Reading Poem Strip at four in the morning with speakers blasting the Ennio Morricone compilation Crime and Dissonance isn’t necessary. Well absolutely necessary. But it does make for a great thematic. The book’s phantasmagorical qualities seemed to call for a systematic derangement of the senses. That said, I may need to lie down.
Even without the strange soundtrack, Dino Buzzati’s surreal-and-more 1969 fumetti provokes a strong response. This is an avant-garde graphic novel that lets its freak flag fly.
A retelling of the myth of Orpheus in the underworld, Poem Strip offers plenty of sex (well, breasts, lots and lots of ‘em), a puzzling and hypnotic story, and artwork that recalls everything from Gahan Wilson and Edward Gorey to Hammer horror and Mario Bava movies to Donovan-esque psychedelic flower-power. Oh no, might be the season of the witch.
Buzzati’s version of the myth rechristens Orpheus and Eurydice as Orfi and Eura. Where Orpheus was a divine musician with godlike abilities on the lyre, Orfi is a guitar-slinging rock star who lives in a mysterious and haunted Italian city.
One night, Orfi spies from his window a woman who looks like his love, Eura. She exits car, and drifts through a door. When Orfi rushes down to the street, he encounters a mysterious man who seems to be waiting for him.
“Excuse me sir, who are the dead?” Orfi asks. He repeats the question three times, and it seems as if this is a mystical incantation.
“Not ‘are.’ Is. These funerals are all for her. You know who I mean,” the man replies.
Straightforward, this prose ain’t. Resembling poems or song lyrics, the text treads the line between cryptic and clear. Combined with often mind-bogging visuals, this creates a book that invites and rewards repeated readings.
As in the Greek myth, Orfi passes through the door to the underworld, where among other people (mostly naked-from-the-waist-up women) he meets a guardian demon who is an empty jacket, and who may or may not be dead. The jacket-demon can’t remember. These are some of the more unambiguous details.
Before granting Orfi permission to search the land of the dead for Eura, the jacket asks Orfi to sing:
“...sing about the things that you
still know, that we have lost
the beloved mysteries”
When Orfi complies, the dead gather to hear, and his songs take on the style of stories and myths, with titles such as, “The story of the man who turned around,” “The story of the nine gentlemen,” and “A visitor in the afternoon” (yup, that one’s about sex).
Prized as fetish objects for book lovers, the NYRB imprint packages Poem Strip in a typically handsome fashion, with a striking cover, full-colour pages and high-quality paper. Strangely, the insightful essay that often accompanies a NYRB publication is missing here.
There’s a short biography of Buzzati and Marina Harss, who translated this edition. We have a brief thank-you note from Buzzati, with references to artists who helped or inspired particular pages. It’s a heady list of moody and strange creators that includes Salvador Dali, Caspar David Friedrich, F.W. Murnau, Hans Bellmer and Federico Fellini.
Other than the comic book itself, the only other guides provided are the back cover blurbs from Daniel Handler and the New York Times. But that comic…well, in the immortal words of Otto Mann and Keanu Reeves: “Whoa.”
The roundabout questioning that occurs throughout recalls another famous take on the myth, Rainer Maria Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus. In Stephen Mitchell’s translation of his work, we have passages like this:
“Where is her death now? Ah, will you discover
this theme before your song consumes itself?—
Where is she vanishing? . . . A girl almost . . . .”
Similarly, Buzzati’s protagonist ponders Rilkean:
“Do you remember, friends?
The ultimate bliss
never joyful, never.
For it would be nothing
without the knowledge deep down
that one day all this would end.”
In its inventiveness and audacious originality, Poem Strip also brings to mind Jean Cocteau’s classic 1950 film, Orpheus. As Roger Ebert wrote, “Cocteau’s version has a mystery and beauty ... One of the pleasures of the film is to see how audacious the tricks are in their simplicity.” The same hold true for Buzzatti.
In Cocteau’s film, one character says, “Mirrors are the doors through which death comes and goes. Look at yourself in a mirror all your life and you’ll see death do its work.” Here, we have doors:
“They open when
the owl sings
they open in the night
of the dying man”
As the jacket-demon explains: “Wherever there are people, there’s a small door. The trick is to know it.”
The garment’s words resonate with those of musician John Zorn in his liner notes for the Ennio Morricone compilation, Crimes and Dissonance: “It is the responsibility of the few to carry the torch of truth and integrity through the dark ages we find ourselves in and this heroic set of soundtrack rarities shows us that the spirit of freedom is, has been and always will be alive and well. One only has to look for it.”