is instrumental in saving the wayward Dante from his failings, in the game she is the one who has to be rescued. Let’s just pause on that for a second.
In Dante’s text, the only redeeming force more powerful than Beatrice is God himself.
In Visceral’s game she is little more than damsel in distress.
In the game it is Dante’s responsibility to free Beatrice from hell so she can take up her place in Heaven.

And here we get to the gender flipping; understandably Dante is the battling protagonist, but why must he rescue Beatrice? There’s already a narrative thread in the game whereby Dante is trying to absolve himself of some (fairly fictive) sins by fighting his way to Beatrice and out of the underworld. Surely the plot arc would have made more sense if he battled through his Inferno in order to be reunited with Beatrice beyond the bounds of hell (it might even have left easier space for a sequel, but I’m not sure I want to think about what they’d to Purgatorio). So my problem is this: Why does the female rescuer have to become the rescued? Why does the almost lost Dante have to become the dominant force? Are 21st century gamers really more uncomfortable with the idea of salvation by a woman with agency than a 13th century poet was?

I hope not, but I fear that for some it might be true and that’s why the kind of social mirror provided by the meme where this conversation began is so important.

* taking representations of women and applying them directly to representations of men and vice versa to highlight the sexism of imagery, e.g. the Hawkeye initiative.

Dante and the Siren

Dante and Siren

Ok, so it’s a mermaid, but close enough. I took this photo in New York while I was there between conferences. It was the same day that I finished a paper on the dream of the ‘femmina balba’ (the stuttering woman who metamorphoses into a siren) in Purgatorio XIX. That paper is now to to be published as part of a collection by the University of Bologna’s Petali imprint.

Review: Fabian Alfie, Dante’s Tenzone with Forese Donati: The Reprehension of Vice

“This study provides a useful contribution to the discussion surrounding Dante’s poetic praxis and legacy, revealing the significance of a previously neglected series of texts, which represent not a literary aberration to be dismissed along with a period of waywardness but rather an important and lasting aspect of Dante’s thought and writing.”
You’ll need Athens or institutional access to read it.

Mary Jo Bang’s Inferno

A review of Mary Jo Bang’s translation of Inferno (in which I use ‘powerful(ly)’ too often):

“This Inferno is, at times cogent, inventive, and beautiful. But for all its innovation and moments of excellence, Bang’s audacious modernising translation often loses its way, leaving us to struggle through a wood of distracting line breaks and the odd unfortunate inaccuracy.”


How to catch a falling knife

Place an apricot under it,

let the flesh slow the edge

one bite at a time


pinch it between sheets

of soft cotton,

they may not protect the fingers

but they will absorb the blood


bottle it blade first,

stopper the wine, rum, apple juice-

point dipped in the liquid,

if it is silver

let it preserve champagne


time it, perfectly, so that you may grasp it by the handle

with a full fist gripping,

ripping it from its gravity


cushion it with down pillows

and let it flay the linen,

spreading insides

as a worrying fox spreads

pigeon feathers


knock it from its arc

or coax it gently from the air it grazes

fingertip it away from harm

assuredly but with delicacy, lightness


trust it not to fall

to sustain a teeter, brinking

on a fulcrum just so,

but should it overturn,

use gloves, use care


use a bowl of something,

butter perhaps, fresh from the fridge

it may surprise you with its efficacy.



(This poem was shortlisted for the Aesthetica Creative Writing prize and appeared in the Aesthetica Creative Writing Annual 2013)