A Place of Resistance, Suffering, Filth, and Beauty: John Barton in Conversation with Andy Patton

Andy Patton

Andy Patton, whose poem "Gramsci's Ashes: An English Version of Pier Paolo Pasolini's Poem" appears in the Malahat's Winter 2017 issue, discusses Gramsci, Fascism, and "versions" of poems versus translations with Malahat past editor John Barton.


Andy Patton, a Toronto painter, represented Canada in the Fifth Biennale of Sydney in 1984 and has recently shown in Transformation of Canadian Landscape Art in Xi'an and Beijing. As Pain Not Bread, with Roo Borson and Kim Maltman, he co-authored Introduction to the Introduction to Wang Wei in 2000.

For readers who may not know who Antonio Gramsci is, can you provide us with a thumbnail sketch of his life? What do you think drew Pier Paulo Pasolini to write this very substantial poem in his memory?

Antonio Gramsci was the leader of the Communist Party in Italy during the early twenties, during the years that Fascism rose and Mussolini took power. He was jailed in 1926; at his trial, the judge famously said "For twenty years we must stop this brain from functioning." He died in prison in 1937. In his thought, especially in The Prison Notebooks, you’ll find much of what led to Cultural Marxism. In that sense he was allied to Walter Benjamin and Adorno, who became so important after the Second World War. His concept of “hegemony” provided a possible answer to the question of why those who were exploited didn’t rise up and throw off their chains: culture seems to tie us into the larger system.

The question of what drew Pasolini is one which I no longer understand clearly. Part of it is simply that Gramsci was, as he is now, an ideal. Each April 25th, lefties visit his grave and bring flowers. Someone reads a poem; someone sings. I once watched an old man standing by his grave, propped up by his crutches. He stood there and wept. This went on in Pasolini’s day and it will happen again next year. Gramsci is the hopes that were buried alive.

Working with his poem has made things less clear to me—at least about exactly what role Gramsci played for Pasolini. His emphasis on the role of culture was obviously important. Gramsci spent so much time thinking about Dante, and Pasolini’s poem was written in tercets, so this emphasis on Dante was something Pasolini emphasized, the Dante of fierce political criticism who was at the same time the Dante who was the exiled citizen of a particular city.

But I think the gist of it—and I really want to stress that I don’t know how accurate I am here— the gist of it is that he saw Gramsci’s opposition as too rational, too rooted in thought alone. Pasolini needed a more emotional, more physiological opposition to the state of things. Sometimes I think that it was also an issue that turned on Pasolini’s homosexuality. Pasolini was tossed out of the Communist Party for this. My sense is that he knew his opposition was rooted in the wounds left by class and at the same time in the very different damages that were the result of the both the state and the party denying the opinions his body held. I often thought of my old friend, Tim Guest, who was too gay for the Revolutionary Marxist Group (I think that was the Trotskyite group) and too radical for Toronto Gay Youth.

In this elegy, we find the narrator—i.e., Pasolini— in the mid-1950s contemplating the great man’s grave in an ancient cemetery in Rome. Early on, he envisions the adolescent Gramsci’s hand as already “outlining the ideal that shines through this silence.” The allies had only routed Fascism the decade before and Italy, like all European countries drawn into the Second World War, was rebuilding. What was Gramsci’s ideal? How do the circumstances of postwar reconstruction inform this poem and Pasolini’s reckoning with Gramsci’s ideas?

It’s good that you brought up postwar Italy, since the poem was written in 1957, when the Italian miracle of rapid economic growth was just taking off. I don’t think people realize how ruined and how poor Italy was after the war. The poem is soaked in the memory of those times. Its setting, Testaccio, was a worker’s area where the slaughterhouse was. Its stench was famous, but it was also a socialist area where there were many meetings to plan resistance to the Fascists in the Rome area. As far as Pasolini’s poem goes, it’s not clear to me what Gramsci’s ideal was. You could say, socialism, but I think that Pasolini wanted to stress the ideal aspect rather than to name it. And so it’s only an outline traced in the air, whereas the poverty and stench and anger are detailed. I put in a few more details that weren’t in the poem, things in which I can just glimpse something that’s, if not ideal, at least better than a working class hell, like the horrid suburbs of his films. One of them is just the mention of Magni’s architecture. The blocks of workers apartments that he designed are beautiful, are dignified; the kind of housing workers deserved. I don’t know if I can really answer your question except by saying that Pasolini was fueled by outrage and by experiences of human solidarity and class solidarity.

Pasolini comes across as disillusioned, as if his own ideals, as well as Gramsci’s, have come to very little. He describes himself as having been “wounded” by the “pathological illnesses of class” and elsewhere in the poem references similar disabling disappointments. The third section ends with “I live in the not-wanting of the sun setting on the years // after the war: loving the world I hate— / in its lost despicable squalor— / through a dark scandal of consciousness.” These are potent lines. Would you care to unpack them for me? What feeds his “dark scandal of consciousness”? Is it his alone? Why is it so wrenching?

The first conversation I ever had in Italian was about just this issue. Janice and I went to visit Gramsci’s tomb on the 25th, which celebrates the end of Italian Fascism and the Nazi occupation. I wanted to ask about Gramsci, so I decided to ask these three intellectuals, a woman and two men, who were walking our way. In my terrible Italian I said something like, can I ask you what Gramsci means today? The first one answered, nothing. He means nothing. The woman, who may have been a professor, said, we freed ourselves from Fascism, but not from the class structure. Wow... Perhaps Pasolini might have agreed. There was already a widening gap in income: the rich grew very wealthy, in Testaccio the workers went off each day to the slaughterhouse, with its industrial scale butchery and the machinery and the rivers of blood. There’s also the issue of this dark scandal of consciousness; there are points where I think that Pasolini found consciousness itself a form of lying. That consciousness was largely false consciousness?

The poem is in some sense a list of his wounds and damages, though he turns that on Gramsci too. I often think that Pasolini was like John Berger, who wrote that if we realized that we were closer to hell than to heaven, we wouldn’t fall prey so easily to political impatience and despair, we wouldn’t so easily turn on each other, knowing how far we had to travel. The lines you’re referring to are in the third section. A little earlier, you’ll see him speak of picking his way to Gramsci between hope and scepticism...and then he goes on what is really a long cataloguing of suffering and poverty in the grime of the city...and yet he confesses that he loves the world. So yes, he’s disillusioned...but..and Pasolini always allows himself to weld his contradictions together...he’s illusioned too, by the stupendous, miserable city which is his world.

Tragedy abounds in this poem, as if Pasolini were casting his eyes anxiously, even recklessly, about the cemetery, looking for solace, only to have his dark obsessions validated or discounted. He contemplates the English Romantic poet, Shelley, who’s buried nearby and who sadly drowned just before his thirtieth birthday in the Tyrrhenian Sea in 1822. It’s a telling reference, for I can feel Romanticism’s revolutionary zeal coursing through the viscera of Pasolini’s lines. Why would Shelley be such an appealing figure to Pasolini?

I don’t think he did see Shelley as appealing. You could be right. But my sense is that he wanted to dismiss him out of hand, as playing at revolutionary change. (By the way, I dropped Shelley’s description of Italy as a “paradise of exiles” into the poem. That skews it, but skews in the direction I thought Pasolini was going.I also gave him a little more space, a more tiny but careful description of his spot in the Protestant Cemetery.) I think that Pasolini wanted to dismiss him as puerile...and yet Pasolini, as I said, allows his contradictions to flare... and so he says, of Shelley’s stone...”But I understand now...I understand that whirlpool of feeling.” I have to confess that after working so long to get something that seemed right in English, and after taking liberties where I felt they were necessary, that I’m no longer sure where the original poem begins and the distortions I’ve inflicted begin. You should doubt everything I say about the poem and about Pasolini, other than my admiration for him and for this poem. But no, I don’t see the poem as tragic. It’s hellish, like Dante’s Inferno is. But it wants to get to Paradise. Perhaps Pasolini’s poem is a failed Commedia. It’s hell but it has much more compassion in it than people would often imagine, as Dante’s does. Pasolini wasn’t Lenin, let alone Stalin, compassion stained his politics. Which is why he was such a problem for the party. I think his compassion would make him unpopular today with many who might think they admire him.

A few stanzas into the poem’s last part, which is a beautiful evocation of the Roman evening, Pasolini observes “How vain is every ideal.” By the poem’s conclusion, he says of his fellow ordinary citizens, whom he characterizes as the “wretched of the earth, sent to relish this evening, / to find their pleasure in it, and […] through them, a utopian hope flares once more…” Has Pasolini found a way to reconcile his disappointments in postwar Italy with his aspirations for it? What has led him to this point?

I loved that part of the poem has so much ugliness and so much beauty. It is wonderful about an ordinary spring evening in Rome. I filled in the geography of of Testaccio. Pasolini didn’t need to; Roman readers would know it. But I began to realize that I could flesh it out for readers who had never visited Rome, who had never walked the streets of the poem’s neighbourhood. “The wretched of the earth” is Fanon’s phrase, and that book wasn’t published yet when Pasolini wrote his poem. I dropped it in, in part to remind readers of what Pasolini would do in the future, how his alliances and commitments would grow and deepen and take him outside of Italy. But to answer your question, I don’t think so; I don’t think he’s reconciled himself. I don’t think he ever reconciled himself. About the poem itself, that artefact, it’s difficult to know, because a poem will inevitably come to an end, and whatever happens at the end will seem like some sort of resolution. My reading of it is that he ends with a question to try to get past the inevitable apparent resolution caused by the poem having to end, or at least to get past the dying down of embers. So he says, “Could I ever act again with an unstained passion/ When I know our story is done?”

By the way, “storia” in italian can be “history” or “story.” History is telling, and so much hinges on that. I had used “history” for so long. But George Amabile suggested that I should use “story” and that in this way I could bring the poem around, lift its head to look at its whole long snaking length and make of itself the issue. It seemed a way out of ending with something final. I thought it was a brilliant idea, not just a good line but an in-depth interpretation of the whole poem, the sort of brilliant incisive vision George often has. This is something that English has been able to offer to the poem. The original Italian created a little point of crisis for our language. I saw no way out, but George found a way of igniting the crisis.

Your subtitle for this poem is “An English Version,” which I take to mean that you have wandered far from the requirements of a translation, which respect and toe the line set by what’s being translated. What sort of liberties have you taken with Pasolini’s poem and why did you feel they were necessary?

I had so much trouble trying to make a faithful translation. I tried and tried, and it never worked. One day Kim Maltman and Roo Borson told me that Mary di Michele had often written “versions” of poems rather than translations. I thought of Lowell’s Imitations. One of his imitations of Montale has an extra stanza. He adds, subtracts, clarifies. They’re very far from faithful and yet to my mind they’re the very best rendering of Montale in English. So I took the extra room that a “version” seemed to suggest, and tried, as Kim and Roo urged, simply to mimic the larger vocal gestures and let the rest go. That’s why there are so many liberties.

I’ve pointed out some of the most glaring ones, like Fanon’s phrase “the wretched of the earth.” Another insertion is Pasolini’s description of Rome as the “stupendous, miserable city.” He did say that, but it lay years in his future. I took liberties with time. I can only say that it seemed necessary; foolish or not, I believe that Pasolini would countenance it. At many points, I muted the poem’s Catholicism at points where it seemed to limit the poem to a parochial moment in the nation’s past; I wanted it to speak to this moment, but without betraying the poem as what it was.But Pasolini let his contradiction flare up and ignite; I took my orders from that example. It may not be apparent, but I muted some of his charged rhetoric: there are certain gestures that are possible in Italian but seem ridiculous in English.

I clarified the layout of the cemetery, neighbourhood, the garages near Monte Testaccio, the streets, the apartment blocks. I did this because Pasolini had only sketched them. I felt it was necessary to make them bring their weight to bear in the poem. But it was also that the neighbourhood is more than the site of the poem. It’s as great a figure in the poem as Gramsci, a historical place of resistance, and of suffering, and of stench, filth and beauty.


John Barton

John Barton

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