The Flower of Youth: Pier Paolo Pasolini Poems, by Mary di Michele
Reviewed by Alessandro Porco
In May of 2004, Canadian poet Mary di Michele travelled to Italy officially to attend the “Beyond History” conference at the University of Udine’s Center for Canadian Culture. Unofficially, while in Italy, di Michele also planned to make the literary pilgrimage to Casarsa delle Delizia, a small village “at the very edge of existence” in the Fruili region. It is where (in)famous Italian poet and filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini spent his summers as a child and where Pasolini, as a young man, returned to live — and to love — during the Second World War.
In Casarsa delle Delizia, on her quest to “find Pasolini,” di Michele books a room in the hotel Al Posta, “tak[ing] tea in the garden, at a table shaded by a tree.” She visits Pasolini’s grave, placing “two springs of lavender” on his grave. She visits his childhood home, where he wrote the dialect poems known as La nuova gioventú. She takes in “the vineyards all around”– it’s Italy after all, or at least a romantic version of it. She even dreams of Pasolini.
Most importantly, di Michele has a mystical experience, an interface with the Muse, his ghost, who dictates poetry to her:
On a bench shaded by cypress, weeping for a man I have never met, I sit to write these notes and a voice whispers in Italian I don’t know how to write.
Vado furoi del paese e il cielo è scoperto,
Il mondo più grande che ho pensato,
Dove non c’è nessuno le stelle son miliardo
It’s this mystical encounter with the Muse, or the spectral presence of Pasolini, which inspires di Michele to write a “novel-in-verse” documenting Pasolini’s war-time experience in Casarsa delle Delizia — in particular, his love affairs with young men, and the oppositional forces of homosexual desire and (Catholic) guilt that propel Pasolini into the state of internal conflict central to the lyric tradition.
di Michele communicates all of the above in seven-page prologue / travelogue that makes up part I of di Michele’s Flower of Youth. Part II, titled “Impure Acts,” makes up the bulk of the book, and it includes a series of one or two page lyrics organized in Sapphic stanzas and composed in the voice of a still-developing — emotionally, politically, and creatively — Pasolini circa 1943-47. He returns home from university studies in Bologna to avoid the air-raids, and there he helps his mother run a school for village children.
In other words, this ain’t quite yet the Pasolini of Salò: The 120 Days of Sodom.
There is much to like (but not love) and respect (but not gushingly admire) in di Michele novel-in-verse. For example, there are passages that do well to communicate Pasolini’s physical desire for his “boys” (“I felt such thirst I could have lapped / the run-off from his body” or “his shirt was drenched with rain and sweat, his / trousers mud-splattered, his dark // curls matted, and this made him all the more / desirable to me”) as well as the emotional pangs — especially jealousy — that accompany such desire:
I felt an
orgy of emotion, tears I dared not
let fall for a boy on the bridge, body
against the railing, plaintively
calling to some unseen companion, and not
di Michele provides well-crafted descriptions of war’s toll: “The whole [bombed] house shook, lurched / to one side; it seemed to groan then fall on / one knee”; “bloated clouds lay an expanse of ruin, / the smell of smoldering coal, the smell of charred / bodies stoking our fears”; “the bombs might have been petals / dropping thickly from above.” But there is also a formulaic, over-aestheticized quality to such descriptions that make them somewhat impotent — a little cringe worthy, even.
di Michele emphasizes a series of oppositional forces, symbols, and desires (including — but not limited to — homosexuality and Catholicism) that are set in motion within Pasolini’s tortured self: “It was the happiest, the saddest time in / my life, the glory of love, the horror / of war. The future was the past.” Accordingly, Pasolini’s “angels” of love (i.e., Pasolini’s various students, crushes, and sexual partners) are knotted with the “angels of death” (i.e., bombers). In Casarsa, “everything / smells of gunpowder and shit // but the Earth’s a bitch flowering anyway … in blossoms, blue and yellow.” Homosexual love blossoms, too, literally and figuratively, amidst the “shit,” as di Michele seems to be channeling into Yeats’s “Love has pitched his mansion / In the place of excrement.” She does well to capture Pasolini’s difficulty in reconciling the real and reel: “mesmerized by the mythic, / that amorphous image I had formed of him, / I failed to see the boy.” And there is that pervasive push and pull of self-hate and self-acceptance: “I knelt at the feet // of the status of the Madonna … to plead for forgiveness, / to pray to change, to / pray to be like other men — upstanding…”
I’ve seen and heard these conflicts played out before with far greater invention in terms of conceit, diction, scenario (e.g., di Michele underuses Pasolini’s brother and mother, as well as Pina, a local woman who unwittingly pines for the gay Pasolini), and especially prosody, which is uniform throughout and, as such, simply carries the narrative forward rather than adducing and expressing its intellectual and emotional dramatics, what di Michele describes as “the historical and personal vortex that shaped [Pasolini’s] identity.” Where is the energia of that vortex?
di Michele’s novel-in-verse fairs far more interesting (that is to say, open to serious debate) when di Michele embroils Pasolini’s erotic conflicts and intrigues in a discussion of the value of poetry — and art more generally — in a time of war. After all, the book begins with this epigraph from Virgil’s Eclogues: “… but what can poetry do / against marching armies?” It’s an important question, one that hangs — in all its permutations — over the entire collection.
Is poetry a mode of witness? Is it a means of protest? Can it speak back to power, i.e. those “marching armies” of Virgil, without becoming complicit in the very power-mongering it contests? I’m not entirely comfortable with di Michele’s response: she proposes that poetry, as a genre, and art as an experience, inherently possess some degree of moral and aesthetic exception that distinguish them from the language and violence of war.
History suggests otherwise.
The novel-in-verse also fairs far more interesting when Pasolini’s homosexuality converges with a WWII-specific discourse of encryption, ciphers, and secrecy / espionage: “to kiss / unseen, safely to kiss,” to quote from “Postscript(s).” Pasolini’s young male lovers are granted code names, in the form of single letters: B., N., G., and F– a very clever touch by di Michele. In “My First Date,” Pasolini recalls, “B. worried about secrecy even / more than I did… the better concealed, the more / open his lust.” Pasolini keeps his homosexuality (“what I could tell no one”) a secret from his female “companion” and “soulmate,” Pina. And in “My False Faith,” Pasolini writes his “confessions” of homosexual love as well as his momentary (and false) renunciation of it “in Greek in the margins of my notebook / so that no one could read them.” It is only as part of this discourse of encryption and ciphers, which complicates the concept of “truth,” that di Michele’s defense of poetry becomes imbricated with desire and sexuality and thus takes on a more compelling aspect: “the open vowels, the sibilants, fricative, / strangely familiar inflections, flowering, / deflowering my ear. A feeling / everywhere and inexpressible.”
My overall disappointment with The Flower of Youth: Pier Paolo Pasolini Poems, however, is that the paratextual materials around the central narrative raise important questions that are elided rather than investigated. This ensures the surface of the narrative stays smooth — perfectly competent and crafted — but also kind of ho-hum and forgettable.
For example, in the prologue, di Michele observes that “the pink house” Pasolini lived in during those war years “has been renovated, turned into a museum” known as The Pier Paolo Pasolini Study Center. The museum has a permanent exhibit of materials (e.g. first editions, drawings, and family photographs), and hosts tours for students and travellers. It’s part educational, part tourist trap.
Museums are, by their nature, sentimental institutions; and to borrow from Jed Rasula, they are “underwritten by custodial sponsors who have surreptitiously turned down the volume on certain voices, and simulated a voice-over for certain others.” How, then, can we reconcile the museum and study center with the fact that “in his lifetime [Pasolini] was reviled in the town, and he did not return again except in a coffin” — the relationship between voice, reception, and institutions should be foundational to a project like The Flower of Youth, shaping a more ethically complex lyrical practice. Otherwise, as is the case here, the poems risk reproducing the logic of the museum: consumption of art no different than the taking of tea in the garden.
Similarly, in her epilogue, di Michele observes that
The book that launched Pier Paolo Pasolini as a writer was La Meglio Gioventú. The Flower of Youth, usually translated as The Best of Youth, was a volume of verse written in dialect and self-published in 1942 ….. That he should continue to work on these poems throughout his life speaks to their centrality to his poetic project.
… to write poems in dialect in a country where the ministry of culture outlawed the use of dialects was a form of resistance in itself.
The dialect is “something / untouchable.” It is “tough music, / music with heft, broad-shouldered.” It has no “purpose” — rather, it “purr[s].” And, as expected within the pastoral tradition, it is naturalized: it “need[s] / no primers, no prosodies” because it is a song shared with the “cuckoo, oriole, [and] wren.” Yet, the linguistic tension between dialect and Italian proper, the political tension between minority subjects (i.e., peasants) and power, and the cultural tension between the pastoral and the city are not formally manifest in the equence — and because these tensions are inextricable from Pasolini’s “tortured struggles with his sexuality,” it always feels like there’s something lacking.
Finally, di Michele writes, “I translated La Meglio Gioventú for myself as a preparation to write this book, translation being, I believe, the closest a writer can come to another writer.” di Michele only includes three permutations of one Pasolini poem, “The Day of My Death” (these comprise the book’s short third section):
In some city, Trieste or Udine,
on an avenue of lindens,
when leaves changed colour . . .
with the vigour of a young man,
in the midst of things,
and he gave, to the few
men he knew, everything.
The presence of such sensitive translations — and the presence of a discussion of translation theory and practice (especially vexed when dialect is involved) — could have interrupted the book’s monological quest “to find Pasolini,” introducing a degree of dramatic reflexivity and narrative tension into the sequence.
Instead, The Flower of Youth is too much about being Pasolini (mastery and mimesis) and not enough about being with Pasolini (conversation and methexis). I hope, given di Michele’s admirable skills as a poet, we get to see those translations sooner rather than later.