Trail of the Comet

“Before you see the world, shouldn’t you see a doctor?”

“Did you leave your bags without attendance? They will be confiscated.”

A cop and a soldier point machine guns at the viewer: “SUPPORT OUR TROOPS!”

To do what? Strange messages in the posters plastered across U.S. airports. They seem to encourage xenophobia and a relinquishing of personal rights. Perhaps I’m paranoid. Journeying to an international poetry festival in Pistoia, just outside Florence, Italy, I pass through the grey high-ceilinged light of Rome’s Central Railway Station. On one of the pillars is a museum poster of Aphrodite holding irrepressible Eros in her lap; she is pointing at the viewer. Eros is fixing an arrow onto his bow and looking straight at the viewer as well. Will you be next? It’s so much friendlier than the machine guns.

A half hour west of Florence, Pistoia is a world center for the manufacture of trains. In the 16th Century its metalworkers created the pistol, and named it after the city. This is the fourth year of international poetry festival Il Cammino delle Comete, the Trail of the Comet-the brainchild of translator Raffaella Marzano, Sergio Iagulli, archivist of Salerno, and their son Pierpaolo Iagulli, graphic and video artist-all from Casa della Poesia in Baronissi. The festival is funded almost entirely by the City of Pistoia and the Toscana region, with some help from arts organizations and state departments around the world. When I expressed surprise at the support from the local government, a rarity in the U.S., the Minister of Culture, Giovanni Capecchi, said it was not unusual for left-leaning municipalities to support artistic events, since they benefit the town’s people and attract visitors as well. Would any U.S. politician get the sense in that?

“In light of Bush’s arrival in Rome,” Capecchi said on opening night, “which we know is to garner support for his war, we are here in the name of peace. In corroboration with Spain and their courageous stance, we have three Spanish poets, and poets from around the world who are unrelentingly against the war.”

Il Cammino delle Comete has become a meeting of different poets each year from around the world, who have in common a fierce support of world peace and a sense of solidarity that seems to grow of its own accord during the three days of the festival. In the poetry world, where competition is as rampant as the rewards are small, to find interest and support from newly met writers who are not interested in standing on your shoulders to reach the top rung of the ladder feels like a letter from home.

This year the poets were Maria Victoria Arencia, Francisca Aguirre, & Jorge Riechmann from Spain; perhaps the best known poet from Iraq, Saadi Yousef; Hassan Teleb from Egypt; Nimrod from Chad; Martin Reints of Holland; poet, calligrapher and opera singer Taijin Tendo from Japan; Carlos Nejar of Brazil; Maram al-Masri from Syria; Slovenia’s Kajetan Kovic; four poets from Italy: Biancamaria Frabotta, Roberto Carifi, Giacomo Trinci, and Sardinia’s poet/ activist Alberto Masala; and three from the U.S.: Simon Ortiz, Amiri Baraka, and JANINE POMMY VEGA.

Four musicians were on hand to work with the poets: jazz pianist Riccardo Morpurgo; Luca Colussi on drums; Andrea Lombardini on bass; and Marco Collazzoni on sax and flute. On the video screen above the stage was a line from Bosnian poet Izet Sarajlic: Even the lines of poems are content when the people get together.

As night fell in the convent garden of San Francesco, the festival began. Poets and musicians played and read under a bright moon for three successive nights.

Iraqi poet Saadi Yousef, exiled for years in London, read and sang his poem, America the Beautiful: God save America/ My home sweet home!

We are not your hostages, America
and your soldiers are not God’s soldiers
We are the poor ones, ours is the earth of the drowned gods
the gods of bulls
the gods of fires
the gods of sorrows that intertwine clay and blood in a song
We are the poor, ours is the god of the poor
who emerges out of the farmer’s ribs
and bright
and raises heads up high
America, we are the dead
Let your soldiers come
Whoever kills a man, let him resurrect him
We are the drowned ones, dear lady
We are the drowned
Let the water come

Francisca Aguirre’s poems drew from childhood memories of life with and without her father, painter Lorenzo Aguirre, who was killed in prison, a political prisoner of Franco:

When they killed my father
we stayed in that zone of the void
that goes from life to death,
inside that last bubble launched by the drowned
as if all the air in the world had suddenly disappeared.

I remember they gave my sister Susy and me
the news in the bathroom/ in that school for daughters of political prisoners.
There was an enormous mirror
and I saw the word death grow inside that mirror
until it came out
and lodged itself in the eyes of my sister
like a lethal and pestilent vapour.

Egypt’s Hassan Teleb said his poems had been confiscated for impiety by AL-AZHAR, the Egyptian Islamic Institution for all Moslems, and for treason against the government by Mubarak. “I guess I am a danger to everyone,” he said wryly. One poem written years ago, Prayer to the Mother of Ali, was prophetic enough to give chills:

I am not the only one defeated by plenty
the guards forced me to my knees
walk on four legs, they said
they wanted me to say I was the prey of the devil
and that now I repent.
I resisted.
I did not surrender.
They said, Say long life to the Sultan.
But I didn’t, I wouldn’t
We’ll take your eyes out
make you crazy
and leave you alone and forgotten.
I could see the deluge coming.
So, Mother of Ali, before you
you have a different person.
Take a pen. I want to dictate the essence of my tragedy.
I know the word is weak and poetry resists
but I’ll try. And who knows?
I might be successful
If the angels of poetry help me
and God gives me inspiration.

Simon Ortiz read from his newly collected poems, Out There Somewhere, accounts of how capitalism worked on the res in the Fifties in the uranium mines. His story-telling voice, like one you might listen to in a long drive across the southwest, told the heartbreaking facts with humour and precision, leaving the listeners to judge for ourselves. It made you want to send the owners packing underground to the deepest pits and shafts-get a taste of how the system works in real life.

Syria’s Maram-al-Masri at first glance looked like a movie star, decked out in a low-cut dress and high heels. Her openly sensual intimate poems read in a low captivating voice had everyone in the audience leaning forward, convinced she was reading to him or her alone. There was wry humour in her declaration of wanting to give pleasure, receive pleasure. It took a minute to realize what a revolutionary act this was for a woman from a Moslem country-openly avowing her right to her own body, and anything she cared to do with and in it.

Amiri Baraka read the last night the whole text of Somebody Blew Up America, and We. Accompanied by the band playing a John Coltrane tune in regular, double, and triple time, Baraka launched into the accusatory poem. He was riveting, brilliant-one of the best performances I’ve ever seen.

Who own the oil
Who want more oil
Who told you what you think that later you find out a lie
Who found Bin Laden, maybe they Satan
Who pay the CIA
Who knew the bomb was gonna blow
Who knew why the terrorists
Learned to fly in Florida
San Diego

The day following my own reading, Casa della Poesia and Minister of Culture Capecchi got me clearance to enter the medium security prison Casa Circonariale Santa Caterina with poet Alberto Masala for a talk with the prisoners. Having worked in New York State prisons for more than twenty-five years teaching creative writing to men, women and children, I have tremendous faith in the transformative power of poetry-in ordinary people finding a voice of their own and using it for self-discovery, and for changing the world around them. For some long-termers, words are the only way they have to get over the walls.

Director of Education Liliana filled us in on the people we would see. Most of the hundred or so men in Santa Caterina’s were serving three to five years for using, selling, or transporting drugs. Their countries of origin were as varied as the poets at the festival; only a few old timers were Italian. About thirty men between nineteen and thirty-five years old filed into the chapel for the talk. The night before I’d performed a poem called The Draft, in which I described my shock at seeing men with wrists and ankles in chains, hobbling out in step to a bus that would take them to another prison. The throwback to the slave days, so in your face, was like a punch in the stomach. I handed out translations of the poem, and read it for the group.

What followed was an open discussion of some of the harsher conditions I’ve encountered in the U.S. prisons. Sylvia Baraldini, an Italian citizen incarcerated in America for twelve years for underground activities in the U.S., wrote in an article for Il Manifesto in Rome that no one should be surprised at the horrible tortures inflicted by U.S. occupation forces on Iraqi citizens; Amnesty International has been denouncing analagous conditions inside the special U.S. prisons for years.

One man objected, defending the system that had imprisoned him. “I am from Tunisia. But you are describing harsh conditions that do not exist here.”

I agreed. “For a similar crime in the U.S., you would serve from ten to fifteen years. The business of locking up mostly poor people and employing many others to guard them is very large over there. We have two million people in prison; imagine how many work in that field.”

“And once convicted,” said Fabrizio, an older Italian convict, “you lose many of your civic guarantees. Here we still have civil rights after conviction.”

He gave Alberto a poem he had brought with him to read aloud, called Sunset.

I raise my eyes
and scrutinize the sea
that shines and reddens
under the afternoon sun
My thought
follows the movement
of the water
runs in space
rides the waves
one behind the other.

Everyone applauded. An Albanian sang a song he remembered from his childhood. Another man recited a poem he had learned in school. Alberto Masala offered to return with more poetry another day, if they wanted. They all agreed to come back if he did. We left with handshakes all around. One man waited until the chapel emptied to say I reminded him of his mother.

In Italian train stations, where the tracks spread out beyond the station to a flat bright horizon, even standing on the platform you feel you’re going somewhere. The day after Il Cammino delle Comete ended in Pistoia, I left with Alberto for Bologna.

Poet Jack Hirschman in San Francisco had sent me a book of poems he had translated from Italian of the poet Sante Notarnicola of Bologna the year before. Most of the poems had been written in prison, where Notarnicola did twenty years straight, and an additional nine years provisional release, returning every night to sleep behind bars. He had been among the youngest in the Red Brigade, robbing banks to bankroll the revolution until he was betrayed by one of his own. As he tells it, he had believed completely in the necessity of supporting the struggle by any means necessary, including violence. He was given five life terms, and had only been completely released three years ago.

I had made copies of the chapbook, Liberty, Understand? and passed them out to my class at Eastern C.F. in upstate New York. We’ve been meeting as a class and writing poetry for eight years, and that winter we spent two weeks discussing his poems. One phrase, “the Big Turning,” came up several times in the book: As logic dictates/ after the Big Turning/ the freeze has set in. “What do you think that means?” I asked. It became the homework assignment for the week. I returned with the idea that perhaps it meant the solidarity in the Brigade had disappeared, and some had turned toward a self-serving or subjective position-a Big Turning away from one ideology to another-sort of like selling out.

The class disagreed. The Big Turning, they said, comes to a person doing long time when he or she realizes the system has taken something from the inherent personality that one cannot get back. One can’t turn around and look for it in the past; one is standing in the new way now. Science, one of the poets in the class, wrote up their position, and I mailed it to Hirschman and translator Raffaella Marzano; both said they thought the understanding correct.

When Alberto Masala offered to introduce me to his friend Sante Notarnicola, who owned a bar in Bologna’s equivalent of Greenwich Village, I jumped at the chance. Fresh from the train, we walked over to Sante’s bar that same night. The place was packed. I recognized Sante at once as a fixed gray point in the swirling mass of students on a weekend night. He had white hair and looked to be in his 60’s. After introductions he sat us down at the end of the bar over a couple of beers. He wasn’t a man of much small talk.

“What does it mean, the Big Turning?” I said, getting straight to it. I gave him the two ideas we’d come up with in class.

Sante shook his head.

“In 1985 we held a meeting inside the prison of everybody who was left of the Brigade, and we decided: Not in violence. The revolution will not be won with violence. If it would,”-he lit the cigarette he had just rolled up– “I would use it, I have no problem-but it won’t. Turning away from violence is the only way the struggle can be won.”

The next day we went to meet him at his place set improbably in the middle of a housing complex behind an iron gate. It was a little country cottage with its own tile roof and window boxes. He had said he didn’t write much any more, but as we sat down at the kitchen table, he presented me with a poem:

is a colored dishrag
in your window.
is your two white breasts
freed in the wind
is that tool
the tranquilizing machine gun
that you have hidden
between the flower pots
of sweet basil and mint.

He went outside to the flower boxes under his kitchen window, and returned with a snippet of green in each hand.

“See?” he said. “Sweet basil and mint.”

The next day I flew to Napoli for the last reading with Casa della Poesia in Baronissi. They had published a chapbook of my poems translated into Italian; the performance would also be a book party. Casa della Poesia is lodged in an impressive library building that was once a Franciscan convent. It stands on a cliff overlooking a wide valley. The reading was set up with lights and sound system to happen outdoors. Rehearsal took place in the blazing sun, with drummer Felice Marino, bassist Mauricio Galidieri, guitarist Massimo Barrella, and keyboard Renato Costarella. After an hour someone remarked that drummer Felice in his green shirt looked a little like a Christmas decoration.

That night we played to a good crowd, and something magic happened-something when it goes beyond what you’re doing and becomes something else coming through. The next to the last poem was a blues piece, Business on the Hill, as Usual, with this last stanza:

How can we take apart the premise
pull the nails out,
pull the Bastille down, plant the open market space,
watch the redwing blackbirds and think about nothing?
How can we create the grace of freedom?

We repeated the stanza again and again. They were not hypothetical questions. How can we do it? Maybe Sante in the Big Turning has the answer.

JANINE POMMY VEGA, author of twelve books and chapbooks of poems since 1968, lives in Willow, New York. She can be reached at: