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Purgatorio Re-Placed by Alex Selenitsch

The thought of re-writing a timeless classic text is enough to fill anyone with a sense of trepidation. Yet, despite tackling arguably the most challenging epic poem of them all - Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’ Trilogy - Alex Selenitsch has modernised the language and the premise while maintaining all 33 cantos of Dante’s Purgatorio masterpiece. Using Dorothy Sayers’ translation as the stimulus edition, the Australian poet explores modern life, love, and finding the poetic voice:

Like an exhausted sheep

I sink to the floor

between my two shepherds

and note there is

a silence after composition

during which the work is released

Reading the text is not always a simple task - but then neither is the original Dante. The narrative flits and moves without predictability and there are definite moments where the poetry lacks the momentum of other more engaging moments. However, with page after unnumbered page of poetry the epic size of the task is not hard to be awed by.

Alighieri wrote three books as part of the Divine Comedy, the most famous of which is the first, Inferno. In it, the descent into hell is mapped through multiple layers and each explained as being more sinister and yet more vibrantly described than the last. In Purgatorio the second of the three, Alighieri continues this underworld theme but gives more of a narrative ‘waiting room’ effect before the final book of the trilogy opens up to a tumultuous imagined underworld.In the original Purgatorio, Dante climbs the Mount of Purgatory with the trusted guide of the Roman Poet Virgil and represents the penance of Christian life. He uses the sins in life come about through disordered and excessive love.

In the modern version, the mountain is flattened to be the continent of Australia and there is much more emphasis on the interior of the poet, the search for the voice in poetry. Taking the imagery from the original, Selenitsch brings environmental issues for Australia in a post-bush fire world and incorporates other pressing issues into the pages of poetry.

The fragrance of a garden

opening out its blooms

overtakes my senses

wings brush across

my forehead for the usual

removal, and the voice

continues “Creativity will

blossom if ego is ignored.”

I know this now.

Overall, the book is evocative in the expression of the challenges that we face in modern society. Like Alighieri, Selenitsch is keen to point out the errors of the modern world and the materialistic tendencies that we have as 21st century citizens. However, unlike the original, the Christian life is not so powerfully endorsed. It is much more of an introspective look at the person, rather than the deity, to live by. A challenging but very rewarding read.

Reviewer: Chris Reed

Life Before Man


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