Inferna is a contemporary underworld journey in miniature, told through nine cycles of three poems each, and is the first installment of a planned trilogy that will mirror Dante’s Divine Comedy. The chapters are roughly equivalent to the circles of the underworld as described in Virgil, Dante, and the myth of the Babylonian goddess Inanna. Unlike Inanna, who loses a piece of jewelry or a piece of clothing at each gate, the speaker instead puts on magic and toxic dresses, falls into the arms of cads and criminals, and is propelled forward with keyhole glimpses of nature and the sublime. (To read the full text, click here.)
Praise for Inferna
Welcome to Inferna—the richly textured, mysterious, and strangely knowable world that poet Stefene Russell inhabits so completely. In this poem-cycle’s nine sections—each with its own “tiny outfit,” idiosyncratic boyfriend, and keyhole to peer out of—Russell’s language soars and dives, and the rising and falling of so much sheer music is exhilarating. Her seemingly effortless lines are measured human breaths. They’re smart and they’re felt. Her images are well-honed blades or luxurious blankets; they startle or they comfort—depending. You’ll watch “the shadows / leap and fall on the walls of / the carnival tent.” You’ll hear the mockingbird (hers is an “emergency mockingbird, mind you) “singing to you, the same tune / over and over: that one / about someone stealing your car.” You’ll be a witness “as Peetie Wheatstraw’s / ghost strums / Santa Claus Blues / from a cold / blue star.” Inferna is absolute magic-making at its most lucid. There’s nothing abstract or unduly dreamy about this dream of a life. Russell gives us some remarkable hope: that it is indeed possible to articulate what too often threatens to remain ineffable. And she’s not shy about what she wants out of the deal: “Alleys are my city’s secret pockets. / I want the whole sky and all the wine in your house, / and all the wine in your neighbor’s house.” And why not? Inferna is itself so intoxicating. This is vintage Stefene Russell—and I promise there will be no easy sleeping it off. Hers is one of the most distinctive voices in this or any town. Inferna is a bad dream gone awfully good. Inferna is a flat-out wonder. I’m here stealing one of Russell’s lines from her opening poem on the carnival midway: “Dazzle, Dazzle, Huzzah.” That’s what this book does, and does—and what I’ve been trying to say here all along.
—David Clewell, St. Louis, Missouri’s Second Poet Laureate (2010-2012)
Stefene Russell has stirred the cauldron of Inferna with all the faces and facets of the unanswerable that has pursued humanity since our enshrouded beginnings, and then some. Do nine doors lead to nine rooms? If not, then what are the doors a passageway into and/or out of? If there are nine rooms, what populates them? Are there four walls where the chaos of self and image are bound and bouncing around manically, or infinite walls repeating themselves until they vanish as images in a hall of mirrors even as we send out a SOS as we disappear into cool mercurial worlds? Are the nine tiny outfits, what Alice is wearing as she falls down the rabbit hole of each room? Is she limited to the one pill that makes her smaller? Are the nine boyfriends from Dandy and Yes Man to Pseudoparacelsus, the straw men, the hollow men, doomed to rescue no one not even themselves? The nine keyholes, shape and limit what we see of this vast universe as we stare through. How little we truly understand, doomed to be blinded as soon as a key is inserted to unlock each room. What is left in this amazing and challenging poem sequence, which is really a braided rope, “threads all spun from the filaments/of a cold and pulsing nebula.” Stefene Russell in Inferna “. . .sings one thousand songs a night./. . .sings the blurry fretting of night doves./. . .sings stuck hinges . . .” and never stops, leaving the reader jubilanty searching as he/she juggles the infernal questions of and at the heart of the human condition.
—Walter Bargen, Missouri’s First Poet Laureate (2008-2010)
Inferna is a fire of transformation, the painful passage between possible states of existence, in the infinity of potential selves both imagined by the speaker and imposed by social juries and intimate adversaries. A pharmacopeia of emotional potions and poisons, a periodic table of basic elements and missing essentials for a satisfied life, it leaps gulfs of concrete knowledge and ephemeral lore in alchemy of understanding. A blinding blaze of being and a beacon of far truth, these pages burn past themselves in flashes of inspiration and scorched paths of sad wisdom. Lighting a way in the lush, primeval menace of misheard fairytales and the forbidding, glorious perils of unrhapsodized nature, Inferna is crucible and chronicle of what we must walk through to what we might be.
—Adam McGovern, www.HiLoBrow.com
Stefene Russell says she belongs to the kaleidoscope school of poetry, but I think it belongs to her—nowhere in contemporary verse have I seen the newness of language, the tenacity of speaker and the vivaciousness of the imagery mixed so gellingly. Russell’s Inferna is a poem-cycle worth getting lost inside.
—Travis Mossotti, 2011 May Swenson Poetry Award Winner