James Sale came to my attention at the Society of Classical Poets some years ago. It was there that I first encountered the logic and lucidity of both his poetry and prose.
Sale has been writing and publishing for several decades, but this book Hellward is a major step forward in his craft and ambitions. It is the first volume of a proposed trilogy titled The English Cantos, and it is rooted in Sale’s long-standing fascination with Dante’s Divine Comedy. In fact, in this book Sale himself (as narrator and protagonist) is being guided by Dante through the hospital when Sale was once treated for a very dangerous cancer.
In this “ward,” Sale meets various characters from his life and experience. This is a modern epic loosely patterned on Dante’s great work—hence the title Hellward, which could also be understood as a hellish cancer ward, filled with suffering victims.
Such an idea for a poem would seem daunting to most contemporary poets. But Sale’s clear and logical perception of the world and its follies has led him to take up this challenging task. With Dante as his guide, he leads us straight down to Hell. We pass through several levels, as he encounters and speaks with family members, friends, minor criminals, politicians, and even mass murderers. In a time when narcissistic poetasters rule the roost, who dares to even think of reading, let alone writing such a momentous poem?
Just as Sale was saved from the threat of cancer, so also does his persona in this epic work to save a Western world gone mad with the ugliness, disorganization, and clouded reasoning that we have lived with for more than a century. Hellward connects us again to reason. Sale is essentially a mender, seeking to diagnose the various distempers and derangements of modern society and then show some kind of pathway to escape them and return to sanity and health. In this manner he connects his own return to life (he had a near-death experience in that cancer ward) with a possible revival of our sick society as a whole. His visit to “Hell” Ward is an attempt to come to some better awareness, some healthier outlook, some promise of redemption—just as Dante’s trip to the Inferno was part of a larger goal of human salvation.
Of interest to poets will be Sale’s Canto 11 on modern poetasters. This section really bristles with justified anger and contempt, as these lines show:
Here even Dante wearied at the scene, As if the heaven he was in could not Protect him from writings, low and obscene. To see such scribblings, such vagaries, blots, More like graffiti than serious works, Defacing truth, the while their authors gloat As simians might whose fingers at nits pick; Or primates in their hierarchies might Preen themselves--keen on set-ups for perks!
This is the ire of a serious poet against the hordes of fake writers who have managed to corrupt the literary world with their bogus garbage. And like Dante, Sale reacts with real animus against that which he considers the perversion of something that he holds sacred. For Dante, it was those who had defaced the Church with corruption and venality. For Sale, it is the pack of self-absorbed nitwits who have plagued English and American poetry for far too long.
Hellward is a fine work that proves good literature is hard to kill. Like Dante’s Divine Comedy, this is a book of substance that will last.
You can read Sally Cook’s phenomenal poem “Shadows” here at the Wider Circle.
A former Wilbur Fellow and six-time Pushcart nominee, Sally Cook is a regular contributor to National Review, and has appeared in venues as varied as Chronicles, Lighten Up On Line, and TRINACRIA. Also a painter, her present works in the style known as Magic Realism are represented in national collections such as the N.S.D.A.R. Museum in Washington, D.C. and The Burchfield-Penney, Buffalo, NY.She was recently showcased in the Burchfield-Penney Museum exhibit “In The Fullness Of Time” which covered 150 years of Art in Buffalo and western NY state. She was one of a handful who had two items in the Exhibit and is one of six living artists represented. A popular virtual tour of her retrospective at the State University of New York at Buffalo ART GALLERIES may be found at The Society Of Classical Poets website.