Pier Paolo Pasolini

Saturday 20 October 2012 12:25

Le Ceneri Di Gramsci (Gramsci’s Ashes) is a beautiful and important work, the meeting point of two great Italians - Pier Paolo Pasolini, poet, novelist, filmmaker, auteur, and Antonio Gramsci the founder of the Italian Communist Party whose writings, in particular his Prison Notebooks written while incarcerated by Benito Mussolini, have given structure to much left-wing interpretation of class struggle, politics and culture. I had the honour of meeting, while reading at the University of Bologna some years ago, the great translator of Gramsci Derek Boothman. He remarks, in the introduction to his Further Selections From the Prison Notebooks that ‘any translator would indeed be hard-pressed to follow Gramsci on every single point without expert help and advice. The current translator is no exception...’ In my case, I only need to substitute the name of Pasolini for that of Gramsci. Le Ceneri di Gramsci is at once an intensely personal poem for Pasolini and a fiercely public one: the combination is vertiginous for a translator. Gramsci himself remarked that: ‘The intellectual''s error consists in believing that one can know without understanding and, even worse, without feeling and being impassioned (not only for knowledge in itself, but also for the object of knowledge’*. I hope, at least to avoid that error.

It is a long and, particularly from a translator’s viewpoint, very complex poem in six sections.  I project an engagement of some years, during which I plan to add, from time to time, to this page, drawing for assistance on my knowledgeable Italian friends, the true experts on this great work.

A beautiful reading of the poem in Italian by Daniele Serafini (see my page on translations of Serafini)

Read the full text in Italian

Comprehensive Wikipedia entry on Pier Paolo Pasolini

Excellent Theory.org pages on Gramsci, including biography

*This quotation comes from an article on Pasolini and Gramsci by Maurizio Viano (http://www.jstor.org/stable/488690).

Gramsci’s Ashes


Not like May, this unclean air

that darkens the shade

of the stranger’s garden or the glare

that blinds with brightness

or the sky drizzling over the yellow attics

a half circle of veils on the sweep 

of the Tiber and the blue mountains 

of the Lazio, spreading a death-like

peace, loveless like our cursed fate

between the ancient autumnal

walls of May. The greying of the world

is there, this decade’s end which reveals

through the ruins the profound

and simple power of remaking life;

the silence, drenched and barren…

You, young man, in that May when error

was still life, that Italian May

that gave to life at least some force,

so much less frustrated and impurely bland

than our fathers – not father, but poor brother –

already with your fine hand

you sketched the dream that lights

(though not for us, dying with you 

in this airless garden) this silence

Can’t you see it? you 

who sleep in this stranger’s place, 

a prisoner still; still the tedious 

patricians wall you in. and fading out

some few notes reach you from

the workshop anvils of Testaccio

easing into evening: between miserable shanties 

raw tips of cans, scrap iron, where

cruelly singing an apprentice rambles,


his day already ended as the rain dries away.


Between two worlds, our false 

truce. Choices, commitments… today 

this bleak and noble garden is their finale

where the trick that made life

bearable lives stubborn still in death.

In the circles of sarcophagi,

on those grey low stones, secular 

inscriptions demonstrate only the appropriate

scripts of secular survival.

Still they burn, without offence,

the bones of billionaires of bigger nations;

they buzz, almost hidden,

the ironies of princes, pederasts 

whose bodies lie

in these urns, scattered,

burnt but never purified.

Here the silence of the dead is faithful

to the civil silence of the live,

a tedium in the park’s tedium,

discrete, mute: and the indifferent city

that confines it in the midst of slums 

and churches, impious in its piety

will lose its splendour. Its soil

fat with vetch and nettles

from these fat cypresses, this black

mould that flecks the inside walls

around faded charcoal marks,

this evening spins off, adorned

only in algal perfume,

this bitter parched grass, violets drowning

in air and a topnote of mint

or rotting hay, and quietly foreshadows

diurnal melancholy, the pent up

tensions of the night. Rude

climate, the sweetest of histories,

the soil between these walls oozes

other soil; this moisture

that recalls other wetness; – familiars 

of latitude and longitude –

where English woodland crowns

lakes spread to the skies, phosphor-

green billiard table lawns

or like emeralds: ‘and O ye Fountains”

- the pious invocation. 


A red rag like those scarves

knotted to the necks of partisans

and, close to the urn on the waxen

earth other reds, two geraniums.

There you are, banished and with cold 

un-catholic elegance indexed among the foreign

dead: Gramsci’s ashes… Between hope

and old distrust, I come upon you by chance

in this sterile greenhouse, here before your

tomb, to your spirit, abandoned here

among the free. (Or otherwise

something different maybe, more like ecstasy


but also more humble, an intoxicated

synthesis of sex with death…)

and, from this country with which

you always struggled, I feel how unjust

–here in the calm of the graves – and also

how reasonable – in our unsettling

destiny – you were drafting the ultimate

pages in the days of your murder.

Here are the still unscattered seeds

of the ancient hegemony, these dead men

clinging to their properties wherein

their abominations and grandeur

lie sunk in the centuries: and at the same time

obsessed, this hammering of anvils,

mute, choking with anguish, from the humble

district, I come to bear witness to an ending.

and here am I in my poor gladrags,

the kind the poor admire in the brittle splendour

of shop windows, and which have blanched

in the worst dust of the forgotten roads,

the seats of trams of my quotidian

daze: while less and less often come

these holidays from the torment

of keeping myself alive; and if I happen

to love the world, it is not for a violent

and ingenuous sensual love, as once

I hated it, an adolescent confusion,

when its bourgeois wickedness

wounded my bourgeois self; and now, split

– with you – the world only appears as an object

of resentment and almost mystical contempt 


at least that part of it that holds power.

Yet without your severity I subsist

because I refuse to choose.

I live in the unwilled of the postwar sunset

Loving the world I hate – contemptuous

and lost in its misery – a dark 

scandal of consciousness…


The scandal of self-contradiction

to be with you or against you; with you in my heart,

in the daylight, against you in the visceral darkness;

traitor to my paternal state

– in thought, in the shadow of action,

in the heat of instincts I am drawn to it,

in my aesthetic passion;

drawn to a proletarian life

anterior to you, for me it’s a religion,

its joy, not its perpetual struggle;

it’s nature, not its conscience;

it’s the original power of man

who lost himself in the deed:

which gives it the lightness of nostalgia,

a poetic light: and more besides

that I can’t put it in words

without being accurate but insincere,

an abstract love not heartfelt empathy…

Like the poorest of the poor I cling

like them to humiliating hope,

like them just to survive I beat myself

every day. But in my desolate

disinherited condition

still I own something – and it’s the most exciting

of all bourgeois possessions –

the absolute state of being. But though I possess history

it possesses me; it lights me up

but what good is such light?


I’m not talking about the individual,

that phenomenon of sickly and sensual passion…

other vices that one has, besides the name

of his sin and its fatality…

but in him is mixed so many common

congenital vices and what

objective vices! The inner and outer acts

that make him flesh in life

are not proof against those religions 

that in life are in debt

to death, established to cheat the light

and throw glitter on the deception.

His flesh is destined for burial in the Verano,

Catholic his struggle with it; jesuitical

the obsessions that guide his heart;

and deeper still inside there is

his Biblical ingenious conscience

and his ironic liberal ardour,

his coarse brittleness among the provincial 

dandies towards provincial normality:

even as far as the smallest trifles

in which Authority and Anarchy

evaporate in the bestial deep. Well-protected from both 

the impure virtue and the inebriated sin,

defending a naiveté of obsession

and with what a good conscience! So the ‘I’ lives: whereas I

live, eluding life, and in my breast

the feeling of life moving towards

a grievous, violent oblivion… Silent in the sodden soughing 

of the wind, here where Rome itself is mute,

among the weary uneasy cypresses,

beside you, I understand the soul 

in whose very epigraph sounds the name

of Shelley!… How I understand the vortex

of emotions, the caprice of fate (Greek

in the heart of the noble northern 

traveller) that swallowed him in the blind

celestial blue of the Tyrrhenian: the carnal

joy of adventure, aesthetic

and puerile: while Italy lay prostrate

as if in the great gutted belly of an enormous

cicada – ruptured white littorals,

and in Lazio, occasional gangs of 

veiled pines, baroque, yellowed

clearings of rocket, where sleeps

with a swollen cock among the tatters

of a Goethian dream, a young lad from Ciociaro…

In the Maremma, veined with culverts darkened

by creeping arrowhead, etched with the crisp

edges of hazel, the lanes  in which the cowherd 

spills his ignorant fulsome youth.

and blindly fragrant in the dry 

meanders of the Versilia that expose

blind dry stuccoes to the convoluted sea,

the bright marquetry of its eastertide

countryside, entirely human

tenebrous Cinquale, undressing

under the torrid Apuane,

the glassy blue on pink… and on the Riviera

shaken rocks collapsing as if in a panic 

of fragrance, wet slopes

where the sun competes with the breeze

to give supreme sweetness to the oily sea…

and everywhere the endless drumming 

of sex and light: so accustomed 

is Italy to it she does not even tremble, 

as if already dead alive: hot lads

from a hundred ports call out the name 

of their comrade, brown in the face,

among the riviera types, among 

the kitchen-gardens of cardoon

and on the little dirty beaches…

Do you ask me, bare corpse of a life,

to abandon this desperate

passion of being in the world?


I must go, I leave you in the evening

which, although it’s sad, is such a sweet descent

for us the living, with the sallow light

that sets in shadow through the quarter.

and rouses it. It enlarges it, empties it,

makes it more interior and, further off,

it rekindles it with a restless life of the raucous

rolling of the trams, of human cries,

dialects, a faint but pervasive music.

Feel how in those distant beings

that in life call out and smile,

in those motorcars of theirs, in those woeful

tenements where one consumes

the faithless wasteful gift of existence –

that life is less than a shiver;

a corporal collective being together;

feel the absence of any true religion;

not life, but survival

– maybe happier than life – as if

a population of animals in whose clandestine

orgasm there can be no other passion

than for the daily grind: modest

fervour gives a festive air

to modest corruption. In this vacancy 

of history, in this murmurous 

standstill, this silenced life,

how empty every ideal, better to manifest

the astounding burning sensuality,

almost Alexandrian, which fires up

impurely and brightly, when something

in the world collapses, and the world hauls itself

through the shadows, entering again

the empty piazzas, the desolate workshops…

Already the streetlights are lit, speckling

Via Sabaglia, Via Franklin, all the Testaccio,

unadorned with its great gaudy hill,

the Tiber-side walks, the black deep beyond the river,

that Monteverde gathers or dissolves

invisibly into the sky.

Coronets of lights that lose themselves,

dazzling, cold with a sadness

almost of the sea… It’s almost dinnertime;

the quarter’s occasional auto-buses gleam,

with workers hanging off their doors,

and gangs of soldiers strolling unhurriedly

towards the hill which hides among rotten

digs and dry heaps of rubbish 

in the shadowy holes the angry expectant whores

atop this aphrodisiac filth: and not far away

among illegal shanties on the edge of the hill

or among the elegant palazzi,

half-worlds in themselves, boys as light

as rags play in the evening breeze

no longer cold but springlike: hot

with youthful carelessness, they whistle away

their roman rite of may

on the evening footpaths, the festival of vespers:

and the shutters screech down 

with a joyous crash on garages

when darkness has restored the evening to serenity;

and among the plane trees of Piazza Testaccio

the wind trembling with memories of storms

dies into sweetness, even if it shaves the coarse hairs

and tufa of the abattoirs, absorbs

putrid blood and everywhere

stirs the slag and stink of poverty.

Life is a faint buzz, and those who lose themselves in it

lose with serenity, if their hearts 

are full of it:  see them, the miserable,

enjoying themselves at evening: powerful the myth

reborn in them, for them.

But I, with the consciousness at heart

of one who only in history has life,

will I ever again be able to act with a pure passion,

knowing that our story is finished?

The translation is Creative Commons