I'll Tell What I Saw: Select Translations and Illustrations from the Divine Comedy
Sarabande Books, 2009
64 pp., $16.95
This thin, handsome collection, featuring Michael Mazur's illustrations of Dante's Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso, alongside Robert Pinsky's translated passages on facing pages, promises to appeal to various readerships. Those unfamiliar with Dante can gain a terrific first impression of his medieval epic poem and its treatment of the afterlife from these selections (no lengthy text or intimidating notes in sight). On the other hand, longtime lovers of the Commedia will find here cherished lines brought to new life in Pinsky's renderings, but most refreshing will be the "embedded" perspectives of Mazur's illustrations. We never see the character Dante or his guide Virgil themselves, as if pilgrims posing on a stage, but experience Mazur's alluring visions of their supernatural settings as if looking over the characters' shoulders, or through their own eyes.
As Pinsky recounts in a preface to this volume, Mazur (whom the art world lost recently) had been an avid reader of Dante in Italian for decades, and he supplied monotype images for Pinsky's popular edition of Inferno in the mid-1990s. Praising Mazur's images for inspiring and guiding his own translation efforts, Pinsky describes his collaborator's works as "themselves acts of translation, embodying certain vital principles." Pinsky explains the suitability of the monotype form for Inferno—not only in its somber, black-and-white effects, but also in how a print is squeezed through the press. The final products, incorporating the "unique, unpredictable results of pressure," are moving reflections of the pit in Dante's narrative, its inhabitants enduring the unrelenting pressures of sin.
In the present volume, Mazur has updated his original images for Inferno by giving color to several of them. Some will recognize the scratched, blood-red look of one illustration for Inferno 21, where demons pitchfork sinners awash in pitch, as the cover image to Pinsky's popular translation. I also recall seeing previously the powerful blue aperture at the center of the last Inferno image here, as Dante at the very end of his hellish journey "saw appear // Some of the beautiful things that Heaven bears, / Where we came forth, and once more saw the stars." This image was included in an exhibition in Verona's Castelvecchio Museum several years ago, when my surprise at discovering Mazur's works there could be considered a happy inverse to Dante's repeated reactions in Inferno—"What? Are you here??" The most powerful images retain their black-and-white quality—the souls of Limbo, the suicides, the tri-faced Lucifer, and the bird's-eye topographical survey of Hell's circles, one of the most useful I've seen for helping students grasp the geography that Dante is imagining.
Mazur's mesmerizing illustrations for Purgatorio and Paradiso are stranger, and I suspect they will draw a wider range of reactions from viewers. In a brief postscript "On the Images," Mazur describes how he sought strongly visual passages, a "few inspired images." He emphasizes in these later images a need for color, that of earth in Purgatorio and, more problematically, for Paradiso "a kind of ecstatically enhanced geometry." A medieval illuminator of Dante's great poem was one source of influence.
Mazur again provides helpful topographical studies, with various levels labeled, of these second and third realms of Dante's journey. The colors of Purgatory do indeed stand out. The artist captures well the intensity of an angel demanding, "Go in, / Enter the fire," with magma-colored human forms interspersed with flames—a disco-inferno even in the second level of the afterlife. More calming is the appearance of Beatrice, marked with a heavily Celtic ambience, with wings and fecund, healthy greens. My favorite image here features a dazzling white light just off the shore of Mt. Purgatory; it powerfully renders the approaching angel at the beginning of Purgatorio, and seen today, it also calls to mind some mysterious coastal occurrence from the just-concluded saga of Lost.
Pinsky also explains why Mazur decided upon digital technology as a means of representing the hard-to-fathom settings of Paradiso—he sought a "disembodied medium" to reflect the "sometimes ethereal quality of imagination." The results are mixed, and in this challenging domain, perhaps that is inevitable. A few images look like bad PowerPoint slides, but others are mind-bending and will be generative for readers' imagination. I commend especially the image of Dante's ascent with Beatrice from earth to the first sphere of heaven, which Dante himself describes as reversed lightening, and the "multitude of flashing lights" from Paradiso X. The last image is a marvel of mixed elements, including a "deep-space" background and comforting, light-hued spheres that represent the Trinity. Dante, at this point in the Commedia, describes how his vision was "becoming pure," and in a similar if far more modest way, Mazur's images and Pinsky's poetic renderings will help readers to experience this enhancing of vision, too.
Brett Foster is assistant professor of English at Wheaton College. His writing has recently appeared in Image, Kenyon Review, Poetry East, and Raritan.
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