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Contemporary Italian American Writing

Alfredo de Palchi

A Non-Conformist, Italian Poet in New York City

A Retrospective Essay on Alfredo de Palchi's
by Daniela Gioseffi

Alfredo de PalchiThe Italian poet living in America, Alfredo de Palchi has always avoided conformity. For his supreme individualisin he paid a dear price in his teenage years in his European homeland. His refusal to conform to the wishes of fascists who arrested him caused him to be tortured during World War II in Legnago, a suburb of Verona where he was born in 1926. Yet, his supreme independence from all literary movements has gifted him with a style all his own. Many fine Italian poets do not translate well into English, but dePalchi is not one of those. Though his staccato rhythms have more emotional power in their Italian originals, they come across very well in English translation. De Palchi has been blessed with excellent translators and has published four bilingual collections; Sessions with My Analyst (1966?) The Scorpions Dark Dance (1994?) Anonymous Constellation (1997) and Addictive Aversions (1999) which have won him good reviews and recognition in the United States and England as well as in Italy where he is, in good measure, an anti-poet. He is against all establishment ideas of what the art must or should be. His language is stripped of ornamentation, sharp and straight-forward as well as colloguial, and his verse is jagged and disjointed, snatches of the unconscious mixed with conscious memory, composed like modern music. It comes from the gut of his being and does not substitute philosophic tenents for experience and emotion. It has the substance of a life deeply lived and felt, and a spirit fully disillusioned by the ugliness of human depravity.

After the war, de Palchi was freed from the fascists only to fall victim to the partisans who in their communistic cadres inflicted grievous punishment upon the innocent young non-conformist-- only just freed from imprisonment by sadistic fascists. These early brutal and tortorous experiences in prison are the matter of the initial section of his first published book Sessions with My Analyst. Titled "Remembering `45" this section is made of thirteen monologues, speckled with interior colloquies, in a squalding sequence which exposes the beastly behavior man is so capable of in what the poet calls the "paleolithic present." Drafted when the poet was only twenty-two years old, it was published in 1961, thirteen years later. The free verses are crisp and use the historical present with urgency in a stream of meanderings which bring back theme upon theme, always punctuated with a hopelessly felt Kafkaesque sense of guilt and existential despair. The poet lives in a inferno with no exit.

Imprisoned in Legnago, the teen-age Alfredo learned how despicable his townsmen could become under the dictatorship of Mussolini. Beaten by the belts and buckles of the sadistic guards who use their police power against the helpless, the poet remembers childhood wrongs, the abandonment by his father, the drowing of his pet dog by a sadistic boy, the abuse and contempt heaped on him, his own abuse of a rabbit when as a boy he handled one ruffly as he drew it from a cage by its hind legs and he heard it whimper. The whimper of the rabbit returns again and again like a litany of the damned and a reminder of guilt and cruelty, as the poet begins to picture "God the Father" as his his own uncaring father, a god-murderer and killer like the fascist prison guards. The monolog of "Remember '45" is remarkably sustained in its intense despair and justifiably angry cynicism. The lines move with kinetic action in brillant flashes, experimental and flexible, yet fluid in a meandering stream of stuccato passages.

The verses follow the young poets adventures with women and carry him from Paris to Barcelona to New York City. The poems have a lively sense of youthful abandon, mixed with an emotional sensativity. They contain a poignant portrait of the poet's Italian grandfather, dying of cancer, the only father he ever knew--during The Great Depression years of his youth. The fleeting descriptions of great cities, Paris, Barcelona and finally New York, a city de Palchi love's and has lived in for many years, are palpable with spirited observations. His father, his God, his town, his country and the world have estranged the young poet and he is discordant with his revulsion and revolt. Sessions with My Analyst is a merciless exposure of de Palchi's probing of himself and his feelings of guilt and failure, yet it does not have the feeling of confessional poetry in the American mode about it at all. Rather the disjointed verses rage like a mutiny against injustice in a compulsive outpouring, begun in youth and finished in adulthood.

My heat
perverse bird
at every summons to the light
to darkness.

The poet can find no refuge in Church or State, corrupted by corporate wealth which enslaves and makes robots of men in the marketplace.

Into my
hands in prayer
I spit out my birth

The Scorpion's Dark DanceHe would commit suicide were he not driven by sexual appetite to pleasure in his own desire. His desires for women are fully explored in the poems which expose his physical drive in uncompromising terms. As L.L. Salomon wrote in the introduction to Sessions with My Analyst -- The book "is a work of art in which guilt complexes, adolescent fears and mature revulsion at the evil in man are deeply explored. Certainly no contemporary Italian poet of his generation can matchde Palchi, whose dark and terrible past comes to life in these poems. He has lived in an inferno. He must forever

thrust his
dismal cargo forward
under a light
--alone, out of touch

The Scorpion's Dark Dance , Alfreo de Palchi second published book, was actually written prior to Sessions with My Analyst, while the poet was imprisoned in his youth, but not published until many years later.

Anonymous ConstellationAlfredo de Palchi's Anonymous Constellation is one long stream-of- consciousness presentation in the style of French symbolist poetry--with plenty of blank white spaces between the individual sections, or short poems, which wash through the poet's mind with stark imagery and cynical emotion. Pour ce qu'il est tout insense is the opening epitaph from Francois Villon--showing that the poet means to insense us with his ironic message-- to slap us in the face with our own pretense at civilization. There's a thoughtful introduction by Alessandro Vettori of the University of Virginia which explains the poet's mission and why the style of the book is organic to its themes. The strongest section of the book comes in the middle when the poet leaps into concrete happenings, leaving the more abstract mode of existential nausea and despair. Disgust and rage are expressed at corruption, greed, bigotry, hate, folly, human vanity, and the loneliness which is the human condition. These are dePalchi's themes as he takes us from the beginnings of our evolution through the vulturism of the animal kingdom to set us adrift in the far reaches of the stars. He is a poet longing for human perfectablity, calling us to awaken into humane conscience, aware of how power corrupts all in a self-aggrandizing universe where existence seems based upon the expediencies of survival and the necessities of nature:

Writing in his native Italian, de Palchi has been translated into sharp-witted English by Sonia Raiziss--but the English translations are not quite as good as the Italian originals in tone and passion. The book is happily a bi-lingual edition and a cycle of poems not unlike his last, The Scorpion's Dark Dance , also translated by Raiziss, which won praise for its "dark exuberance, bright anger, cutting cynicism which hammers us to the other side of apathy." There is a Dantesque harshness and a Montalean sorrow, even as there are glimpses of redemption and self-insight that break through with a typically Italian, sardonic tone. De Palchi is a survivor of war and imprisonment by Fascist and Communists zealots, longing to find meaning in the violence and brutality that surrounds him and which nearly destroyed his youthful life. His earlier book, The Scorpion's Dark Dance, was a sharp contrast of surreal, existential rage with sensuous imagery. Nature's beauty bloomed forth in sticky, succulent contrast to the abstracted wit of a sardonic mind to offer its peace. The poems seemed to flow in a more driven sequence than in the current book. In Anonymous Constellation, the rage is more complete and encompasses nature, herself, the grass in the end covers all rot, corruption, murder, and massacre, but does not bring peace. Rather, in the the later work, nature is a seductress tempting us to forget our horrors, a suspect beauty.

The poems intensify as one reads along. Perhaps, they are not arranged in the sequence in which they were originally written, but the highest points of the sequence come on pages 51-63. As one reads deeply into the book to capture its strength, a more concrete imagery leaps out of abstractions to ground the existential despair in everyday realities . An excerpt like the following--so much more powerful in the original Italian, too-- is such a moment:

They shot a black man
in a fruit store,
his tingling crinkled head
lands in a crate of tomatoes....
... the crowd grumbles ....
I shrug my shoulders, hurting at the thought
of the crash in his own and at the sight of his face
tinged with busted tomatoes
-Is that blood?-
-Eh, he's just a nigger-
says a dwarf clown.

This is followed by a section which states the central theme of the intensely streaming consciousness-- which despite its cynical bite seems meant to bring us to a peace on the other side of despair and toward a more humane conscience. Only an idealist can become so disillusioned.

....the world grins under a fist
we have opted for not weeping not helping
but looking away
when a body collapses
and walking off with the same indifference
we feel for the beast knocked out
by a car or a shotgun--
it's useless to pretend, everyone
is out for himself
and locked in himself.

And then the voice explodes into a flowering of truth that surmounts the every day world to become epic in proportion:

How can we swallow history, our
daily story, get used to enormous and petty
insults--under each fallen leaf a war
of insects and everywhere the rage
for survival: the mouse the rabbit
the cruising hawk attack
and the butcher's boy in his ferocious glee
lashing the ox and hungry for power....

This is de Palchi's ultimate sorrow. Yet, the poet's despair in Anonymous Constellation is full of heavenly aspiration, even in its existential nausea. The title poem gives the book a resonant aspiration, a respect for the mystery of self in relation to the cosmos, so unfathmable to one finite mind. Alfredo de Palchi suggests that each of us is his own "grand inquisitor" responsible for the love we can create within our own small society of friends and family. Within the walls of our own homes we may find love that transcends the bitter world. This is his finer message and Anonymous Constellation is a book worthy of many readers. Responsibility for human love and suffering is what the poet calls us to. In all his existential sorrow, dePalchi wishes to reach beyond himself to a greater understanding and humanity as he feels himself reeling in a vast universe, a mystery even to himself, an Anonymous Constellation.

Addictive AversionsAlfredo de Palchi's Addictive Aversions is a series of erotic poems divided into three sections, Moments, Movements, and Mutations, but it is more than merely erotic love which concerns the poet. As in the poet's earlier works, the book is one long stream-of-consciousness in the style of a French symbolist poem--with plenty of white spaces between the individual verses which wash through the poet's mind with stark imagery and contemplative clarity. Form follows function as thepoems flow in a driven sequence and intensify as one reads towards the conclusion. Again de Palchi's fierce nihilism, and uncompromising lack of sentimentality--as in his other recent books, The Scorpion's Dark Dance and Anonymous Constellations--is at work to challenge our morality and bring us face to face with our animal natures. These poems are about sexual obsession as part of the human condition of an ordinary man, but the question they pose is a deeply moral one which concerns the very psychology of our species. These poems bring us face to face with our existential despair in the midst of a baffling and unanswering creation.

De Palchi is both enthralled by sexuality and its pleasures and repulsed by the addictive grip in which it holds him. He is angered by his lack of control, his driving need, repulsed by his own animal nature. Though the visceral condition of being human holds orgasmic release as a pleasure, it also obsesses us with the need for orgasmic release. Obsession drives us through life more than our human will to rise above our animal natures and yet, as always, de Palchi longs for us to transcend our natures, to be aware. He challenges us to be better than mere procreative animals and longs to rise above his own nature. We will cheat and steal and trespass the boundaries of honor in order to fulfill the addictive need that an enrapturing lover creates in us, he seems to say. But though, yet again, dePalchi's message is that there is no honor among men, only addiction, necessity, appetite, biological drive, there is a slim hope for a finer transcendence, if only one can find the incorruptible lover.

Alfredo de Palchi may see us as creatures in effect "raped" by our own sexual drive. He is both attracted and repelled by the life force--the addiction to the pleasures which repulses him, but there is no prudery here, and no religiousity, as the repulsion is more profound than Puritanical. It is a revulsion which is deeply philosophical as the poet seeks the light of reason in a Dante-like journey through his own pleasures, drives, and appetites, searching for a raison d'etre beyond them.

I specify your body's insolence
sometimes lyrical
subterranean with childlike
subterfuges, even your solar center
devouring me seems to laugh.
my existence interlocks with yours,
morning and night but the intricate mood
scares you because I am what you are
and you are what I am
joined in orgasmic nothingness--

Here again we meet with the existential despair of the poet who literally knew imprisonment and torture under both fascists and communists, finding dilemma at every turn. It is understandable why any sort of fanaticism is repulsive to him, including his own seemingly fanatical need of sexual release. Here is a poet angry and disgusted by the grip life has on him, the chemistry that defines him, the love that compels him. His mood is that of a Don Juan in Hell:

let's turn over the stone pocked with scribbles,
worms, blanched with spermatozoa, molecules:
such is the incessant beginning, the glimmer
that locks us between the linear horizon and the leap--

De Palchi pictures erotic love like a rat gnawing at his throat, opening his arteries, causing him to spurt life. The poet wants to bring us face to face with the destruction wrought by man, because of his greed. He doesn't want to be drawn into this corrupted and corrupting world by blossoming life, the fruits of exploding seeds which force their voluptuous life upon us even as greed destroys nature's bounty and beauty.

don't harden me
with the stench of cleared forests
of poisoned water,
the spores mutate from deep within
then burn with pressure
with green threads that I sniff like a sick dog
lapping at their sources
--another ulcerated spring explodes
encircled by toxins, by trunks
uprooted in the flow;
my material chemistry
rushes into yours as they renew themselves
together in the flames that still remain--

The poet has never overcome his existential despair, his nausea at the nothingness we are and become as we encounter ourselves full of appetite and morally imperfect. This is what makes his vision uncompromising and lacking in all sentimentality. He searches for "the perfect Justine" who will play the "masochist" to life as he sees himself a masochist tempted into desire by an unanswering creation which only forces more unanswering creation from us.

There is not one ounce of mawkishness, only aversion to the addictions of being alive, a flame burning with desire for mere desire's sake. Yet, there is a wry smile, a sardonic wit at work here, for de Palchi makes the erotic delectably inviting and pleasurable at the same time that he is repulsed by his addiction to it and thus the apt title Addictive Aversions.

Writing in his native Italian, de Palchi has been translated into sharp-witted English by Sonia Raiziss, Michael Palma, I.L. Salomon, Alethea Gail Segal and nicely edited by Michael Palma. The book is beautifully designed with a colorful illustration by Henri Matisse, Zulma, 1950, on its cover. The introduction by Alessandro Vettori of the University of Virginia is insightful in its appreciation and the laudatory explanation of the poet's work is well deserved. De Palchi's work has won much praise for its "dark exuberance, bright anger, cutting cynicism which hammers us to the other side of apathy." That is the very point of this poet's vision, to awaken apathy, to challenge us to a profoundly cosmopolitan view of ourselves in the vast cosmos of creation, so that we might truly become the paragon of animals if only we will see ourselves for the beasts of prey that we have proved ourselves to be through the bloody course of our history here on this voluptuous and pleasurable earth, full of human suffering wrought by man's inhumanity to man, his greed and appetite.

This is an epic view, not a narrowly confessional one, but a broadly universal theme that encompasses all creation. If there is a Dantesque harshness, there is a Montalean sorrow, even as there are glimpses of redemption and self-insight that break through with a typically Italian, sardonic tone, but Alfredo de Palchi is original in his voice and style--neither as ornate or Baroque as Dante, not ensconced in a religious motif, nor as lyrical or soft-hearted as Montale. He is a poet all his own in the "anonymous constellation" of his Addictive Aversions--minamalist, stark,uncompromising, and wonderfully exuberant in the clarity of his brief but flowing imagist verses, linked one to the other by his search for a morally perfectible life. A purer love, not merely sexual, in this brutal and savage world, in which we must listen to our own lonely spirit, is the only hoped for salvation.

.... yours is the voice you hear submerged....

--here I wait for the coming of an incorruptible

Copyright © 1999 by Daniela Gioseffi, New York City. All rights reserved.

Daniela Gioseffi is an internationally known, American Book Award winning author of twelve books of poetry and prose from major presses, both here and abroad. Her father, Donato Gioseffi was born in Orta Nova, Provincia della Puglia in 1905 and imigrated to the United States aboard the USS Independent in 1913. Daniela Gioseffi's works have been translated into Italian, German, Spanish, and Japanese. Her reviews have appeared in major U.S. literary magazines for over thirty years. Her new and selected collection of poems, Blood Autumn, Autunno di sangue, 2007, was published in bilingual edition. In the same year, she won The John Ciardi Award for Lifetime Achievement in Poetry from Italian Americana: Cultural and Historical Review. ON PREJUDICE: A GLOBAL PERSPECTIVE (Anchor/ Doubleday) won a Ploughshares World Peace Award, 1993, and IN BED WITH THE EXOTIC ENEMY, stories & novella, Avisson Press, Greensboro, NC, was a Booklist choice, 1997. She is winner of grant awards in poetry and prose from The New York State Council on the Arts, and winner of a PEN Short Fiction Award as well as The Eve of St. Agnes National Poetry Prize. Her 1995 collection of poetry , WORD WOUNDS & WATER FLOWERS, VIA Folios/ Bordighera, Inc., Purdue University, Indiana, won praise in THE AMERICAN BOOK REVIEW, POET LORE, THE VIRGINIA QUARTERLY and several other venues. An earlier book of poems, Eggs in the Lake was published by BOA Editions, Rochester, NY and is now published on line at The University of Connecticut website CAPA. She has edited two prize winning compendiums of world literature for Anchor/ Doubleday and Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, and reviewed poetry for many prominent publications, including American Book Review, The Hungry Mind Review, The Cortland Review on line, and Independent Publisher, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and Rain Taxi, as well as been very widely published online. She is editor of

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