-Reviewed by Charles Whalley–
Mass Graves: City of Now is a pamphlet about guilt, depravity, fear, madness, desire, unease, meaning, despair, sex, and pain. The cover of Daniele Pantano’s pamphlet is perfect. It is a photograph that alternatively resembles dead rosebuds, rotted bark or burnt paint, and that has a texture which seems to register the most in a sense other than sight (in the same way that a film of ants will make you itch). Its determination to frustrate signification is its most significant feature.
The pamphlet is split into five sections, each apparently representing a selection from an ongoing series of ‘Mass Graves’. This structurally represents the sense in much of the pamphlet of only seeing parts of a whole. Even the epigraph to the pamphlet incorporates an ellipsis, indicating the fragmentary nature of much of the rest of the poems.
The epigraph, from the Italian writer Pier Paolo Pasolini, also does much to introduce the tone of Mass Graves:
“I can only stay true to the stupendous monotony of the mystery […] that’s why in the anxiety of my sins I’ve never been touched by real remorse.”[sic]
It smacks, as does much of the pamphlet, of continental postmodernist philosophers : there is the abstract oxymoron of “stupendous monotony” – paradox for profundity –; the grandness of “the mystery”; the Catholicism of “anxiety of my sins”; the indifference and Existentialist self-scrutiny of “never been touched by real remorse”; and the generally wonky register of translation from a Romance language. Certainly, one of the pamphlet’s faults is that it displays its tonal markers too consciously and too often, as if it is toying with parody, and which, in itself, is a sort of efficiency.
Digressions aside, the sense of being presented with unsettling fragments (and, perhaps, more unnervingly, of finding oneself wanting more) is the dominant mood throughout. One poem, for instance, is entitled ‘Some First Lines (From His Notebooks, #14, University of Zurich)’, and features short bursts of prose, labelled by their source and a date; for example:
‘from “The Caterpillar’s Embrace of a Rotten Fruit”
The literature on the inert nature of the eye is vast … the only
consolation I have is art.’
The speaker is displaced and hidden, as the main character of the pamphlet resembles instead something of a curator (or a detective, or a psychiatrist). This is reinforced as many of the poems are, or purport to be, translations. In all, it seems we are being presented with disparate pieces of a mental world that is entirely alien, although this vagueness helps rather than hinders the effect. The pamphlet seems to acknowledge this in ‘Katzenjammer’: “Nothing you need to know is still missing.”
Pantano frequently uses these fragments to give sudden glimpses of sex or threats of violence. The last ‘first line’ from ‘Some First Lines…’ runs: “We maneuvered her into an abandoned house … she was ten years old.” (That the horrors are only hinted at also, of course, makes them more horrific, as the worst murders are the ones heard off-stage.) It is especially effective in making the reader wish to continue reading as morbid curiosity is perhaps the most powerful form of curiosity. Furthermore, it twists this curiosity against the reader by making us feel we are complicit in our eagerness to find more, and making us feel that the speakers are somehow doing this to please us. Indeed, complicity is one of the themes of the pamphlet, with ‘Six Obstacles’ mentioning the “terrible crimes” of which “the Swiss are guilty”, referring to Nazi atrocities and suggestions of Swiss border guards turning back refugees.
The bind between suggested depravity and the complicity of reader curiosity is explored in what is, it seems, the pamphlet’s centre: the long piece ‘A Further Reading of Urs Allemann’s Babyfucker (With Dripping Faucet)’. Much of the pamphlet is conceptual – ‘Six Obstacles’ includes lists as from an art catalogue, ‘Waldau Lunatic Asylum (Partially Translated Catalogue of Responses)’ presents a list of asylum inmates and their works of art – and ‘A Further Reading of…’ can be seen as conceptual, in that the principles of its construction stand out as much as, if not more than, its content. It is split into seven sections of continuous prose, each comprising one long ungrammatical sentence from two to half a page in length. The first lines run:
‘with be different have in the others night day me here a pinkie between
scraping fontanels slide with for the I some a get difference two how
would neither get garret head where of with powder the haven’t none die
all fucking by creel spigot spigot milk I wouldn’t I rush garret life’s with’
And so on. It is defiantly difficult, but compels with the suggestion that something horrible is being revealed. Although there is a drifting cast of characters and a vague sense of place (mostly based on the frequency of certain nouns), the poem’s interest mostly revolves around the appearance of ‘fuck’ (and variations thereupon) and ‘baby’, and their cohabitation within the same text and sometimes the same line. It is a piece that few would feel inclined to read through in its entirety if it were not for the brinkmanship that the text plays with the reader, but it is rare that language produces such a powerful effect (even if, one could argue, Pantano achieves it by the meanest tricks).
It’s a tribute to Pantano skill that this review has come so far without mentioning his skill with word-choice and concise, striking phrasing which, given what this review has discussed, goes on almost in the background. He can be forgiven showboating this skill in a poem near the end of the pamphlet which just lists words. I rarely read a pamphlet that feels as ready as this. Mass Graves: City of Now is an accomplished collection of poems which carries its own complete universe along with it. In all, by its own criteria the pamphlet succeeds completely, which is the best we can ask of any poetry. The question, as it is particularly with conceptual literature, is whether these are criteria you value or can enjoy. Peli Grietzer writes that pieces of conceptual literature are “perfect by default”. The danger here is that these works can be so complete as to not require the reader at all. (This is why some conceptual literature doesn’t even need to be read, as the reader, as the act of reading, is made almost entirely redundant. Pantano’s ‘…Babyfucker’ , as six pages of disconnected words, risks this fate.) With this in mind, Mass Graves manages to be both impressive and frustrating. I recommend it highly, but I won’t expect you to like it.