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#240: I FOUGHT WITH THE WEAPONS OF POETRY.  Back in my movie-devouring college days in the early seventies, I was introduced to the films of the Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini.  I was young, and judged them solemn, ponderous, screechy and repellant.  I was not alone: on a current website listing what they consider Pasolini’s ten best movies, the descriptive vocabulary runs to “a lot to handle” “confronting,” “too difficult to watch,” “shocking and explicit,” “slow and purposefully vague,” “leaves tons up to interpretation” (never a good sign), “downbeat,” and, my favorite,  “no one could be blamed for choosing to stay away from this bold yet soul-crushing film altogether.”   This succulent invitation was to Pasolini’s last film, “Salo, or 120 Days of Sodom,” still considered one of the most scandalous works in the entire film repertory.  I saw it not long after its release, up at Cinestudio in Hartford, where the audience was plump with middle-aged people who, having heard the name de Sade, had obviously come expecting to get their jollies by seeing something daring and naughty.  By mid-film the place had largely emptied out, with people staggering away, looking dazed and bilious.  “Transgressive” was the current word and demand of the day, and if anyone in the cinematic world was transgressive, it was Pasolini.  He made Jodoworksky look like Frank Capra.

        Given this, it may seem merely perverse on my part to have picked up Norman MacAfee’s selection and translation of Pasolini’s poems, but he was widely considered to be one of the important post-war Italian poets, stepping away from the hermeticism of Montale and Quasimodo and Ungaretti, facing the wild contradictions of Italian society of the time, and I was curious to see what I’d find.  Wild contradictions are certainly present in the poems, which are long, torrential, impassioned, and packed—I almost said stuffed—with the contradictory urges of Pasolini’s life: his rage at modern Italian society, his nostalgia for his country childhood, his Marxism, homosexuality, avant-garde poetics mixed with conservative ideas, communism, his lacerating loneliness, his knowledge and love of traditional poetry (Dante especially), an anti-Puritanism fighting it out with his hard-to-shed Catholicism, his absolute stance as a rejected and confirmed outsider. Pasolini was a one-man battlefield of warring factions; it’s what gave his verse its difficulty, its antagonistic stance, its vulnerability and constant, searing anger.  I can hardly think of another poet so consumed with rage—and with the disconcerting ability to express it.  The rage was against everything in society that forbade, condemned, commercialized and obstructed tenderness, human connection, love, sexuality.  In the films especially sometimes all that was visible was the rage, the taunting of everything he despised; the poetry, I feel, gives you a little more room to step in towards him.  He was, as MacAfee points out, a civil poet, as Dante was: the political currents of the day are insistently present, and in the last poem of the book, “The Poetry of the Tradition,” he nails the coming end of the counter-culture as no one else did.  But when, in a few of the shorter late poems, he expresses something like romantic affection—when, listening to an Israeli soldier sing a traditional tune,

                                    another, in his rags, listens, agreeing,

                                    while puppylike he presses close to me,

                                    not showing, in a slum field

                                    of the Jordan’s desert, in the world,

                                    anything but love’s poor simple feeling,

or when, in “Lines from the Testament,” his harrowing poem on solitude, he speaks of

                                    an endless walk through the streets of the poor,

                                    where you must be wretched and strong, brothers to the dogs,

this vulnerability that has survived to the end of his life (which was to come so soon) is startling, even shocking.  In Pasolini’s poems, even gentleness and affection turn out to be transgressive.

       Pasolini was murdered a short while after these poems were written, beaten savagely, his body run over several times and partially burned with gasoline.  For a long time it was assumed he’d picked up some rough trade, but the money now seems to be on a right-wing terrorist group.  His killing remains, in Europe, one of the most indigestible and stubbornly remembered deaths of an artist since the assassination of Garcia Lorca.  These deaths are incomprehensible to young Americans, where poets are largely unheard phantoms, inaudible above the noise of the media.  Pasolini wrote,

                                    Death is not

                                    in not being able to communicate

                                    but in no longer being able to be understood.



Pier Paolo Pasolini: Poems, selected and translated by Norman MacAfee with Luciano Martinengo.  Noonday Press, Farrar Strauss and Giroux, 1996.






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