Poetry, hell and the environment; all in a limited edition

July 27, 2009 - Edmonton - An unusual new book by three University of Alberta professors loosely based on the epic Dante's Inferno recently took the top prize in the limited-editions section of

05 August 2009

July 27, 2009 - Edmonton - An unusual new book by three University of Alberta professors loosely based on the epic Dante's Inferno recently took the top prize in the limited-editions section of the prestigious national Alcuin book design competition. The book, Darkfire, is a collection of images and poems commenting on ecology and environmental destruction.

"People are so concerned about preserving the environment or not destroying what's left. This book brings those issues to the forefront in a very poetic and artistic way, rather than in a scientific way," Darkfire's designer and art and design professor Sue Colberg said.

Sean Caulfield, U of A printmaking professor, spent three years creating images that he sent his colleague, U of A English and Film Studies professor Jonathan Hart, who then wrote poems to complement each image. The result is a 16x20-inch hand-printed book, of which there are only six copies. Darkfire was on exhibit at the Tokyo International Book Fair in July. The book was also showcased this year at the Leipzig International Book Design Competition Germany, which is considered by its Frankfurt-based curators as the "best book design [venue] from all over the world".

"Many of the images in Dante's Inferno were based on ancient myths, which have been part of the development of western and other cultures, and they seem to have a resonance today. I think it is useful to consider our lives today with this larger context in mind," Caulfield said. Dante's Inferno is an epic poem, which forms the first part of Dante's text, The Devine Comedy. It is an allegory that tells of Dante's journey through Hell, which is depicted as nine circles of suffering.

Caulfied said Darkfire, on the other hand, is not meant to be didactic in relation to giving an environment message, but that the book presents opportunities for reflection.

"Darkfire's allegory can be viewed in one sense as saying that one often has to go through suffering in order to re-emerge into a higher state of understanding. Perhaps we can extend this to society, and hope the same can happen as we face our current challenges," Caulfield said.

"Hopefully the book provides more of a reflective space where someone can consider all kinds of changes and transformations that occur in or daily lives, some linked to environmental degradation, others simply occurring," he said.

Hart accompanied each of the 10 images in Darkfire with a poem. For one of the images, Hart wrote: "The place where I swam as a child, there but gone / The beach and cliffs eroding, and the Natives / Are howling, their spirits sunk in this Stygian," suggesting the punishments for the presumed sin of environmental destruction, of which Hart said the evidence is readily available.

"This reimagining in text and images makes Dante contemporary in our lives and art. Here, in the landscape of Alberta is destruction, not some distant suffering in the past. Our environmental sins are visited on our children," he said.

But in the Inferno, from the less serious sins-in the first circle of Dante's hell to the most serious, Cocytus-the last circle representing the last stage of suffering, the suffering is personal. Hart accepts that the same cannot be said for the environment however wherein the consequences of the damage or sin is experienced by others than those who are responsible.

"We all suffer as a community, so this is a collective original sin for which we all suffer. We need to clean up for neighbours and ourselves," Hart said. "The punishment is to suffer for poisoning the body and soul, land and air," he said.

Colberg said Darkfire offers a different way of communicating concerns about the environment that resonates at a much deeper level than the usual scientific arguments presented in the media. "The book uses images to move people to thought, action and virtue in the face of the waste we have made," Hart said.

"Our book discusses the environment and other aspects of the human experience, as found in Dante's Inferno. Although we have more means and technology to destroy, we have great means to clean up the mess," he said.

Unlike Dante's Inferno, which is characterized by suffering, Paradiso-the last part of Dante's Devine Comedy, features the four cardinal virtues; prudence, courage, justice and restraint, and Caulfield suggests the first two of those virtues could be useful in our relation with the environment.

"Change is the nature of existence. Perhaps appreciating more strongly our interconnection with the world around us is a kind of salvation," Caulfield said. "I suppose not doing this is a kind of punishment, but I never really liked that word."