The Poetry Project

On The Pasolini Book by Stacy Szymaszek

Review by Rebecca Teich

“Beauty is always contingent upon an impure precedent” - Pier Paolo Pasolini

Though most often referring to the generational transfer of property, wealth, and genetics, can there be forms of inheritance that pervert these very terms? In The Pasolini Book, Stacy Szymaszek writes perversions of a queer artistic inheritance. Such an artistic, political, queer inheritance might gesture to something both more inevitable and accidental than lineage or legacy imply. Szymaszek’s vision of inheritance is grounded in a generationally transmitted commitment to civic poetry, antifascist agitation, and queer public life. She takes up the life and poetry of Pier Paolo Pasolini, the transgressive poet, filmmaker, art critic, complicated leftist, and homosexual godfather rife with Italian dramatics, who Ara Merjian describes as “patron saint of aesthetic heresy” in his monograph on Pasolini, Against the Avant-Garde: Pier Paolo Pasolini, Contemporary Art, and Neocapitalism. The picket-fenced-in family drama is recast across nighttime cityscape cruising and desert desires which redistribute inheritance away from biological parents and towards the literary and political figure of Pasolini. Szymaszek’s Pasolini and Pasolini’s Szymaszek tread the line between foreparent and fantasmal contemporary, with Pasolini and Szymaszek both playing “poets who will never be parents / my words reveal the fantasy.” There is drama and performance in this fantasy: the show goes on and on.

This sense of legacy is akin to historical graffiti, where “the writer becomes a vandal.” Within this vandalism, Szymaszek performs a re-writing of lyric and life, at times crafting poems as counterparts to Pasolini’s, at other times crafting an [auto]biography as a counterpart and retelling of Pasolini himself, a hybridized mythopoesis and autopoiesis of both craft and life. These counterhistories travel through open undergrounds and counter/publics to facilitate exciting forms of solidarity; a butch dyke Dante follows a faggy Virgil down to the bathhouses, traipsing through both city-space and history: “I too am on the way to the baths / to make my longing public.”

The book shuttles between the brutal realism of the intimately everyday and mythic grandeur of narrative-lyric enmeshment with Pasolini. Its writing spans about sixteen years, while the narrative arc spans the author’s lifetime, folding Pasolini and his predecessors into her own. Typically, Szymaszek’s poetics feature a rigorous autopoiesis which becomes the node by which the city, its socialities, and its strictures grow illuminated. Much of her oeuvre, such as Hart Island (2015), A Journal of Ugly Sites (2016), and A Year From Today (2018), is derived through a regimented note-taking, journalish-tic processes of documenting daily city life over the course of one or several consecutive years.

The Pasolini Book, on the other hand, leaps and bounds across time with temporal and geographic gaps peppering its making. Across time and space, there remain a devotional writing and rewriting. The first and final sections perform a “divine mimesis” where the foremost formal constraint is not a daily note-taking process but rather a lyric transmogrification of Pasolini’s Roman Poems—a process Szymaszek performs once in 2005 and then repeats in the pandemic desertscape of 2020. The middle section, “A Sentimental Education,” consists of a trifecta of time-stamped transcripts of a performance-lecture in prose she delivered on three separate occasions. Each version contains additions and redactions with the repeated lines faded to gray in the second and third iteration, and it gestures toward potential future revisions and performances.

In this middle section, we encounter not a contemporaneous-to-its-writing Szymaszek, but Szymaszek as an adultish, burgeoningly-butch child. The child who “didn’t cry,” who was “fettered by adult concerns,” and whose “first emotional experience” of butchness consisted of providing care: “My friends dove into my embrace—made happy by my amplitude.” Amidst the upsurge in use of terms such as “babyqueer” or “tenderqueer” which one could say infantilize adults and lower expectations for mature behavior due to a sort of social infancy, Szymaszek inverts the paradigm of the childish adult to reveal the unique nonconformity of the adult-like child. The nonlinear interplay between childhood, gender nonconformity, and queerness reveals this cruel world in which such children are viewed as “both a threat and in need of protection” while simultaneously obscuring and denying children’s autonomy—an all too relevant insight in the midst of the current fascistic onslaught against trans children.

Just as Syzmaszek’s writing betrays a neat linearity, enacting historical swerves and recursiveness, so too does this section unsettle conventional autobiographic journeys from youth to maturity. The unchildlike child grows into the childless and “pensionless crone.” Pasolini was familiar with this topsy-turvy experience of age draped in queerness, paradoxically identifying both as an “adult fetus” and as having “contemporary oldness” which Syzmaszek echoes in her claim that she “has seniority at 35 years.” Adult fetushood and contemporary oldness are not (merely) some fanciful notion of a queer temporality, but an intimate reckoning with the legal and social fictions that circumscribe and discipline what appropriate development and behavior looks like. Rejecting these oppressive plotlines, Syzmaszek proclaims that she “live[s] to obliterate time with poetry” and I might argue she succeeds in that obliteration. She befuddles the “naturalized” trajectory from childish-child to adultish-adult, from past to present, from inherited predecessor to inheriting poet, while this book as a whole befuddles the temporality of her oeuvre.

Rather than a fissure from her other works, the entanglement of divinity and dailiness that undergird Syzmaszek’s ethos and aesthetic are brought into alchemical relief through exactly that deep faith in poetry’s transformative capacities. The Pasolini Book becomes a skeleton key for her entire oeuvre: a continuous and unfurling project grounded in poetic life, practice, and movement through and against time.

This is a document of both creative life and performance, an adultish childhood and a childless adulthood, a poetry of work and the work of poetry. Aesthetics becomes a way through space and time, enmeshed with the question of the civic poet: “There is the will to survive, which through grace becomes style.” The city becomes the cities of historical pasts and roving presents transposed through the watchful eye of the queer poet, chasing and making her Pasolini predecessor in the time-contorted public commons of poesy.

Yet, faith in what poetry can do does not mean a faith in all poetry. This book insistently contains the trappings of a life made of poetry and a poetry made of life; she takes seriously the phrase “my life’s work” at the interstices of one’s day job labors and artistic production, while refracting what constitutes the telling of a “life” and the limits of what is legitimized as work under capitalism. “Work” is a container of contradictions. On the one hand, nonprofit and arts industries pump out “relatable stories / for capital” via the labor of undervalued and undercompensated art workers. At the same time, Szymaszek insists that poetry is work, often a thankless toil and necessary way of life that doesn’t cut a paycheck. And further, it is this thankless poetry that industry cannot monetize but that instead does the work of constructing “A world / that reveals itself in a language that threatens / the status quo.” Poetry documents and, in the same instant, transforms. Pasolini claimed “the sign under which I work is contamination” to which Szymaszek responds in turn with a poetry “deformed not by their capital but through loving exclusion.” Her poetry draws to the fore contaminations that breed contradictions and loving exclusion so as to understand the source of its proliferative tensions, rather than merrily accommodating a capitalist system that creates and absorbs contraction. In other words: let this perverse and contradictory inheritance of Pasolini remain deliciously perverse.

When writing is a way of life, then the book-object becomes a historical thin slice of that life—aggregated of and in torsion from the past, unresolved into an ever fungible, improvisable future. There is hope here: things might be different then just as things are different now. The endlessly repeated-and-revised book casts itself into a speculative future. This book-object both bristles against pinned-down finality and offers up snapshotted moments. It contains the project's possibility of continuation, enlivens past publication, and refuses the book to live under the sign of the deadened historical object. The Pasolini Book instead signifies a simmering ground of what might be to come, entangled now in our own perverted inheritance in an obliterated time.

#269 – Summer 2022