Pier Paolo Pasolini
…the body was lying face down, in parallel
it was united with the Vatican.
One hand bloodied, stretched, middle finger up at the PCI
and the other brandishing his genitales
to the art specialists.
The blood on his hair leeches
on the veiled homosexuality syndromes
of men all around the earth.
His face disfigured by the frames
of the class he denied
bruised volunteer of the ragged proletariat.
The fingers of his left hand
broken by socialist realism
thrown at floodlit garbage.
The jaw broken
by the uppercut of a worker syndicalist
and paid thug.
The ears half-eaten by scoundrel who did not get an erection.
The neck broken, detached from the body
on the basic principle of operating separately.
The mother everywhere.
That was the death of the communist and homosexual
PASOLINI, that every monday, wednesday and friday,
riding a scooter was rushing to get the screenings
on time at the cinemas of Egaleo, Liverpool and,
above all, Ostia, bound with boxes of films
and impoverished neighbourhoods.
And the striped flag of poetry.
* * *
The day after Pier Paolo Pasolini’s violent 1975 murder, L’Unità, the Italian Communist Party’s (PCI) newspaper, described him as “vero militante,” a true militant. Just a few decades prior, a column in the same paper caused Pasolini’s expulsion from the PCI.
In 1949, local party leader Ferdinando Mautino denounced the “deleterious influences of certain ideological and philosophical trends of the various Gides and Sartres … who pose as progressives, but in reality welcome the most deleterious aspects of bourgeois degeneration.” The PCI threw Pasolini out on account of these “deleterious influences,” but the real issue was his homosexuality.
A heterodox communist, Pasolini remained a fellow traveler of the Communist Party for his entire adult life. His complicated relationship with the PCI mirrored his interactions with the rest of the Left in Italy and abroad, which ranged from his skeptical support for student movements to his almost uncritical infatuation with the American New Left.
[…] Unlike a number of other Italian leftist intellectuals, many of whom had a quasi-mythic vision of the working class and the underclass or saw them as monolithic, Pasolini actually knew the people he wrote about. If his views sometimes had a subtle traditionalism, they did not fall into the ignorance of vast sectors of the Left or what he called in an article on Israel–Palestine the “[Communists’] traditional and never admitted hatred against lumpenproletariats and poor populations.” In 1959, he invited the PCI to become “‘the party of the poor people’: the party, we may say, of the lumpenproletarians.”
[…] As a nonorganic, heterodox intellectual of the Italian left, Pasolini understood before many others what role the intellectual would play not only in Italy but in the rest of the Western world. In one of the first issues of Officina, a cultural and political magazine that he created in 1959, he wrote that Marxist intellectuals were essentially living a contradiction. They spoke to a bourgeois class that did not want to listen. This situation required intellectuals to become spiritual guides. According to Pasolini this process was complete by 1968: the Left — not to mention the PCI — no longer had cultural hegemony. Instead, it belonged to industry. “The intellectual,” he wrote, “is where the cultural industry places him: why and how the market wants him.”
* * *
His assassination in 1975 made the poet a myth; let us pass over this. What did Pasolini the man desire? “Throw your body into the fight,” he said a decade earlier. He who thought that “only communism was able to provide a new true culture”, capable of interpreting “the of whole existence”, bequeaths us a most dense literary, poetic and cinematographic work. Pasolini, a good client of the courts (for “obscenity” or “outrage to religion”), thus stepped forward as a fierce and melancholy critic of mercantile, productivist and capitalist modernity.
“I harbor a visceral, deep, irreducible, hatred against the bourgeoisie, against its sufficiency, its vulgarity; a mythical hatred, or, if you prefer, religious.” (Interviews with Pier Paolo Pasolini, with Jean Duflot, Pierre Belfond Publishing, 1970)
“When I was a child, the bourgeoisie, at the most delicate moment of my existence, excluded me: it put me on the list of reprobates, of other people [allusion to his homosexuality, ed]: and I can not forget it anymore. It left me with a feeling of offense, precisely, the perception of an evil: the same that a black man must have when he walks on Fifth Avenue. It is not a pure coincidence that, driven out of the center of the cities, I found consolation in their suburbs.”(Heretical Empiricism, Garzanti, 1972)
“I love life fiercely, desperately. And I believe that this ferocity, this despair, will bring me to my end. I love the sun, the grass, youth. The love of life has become a vice in me more tenacious than cocaine. I devour my existence with an insatiable appetite. How will all of this end? I do not know. (“Tete-a-tete with Pier Paolo Pasolini”, Louis Valentin, Lui, April 1970)
“However, I want to say that if I am a Marxist, this Marxism has always been extremely critical of official Communists, especially with regard to the PCI; I have always been a minority outside the Party since my first book of poetry, The Ashes of Gramsci.”(Interviews with Pier Paolo Pasolini, with Jean Duflot, Pierre Belfond Publishing, 1970)
“I am not Catholic ideologically and I am not a believer, so I do not see why my rationalization of the irrational must be Catholic, my rationalization is Marxist.” (Cited by René de Ceccatty, Pasolini, Gallimard, 2005)
“The bourgeois – let’s say it with wit – is a vampire, who is not at peace until he has bitten the neck of his victim for pure, natural and familiar pleasure, to see her become pale, sad, ugly, lifeless, twisted, corrupt, worried, guilty, calculating, aggressive, terrorizing, like him. […] The time has come to recognize that it is not enough to consider the bourgeoisie as a social class, but as a disease; henceforth, to regard it as a social class is even ideologically and politically an error (and that even through the purest and most intelligent instruments of Marxism-Leninism). In fact, the history of the bourgeoisie – by means of a technological civilization, which neither Marx nor Lenin could have foreseen – is about to concretely coincide with the totality of world history.” (“Against Terror”, Tempo, August 6, 1969)
* * *
WE ARE ALL IN DANGER : THE LAST INTERVIEW WITH PASOLINI
This interview took place on Saturday, November 1, 1975, between four and six in the evening, a few hours before Pasolini’s assassination. I want to emphasize that the title as it appears was his, and not of my own making. As a matter of fact, at the end of the conversation, which, as in the past found us on opposite sides of certain points, I asked him if he wanted to give me a title for the interview. He thought about it a while, said it was not important, changed topic, and then something brought us back to the subject that had emerged time and again in the answers that follow. “Here is the seed, the sense of everything – he said -. You don’t even know who, right at this moment, might be thinking of killing you. Use this as a title, if you like: ‘Because, we are all in danger.’”
Furio Colombo: Pasolini, in your articles and in your writings you have given various accounts of what you detest. You have carried out a solitary struggle against so many things: institutions, trends, people and power. So as to make things easier I will refer to it all as the “situation,” by which you know that I mean the whole of which you generally battle. Let me propose one objection. The “situation,” with all its evils as you describe it, also contains all that makes Pasolini possible. What I mean is that, even with all your talent and merit, your tools are provided by the “situation”: publishing, cinema, organization, even objects. Let’s say that yours is a magic thought. One little gesture and everything that you detest disappears. What about you, then, would you not be left all alone and without any of the tools you need? I mean, the means or tools of expression, I mean…
Pier Paolo Pasolini: I understand. But I not only attempt to achieve that magic thought process, I believe in it. Not as a way to mediate with the world, but because I know that by constantly hitting the same nail on the head one can possibly make a whole house fall down. We find a small example of this among the Radical Party, a motley crew who is able to influence the whole country You know that I don’t always agree with them, but I am about to leave right now for their conference. Most of all, it’s history that gives us the best example. Contestation has always been an essential act. Saints, hermits and intellectuals, those few who have made history, are the ones who have said “no,” not the courtesans and Cardinals’ assistants. So as to be meaningful, contestation must be large, major and total, “absurd” and not in a good sense. It cannot merely be on this or that point. Eichmann had a good lot of good sense. What was he lacking then? He did not say “no” right away, at the beginning, when he was a mere administrator, a bureaucrat. He might have said to some of his friends “I don’t really like Himmler.” He might have whispered something, the way it’s done in publishing firms, newspaper offices, in sub-government, in the newsrooms. Or he might even have objected to the fact that some train had stopped once a day for the deported to do their business, for bread and water, when two stops might have been more practical and economic. But he never stopped the machine. And so, there are three arguments to make here: what is what you call the “situation,” why should we halt it or destroy it, and how?
FC: Well, describe the “situation” then. You know very well that your observations and your language are like the sun shining through the dust. It’s a beautiful image, but things are sometimes a little unclear.
PPP: I thank you for the sun image, but expect much less than that. All I want is that you look around and take notice of the tragedy. What is the tragedy? It’s that there are no longer any human beings; there are only some strange machines that bump up against each other. And we intellectuals look at old train schedules and say: “strange, shouldn’t these trains run by there. How come they crashed like that? Either the engineer has lost his mind, or he is a criminal. Or, even better, it’s all a conspiracy.” We are particularly pleased with conspiracies because they relieve us of the weight of having to deal with the truth head on. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if, while we are here talking, someone in the basement were making plans to kill us? It’s easy, it’s simple, and it’s the resistance. We might lose a few friends, but then we’ll gather our forces and wipe them out. A little for us, a little for them, don’t you think? And I know that when they show Paris is burning on TV everyone sits there with tears in their eyes, wishing only that history would repeat itself, but cleanly and beautifully. The effect of time is that it washes thing clean, like the walls of a house in the rain. It’s simple, I’m on this side, and you’re on the other. Let’s not joke about the blood, the pain, the work that people then too paid with so as to “have a choice.” When one keeps one’s face flat against that hour, that minute in history, choice is always a tragedy. But let’s admit it, it was easier then. With courage and conscience, a normal man can always reject a Fascist of Salò or a Nazi of the SS, even from his interior life (where the revolution always begins). But today it’s different. Someone might come walking toward you dressed like a friend, very friendly and polite, but he is a “collaborator” (let’s say for a TV station). The reasoning goes that first of all he needs to make a living somehow, and then because it’s not like he’s hurting anyone. Another one, or others, the groups, come toward you aggressively with their ideological blackmail, their admonitions, their sermons, and their anathemas that are also threats. They march with flags and slogans, but what separates them from “power”?
FC: Well, what is power in your opinion? Where is it? How does one cause it to reveal itself?
PPP: Power is an educational system that divides us into subjects and subjected. Nevertheless, it is an educational system that forms us all, from the so-called ruling class all the way down to the poorest of us. That’s why everyone wants the same things and everyone acts in the same way. If I have access to an administrative council or a Stock Market maneuver, that’s what I use. Otherwise I use a crowbar. And when I use a crowbar, I’ll use whatever means to get what I want. Why do I want it? Because I’ve been told that it is a virtue to have it. I am merely exercising my virtue-rights. I am a murderer but I am a good person.
FC: You have been accused of not being able to make political or ideological distinctions. It is said that you have lost the ability of differentiating the sign of the deep difference that there is between Fascists and non-Fascists, among the new generations for example.
PPP: That’s what I was talking about when I mentioned the train schedules before. Have you ever seen those marionettes that make children laugh so much because their body faces one direction while their heads face another? I think Totò was quite adept at such a trick. Well, that’s how I see that wonderful troop of intellectuals, sociologists, experts and journalists with the most noble of intentions. Things happen here, and their heads are turned in the opposite direction. I’m not saying that there is no Fascism. What I’m saying is: don’t talk to me of the sea while we are in the mountains. This is a different landscape. There is a desire to kill here. And this desire ties us together as sinister brothers of the sinister failure of an entire social system. I too would like it if it were easy to isolate the black sheep. I too see the black sheep. I see quite a lot of them. I see all of them. That’s the problem, as I said to Moravia: given the life I lead, I pay a price… it’s like a descent into hell. But when I come back – if I come back – I’ve seen other things, more things. I’m not asking you to believe me. I’m saying that you always find yourselves changing topic so as to avoid facing the truth.
FC: And what is the truth?
PPP: I’m sorry I used that word. What I wanted to say was “evidence.” Let me re-order things. First tragedy: a common education, obligatory and wrong, that pushes us all into the same arena of having to have everything at all costs. In this arena we are pushed along like some strange and dark army in which some carry cannons and others carry crowbars. Therefore, the first classical division is to “stay with the weak.” But what I say is that, in a certain sense, everyone is weak, because everyone is a victim. And everyone is guilty, because everyone is ready to play the murderous game of possession. We have learned to have, possess and destroy.
FC: Let me go back to the first question then. You magically abolish everything. But you live from books, and you need intelligent people who read… educated consumers of an intellectual product. You are a filmmaker and, as such, you need large venues (you are very successful, and are “consumed” avidly by your public), but also an extensive technical, managerial and industrial machine that is in the midst of it all. If you remove all of this, with a sort of magical paleo-catholic and neo- chinese monasticism, what’s left?
PPP: Everything. I am what is left, being alive, being in the world, a place to see, work and understand. There are hundreds of ways to tell the stories, to listen to the languages, to reproduce dialects, to make puppetry. The others are left with much more. They can keep pace with me, cultured like me or ignorant like me. The world becomes bigger, everything is ours and there is no need to use the Stock Market, the administrative council or the crowbar to plunder. You see, in the world that we dreamed about (let me repeat myself: reading old train schedules from either a year or thirty years ago), there was the awful landlord in a top-hat and dollars pouring out of his pockets, and the emaciated widow and her children who begged for mercy, as in Brecht’s beautiful world.
FC: Are you saying that you miss that world?
PPP: No! My nostalgia is for those poor and real people who struggled to defeat the landlord without becoming that landlord. Since they were excluded from everything, they remained uncolonized. I am afraid of these Black revolutionaries who are the same as their landlords, equally criminal, who want everything at any cost. This gloomy ostentation toward total violence makes it hard to distinguish to which “side” one belongs. Whoever might be taken to an Emergency Ward close to death is probably more interested in what the doctors have to tell him about his chances of living than what the police might have to say about the mechanism of the crime. Be assured that I am neither condemning intentions nor am I interested in the chain of cause and effect: them first, him first, or who is the primary guilty party. I think we have defined what you called the “situation.” It’s like it rains in the city and the gutters are backed up. The water rises, but the water is innocent, it’s rainwater. It has neither the fury of sea, nor the rage of river current. But, for some reason, it rises instead of falling. It’s the same water of so many adolescent poems and of the cutesy songs like “singing in the rain.” But it rises and it drowns you. If that’s where we are, I say let’s not waste time placing nametags here and there. Let’s see then how we can unplug this tub before we all drown.
FC: And to get there you would want everyone to be ignorant and happy little unschooled shepherds?
PPP: Put in those terms it would be absurd. But the educational system as it is cannot but produce desperate gladiators. The masses are growing, as is desperation and rage. Let’s say that I’ve flung a boutade (but I don’t think so), what else can you come up with? Of course I lament a pure revolution led by oppressed peoples whose only goal is to free themselves and run their own lives. Of course I try to imagine that such a moment might still be possible in Italian and world history. The best of what I imagine might even inspire one of my future poems. But not what I know and what I see. I want to say it plain and clear: I go down into hell and I see things that do not disturb the peace of others. But be careful. Hell is rising toward the rest of you. It’s true that it dreams its own uniform and its own justification (sometimes). But it’s also true that its desire, its need to hit back, to assault, to kill, is strong and wide-ranging. The private and risky experience of those who have touched “the violent life” will not be available for long. Don’t be fooled. And you are, along with the educational system, television, your pacifying newspapers, the great keepers of this horrendous order founded on the concept of possession and the idea of destruction. Luckily, you seem to be happy when you can tag a murder with its own beautiful description. This to me is just another one of mass culture’s operations. Since we can’t prevent certain things from happening, we find peace in constructing shelves where to keep them.
FC: But to abolish also means to create, unless you too are a destroyer. What happens to the books, for example? I certainly don’t want to be one of those people who is anguished by the loss of culture more than for people. But these people saved in your vision of a different world can no longer be primitive (an accusation often leveled at you) and if we don’t want to repress “more advanced”…
PP: Which makes me cringe.
FC: If we don’t want to fall back on commonplaces, there must be some sort of clue. For example, in science fiction, as in Nazism, book burning is always the first step in the massacres. Once you’ve shut down the schools, and abolished television, how do you animate your world?
PPP: I think I already covered this with Moravia. Closing or abolishing in my language means, “to change.” But change in a drastic and desperate manner such as the situation dictates. What really prevents a real dialogue with Moravia, but more so with Firpo, for example, is that somehow we are not seeing the same scene, we don’t know the same people, and that we do not hear the same voices. For you and them, things happen when it’s news, beautifully written, formatted, cut and titled. But what’s underneath it all? What is missing is a surgeon who has the courage to examine the tissue and declare: gentlemen, this is cancer, and it is not benign. What is cancer? It’s something that changes all the cells, which causes them to grow in a haphazard manner, outside of any previous logic. Is a cancer patient who dreams the same healthy body that he had before nostalgic, even if before he was stupid and unlucky? Before the cancer, I mean. First of all, one would have to make quite an effort to re-establish the same image. I listen to all the politicians and their little formulas, and it drives me insane. They don’t seem to know what country they are talking about; they are as distant as the Moon. And the same goes for the writers, sociologists and experts of all sorts.
FC: Why do you think that some things are so much evident for you?
PPP: I don’t want to talk about myself any more. Maybe I’ve said too much already. Everyone knows that I pay for my experiences in person. But there are also my books and my films. Maybe I’m wrong, but I’ll keep on saying that we are all in danger.
FC: Pasolini, if that’s how you see life – I don’t know if you will accept this question – how do you hope to avoid the risk and danger involved?
It’s late, Pasolini did not turn on any lights and it’s become hard to take notes. We look over what I’ve written. Then he asks me to leave the questions with him.
PPP: There are some statements that seem a little too absolute. Let me think about it, let me look them over. And give me the time to come up with a concluding remark. I have something in mind for your question. I find it easier to write than to talk. I’ll give you the notes that I’ll add on tomorrow morning.
The next day, Sunday, Pasolini’s body was in the morgue of the Rome police station.
Translated by Pasquale Verdicchio
Poetry made to order is a device
The device maker can produce many
(only tiring himself out from the manual labor).
The subject can, at times, be ironic:
the device always is.
Gone are the days when I, a voracious economizer,
would spend everything, investing my money (a lot of it,
since semen was my currency, and I always had an erection)
buying up greatly undervalued sectors
that would turn a profit some two or three centuries hence.
I was Ptolemaic (being just a kid)
and counted eternity, you guessed it, in centuries.
I considered the earth the center of the universe,
and poetry the center of the world.
This was all very fine and logical.
Besides, what reason did I have not to believe
that everyone was not like me?
Then, in fact, they all proved to be better than me,
and I turned out to belong to an inferior race.
I returned the compliment
and realized I no longer wanted to write poetry. Now, however,
now that the vocation is gone
but not life, not life—
now that inspiration, when it comes, does not yield any verse—
please, I want you all to know that I’m here, ready
to provide poetry made to order: devices.*
*Even explosive ones. (Author’s footnote.)
The Poetry of Tradition
O unlucky generation!
What will happen tomorrow, if this ruling class—
when first learning the ropes
they didn’t know the poetry of tradition
it was an unhappy experience for them, because without
a realistic smile, it remained inaccessible to them
and even with what little they did know about it, they had to show
that yes, they wanted to know it, but from a distance, from the sidelines.
O unlucky generation!
In the winter of ’70 you wore outlandish overcoats and shawls
and you became spoiled—
who taught you not to feel inferior?—
you repressed your divinely childish uncertainties—
he who is not aggressive is an enemy of the people! Ah!
Books, old books, passed before your eyes
like the possessions of an old enemy;
you felt obligged not to give in
to a beauty born of forgotten injustices;
deep down you were devoted to the same fine feelings
you fought off just as you fought off beauty
with a racial hatred of anything passionate;
you came into the world, which is big and yet so simple,
and you found people who laughed at tradition,
and you took that falsely ribald irony literally,
erecting youthful barriers against the dominant class of the past . . .
Youth passes quickly; O unlucky generation,
you shall reach your middle years and then old age
without having enjoyed what you had a right to enjoy,
which cannot be enjoyed without anguish and humility,
and thus you shall realize that you served the very world
against which you “carried on the struggle“:
for it was they who wanted to discredit history—their own;
it was they who wanted to make a clean sweep of the past—their own;
and you obeyed by disobeying! O unlucky generation!
That world asked its new children to help it
contradict itself, in order to go on;
and one day you shall wake up old, without any love of books or life,
perfect inhabitans of a world renewed
by its reactions and repressions—yes, yes, it’s true—
but renewed especially by you, you who rebelled
just as it, the Automaton as All, wanted you to do;
your eyes didn’t fill with tears
over a Baptistry with caporioni and apprentices
toiling from season to season,
you had no tears for Cinquecento octaves,
no tears (intellectual tears, springing from pure reason)
you didn’t know or recognize the tabernacles of your forebears,
nor the abodes of the fathers and masters, as painted by . . .
—and all those other sublime things—
you don’t give a start (or shed hot tears) at the sound
of a line by an anonymous Symbolist poet born in . . .
The class struggle nurtured you and forbade you to cry:
you spent your youth
resisting everything that wasn’t about fine feelings
and hopeless ferocity,
and if you were intellectuals,
you didn’t want to be through and through,
whereas that was your true task, among so many others.
Why this betrayal?
For love of the worker . . . But nobody asks the worker
not to be a worker through and through.
The workers didn’t cry in front of old masterpieces
but they also didn’t commit treachery leading to blackmail
and thus to unhappiness
O unlucky generation
you shall weep but shed only lifeless tears
because you may not even know how to go back
to what you never lost, since you never had it;
poor generation, as Calvinist as at the birth of the bourgeoisie,
pettily pragmatic, childishly active
you sought salvation in organization
(which can only produce more organization)
and spent the days of your youth
speaking the language of democratic bureaucracy
never once abandoning the repetition of formulas,
for the meaning of organizing cannot be put into words,
but into formulas, yes,
you’ll find yourselves wielding paternal authority, at the mercy
of the unspeakable power that wanted you to fight power,
In growing old I saw your heads fill with sorrow;
inside them swirled a muddled idea, an absolute certainty,
the presumption of heroes destined never to die—
O unfortunate children, you had within reach
a wondrous victory that didn’t exist!
Timor di me?
Oh, so terribly afraid;
against the windows over the darkness
But this happiness, which makes you sing in voce,
is a return from death, and who could ever laugh—
Behind, beneath the frame of blackened sky,
I’m not joking: for you have experienced
a place I’ve never explored, A VOID
IN THE COSMOS
It’s true that my earth is small
But I’ve always been happy to spin yarns
about unexplored places, as if none of it was real
But you’re actually in it, here, in voce
The moon has risen again;
the waters flow;
the world doesn’t know that it’s new, and the new day
ends against high cornices and the sky’s blackness—
Who is there, in that VOID IN THE COSMOS,
that you know and carry around in your desires?
The father is there, yes, him!
Do you think I know him? Oh, you’re so wrong;
you so naively take for granted what is not granted at all;
you base your whole argument, resumed here in song,
on this presumption, wich you take for humble,
when you have no idea how proud it is
It bears the signs of the deadly will of the majority—
My cheerful eye—and I’ve never gone down to the Underworld—
a trembling shadow of Hell
And you fall into it
All you know about reality is the Adult Man,
that is, what one is supposed to know;
she, the Adult Woman, is in Hell
or in the Shadow that precedes life;
let her work her witchcraft there, let her cast her spells;
hate her, hate her, hate her;
and if you sing and nobody hears you, you smile
simply because, for the moment, you are victorious—
in voce like an avid young girl
who has yet known sweetness;
Paris sketches a low sky behind you
with a weave of black branches; a classic image;
this is the story—
You smile at the Father—
a person on whom I have no information,
whom I frequented in a dream I clearly don’t remember—
strangely, from that monster of authority
also comes sweetness
if only as a form of resignation and brief victory;
damn, I really overlooked him, so overlooked him that I know nothing about him—
what to do?
You give generously, you bestow gifts, you need to give,
but it was He that gave you your gift, like everything else;
and the gift of Nobody is Nothing;
I pretend to accept it;
thank you, I’m truly grateful;
But that weak, fleeting smile
is not shyness;
it’s the dismay—which is worse, much worse—
of having a separate body in the realms of being—
it may be a fault
if it’s not an accident: but in the place of the Other,
for me, there’s a void in the cosmos
a void in the cosmos
and from there you sing.
A Desperate Vitality
(Draft, in a cursus in present-day jargon, of what has just transpired:
Fiumicino, the old castle, and a first real idea of death.)
As in a film by Godard: alone
in a car speeding down the motorways
of Latin neo-capitalism — returning from the airport —
[where Moravia stayed behind, a pure soul with his bags]
alone, “racing his Alfa Romeo“
in sunlight so heavenly it cannot be put
into rhymes not elegiac
— the finest sun we’ve had all year —
as in a film by Godard:
under a sun bleeding motionless
the canal of the port of Fiumicino
— a motorboat returning unnoticed
—Neapolitan sailors covered in woolen rags
— a car accident, a few onlookers gathered round …
— as in a film by Godard — romanticism
rediscovered in a time
of neocapitalist cynicism and cruelty —
behind the wheel
along the road from Fiumicino —
there’s the castle (what sweet
mystery for the French scriptwriter,
this papal colossus in the troubled, endless,
age-old sun, with its battlements
over hedges and plantation rows in an ugly landscape
of peasant serfs) …
— I am like a cat burnt alive
crushed by a tractor-trailer’s wheels,
hung by boys from a fig tree,
but with eight
of its nine lives still left,
like a snake reduced to a bloody pulp,
a half-eaten eel
— cheeks hollow under despondent eyes,
hair thinning frightfully at the crown,
arms now skinny as a child’s
— a cat that won’t croak, Belmondi
“at the wheel of his Alfa Romeo”
who in the narcissistic logic of the montage
steps outside of time and inserts
in images that have nothing do
with the boredom of hours on end …
or the afternoons’s slow resplendence unto death …
Death lies not
in not being able to communicate
but in no longer being understood.
And that papal colossus, not without
grace — memory
of land concessions from the nobles,
innocent gifts, as innocent
as the serfs’ submission —
in a sun that
over thousands of noontides
was the only guest here,
that papal colossus, huddling
with its battlements amid coastal groves
of poplar, watermelon patches, dykes,
that papal colossus sheathed
in buttresses the sweet orange color
of Rome, crumbling
like a Roman or Etruscan structure,
is about to be no longer understood.
(Resumption of interview, with some confused explanations
on the role of Marxism, etc.)
(Ah, for me this time on earth is but a visit!)
But let’s get back to reality.
[She’s here, face visibly worried though tempered by good breeding,
waiting on the “gray set,” in keeping with rhe rules of good French
Classicism. A Léger.]
“In your opinion,” she asks reticently,
nibbling her ballpoint, “what is the role
of the Marxist?” And she gets ready to take notes.
“With … the discretion of a bacteriologist .. I’d say [I stammer,
overcome by death wishes]
it’s to shift human masses as great as Napoleon’s or Stalin’s armies …
with billions of adjuncts …
in such a way that …
the mass that claims to preserve
[the Past] wil lose it,
and the revolutionary mass will gain it,
rebuilding it in the act of winning it …
It’s the Instinct of Preservation
that makes me a Communist!
is a matter of life and death, down through the centuries.
To be made ever so gently, like the captain
of the army corps of engineers, who,
when unscrewing the safety on an unexploded bomb,
could either, in that instant, remain alive on earth
(with its modern buildings round the sun)
or be struck forever from its surface:
the inconceivable disproportion
between the horns of the dilemma!
to be made very gently, neck craned,
bending forward, hunching over,
biting one’s lip or squinting hard
like a bocce player
who with body English tries to control
the path of his toss, to coax it
towards a solution
that will determine life through the centuries.”
(A fascist Victory)
She looks at me sadly.
“And so … you … — [a wordly, greedy smile,
conscious of its greed and the charming
ostentation — eyes and teeth flashing —
of her slightly hesitant and childish
self-deprecation] — you are very unhappy!”
“Yeah (I have to admit),
I’m in a state of confusion, Miss.
Rereading the typscript of my book
of poems (this one, which we’re talking about)
what I saw there was — ah, if only it was
just a jumble of contradictions, reassuring
contradictions .. No, what I saw was
a soul in confusion …
Every mistaken feeling
makes you absolutely certain of that feeling.
Mine was to think I was …
healthy. Strange! Telling you this
— you who by definition, with that lipless, doll-like
face of yours, cannot understand
— I know realize, with clinical clarity,
that I, myself, have never been clear at all.
It’s true that sometimes, to be healthy
(and clear), it’s enough
to think it … However
(write! write!) my present
confusion is the result
of a Fascist victory
[new, uncontrollable, unfailing
A small, minor victory.
And easy, too. I was alone:
with my bones, a shy, frightened
mother, and my will.
The point was to humiliate a humiliated man.
I must say they succeeded,
and without even much effort. Maybe
if they’d known it would be so simple,
they would have gone to less trouble, and less of them at that!
(Ah, I’m using a generic plural, you see: Them!
with the madman’s complicitous love of his illness.)
The upshot of this victory, in any case,
matters little: one less signature
of imprtance in the pleas for peace.
Well, a parte objecti, it’s not much.
A parte subjecti … never mind.
I’ve alredy spoken too much,
aloud as never before,
about my pain as a crushed worm
raising its little head and struggling
with repugnant naiveté, etc.
A Fascist victory!
Write, write. Let them know (them!) that I know:
conscious as an injured bird
that gently dies but never forgives.”
There was once a soul, among those
still waiting to descend into life
— so many, poor souls, and all the same —
a soul in the light of whose brown eyes
and in whose modest forelock, combed by a mother’s idea
of masculine beauty,
there burned a longing for death.
He saw it at once, did the one
who never forgives.
He took this soul, called it to his side
and like a craftsman,
up there in the worlds that precede life,
laid his hands in its head
and utterd the curse.
The soul was clean and innocent,
like a boy at First Communion,
wise with the wisdom of ten years of life,
dressed in white, in a fabric chosen
by a mother’s idea of masculine grace,
a longing for death in his warm eyes.
Ah, he saw it at once, did
the one who never forgives.
He spotted his endless capacity for obedience,
and his endless capacity for rebellion,
called him over and performed
— as he looked on him trustfully
the way a lamb looks at its righteous butcher —
a reverse ordination, as
the light went out in his eyes,
and a shadow of pity rose up in its place.
“You shall descend into the world,
be innocent and kind, faithful and fair;
you shall have an endless capacity for obedience,
and an endless capacity for rebellion.
You shall be pure.
For this I curse you.”
I still see those eyes of his,
full of pity — and the faint horror
one feels at those who arouse it —
the eyes of someone watching
another on his way, unknowing, to die,
and who, out of some need that grips those who know and those who don’t
says nothing to him —
I still see those eyes of his
as I headed off
— away from Eternity — toward my cradle.
Last Dreams before Dying
My dear friend, every night—
lately there’s work being done near my home
there are big contraptions, fences, sentry boxes
no big deal, really, normal administrative projects
My dear friend, when going home every night, or almost,
before the motionless machines, yellow in the gentle wind,
often, in front of my building—it’s more dawn than night
My dear friend, I almost get scared when I see
walking noiselessly in the street in front of my building
when I’m returning home and by then it’s more dawn than night,
a shadow that looks like it’s moving without feet, or in slippers,
face entirely covered
It advances gray along the sidewalk
(or across the street, along the fence
protecting the work site, in silence)
Dear friend, to whom I’m writing because you’re far away,
these are not the kinds of things one tells a reader
lost in his dreams
they’re the nothings of life only friends can believe
Covered up to his eyes, he, the shadow, comes forward,
passes beside me, walks noiselessly down the street
it’s not a ghost’s sheets covering him
he’s wrapped only in wool
poor guardian of the machines groping in the silence.
Here ends the introduction.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
O eyes of mine
This image is immense, because it’s one of the last
before I die—
I alone see the melancholy desert
strewn, as we know, with miserable forms
I alone then see the light
which is nothing more than the blue of night fading
as it kindles with a hope of its own;
the same as mine, as I wander back and forth
to fight off sleep
it’s pity that dresses me in poor gray wool
upt to the eyes, like a motorcyclist
or an impoverished skier. I don’t look like a specter, I am one.
The mysterious silence in my appearance
is also inside me
only my legs are alive, talking me up and down
and my eyes, which see life’s final images,
the ones I shall take with me on the already determined day
The family knows I’m here; I help put bread on the table
their pity and my own follow me
up and down the street, oh
eyes of mine that see the vast image of a little street
where the wind may blow on some nights
and on some nights there is only silence.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
O eyes of mine,
perhaps because the old are given the task of youth,
staying awake all night just to keep watch,
you who all my life were unable to see
now, by revelatory humiliation, you can see
How many nights have I, as guardian, experienced
without wanting to, trying not to see
walking up and down like a ghost,
denied in my appearance the way all rapport is denied me inside
except, of course, for the pity
that dressed me and gave me the rank of guardian
with my conscience and that of my family
Thus denying myself I used to stroll about
O eyes of mine, that meanwhile watched
those nights . . . shortly before or shortly after Easter,
nights still cold which I braved by covering up
in a housecoat that hung all the way down to my feet
and a gray ski mask
Lifeless I would pass in front of the few living souls
returning home in their cars
and wander off without turning round down the sidewalk
or along the fencing that ringed the slope, towards the work site
Then I would turn back, alone again,
trying not to exist (and I would have succeeded
if not for the pity of my bosses
and my family):
and at that moment, I would see the other half of the firmament.
From The Sonnet Hobby
There was, in the world—though nobody knew it—
something that had no price; and it was
unique. No law or Church in existence
could classify it. It came in the middle
of life, and its sole point of reference
was itself. For a while it meant
nothing; then it filled my whole
reality. It was your lightheartedness.
You chose to destroy this boon,
ever so slowly, with your own hands,
lightheartedly; an inalterable base
is all you have left of it. And I still
cannot understand why all the rage
in your soul against a love so chaste.
Wieners (1934-2002) was born to a working class Catholic family in Milton, Massachusetts, in 1934. He attended Boston College High School and Boston College, both Catholic Jesuit institutions. After the transformative experience of hearing Charles Olson read in Boston during Hurricane Hazel in 1954, Wieners would soon write to Black Mountain College that “[I] do not know the craft of writing, which is the only use of my life.” A loan ushered him to North Carolina, into the classrooms and company of Charles Olson and Robert Creeley, while seasons away from Black Mountain in Boston would bring him into the orbits of Jack Spicer, Frank O’Hara, and Stephen Jonas, among numerous others. In 1957, Wieners relocated to San Francisco during the San Francisco Renaissance, where he met Robert Duncan and Allen Ginsberg.
Olson would remain the strongest living influence on Wieners’ poetics, and Wieners in turn infused Olson’s projective teachings with the visionary French Romanticism of Rimbaud and Baudelaire, with the classicism and isolation of Edna St. Vincent Millay, Emily Dickinson, and H. D., and above all with a poetics of sheer unbridled emotion. Robert Creeley described Wieners as “the greatest poet of emotion I have ever read.”
By 1970, Wieners had settled in Boston, amid the revolutionary energies and liberation movements of the late ’60s and early ’70s. Both Wieners and his poetry became involved in Boston’s Gay Liberation Movement, the radical gay anarchist newspaper collective Fag Rag, and the Good Gay Poets collective. The latter published his 1975 book Behind The State Capitol: or Cincinnati Pike. He was also involved in Boston’s Mental Patients’ Liberation Front, lead in the mid-1970s by the influential activist Judi Chamberlin. Wieners’s poetry emerged from these liberation movements with a transformed political consciousness that would echo in his formal innovations and in the content of his later work
[…] Wieners’s writing from the 1960s is a poetics of crisis in the face of destitution and poverty. In the loss of religious faith, Poetry itself will be the site and receipt of supplication. “I have been over the abyss before,” writes Wieners, in the desperate heroism of “The Acts of Youth”:
Do not think of the future; there is none.
But the formula all great art is made of.
Pain and suffering. Give me the strength
to bear it, to enter those places where the
great animals are caged.
Abetted by the “dark eternals of the nightworld: the prostitute, the dope addict, thief and pervert,” Wieners’s deviance from social and heterosexual norms lead to repeated psychiatric incarcerations, the violence of electro-shock treatment, a diagnosis of schizophrenia, and “a paper from the state saying I am ‘a mentally ill person.’”
The VOICEs droned on. They did every afternoon,
through the soundless permeation of madness upon sanity. To
wake up and find you are saddled with a mental illness, you did
not know you had before.
But after examination, you find out it’s true.
The brutality inflicted on psychiatrized persons—which disproportionately affected women, homosexual men, and people of color—would be actively challenged by the Gay and Lesbian, Women’s, and Mental Patients’ Liberation movements, alongside critical work by prominent social theorists. This resistance eventually ushered in a period of deinstitutionalization throughout the 1970s, alongside the declassification of homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) in 1973/4. Such state-sanctioned pathology, violence, and its administered drugs, alongside the fallout of addiction, are reflected in Wieners’s writing from the period. His poetic imagination returned to the body that had survived such threats. Poetry itself becomes for Wieners a tool, holding a mind and memory shattered by psychiatry and (its) drugs together, integrating the multiple voices of the poet’s mind.
I know now heard speak in the night
voices of dead loves past,Do not think of the future; there is none. /
Whispered instructions over electric air
confined or chained.
Down deep the path’s final entrance reveals itself
in will drawn strong on the palm of hand.
Do not tamper with the message there.
Wieners was certainly drawn to these cities (New York, San Francsico, Boston) at crucial moments in his literary maturation, and he was gracious and self-deprecating in admitting the many poetic influences he found there. Among them are Le Roi Jones and Diane Di Prima, who gave space to multiple revisions of his work in Floating Bear; Di Prima also encouraged his participation in the Poets’ Theatre, where his plays Still Life and Asphodel in Hell’s Despite were staged. Allen Ginsberg may have influenced Wieners’ graphic depictions of his sexual life, but his careful, mannerist prosody is distinct from Ginsberg’s rhapsodic, spontaneously overflowing lines. Wieners’ receptivity to drugs as a means of expanding consciousness and his affection for Eastern wisdoms could be associated with the poets of the San Francisco Renaissance; a participant in Jack Spicer’s Magic Workshop, Wieners also believed in the occult powers of poetry and frequently used imagery from the tarot. But equally it could be argued that his itinerary through the major poetic locales of post-war America did not produce a related cosmopolitanism of style. His poetry retained its own distinctive character, and proved surprisingly resistant even to the influence of two very different mentors: Frank O’Hara and Charles Olson. Wieners’ poems, correspondence and unpublished prose reveal the affection and admiration he had for both men, as well as their impact on his emerging sense of himself and his vocation. He associated them with an intellectual, artistic and social liberty that would rescue him from the conservativism of Boston. All the same, it is difficult to assign Wieners a place in either the New York School or the Black Mountain or projectivist aesthetic. His similarities to and differences from O’Hara and Olson become especially apparent if we focus on three themes: the personal nature of his poetry, his veneration of celebrity, and his treatment of the past and present. These focuses will show how Wieners’ poetry relished the immediate – both the poetic record of a transcendent present, and the idiosyncratic style not mediated by other writers. It will also allow us to establish the literary influences, and resolute independence, of one of the second generation New York School’s most loved poets, who has until now received almost no critical attention.
Andea Brady (The Other Poet: John Wieners, Frank O’Hara, Charles Olson)
Promise you wont forget
each time we met
we kept our clothes on
despite obvious intentions
to take them off,
seldom kissed or even slept,
talked to spend desire,
worn exhausted from regret.
Continue our relationship apart
under surveillance, torture, persecuted
confinement’s theft; no must or sudden blows
when embodied spirits mingled
despite fall’s knock
we rode the great divide
of falsehood, hunger and last year
C H I L DREN OF THE WORKING CLASS
from incarceration, Taunton State Hospital, 1972
gaunt, ugly deformed
ered before the dark of dawn
thick peasants after the attitude
they carry about them, tough disciplines of copper Indianheads.
there are worse, whom you may never see, non-crucial around the
there is no hope, they locked-in key’s; housed of course
produces its ill-kempt, ignorant and sore idiosyncrasies.
in splendor of elegant toolsmiths, still can yield the horror of
tinguish the torch of any liberty’s state infection.
o luck and were flayed at suffering.
others, some chance to get ahead
A Poem for Painters
FOR FRANCIS W. SWEENEY , SJ
Drag them out of their places,
for they block the progress of our lives, our times,
drag them out of their graves,
even if they were our parents,
for they barricade the streets of our protest, our loves,
contaminate afternoons with lanterns from poems
by questions of industry and idleness,
so swipe the mystery of storms and floods
through a stare of smug aristocracy.
Even though revolutionary epics have survived
they remain at the bottom gates
holding posts to poison the flows of experiment.
Keep fires down low to protect error, challenging uses
of light and worship, unless it be one
of trite conformity to their texts.
Encourage poverty by their avoidance
of the problems from our weird needs
That they have refused to consider
Except in terms of bare hospitality or prison
Yes, days are long they have judged
Fruitless and rewards sweet they reject
To be worthless. The nights have come that
They retire early; yes drag them out of their places
For they breed death and young graves, heartless despair
Stealing beneath bosoms to fester automatically in leeches
As enormous tumours out from the poverty of their lusts.
WITH MR. J. R. MORTON
For our nerves
this drink, a beating
on our nerves
no shakedown our heads
but of our nerves
I wish I was a dancer
and cd. move
in feet/undo my body
swing it out it
bangs my bubbs and belly
slide my toes in pebbles so
wd. be taken up one by
one stretched out
tight thin to threads
and I wd. be free
inside my legs. My head
not snapped by a King Porter stomp
or played like
Ah daddy i wanna be drunk many days.
On a stage in front of beautiful eyes
I wd. remove my rags,
my dress drop
to work the curtain,
to dance out softly
(over their heads) barefoot on wood
toes like vaseline
knee dips as I strip out my—
I desire to be taken to the top of the Liberty Bell and blown
by winds from Sweden
softly and my toes would do it if I
were a dancer.
Why do they turn away from us
on the streets when we love
them. Billie Holiday was the story
of my whole life & still is
on sunlit Sunday afternoons
opposite the elevated railroad
at Cambridge street & Charles
when every hope burns to stinking incontinence,
the winter wind blows sand & sea off countless holiday
extravaganzas, between body & soul
Sultry California boulevards proliferate upon a shredded
mortality, as the abyss of former promenades wells
to fecundate interiorly
again at Land’s
The pleasure of young escapades envelopes
smoked glass store-fronts outside the empty Scotch & soda
It doesn’t matter if one lives or dies
without desire. I tried to go away
on my own. Instead came back home
defeated to more defeat, worse
that it was met by discord
of an hiedeous sort, cursing and swearing
from a lower class of orders, dying at the doorstep.
All the men I wanted were married to others
and poetry in my heart burned
out. Left at afternoon ill,
what I approached
was to fall dead by my own hand
or close to it, nervous, afraid to move
I cannot blame them, only the men I wanted
are not here anymore, still the possible
freedom of their love is my dream.
READING IN BED
by evening light, at the window, where wind blows
it’s not enough to wake with morning
as a child, the insistend urge of habit
sounds, to write a poem, to pore over one’s past
recall ultimate orders one has since doubted
in despair. Inner reality returns
of moonlight over water at Gloucester, as
fine harbor as the Adriatic, Charles said, before the big storm
blew up to land ancient moorings, shards against sand
of memory at midnight; ah yes the dream begins
of lips pressed against yours over waves, tides,
hour-long auto rides into dawn, when time
pounds a mystery on the beach, to no death out of reach.
The Acts of Youth
what more can be taken away?
The fear of travelling, of the future without hope
or buoy. I must get away from this place and see
that there is no fear without me: that it is within
unless it be some sudden act or calamity
where one can eat the lotus in peace.
the same path, without God
always seen my life as drama, patterned
is that ringing in my ears that tells me
can walk away unharmed.
But the formula all great art is made of.
at peace by their side. A bride to the burden
we are created. Until the dark hours are done.
TO FERNAND LÉGER
I died in loneliness
for no one cared for me enough
to become a woman for them
that was not my only thought
and with a woman
she wanted another one
I died in loneliness
of that I am not afraid
but that I am a clank
upon the gutter, a new guard at twilight
without a dream of adolescence
frustration plucked as strong
I died in loneliness
without friends or money
they were taken off
long ago, a melodrama
sounded out my name, the glass key of a
torch song on Father’s Day
I died in loneliness
away from the beach and speeding cars
back seat in love with Bunny
on the way to Howard Johnson’s
beyond the blue horizon
hunting for a lost popular tune.
Perhaps some day you shall find me,
as I blow smoke out of my mouth
While you walk the riverbank
in the rain on Sunday evening
Looking for jazz, hearing love’s bellows
Beauty is mine, perhaps some day you shall find it.