The Ashes of Gramsci is a poem – and early book – by Pier Paolo Pasolini. The book was published in 1957 when the poet was 35. The poem was written in 1954 and caused a furore in Italian literary circles. It was seen as ‘exhibitionist’.
It is an in situ poetic meditation at the site of the Italian Marxist philosopher’s tomb in the Acatholic Cemetery of Rome a.k.a. The Protestant Cemetery and The English Cemetery.
Formally it is in Dante-esque terza rima. An early phrase ‘vast semicircles’ seems to conjure Dante’s presence in a description of the Roman skyline.
As an elegy for a murdered man by a murdered man, it may be unique. Technically, Gramsci died of ill health but that was after 11 years’ imprisonment in hellish conditions followed by a state hospitalisation that deliberately finished off the job. It is one of the worst and most drawn-out martyrdoms any dissenter has ever experienced.
I feel how wrong
– here among the quiet of these graves –
and yet how right – in our unquiet
fate – you were, as you drafted your final
pages in the day of your murder.
Pasolini’s canvas is a rich depiction of a graveyard, literally one of the coolest places in Rome as it is overhung with trees and foliage, a wonderful place to escape from the sun, famed for Keat’s grave and Shelley’s tomb.
Ah, how well
I understand, silent in the end’s wet
humming, here where Rome is silent,
among wearily agitated cypresses,
next to you, Spirit whose inscription calls out
Shelley…. How well I understand the vortex
of feelings, the capricious fate (Grecian
in the aristocratic Northern traveller’s
heart) which swallowed him in the dazzling
turquoise Tyrrhenian Sea…
Though set in the cemetery the poem’s focus leaps to various sites of Italian geography with swift, deft brushstrokes. But it is also firmly anchored in and evocative of the Testaccio area, a working class district known for its abattoir, prostitutes, and an ancient artificial hillside made from empty amphorae. The Tiber is always close by.
The poem is a searching song of ambivalences, containing many of the themes we associate with the poet.