Pay Attention: Poem Strip
by Jeet Heer
Wednesday, January 26, 2011
The 2009 translation and republication of Dino Buzzati’s Poem Strip (originally published as Poema a Fumetti in 1969) hasn’t received the attention it merits, I think. The book is interesting on a number of grounds: as I’ve noted earlier, it belongs to the tradition of the proto-graphic novel; Buzzati himself was an important writer and artist, and the book makes a fine appetizer for his larger artistic career; the themes and artistic techniques explored in the book are also intriguingly connected with other cultural developments of the 1960s.
Valentina Zanca wrote a very smart review of Poem Strip which helpfully places the book in a historical and cultural context. I highly recommend the review as a starting place for those who want to find out more about this book. (Thanks to Derik Badman for calling attention to Zanca’s essay). I’ll quote a little bit from Zanca’s review:
Poem Strip is a daring reinterpretation of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice in a noir-tinged Milan in the swinging ‘60s. Its starting point is a mysterious, frightening street in the middle of Milan, a street you won’t find on the maps of the city, where uncanny events seem to be taking place. Orfi, a young and successful pop singer who lives there, sees his beloved girlfriend Eura disappear one night like a ghost through a door in the high wall that surrounds a mansion across the street. …
Poem Strip is exhilarating in its inventiveness and highly provocative. Enticing and terrifying in turns, it reinvented the whole concept of the comic book by merging experimental graphics, erotically charged illustration, avant-garde poetry, psychedelic songwriting, and occult fiction.
I’ll add a few notes of my own to what Zanca’s written:
1. Visually, Buzzati’s often alludes to magazine photos and illustrations, especially in the poses of his women (which, as Zanca notes, sometimes resemble the body-language found in porn magazines). This incorporation of mass-market motifs surely owes something to the parallel strategies developed by Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Michael Snow and other pop artists (or fellow travellers of pop art).
2. The merging of the visual and the literary can also be connected to the increasing attempt by literary writers in the 1960s and 1970s to incorporate images into their texts. I’m thinking here of the various experimental stories of Donald Barthelme, John Upidke, and Guy Davenport.
3. What makes Poem Strip a graphic novel (or proto-graphic novel) is not just its length or codex form, but the density of visual and literary allusions in the book, which require and repay close attention and re-reading. This is a book with depth.
4. The translation, by Marina Harss, is first-rate. The book reads fluidly and convincingly.
5. Buzzati’s use of the Orpheus theme also connects the book to a larger cultural trajectory. Guy Davenport has taught us to see the myth of Orpheus as an ever-potent archetype that modern artists keep returning to. As Davenport once noted, “Orpheus, then, is one archaic ghost we have revived and put to work bringing us out of the sterile dark.” In another essay, Davenport spelled out in more detail the pervasiveness of the Orphic theme in modern art:
Myth is a tale anyone can tell; it is not the story itself in a particular form or with a particular finish, like a play by Shakespeare or a story by Chekov. An Alabama folktale called “Orphy and Miss Dicey,” Cocteua’s Orphee, Monteverdi’s Orfeo, Gluck’s Orphee, Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” are all versions of an immemorially ancient pattern of events which sensibilities as diverse as those of Guillaume Apollinaire (“Zone” and the Cortege d’Orphee), Anton Donchev (Vreme Razdelno), Rilke (Sonnette an Orpheus), and Eudora Welty were interested to retell.
The tragic singer who list his wife twice and who was torn apart by madwomen has never been absent from the art of Europe since its archaic formulation in the mountains of Trace. In our time the theme arises obliquely from various new sources. I suspect that Stendhal unconsciously awakened the theme with the severed head of Julien Sorel in Le Rouge et le Noir (1830), the romantic irony of which Flaubert reinterpreted in his “Herodias” later in the century. Thereafter the head of Orpheus or St. John became an obsessive subject among painters (Moreau), poets (Wilde), and composers (Strauss).
The Orpheus myth is complementary to that of Persephone. Both are about loss and redemption, about grief and the progress of grief on to a triumph. In the myth of Orpheus the feminine spirit is absorbed and integrated with the masculine, and the archetypical poet is an organization of both.
As an addendum, one could add many other names to the list of artists who have been reworked the Orpheus theme in modern times: Samuel Delany (who, perhaps not coincidently, ended up as one of Guy Davenport’s many correspondents), Davenport himself (especially in his novella The Dawn in Erewhon), Hugh Hood (in his 1967 novel The Camera Always Lies), Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (where the Orphic theme is intertwined story of Hamlet), Dan Clowes, Russell Smith, among many others. (In my earlier note on Clowes, I should have noted the Orphic roots of the ending of Velvet Glove where Clay Loudermilk, like the ancient myth figure before him, is torn to pieces). The linkage of Orpheus with a guitar strumming pop star, which Buzzati uses in his book, was especially popular, I think, in the 1960s. Leonard Cohen’s public persona in that era, for example, possibly owed something to the Orpheus story.
Standing behind the myth of Orpheus is the idea of the artist as (failed) redeemer, which perhaps explains its popularity over the last two centuries.