‘…Without faith, / There’d be no return, no embrace of light, /No knowledge ever of what is real…’
Divine Comedies is a collection of intense lyrical poems on the themes of Dante’s masterpiece: The Divine Comedy. In this collection, James Sale combines the lyricism and spirituality of his collections Inside the Whale and The Lyre Speaks True with the darker narratives of hell and psychological suffering. Meditative, concentrated, and transformative, his poetry engages in a modern way with the ancient concept of life-after-death and explores what this might mean in our increasingly secular world.
Divine Comedies is something of a prelude to The English Cantos and even includes an updated version of the first canto. You can see creative responses to Divine Comedies below, including video and audio performances of poems from the collection.
Cover artwork by Linda Sale. For more info, or to purchase a copy, visit Lulu.
Divine Comedies will at first seem a far cry from the confessional, formless poetry in vogue today at so many writing programs, workshops, slam events, and so forth. But these poems are inspired only in part by Dante.
Some of these verses must be read two, three, or ten times—or even performed—to fully grasp them. Since I’ve directed a lot of Shakespeare plays, I have spent years coaching actors in how to make such rich language accessible through a single performance. And interpretation means analysis, after all, which involves investment of time and investigation of text: Who is speaking? to whom? where? why? And why place these words in this particular form, where no added words, and no adjustment to form, would work?
For an illustration of what I am talking about, check out the video of me performing “Exit from Hell,” perhaps the finest poem in this collection (though I am partial), at englishcantos.home.blog/divine-comedies/. The text might still be a bit mysterious, but I hope you find the piece “appropriately evocative”—like a scene in the middle of a play, where resolution is still, intentionally, wanting. It took me many hours to arrive at this degree of personalization. But all the questions I pondered were suggested by the text itself. In so doing, I decided that the poem’s ambiguities were intentional. So, rather than asking the poet, “whaddaya mean by” such-and-such, I forged ahead and made choices. This sort of ambiguity, Leonard Bernstein tells us, is what makes art—art.
My favorite two poems from the collection are shorter and sweeter (and, coincidentally, lie on back-to-back pages): “Killing Pains,” a humorous list poem (cf. Dorothy Parker), and “It Didn’t Have to Happen,” about World War One (cf. Wilfred Owen and Rupert Brooke). These two droll delights do not reference the Dante scenario, by the way; each presents a complete world of its own.
If you read Divine Comedies in a day or two, you will find that it is about more than a journey to Hell. And that something happened in poet James Sales’s life that compelled him to take us on this trip—and back again. Which is what only art, God, and a really great doctor can do, after all.
-James B. Nicola
Theresa Rodriguez performs a heartfelt reading of “Not So Far Away” from Divine Comedies. Christopher Marlowe once highlighted, in his 1592 play Dr Faustus, that Satan’s greatest punishment was having been in the direct presence of God, and now being distant from him. Knowing what it felt like to be in God’s aura, but now being denied it. This poem encapsulates the pain of being far from those we love, both physically, spiritually and emotionally.
According to Dante, above the portal to hell are the words: “Abandon hope, ye who enter here”. This poem shows us how the ultimate hell is the abandonment of hope, the despair that means we can never change. This poem is hauntingly read by J. D. Wallace. A reading that captures the complexity and nuance of the language as well as the character and “voice” of the poem.
Sometimes, in dire moments, Hell comes to Earth. As the poet and playwright Christopher Marlowe observed: ‘Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it.’ Pascoe Sawyers, author and DJ, performs an incredible reading of “Hell Arrives in Manchester”.
In hell, we do not sleep. We can never rest from the turmoils of our own wracked consciousness. Steve Feltham delivers an outstanding reading of “Wishing We Could Sleep” from Divine Comedies.
The American poet James B. Nicola reads “Exit From Hell”, from Divine Comedies. After the descent, comes the ascent, towards Purgatory, and eventually: light itself.
“The Calling”, a poem by James Sale, read by Pat Yates. This poem is the first of the third and final section of Divine Comedies “Entering Heaven”. It speaks to the inner voice we all hear, and can follow, if we dare.
Evan Mantyk, President of the Society of Classical Poets, reads “It Didn’t” from Divine Comedies.
“Let Us Descend”, a poem by James Sale from his collection Divine Comedies, read by his son, Joseph Sale. The poem is taken from the lines by Dante: “Let us descend into the sightless world” (Inferno 6:13).
For more audio readings, you can visit the Mindflayer’s SoundCloud.