Enthusiastic and Erudite

Dante's Inferno
, Philip Terry (Carcanet)

Ted Berrigan takes the place of Virgil conducting the poet Terry, in this wonderfully satirical and scatological update of Dante's Inferno, set on the campus of the University of Essex, bringing in a wide range of characters and reference - including many to Terry's home-town of Belfast - in this modern survey of the twenty four great circles of hell. Terry's great poetical gift - apart from a strong element of elegant craftsmanship in his work - is his ability to speak both to 'the mainstream' and to 'the experimenters', an unusual talent which works to great effect here as elsewhere in his writing.

One of the notable facts about the University of Essex is the exceptionally large number of poets it has spawned and its association with some of the major names of  twentieth century British and American poetry is legendary: Donald Davie; Robert Lowell; Tom Raworth; Jeremy Reed; Ed Dorn; Douglas Oliver; Elaine Feinstein; Tony Lopez; Anna Mendelssohn; Kelvin Corcoran and arguably Terry himself - on the strength of this collection - are among those who have either taught or been students at Essex. Its early reputation for far-left politics and its consequent high-profile reputation, whether scandalous or admirable (in relation to its high proportion of working-class and international students) make it a suitable place to set an update of Dante's epic masterpiece.

Terry's mix of elegant narrative and vernacular speech is a delight to read and the book is filled with references from both popular and high culture and, in fact, from no culture at all. Nobody, I suspect is going to pick up all the allusions though I'm sure there are a few polymaths who will get close and there may be those who feel a bit uneasy in approaching this book at all in case they perceive themselves as being represented in a less than positive light. In this sense there is a parallel with John Hartley Williams's
A Poetry Inferno (2011) and the title is hardly accidental. Few of the participants in this vigorous melee come out smelling of roses and that's exactly what you'd expect in a book called Dante's Inferno.

I'm not going to provide a long commentary here - this is a short review but hope to whet your appetite with a few choice 'clips' from this impressive and very readable slice of modern shenanigans. If it's inevitably a dark survey it's also a page-turner, not something typical of serious modern poetry and especially poetry which tips its cap towards the 'experimental' end of the spectrum. As I've already suggested, Terry is rare in this respect as he combines this trait with an entertainment aspect which some would probably be scornful of but which I, for one, feel is a triumph.

     Here the Essex Harpies twine their nests,
     Whose namesakes chased the Trojans
     From the Strophades, with prophecies of doom,

     A mutant breed, sired at Bradwell,
     Where the reactor leaks its waste
     Into the Blackwater.

     Wide wings they have, necks and faces of women,
     Their feet are clawed like falcon.
     Their fat bellies feathered.
          (from CANTO XIII)

The mixing of classical literature with common parlance is well-achieved and adds to the brew in a manner which not all re-workings of the past manage. Terry's commenting on the here-and-now has its scabrous side and is much the better for it but there's also a more reflective, melancholy aspect, which hints at the sadness of the human condition and I don't mean that to be a clichˇ.

     I stretch out my neck to look down,
     But doing so only made me more apprehensive,
     For beneath me I could see nothing but

     A city of flames, full of fearful cries
     And lamentings, and I drew back tightening
     My grip. And then I saw what I had not

     Been able to till then: the spiral path
     Of our descent, like that of a jet coming in
     To Stanstead, that has to kill time before

     The runway is clear, and as we went down
     I saw torment heaped upon torment
     Closing in on us from every side.

     The tree spirit brought us down gently,
     Before a building that resembled a
     Multi-storey car park, and here we alighted.

     Unburdened, the ghost shot off, like an arrow from a bowstring.
          (from CANTO XVII)

You can approach this book from many levels and there's something here for the erudite scholar as well as for the enthusiastic reader. It can't be easy to use an existing text with such a long-lived reputation as a starting point but Terry has done a wonderful job here, I think. The fact that both Marina Warner and the late Seamus Heaney feature in the back-cover tributes only add to the commendation. This is a terrific book, a good read as well as a thoughtful and sardonic 'polemic'.

      © Steve Spence 2014