The circles of Hell come to New Zealand
Last year, on March 25, New Zealanders went into lockdown, a descent into mental and physical unknowns caused by a virulent virus set on world domination. On that same day in 1300, a 35-year-old Italian, Dante Alighieri (1265–1321), began his own lockdown of sorts: private, public, poetic.
A righteous citizen and respected intellectual, Dante wrote in Latin and in vernacular, was competent in the humanities and the sciences, and committed to poetry as much as to politics. A poisonous cocktail of individual and collective upheavals left him an exile under a death sentence.
Locked out of his city and above all locked out of his true self, Dante embarked on a journey of redemption where he experienced the lowest lows of Hell, the middle medley of Purgatory, and the highest highs of Heaven – poised between the real and allegorical meanings of his worldly and otherworldly ordeals and struggling to keep his verse aligned with his vision.
The Divine Comedy is the account of that journey and will always remain a classic work. Dante’s medieval masterpiece examined the integrity of conscience and strength of character that each and every one of us must find in order to become a better person and contribute to making the world a better place.
New Zealand is not exactly what Dante had in mind when he plonked his Purgatory in the middle of an ocean unseen by the people of Western Europe in the 14th century. When Dante finally comes out of Hell’s lockdown to see the stars again he finds himself Down Under, admiring the four stars of the Southern Cross and a-swim in the more favourable waters of the southern hemisphere. In Dante’s imagination, Purgatory is a (painfully slow) mountainous path to Heaven at the antipodes of Jerusalem. Tunnel through the ground beneath modern Jerusalem and you would end up in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The closest landforms are the southern-most islands of French Polynesia, quite some distance from Aotearoa, Rapa Iti being the only populated land near this earthly Eden.
But it’s close enough for us to imagine Middle Earth as the setting of the middle book in Dante’s trilogy. The new anthology More Favourable Waters (published by The Cuba Press, co-edited by myself and Timothy Smith) is a collection of poems written by Aotearoa poets inspired by lines from Dante’s Purgatory.
We’ve chosen 33 poets to help Dante climb the seven levels of Purgatory. Not only is this anthology an original tribute to one of the greatest poets of all time, it also bears witness to the ongoing attraction of Dante to contemporary poets as well as the variety – ethnic, cultural, linguistic, stylistic – that enriches and distinguishes poetry in Aotearoa.
When we approached the poets, we had no idea what the reaction would be. Most replied straight away, deeply excited about being part of the project; some accepted who said they usually turned down such proposals but couldn’t resist; and many had knowledge of the poet and his work. Only one poet turned it down, citing lack of knowledge of Dante’s work, and another accepted and then bailed when they couldn’t kindle the spark that had initially ignited.
Steven Toussaint, whose powerful poem ‘Hillside’ opens the anthology, emailed: “Dante and the Purgatorio in particular have been very important to my spiritual and poetic life for many years.” Jeffrey Paparoa Holman, author of ‘Last exit to Purgatory’, was “honoured to honour the great man, having read my way through the Inferno for a course at City Lit in London during the 1990s”. He told us he’d visited Ravenna and the poet’s tomb.
Vincent O’Sullivan’s readiness “to have a shot at the Dante” has gifted the anthology the 11 elegiac tercets of “Dante gifts McCahon the Southern Cross”. Anna Jackson said, “I would absolutely love to take part in this”, and has also written 11 mesmerising tercets.
Helen Rickerby, who has been “learning Italian for quite a few years” (promising to one day read Dante in the original) and has acutely written about “all sorts of sensations” we feel inside us “when we fall in love”. Kōtuku Nuttall was “very, very interested” and her poem, “Sophrosyne” enters Dante’s world via the world of the Classics she, like Dante, has studied.
Other poets include Reihana Robinson, Vana Manasiadis, Airini Beautrais, David Eggleton and Robert Sullivan. And that’s only some of the 33 Aotearoa poets who have taken on the Dante challenge.
More Favourable Waters edited by Marco Sonzogni and Timothy Smith (The Cuba Press, $25) is available in selected bookstores or directly from the publisher.