Mass Graves: City of Now, is the second excerpt from Daniele
Pantano's Mass Graves: A Confession project. There is much here to admire in Pantano's
startling evocations of immorality, physical violence and questioning of
reader/viewer complicity in art forms portraying these destructive
tendencies. The various materials, fragments, that Pantano uses, inform each
other and combine to create a disturbing mindscape in which physical and
sexual violence is enacted upon women and children. Art, seen here as
receptacle for this immorality and violence, becomes linked with these acts
of violence, drawing attention to art as being created out of disturbed
minds/experiences and further questioning the voyeuristic nature of the
reader/viewer. Unsurprisingly this content makes for a haunting read. But
form is as important as content here too and in his use of a variety of
experimental forms through the five sections of this book, Pantano imbues the
work with energy and builds tension as he takes us through a succession of
disturbing places, experiences and states of mind, starting with the
discordant cat's wail, through to the sinister interview with a killer in the
final section of this book.
The first section 'From III' opens with the poem 'Katzenjammer' (p.11).
Pantano is well regarded as a translator of Swiss and German literature. The
use of German and English throughout City of Now plays with perception through language
and adds to the disorienting effect (for those who don't have those
languages) and shifting ways of thinking. I had to look up translation for
the German word 'Katzenjammer' my search returned: 'cat's wail/discordant
sound/depression or bewilderment in reference to a hangover'. The generation
of multiple definitions demonstrates how meaning here becomes extended when
engaging with multiple languages and how shifting to another language can
create shifts in thinking. But which definition to go with? To add a little
background Pantano has revealed that 'at least superficially, the book is
about the brutal murder of one of Egon Schiele's girl models'. If you take
the three lines of the first poem 'Katzenjammer',
Nothing you need to know
is still missing. The desired principle
in your hands you ought
to chase right now.
On one page you don't
remember writing 'I don't remember.'
My first impression is that here we are encountering the murderer, perhaps
experiencing amnesia, creating a confession of an act of madness erased?
However the address to the 'you', that unnamed third person, also addresses
us, as readers, being drawn in to the poem and the acts within it. And of
course that cat's wail evokes the cry of the woman murdered.
Pantano effectively draws the reader in to these poems and is present himself
in the next poem, 'The Fatalists' (p.12), in which we encounter Pantano
attempting to soothe the nightmare of his daughter's 'bad thoughts', using
lines written by his daughter. This use of collage effects a bonding between
father and daughter, though he admits 'But who is he to tell her to think of
something / Beautiful . . . who is he to tell her that everything is going to
be fine?' (p.12).
Indeed. In the second section 'bad thoughts' escalate and can not be escaped
from. In 'From V', violence is enacted upon children, artwork is shown as
product of disturbed minds, as object minus creator, as being a byproduct of
the cruelties of war. It is no wonder Pantano can not insist on a trouble
free existence for his daughter. In 'A Further Reading of Urs Alleman's Babyfucker (with dripping faucet)' (p.17)
Pantano's treatment of this novel disrupts the narrative, but the language
retains its disturbing effect, albeit less coherent, less explicit and by
implication created more in the mind of the reader. Presented with the
largely disparate language 'fuck burst been in a stuffed I into babies'
(p.18) just what do we, as readers, create out of this content? Perhaps a
clue lies in the effect of the lists of artworks in 'Six Obstacles' (p.25)
which make art becomes a physical object, depersonalised, detached from its
creator and its creative aspect.
'From III' evidences preoccupations with act of translation. 'Waldau Lunatic
Asylum (Partially Translated Catalogue of Responses)' (p.31) and 'Some First
Lines (From His Notebooks, #14, University of Zurich) (p.38) and 'From His
Paris Notebooks, #4' (p.41) are both sub-titled as being 'Translated from the
original German)'. In this disturbing mindscape Pantano highlights the
importance of having access to the original language, to words unfiltered by
others who may have sanitised or corrupted meaning in their own efforts at
making translations of these notebooks. Here is a warning to be suspicious of
words not only in hands of any previous translator but also in hand of the
original author whose intentions may be other than relating a straightforward
reality especially when it is overtly violent or sexually explicit. In 'Some
First Lines...' one entry is untitled and undated, 'We maneuvered her into an
abandoned house...she was ten years old.' (p.) In the light of the previous
acts of physical and sexual violence enacted upon children it becomes
difficult to not see this 'maneuvering' of a child into an isolated place by
this 'He' who could be a killer, as having sinister intentions and being
dangerous to this child. However, this is not certain and the question is, to
what extent are our minds creating these sinister acts? Is our first thought
always the bad thought?
In 'From XV', 'Guestbook' (p.76) entries are put in speech marks and have two
capital letters in brackets after each entry. These are taken to be initials,
but not whole name, indicating an act of concealment, wanting to own (partial
signature) and conceal identity of the author of these strange statements
perhaps belying the fear of being labeled as insane. This raises the question
of authorial responsibility and integrity. If such writings are the creations
of truly disturbed minds what are the implications of these being viewed by
society, what effect could art made by those of a disturbed mind have on the
minds of others? Again, in 'City of Now' (p.52) the finger is pointed at us,
...Bestiality, does she,
Absorbed, think and
Larger than a common
The dark trying of her
Counting these pages?
Which brings us to the final section 'From LXXX' '†berrogue: An Interview' in
which 'something more akin to Alex's good old 'ultra-violence,' / something
much more disturbing and toxic.' is what is cooly stated to be sought by the
Once encountered this book will not leave the mind and considering its
preoccupations, it shouldn't, but this book of 'bad thoughts' wants to remind
us of the possibility of other ways of thinking. To return to one line from
'The Fatalists', Pantano's collaboration with his daughter, 'Nature is a disc
that never stops spinning, Daddy. He wants her to prove it.' (p.12).
Pantano's material speaks for itself and needs to be heard.
Neil Ellman's Convergence &
Conversion: Ekphrastic Poems is a slimmer volume, also from Knives Forks Spoons Press, containing
15 short poems. As it says on the tin, these poems are linked to artworks
which they are titled after and Ellman gives the artist and medium of art
form as subtitle to each poem. These are surrealist/expressionist works of
art and in response Ellman does not simply describe each painting or
sculpture, he blends description of the artwork with more abstract ideas or
impressions to varying degrees in these poems. Acts of creation are at work
here in this interplay between language and visual art as Ellman takes
aspects of the original piece of art and transposes it to his own medium of
words on the page.
To begin with I read these poems independently from the art works. Some poems
are more directly imagistic, effecting a spatial representation of the art
work on the page as in Cubi X (p.15) 'an old man / bleeding grey / clothed in
gray / disconsolate age'. The short lines slow the pace allowing the reader
to absorb the visual and abstract impressions. Ellman experiments with lineation
to make use of the space of the page perhaps in homage to each poem's
'parent' sculptures or paintings and adds a visual dimension to the poems.
'Ciphers... '(p.16) makes use of more abstract language so that the poem
hinges on the concrete images of 'eyes' and 'stars'. There is a sense of
movement on the page here. Action is created by Ellman's use of lineation
which falls into two columns running down the page. Year After Year (p.17)
gives a sense of language re-enacting the spatiality of the art work using
dimensions of time and place,
here wherever here is
Such economy and use of simple language runs through Ellman's poems. In 'The
End of Everything' (p.8), the lines, 'sparks fly / as an old engine / billion
of light years / sputtering', remind me of William Carlos Williams's 'Red
Wheelbarrow' in the effectiveness of simple language to evoke a vivid image.
Of course after reading through the poems independently I looked up each
artwork, most were available online. Reading the poem alongside the art work
involves the reader/viewer in a further act of creation and adds another
dimension, further to the poem and the art work as discrete entities. In the
case of 'K.51' (p.14) Ellman's poem follows Frank Stella's sculpture that
followed Domenico Scarlatti's music, creating a triple layering of
inspiration and response.
Ellman's 'conversion and convergence' act on each art work in a responsive
and respectful personal engagement with these works of art which brings them
in poem form to the reader. Interestingly, there is also a reversal of the
creative process here in that the reader comes to the poem first, then
becomes aware of the art work which has created it. Unless of course you
already know these pieces of art. But that's another story of creation or
should that be poem...
Joanne Ashcroft 2012