The poets and the world war: "Lust" by Massimo Bontempelli

Massimo Bontempelli (1878 - 1960)
Here and there the following poem could remind us James Hillman's A Terrible Love of War. Probably no one would read and propose these verses in today Centenary atmosphere. It's better to anticipate one thing that the reader will discover in this translation of Lust by Massimo Bontempelli: this is not "politically correct poetry", since it shows hate, disgust, contempt, even gratification after the enemy's death (the title itself is quite strange for a war poem). The magnifying glass is of course on the word "porci" (swines) used to describe the Germans in the trenches. Nevertheless, if we read carefully all the poem, we can notice how the description of the war life that the poet gives us from his side is exactly similar to the typical swines' life and behaviour, under an ethology standpoint (see the mud, the smell, the shit, the mud in the mouth). Perhaps the question is not if are allowed to apply the "politically correct" category to poetry in general. Anyway, as for World War One poetry, we have to admit that today we tend to clean up our memory and prefer the pacifistic poems or at least the brutally realistic ones. Sometimes we probably read the famous Futurist praise of the war as "only hygiene of the world" (and Bontempelli was connected with Futurism) with an unresolved smile on our faces: after all - we might conclude one hundred years later - it was Futurism with its weird guys. We agree that they made a necessary cultural operation, a kind of "global update" of arts, but at the end of the day, to our eyes, they probably remain "those funny futurist guys". It's a joke of destiny and time but isn't it like this? All avant-gardes have a matter to settle with time and they always wage war on time.

But what if we go beyond that praise of war and we imagine the deepest shock that the conflict, together with alcohol, violence and degeneration of humanity can produce on a soldier? Once the necessary distinctions have been made, we could say that like the Second World War had its Céline, the Italian poetry of the First World War found in Massimo Bontempelli a testimony of an ambiguous, contradictory and masochist "sentiment of war". There is no heroism, no salvation for the mankind in this love declaration poetically addressed to war and death. It's like wallowing in the mud of forgetfulness, running over self and time to erase self and time simoultaneously in a sort of cruel sex act (even if this is also a poem of memories, see the beginning where the violent part is probably impersonated by a woman). The poem belongs to the book entitled Il purosangue. L'ubriaco ("The Thoroughbred. The Drunk", 1919), a title that casts light on the well-known scenario of use of alcohol among soldiers, especially before the attacks. It was the only poetry book by Bontempelli, whose legacy is more on the fiction and drama sides. In 1933 Massimo Bontempelli released a second edition of his poems: the new title was shortened to "The Thoroughbred" (Il purosangue, Milano, Edizioni La Prora, 1933) and the poem "Lust" was eliminated. Titles - as well as "director's cuts" - speak to us.


Smell of trench
  of used corpse shit mud
  do you remember
  when coming in
  you wrapped my neck with your arms
  and I bent under the hug
  wallowing on the latticework
  fighting with force
  before loving you?
The nausea enters from the mouth
  and goes down to the heart
  squeezing crushing fermenting
  now, while I go on the hit latticeworks
  under the yelping trajectories
  with bowed head.

But the nausea becomes must and wine
  in the emptiness of the heart.

And that gets drunk by the smell
  smell of trench.
  It provokes joy.
  Joy of walking
  walking in this rot
  of being pelted with stones
  by the noise of shells
  of getting lost
  on the right and left
  fifty times
  and standing up with mud in mouth

to get there and see
  the German flesh fall,
  collapsing with head down
  swines bagged
  in the guts of the blue coats.


Odore del camminamento
  di cadavere usato merda fango
  quando all’entrare
  tu mi buttavi le braccia al collo
  io sguazzando sul graticcio
  mi piegavo sotto l’abbraccio
  lottavo di forza con te
  prima di amarti?

Entra la nausea per la bocca
  scende al cuore
  si pigia si pesta fermenta
  mentre vo sui graticci sbattuti
  sotto le traiettorie che guaiscono
  a capo chino.

Ma la nausea si fa mosto e vino
  nel vuoto del cuore.

Lo ubriaca l’odore
  odore del camminamento.
  Vi aizza la gioia.
  Gioia di camminare
  camminare nel putridume
  d’esser presi a sassate
  dal rumore delle granate
  di perdersi
  a destra e sinistra
  cinquanta volte
  e inciampare abbracciati all’odore
  cinquanta volte
  e rialzarsi col fango in bocca

per arrivare a vedere
  la carne tedesca cadere
  afflosciati testa in giú
  porci insaccati
  nel budellame dei cappotti blu.

(from Massimo Bontempelli, Il purosangue. L'ubriaco, Milano, Facchi, 1919)