James Sale continues his marvel of a Dante-like epic poem
I’ve never said that I’m eagerly awaiting the publication of a new poetry volume or collection. I have said it about a novel by a favorite author, or a new mystery in an enthralling series. Perhaps it’s because poetry has always been something more cerebral or quietly emotional.
Then came poet James Sale and his contemporary epic structured like (and written in open homage to) Dante and his Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso, the three parts of The Divine Comedy. Sale began writing what he called The English Cantos in 2017, and the first volume, HellWard, was published in 2019. Then came the COVID pandemic and Sale’s own health issues.
Four years after HellWard, we now have StairWell, Vol. II of the English Cantos, corresponding to Dante’s Purgatorio. And, yes, I’d heard it was coming. I can now say I eagerly anticipated a work of poetry. I can also say it fully justified my eagerness. StairWell is a marvel of imagination, insight into the human condition, and social commentary.
The journey is a stairwell in the sense of rising upward. Each stair is not so much a step as it is almost a physical place or area, bringing its own challenges and residents for the narrator to meet and understand. He must experience and understand each to find the next upward stair.
Dante included friends, acquaintances, and commentary on Italian society in The Divine Comedy, and Sale follows his example in both HellWard and StairWell. He also follows Dante’s example of a guide for the journey; Dante used the Roman poet Virgil, while Sale uses both Virgil and Dante in StairWell. As the epic poem proceeds, it becomes clear that Sale sees Dante as a superior force. The Florentine poet often takes the lead in various confrontations on the journey, sometimes while both Virgil and narrator Sale cower in fear.
To a significant extent, StairWell is autobiographical. We meet professors, friends, and even Sale’s ex-wife (and he is rather kind to her; this is no “revenge poem”). We find historical and mythological figures. We discover historical and religious allusions.
And we also see the underlying theme of the work to be the bankruptcy of postmodernism. In this scene, the poet and his guides have ascended to the third stair, where they discover a high-tech edifice with postmodernist thought at its heart. A former business colleague of the poet occupies the space. At first friendly, the colleague slyly offers a trap.
From Canto 4: Peer
Might through the slightest wind fall into Not?
All this is sweet philosophy awry;
From human minds whose principles forgot
The first. We go and soon will see just why
Every civilisation mankind’s made,
No matter how glorious or how high,
Descends from high vision to paltry trade,
And last becomes a racket and a cheat
Through which its own citizens dig their grave.’
I looked just where the earth on metal ate
Its root—and where the dingy rust, like red
Slime, penetrated its pristine state.
Forebodings, I felt, of what lay ahead,
As something Preference would like not to see:
All dreams of mankind in ruins, quite dead,
A litter of carnage—called history—
Which cut down to size all the vaunting up;
But I too was human, this too was me!
Sale has been writing poetry for more than 50 years. One might say he’s also been living and breathing poetry for at least that long. In addition to his own writing and readings, he’s been a poetry publisher, a promoter of poets and poetry events, a judge in poetry competitions, a guest poet, a guest writer on poetry, and winner of numerous poetry competitions himself. His poems have been published in magazines and journals in the U.K., Canada, and the U.S. He’s also co-authored three books on poetry for U.K. schools and is a member of the advisory board of the Society for Classical Poets.
StairWell is every bit as good as its predecessor HellWard. It’s almost staggering to see what Sale is accomplishing here — a contemporary epic shaped by Dante but fully its own work. The story is engaging and often riveting; the commentary on culture is sharp and insightful. You will likely never read anything quite like it. Except, perhaps, the epic that inspired it.
How to Read a Poem uses images like the mouse, the hive, the switch (from the Billy Collins poem)—to guide readers into new ways of understanding poems. Anthology included.
“I require all our incoming poetry students—in the MFA I direct—to buy and read this book.”
—Jeanetta Calhoun Mish
- The Poetry Chapbooks of Red Ceilings Press - February 20, 2024
- John Rateliff Delves into the History of “The Hobbit” - February 13, 2024
- Poets and Poems: Claude Wilkinson and “World Without End” - February 6, 2024