Poem by Norman MacAfee

Revision of Summer2001

[Copyright © 1978, 1988, 2001 Norman MacAfee]

About A New Requiem

Much of the music that has moved me most is religious, but I am not. Bach's Saint Matthew Passion, Monteverdi's Vespers, Janacek's Slavonic Mass, Messiaen's Vingt Regards sur l'Enfant Jésus, Requiems by Verdi, Mozart, Penderecki, Britten touch deep chords. At some point in the early 1970s, I began planning to write a Requiem text, non-religious, post-religious, for composers in the future to write music to. It would be an act of hope in a world of Cold War fears of nuclear holocaust -- hope that there would be any future at all, in fact, to make a Requiem for. But I never said my idea out loud or acted on it until 1978.

     On July 14 of that year, the Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki conducted a concert of his music at the twelfth-century church of Saint Bartholomew the Great in London. I was visiting the city and attended the concert with the Brazilian painter and sculptor Ana Maria Pacheco, who had settled in England, and our friend Roger Evans. Penderecki's large pieces that I had heard before, such as Utrenja, tap some of the power of the great religious music. During intermission I said to Ana and Roger, and for the first time to anyone, that I wanted to write a Requiem, a new Requiem, to inspire new music and art. I said to Ana: "It will be in ten parts." She nodded. I asked her if she would do ten Requiem drawings or paintings. She nodded again.

     The next day I headed for Florence, to continue a project begun in November 1975, when the poet and filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini had been murdered: translating his major poems. In Florence I began writing the Requiem's first four parts -- among a people already long documented by radical artists like Giotto, Michelangelo, Masaccio, Donatello, Piero, and Pontormo. I stood before their frescoes and sculptures in Florence, Assisi, Arezzo, and Padua, for hours, reading them as though they were an oracle. In Bologna, where Pasolini was born and studied, and in the peasant village of Casarsa, where he spent most of his first thirty years and where he is buried  -- and in Venice, where my other major poet teacher, Ezra Pound, lived and died -- I wrote.

     As I was writing A New Requiem, thoughts of my presumptuousness only occasionally assailed me. Was I trying to start a new post-religious religion with my new requiem? But I was at that time translating a great poet who had been murdered because of his  ideas and his homosexuality, when only three years before I hadn't known what ceneri or scavatrice meant. I was resurrecting a voice brutally silenced. Thus I gained some courage. Back in London I wrote the fifth part, at an exhibit of World War II photos from the Soviet Union. The poem's second half was written back home,  in the graffitied streets and subways of the vast newer artwork that is New York City.

     Three composers -- Russell Currie, Arthur Maisel, and the late Monroe Couper -- have so far set sections of A New Requiem, but it is a visual artist who has made the poem a true collaboration. In the fall of 1978, Ana Maria Pacheco sent me ten splendid oil paintings based on parts of the poem. We wanted to publish a deluxe volume, but no publisher came through. Finally a small press brought out a chapbook of the poem with a cover photo of a Pacheco sculpture. Meanwhile, Ana continued work on the subject, from 1986 to 1995 carving an eleven-foot-high sculpture in Portland Stone of a standing man, called Requiem, now installed in a public garden at the University of Sussex in Colchester and dedicated to the memory of her father.

     A New Requiem is a poem of hope. Its opening lines ("The poet's a liontamer inspired by / some boys but let him let up they'll kill him") with their reference to the first poet's death (Orpheus, torn to pieces because of his homosexuality), to Pasolini and other poets, these two lines are remembered in New York, with "the ocher urchin holding / not, mind you, a plastic gun, but rather,  /  a toy guitar. He'll be thirty in  /  2001."  A New Requiem is a political poem about death, and its hopes are political ones -- that the world survive, "the races flourish," as we begin the third millennium.

July 4, 2001


The poet's a liontamer inspired by
some boys but let him let up they'll kill him.
Bat wings hit my grave's windshield: the dream
ends in footless headless gutless market carcasses
predicting ill--
                     vampire waiting behind the door,
who loves all the same, same as you
in the night, whose virtuoso violinist
enthralls the city, ravishing life's
yawping teens sipping music, whiffing pu-
trefaction as love crosses death's
            Equal sounds of birds and
machines, the most beautiful night of summer,
ripening grapes and plums, wisteria,
names of culture's monuments spoken with
bitter passion beneath endless summer night
sky-nights of the poor: poor young eager for
life, poor old, and
                          poorest of all, the poor...

...underneath all of which is wreckage of
churches, beneath which are empty temples,
caves, and back high above, below flakey
gods in spotlight, ruins fill with
snapshooters gazing up expectantly,
deaths of newer gods mourned in dwindling
generations of old women's prayers.

                                                    These temples
are a test the world puts up that all fail,
admiring but not believing or
believing without understanding (and
what prefer? couple? cloister? cell? clique?)
though there for a flash is the savior
in cut-off jeans, in a highly place, below
ex-gods looked at with transfiguring awe
for the most part esthetic or narrative.

Copyright © 1978, 1988, 2001 Norman MacAfee

Note: This is the first of ten parts of A New Requiem. To find out how to order the complete book, e-mail nsmacafee@earthlink.net

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