Norman MacAfee: The Agnostic Gospels

  Norman MacAfee

  The Agnostic Gospels:

  Matthew, Bach, Pasolini,
  Sellars, RFK, Kraus


Sometime in the late 1950s, when I was a teenager, Martin Mayer published in Esquire magazine a list of the 100 best classical LPs. On it was a work that has stayed with me more than all others all these decades: Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion. Mayer had recommended Mogens Woldike conducting the Vienna Philharmonic, a three-LP box set with a Michelangelo Pietà on the box cover. I bought it.


I was brought up in the Episcopal Church in suburban Philadelphia. In junior high school, I became for a few years an occasional acolyte in red cassock and white cotta and sometimes carrying the Cross in Sunday service—and bearing the Cross of my father’s drinking problem, my parents’ divorce, my sense of being marked and different, my burgeoning homosexuality. In senior high school I was influenced by the Society of Friends, attending student discussion groups hosted by Ann Houston, a Quaker convert divorcee from Brooklyn. Her daughter, my classmate Shep, was wryly proud that the population of the Society of Friends was getting smaller and smaller, unlike every other sect or religion, bolstered only by proselytzing. The Quakers’ belief that there is that of God in every person has stayed with me. I admire the Quaker Meetings, which are silent until the member is inspired to speak. That member is me, who has existed in long periods of silence and solitude before finishing a poem or an opera.


I took Woldike’s Saint Matthew Passion [the three-LP set] to graduate school in Iowa City. I was agnostic now, but this great work remained with me as I protested the war in Vietnam. I grew a beard. When the student center, the Iowa Memorial Union, played Muzak on Good Friday, I protested to an administrator, who snapped back, “Go to Russia!”


One day in 1966, by chance, I saw a film about Jesus by, it turned out, a “never orthodox Marxist” homosexual poet, Pier Paolo Pasolini: The Gospel According to Matthew. The poster outside the theater quoted the Life magazine critic, Richard Schickel, calling it ‘The Greatest Movie Ever Made’; he was punning a bit on the title of the other Jesus film out then, from Hollywood and George Stevens, The Greatest Story Ever Told, bombastic with stars even in bit parts: John Wayne as a Roman soldier at the Cross; all pretty unwatchable (I have never been able to sit through more than a few minutes of it). But I do agree about that ‘greatest’ (or at least one of the six greatest) and Schickel was being mostly serious.


Two Matthews meet in Pasolini’s film. The poet chose this gospel rather than that of Mark, Luke, or John, because it was composed closest in time to the actual events. The credits begin with, on the soundtrack, two minutes of the Missa Luba, a Congolese setting of the Catholic Mass, followed by two minutes of the choral finale of Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion, “In tears of grief, dear Lord, we leave Thee.” The dedication is “To the Dear, Familiar, Joyous Memory of Pope John XXIII,” the Pope who began to open the Catholic Church to the rest of the world and whose death had inspired Pasolini to make the film.


Pasolini, essentially an agnostic, said that his film was “Christ plus two thousand years of mythologizing.” Thus, Herod’s courtiers wear clothes from Piero della Francesca’s fifteenth-century frescoes. Herod’s soldiers wear medieval German military uniforms from Sergei Eisenstein’s 1938 Alexander Nevsky, as they massacre the firstborn to Sergei Prokofiev’s Nevsky soundtrack. As the Magi arrive at the manger, the soundtrack plays the African-American folk singer Odetta singing “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” As Satan tempts Jesus in the desert with promises of earthly power, the music is the pioneer modernist Anton Webern’s transcription of the Ricercar from The Musical Offering, Bach’s variations on the theme given him by Frederick the Great, the world’s most powerful ruler. It all seemed completely new, eye opening, ear opening. I think it was my first taste of post-modern.

Piero della Francesca costumes for Herod’s court from Pasolini’s Gospel According to Matthew
Piero della Francesca costumes for Herod’s court from Pasolini’s Gospel According to Matthew


I went back the next day to the movie house to see The Gospel According to Matthew again—and have seen it a hundred times since, in theaters, museums, churches, and at home as VHS and DVD. The film ends happily, with Jesus resurrected, the apostles (including one played by Enzo Siciliano, who would become Pasolini’s first biographer) and others (including Ninetto Davoli, the teenager who would become his muse until the killing of the poet) running toward him, to the Missa Luba, and with a rush of inspiration Jesus (played by a nineteen-year-old Spanish architecture student, Enrique Irazoqui) ends the film as Matthew ends his gospel: “And behold I shall be with you always even unto the consummation of the world.” I quote the Roman Catholic Douay translation used in the English-language dubbed version of the film that I first saw. Other translations for the last term include “the end of the world,” “the end of the age,” “the end of time”; I would add “the last days of mankind,” which see below. Later showings of the film would be in the original Italian, with subtitles. In the new millennium, the Pasolini Foundation in Rome would restore, beautifully, his film.


A poem I wrote in the late 1990s sums up some of some of my thoughts on Pasolini’s Gospel. It was published, in somewhat different form, in PEN America and The Huffington Post. (See note [1] )


The Greatest Movie Ever Made

Stuck in Roman traffic
for the funeral of Pope John
at a moment when the whole world
was in his hands
Pier Paolo Pasolini thought to do
“Christ plus 2,000 years of mythologizing,”
The Gospel According to Matthew,
which means from Bach to Missa Luba,
Eisenstein’s Nevsky soldiers in the same
shot as Piero della Francesca’s pharisees.
Finally a genius
is telling the story of Jesus
a poet
a “never orthodox Marxist”
a homosexual.

Jesus is before us in the form
of a Spanish economics student,
surrounded by a Jewish fishmonger
from the Roman slums as Peter,
Pier Paolo’s mother as the old Mary,
poets and writers and professors
and semiologists and whores
and communists and boys from the slums
and old women who believe.
Who is my mother, who are my brethren?

Sartre knew when he saw.
Sartre had written a play,
his first, in a German POW camp
about the birth of Jesus,
and an angel announces:

There. He’s born! [2]
His infinite and sacred spirit is
imprisoned in the soiled body
of a child, and is astonished
to be suffering and ignorant.

Seeing The Gospel
22 years later, Sartre
embraced the Italian
as his brother
retrieving Jesus
for the Marxists. [3]

PPP lived in a miraculous era
before AIDS,
before the VCR,
age still of movie house communion,
time of the major deaths,
Pope John, JFK, Martin Luther King,
Robert Kennedy so like Pasolini in so many ways—
Bobby went into filthy hovels
and embraced sickly babies—
Pound, Allende, Neruda
then Pasolini,
then Sartre and Beauvoir,
the saviors of our century
seeking salvation for the century, the millennium.
Pasolini made the film of the millennium,
The Gospel According to Matthew.

Sartre and Beauvoir agree to see him after the Paris premiere.
He is very late to the cafe. But they are there.
S: “Did you really think I wouldn’t wait for you?
Now, about Saint Matthew.” [4]
In those days, not so far
from ours, they had all the time.


Enrique Irazoqui, at age 20, as Jesus in Pasolini’s Gospel
Enrique Irazoqui, at age 20, as Jesus in Pasolini’s Gospel


I moved to New York on Thanksgiving Friday 1967, in the autumn after the Summer of Love. My LP collection came too: Così Fan Tutte, Moses and Aaron, Janacek’s Glagolitic Mass, Bach’s Musical Offering, and Woldike’s Matthew Passion. I became a conscientious objector with the guidance of my old Episcopal minister in Radnor, William Jeffreys, who had been a CO in the Second World War, and with the help of Ann Houston, now working at the American Friends Service Committee in Philadelphia. In Vietnam, the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese treated the American Friends with respect as they went about ministering to the needs of people on both sides afflicted by the war. The Episcopal Church opposed the war. It halted construction of New York’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine until the war ended.


LPs age, and performance styles change and when CDs triumphed I began buying replacements for my record collection. The CD set of the Saint Matthew Passion by Nikolaus Harnoncourt with his authentic-instruments approach replaced the Woldike LPs, full of skips and scratches by now, which went out with the trash. Apartment-dwelling space-hoarding New Yorkers cannot be too sentimental.


In 1990, twenty-four years after I first saw Pasolini’s Gospel, the Italian actress Laura Betti and I were putting together a reading of his poetry at the Museum of Modern Art. For a month MoMA was showing all his films and exhibiting his drawings and paintings. I had selected and translated (with Luciano Martinengo) the first book of English-language translations of Pasolini’s poems, published by Random House in 1982, by John Calder in London in 1984, and by Farrar Straus & Giroux in 1996. We wanted to end our reading with the way the Saint Matthew Passion ends and Pasolini’s Gospel begins: “In tears of grief, dear Lord, we leave Thee.” When I played for Laura the Harnoncourt, she said, in her cigarette baritone, “No!! Too fast!! No feeling!! NO!!” Laura was one of Pasolini’s closest friends and colleagues, playing in several of his films, most notably as the maid, Emilia, in Teorema and the Wife of Bath in The Canterbury Tales. After Pasolini’s assassination in 1975, she kept his work alive, heading the Fondo Pasolini in Rome. She was considered “the widow” though Pasolini was gay and his great love was Ninetto. There was no saying no to Laura, and anyway I agreed: the Harnoncourt was too fast. A friend lent us a tape of Otto Klemperer’s version of the Saint Matthew Passion, which was slow and stately. The MoMA readers—Judith Malina, Isabella Rossellini, William Allen, Jennifer Beals, Hanon Reznikov, Tomás Milián, Laura and I—read the poems, and then to Klemperer’s “In tears of grief, dear Lord, we leave Thee,” we slowly took our stately bows.


Through the decades I have listened to the Saint Matthew Passion hundreds of times. I gave away the Harnoncourt, ruined for me by Laura’s judgment: too fast! By October 4, 2014, I owned three recordings of it: an excellent one by Helmut Rilling and the Bach-Collegium Stuttgart (in speed halfway between Harnoncourt and Klemperer); another, awfully fast at times, by Paul McCreesh, with Mark Padmore as the Evangelist and a small choir and orchestra; and one conducted by Ralph Vaughan Williams, in English, hard to listen to but important for the conductor, the composer of the transcendent Sea Symphony for large orchestra and chorus and two vocal soloists, to words of Walt Whitman. In October, I added five more versions: CDs by Wilhelm Furtwangler and Willem Mengelberg, of the Woldike and the Klemperer, and a DVD of Simon Rattle conducting the Berlin Philharmonic and Peter Sellars directing the performers, including Padmore. I have five Götterdämmerungs, and four each of Mahler’s Symphony #2 and Parsifal, but the Saint Matthew Passion tops them all at eight versions.


For years, I had been hearing about performances of the Saint Matthew Passion staged and directed by Peter Sellars, with Simon Rattle conducting the Berlin Philharmonic. Bach never wrote an opera, but the Saint Matthew Passion seemed to me perfect for operatic semi-staging: it is so dramatic, emotionally wrenching. In fact, I had attended, in the spring of 2001, Jonathan Miller’s memorable semi-staged rendering, sung in English, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, so I knew it could work.


I had first heard about Peter Sellars in the early 1980s: it was a report on All Things Considered about this brilliant Harvard student who had directed a production of Handel’s opera Orlando, in which the action begins in Orlando, Florida, at Mission Control, Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, and ends on Mars (shades of Karl Kraus’s Last Days of Mankind, which see below). It starts thrillingly with the sound of a rocket launch followed by the overture.


In 1986 I trekked up to Purchase, New York to the Summerfare festival to attend his productions of Mozart’s operas with librettos by Lorenzo da Ponte: The Marriage of Figaro, Così Fan Tutte, and Don Giovanni. I reviewed Così for the East Village newspaper Say! My favorite of the three operas is Così, which was also my favorite of the Sellars productions. Again, Martin Mayer decades before had recommended the LP set of Karl Böhm conducting, with Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, Christa Ludwig, Hanny Stefak, Alfredo Kraus, Giuseppe Taddei, and Walter Berry, which I have now in CD. With the Sellars, here were new performers—Susan Larson, Janice Felty, Sue Ellen Kuzma, Frank Kelley, Sanford Sylvan, and James Maddalena with Craig Smith conducting. It all took place in Despina’s Diner, at the end Despina is dressed up like the TV sex therapist Dr. Ruth, and it all worked brilliantly.


Over the next years, I saw many works directed by Sellars: especially successful were John Adams’s opera Nixon in China with dances by Mark Morris at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and two Bach Cantatas with Lorraine Hunt Lieberson performed at Lincoln Center. I treasure the videotape of Sellars’s 1991 silent film The Cabinet of Dr. Ramirez, which I made from its showing on PBS but is unavailable on VHS, DVD or Blu-Ray.


I had hoped to attend performances of the Sellars Saint Matthew Passion on October 7 and 8 at the Park Avenue Armory, but they had been sold out long in advance. I got in to the public rehearsal of it on October 4 because I went to a New York Film Festival press screening of Abel Ferrara’s new movie Pasolini on September 29.


The film does not solve the problems inherent in the genre of biopic/docudrama film. Pasolini was so complex and momentous a figure that a biopic cannot waste a frame. Pasolini wastes too many. But Ferrara’s film does a service in reminding us that Pasolini’s final finished work, the most scandalous film ever made, Salò: The 120 Days of Sodom, was not intended to be his last: there was to be a Saint Paul, a Socrates, and an “ideo-comedy,” Teo-Porno-Kolossal, about two Wise Men following a star, and, instead of finding the Messiah, in their endless travels, they discover reality. Ferrara makes his own intriguing version of scenes from Teo-Porno-Kolossal, but missing is the hand of the poet himself holding the camera. There was “a desperate vitality,” as he called it, in each shot of Pasolini’s films. This personism is of course of necessity missing in Ferrara’s Pasolini. Replacing it is Ferrara’s less individual visual style.


But there is a valuable scene at the beginning of the film of the protagonist’s last interview, which he titled “We Are All in Danger,” a few hours before his assassination. The poet, played with a grasp of Pasolini’s genius by Willem Dafoe, is interviewed by the journalist Furio Colombo, played by Francesco Siciliano, son of Enzo, Pasolini’s biographer. “All I want,” says Pasolini, “is that you look around and take note of the tragedy. What is the tragedy? It is that there are no longer any human beings; there are only machines that bump into each other… There’s a desire to kill here. And this desire ties us together as sinister brothers of the sinister failure of an entire social system…. It’s like a descent into hell. But when I come back—if I come back—“ The full interview can be read in In Danger: A Pasolini Anthology. [5]


Pasolini’s Jesus, Enrique Irazoqui, was nineteen when the film was shot in 1964. The world 50 years later has given me Facebook access to him, and on November 2, the 39th anniversary of Pasolini’s murder, Enrique, who lives in Spain, and I became Facebook Friends. He Likes my report on a recent poetry reading in Ohio and my folder of some of my book covers, and I Like his posting a poem by César Vallejo and a photo of Pasolini. Enrique has been with me almost 50 years, without our ever being in touch. That face was the face that Pasolini chose to play Jesus.


Pasolini made the great film of Jesus. Pope Francis’s Vatican has called it the greatest film about Jesus. It is personal: Pasolini’s friends the novelist Natalia Ginzburg and the poet Alfonso Gatto play Mary of Bethany and the Apostle Andrew. Pasolini’s only other sibling, Guido, a few years younger, was killed in 1945 in the last months of the war, and thus the grief of Pasolini’s mother, Susanna, playing the old Virgin Mary, grieving at her son’s murder, is really documentary footage of Susanna mourning Guido.

Susanna Pasolini, the poet’s mother at age 73, as Mary, in Pasolini’s The Gospel According to Matthew
Susanna Pasolini, the poet’s mother at age 73, as Mary, in Pasolini’s The Gospel According to Matthew


Of the thousands of pages of Pasolini’s poetry, the poems I most love are the long ones written between 1954 and 1964: and these take up most of my edition: “The Ashes of Gramsci” (which some consider the great poem of the twentieth century), “The Tears of the Excavator,” “The Religion of My Time,” “Reality,” “A Desperate Vitality,” and “Plan of Future Works”; a seventh major poem, “Victory,” my editor, Jonathan Galassi, and I dropped because with it the book would have been too long. [6]


Around the time Pasolini wrote “Reality” and made The Gospel, he wrote a poem to Susanna, with whom he lived until his death.


Prayer to My Mother

It’s so hard to say in a son’s words
what I’m so little like in my heart.
Only you in all the world know what my
heart always held, before any other love.
So, I must tell you something terrible to know:
From within your kindness my anguish grew.
You’re irreplaceable. And because you are,
the life you gave me is condemned to loneliness.
And I don’t want to be alone. I have an infinite
hunger for love, love of bodies without souls.
For the soul is inside you, it is you, but
you’re my mother and your love’s my slavery:
My childhood I lived a slave to this lofty
incurable sense of an immense obligation.
It was the only way to feel life,
the unique form, sole color; now, it’s over.
We survive, in the confusion
of a life reborn outside reason.
I pray you, oh, I pray: Do not hope to die.
I’m here, alone, with you, in a future April… [7]


As I worked on the translations of Pasolini’s poems from 1975 to 1982, my mother, Thelma, would type the manuscripts. She still lived in suburban Philadelphia, alone in an apartment in Wynnewood but with friends close by and my sister, Alice, and her husband in Strafford, a few towns away. I would often visit from New York. When she was dying at Bryn Mawr Hospital, at age 81, in 1983, a few days before she went into her final coma, I read to her “Prayer to My Mother” from the Random House edition published the year before, a poem she had typed in countless revisions. We smiled and sighed.


I found out about the public dress rehearsal of the Sellars staging of the Saint Matthew Passion because the New York Film Festival, showing Ferrara’s Pasolini, gave out free copies of the Monday September 29th New York Times. We get the paper delivered on weekends, and so, had it not been for the Pasolini viewing, I might not have read about the public rehearsal, which, the Times reported, had just been added because so many people wanted to experience the sold-out event. I pounced, buying a $75 ticket for the second half, on the afternoon of Saturday October 4.


Like the Pasolini Gospel, the Sellars Saint Matthew Passion is personal. From the early 1980s, Sellars started a long association with Boston’s Emmanuel Church (Episcopal but ecumenical), which for decades has presented a Bach cantata every Sunday as part of the service. During the Reagan years, Emmanuel opened its doors to the homeless, to battered women, to people seeking drug and alcohol counseling and treatment, to Salvadorans seeking refuge from death squads. The emotions in the face of suffering that are so much a part of the Saint Matthew Passion and the social gospel are palpable in the singers, chorus, and even orchestra members in the Sellars Matthew.


On the basis of the second half of the rehearsal, and of the DVD of performances at the Berlin Philharmonie from 2010, I think his Saint Matthew Passion the best Sellars so far, and I count it also one of the best experiences of my life. It is interactive, intimate, immersive. Intentionally not theater, but ritual. The program translation of the simple, sublime (but really the whole Passion is sublime) bass aria “Mache dich, mein Herze, rein,” sung after the death of Jesus, gives a sense of the intimacy of the event:


“My heart, make yourself clean,
for I will bury Jesus within me.
In me, from now on,
for ever and ever,
he shall have his sweet rest.
World, get out! Let Jesus in!”


At times, I was weeping, and so were my neighbors, often at different times. And then at a public discussion two nights later at Lincoln Center, Peter Sellars was weeping as he spoke of humanity’s suffering reflected in the Passion.


Sellars stages the Matthew Passion as a ritual, a dialogue between two orchestras, between two choruses, between vocalist soloist and instrumental soloist, etc. He says, “The St. Matthew Passion is a monument…. With this project we are not admiring it from a distance but we are actually opening it and going inside.” Simon Rattle, when not conducting, wanders away, as though lost in thought. Across the hall from me in the audience sat John Adams.


This was not a concert carefully rehearsed for a day or a week or a month. Sellars, Halsey, and Rattle, the choir and orchestra, and most of the vocal soloists—Padmore, Camilla Tilling, Magdalena Kozená, Topi Lehtipuu, Christian Gerhaher—have been digging deeper and deeper for four years. At the Armory, the bass-baritone Eric Owens was the only newcomer soloist, replacing Thomas Quasthoff, who retired from performing in 2012. I sat next to one of the two sections of the choir and they were not so much performers as individuals experiencing the horrors, the guilt, the grief of Jesus’ last days.


That afternoon at the Armory may ruin me when attending more hastily put-together performances, which is to say almost all.


At Lincoln Center, Sellars noted that when it was first performed, on Good Friday 1727, at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, the Saint Matthew Passion was not well received by the congregation. It was performed only a few more times in Bach’s lifetime, but he knew what it was, and he made a magnificent manuscript version of it with beautiful calligraphy. It was not performed for many decades until Felix Mendelssohn championed it. Then came the grandiose Victorian imperial revivals of the late nineteenth century followed by the spare “authentic instrument” modernist performances, “too fast,” to quote Laura Betti, in the latter twentieth. But for various reasons, when they took it up in 2010, none of the members of the Berlin Philharmonic and Radio Choir had performed it. It was not in the repertoire of either. They rehearsed and rehearsed.


Sellars started the first rehearsal in 2010 by asking the choir to lie on the floor and roll around, as though possessed. They spent the next three weeks memorizing the score. By the time of the Armory rehearsal they been absorbing their words for four years. There was not a score to be seen in the choir, and I think none either in the orchestra. Taken as a whole, this was the most deeply felt ensemble classical music performance I have experienced. There was no question of someone making a mistake, hitting a wrong note. They were way beyond technical concerns, into the realms of meaning.


Like Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion and Pasolini’s Gospel According to Matthew, another work, not unrelated, has been with me for decades. I first heard about it in 1969, when I was working at a publisher downtown.


It was my second, and last, job. My first, in the educational test department of Harcourt, Brace & World, had ended abruptly, after six months. Harcourt had just published the selected poems of the West Coast Buddhist Philip Whalen, On Bear’s Head, but the price seemed an arm and a leg at $17.50. One morning in August 1969, I arrived for work at 747 Third Avenue, where Harcourt was located. There was a picket line, maybe ten poets, protesting the price. I joined them and the next day was fired.


A month later, I got my second job, at Praeger, famed for its art books but also notorious for having accepted CIA funding to publish works by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Milovan Djilas, and others less well-known. I had to pay the rent. And the company was redeeming itself by publishing more leftist books, such as We Have Been Invaded by the 21st Century, prose by David McReynolds, head of the War Resisters League, a socialist and homosexual who became and remains a friend and an inspiration.


Praeger was on the tenth and eleventh floors of 111 Fourth Avenue. On March 6, 1970, from our tenth-floor west-facing windows my colleagues and I saw the sky fill with black smoke from the Weather Underground explosion on nearby West 11th Street. By the way, 111 Fourth replaced the building where Herman Melville wrote Bartleby the Scrivener. A little bit channeling the hero’s refrain, “I would prefer not to,” I would quit this job after twenty months, in April 1971, having learned the basics of editing books. Since then I have on average written for half of each year and done freelance editorial work for the other half.


I will tell the rest of the story via a poem begun in 2013, which takes its title from a play by Karl Kraus. The Last Days of Mankind is 800 pages long and has never been translated complete into English or performed complete in English. Over the decades I have thought to translate it and direct it in theater and on film. In August 2013, I began the poem as a start. The next month I learned that someone else is translating the entire play and is nearing completion. What a relief! I finished the poem, which stands as a record of art and politics from 1970 to the present. The translator of the soon-to-be complete edition of The Last Days of Mankind, Michael Russell, is, by the way, a novelist and a scriptwriter for BBC-TV crime series including Midsomer Murders [8]. “The last days of mankind” could be seen as a translation of the last words of the Gospel According to Matthew: “And behold I shall be with you always even unto the last days of mankind.”


A word of elaborated explanation about the Matthew/Bach tradition—from Claudio Monteverdi to Pope Francis—in the third section of “The Last Days of Mankind: Homage to Karl Kraus”: In 2004, I published The Gospel According to RFK: Why It Matters Now about Senator Robert Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign, with major excerpts from his speeches from that campaign, including the great antiwar speech at Kansas State University and the eulogy for Martin Luther King. [9] The goal was to help provide leftist material for the 2004 election. My major inspirations for the book were Thomas Jefferson’s version of the New Testament (he deleted the miracles) and Pasolini’s Gospel According to Matthew.


The Gospel According to RFK was and is the only book available of Kennedy’s speeches. In 2005 at the US Capitol at a celebration of what would have been RFK’s 80th birthday, I read a poem written for that day. [10] Other speakers included Edward Kennedy, Hillary Clinton, Harry Belafonte, Nancy Pelosi, John Kerry, John Lewis, and Barack Obama, then a senator, who referred to my book in his speech: “throughout the offices in the Capitol, everywhere you’ll find collections of his speeches.” President Obama’s speechwriters have since said how important RFK’s speeches were to them and Obama for the 2008 campaign.


I read parts of “The Last Days of Mankind: Homage to Karl Kraus” at the New Year’s Day 2015 Poetry Project Marathon in the East Village.


Norman MacAfee:
The Last Days of Mankind:
Homage to Karl Kraus

(In Vienna, during the First World War, Karl Kraus wrote The Last Days of Mankind, an 800-page play to be performed on Mars.)

March 6, 1970:
Gray sky over Greenwich Village explodes
with immense black clouds.

Ten floors up
on the site where
Melville wrote Bartleby
(I would prefer not to)
111 Fourth Avenue
we look down at ruins:
Weather Underground bomb house,
18 West 11th Street.

Years later I would move to that block
from where I write this to you.

In those days of the seventies,
I was reading The Cantos, Howl,
The Tale of Genji, The Last Days of Mankind

Mad bombers Nixon and Kissinger
were slaying five hundred thousand
Cambodians, overthrowing Shining Prince
Sihanouk, installing puppet general
Lon Nol, ushering in Pol Pot.

Silent spring she
gestures to dead comrade.
The noble human race on the subway
arrives at my old neighborhood
1969 to 1988.

There I could be a recluse and write and think
in my sixth-floor walkup
poet’s garret by the sublime
East River, 542 East 79.

December 1974 reading
The New York Review of Books headlined
“Collapse of the World
Economy,” I had a fling with a
male hustler from Buenos Aires.

On the subway downtown,
a black teenage girl gave me
the title for our lives here:
“Astro Place.” Astro Place.

To read Norman MacAfee’s poem “I am Astro Place”,
see Jacket magazine 33.


Walking the streets of Astro Place,
I play harp strings of our universe ///
city, agnostic though I be:

Monteverdi Vespers to Bach Saint
Matthew Passion
to Parsifal
(the fool made wise by compassion)
to Odetta (Sometimes I feel
like a motherless child)
to Pasolini’s Gospel According to
, dedicated to
the dear, familial, joyous
memory of Pope John the 23rd,
to my book The Gospel According to RFK
to Barack Obama, who read it,
and even unto Pope Francis
love him though believer I be not.
Public intellectual? Public intellectual!
If they call you one, you aren’t!
If you call yourself one,
you even more aren’t!

Susan Sontag was mistaken.
Content is vaster than style.
Some people are working for the CIA,
and don’t know it, said her son. [11]

CEOs two thousand feet tall [12]
smash the world to smithereens
simply by tip-toeing.

Delirious, delicious Manhattan
will be flooded, I know,
lovely tips of Empire State
and Chrysler poking through:
water over the bridge.


Coda for New Year’s Day 2015 Poetry Project Marathon at St. Mark’s in the Bowery, East Village, New York


Look, my dear friends, The Last Days of Mankind has a scary brilliant title. But Karl Kraus wrote it a hundred years ago and we’re still here. It was to be performed on Mars, but we are centuries away from a thriving and adventurous theater scene on Mars. And so with much hope, I wish you Happy New Year, Happy New Ears, Black Lives Matter, Peace to our bloody world!

August 2013 into 2015


Patti Smith read brilliantly at the 2014 Marathon. In November 2014 in the Huffington Post, she said that her favorite passage in the Bible is those last words of Matthew: “‘Lo I will be with you even until the end of the world’ (Matt 28:20) – that struck me. That it would be uttered so long ago to project that someone being there for you infinitely. Walt Whitman took a page from that when he said: ‘Young poet 200 years from now, I am with you.’ I like that thought. The sense that someone is thinking of you, that sense of projection.”


In September, Pope Francis, who, like John XXIII, is opening the church to the world, will visit Havana, Washington DC, New York, and Philadelphia. In light of this visit, on October 18, I will show and discuss Pasolini’s Gospel According to Matthew at the local Greenwich Village library, Jefferson Market. On November 1, Alfredo Jaar and I will celebrate the life and work of Pasolini, with a book launch of Alfredo’s artist book edition of Pasolini’s first great poem, from 1954, ‘The Ashes of Gramsci,’ in my translation with the original facing. I will read the poem, Alfredo will show his 38-minute film The Ashes of Pasolini, and we will discuss. Free admission, reception and book signing after. At Anthology Film Archives, 32 Second Avenue, New York, NY 10003. And Enrique Irazoqui and I are discussing ways to bring him over from Spain, for showings of The Gospel According to Matthew on the 50th anniversary of its opening in the United States.

August 30, 2015

Copyright © 2015, Norman MacAfee

Norman MacAfee walking to Brunnenburg Castle at the bottom left. Photo by Miguel Cervantes-Cervantes.
Norman MacAfee walking to Brunnenburg Castle at the bottom left. Photo by Miguel Cervantes-Cervantes.


“My domestic partner, Miguel Cervantes-Cervantes, took this picture on July 9, 2015, the first night we were in Italy, of me walking to Brunnenburg, the 12th-century castle where Ezra Pound’s daughter, Mary de Rachewiltz, her son, Siegfried Walter, his wife Brigitte, and their sons Nikolaus and Michael live. The week-long Ezra Pound International Conference was held there. I dedicated my paper “Ezra Pound in Patria Mia” to Emmett Till (long story). In the photo, I am at the bottom right; Brunnenburg is at the bottom left. In the center is the oldest castle in the region, Castello Tirolo.” — Norman MacAfee


On matters Pasolini: the artist Alfredo Jaar has just published an art edition of my translation “The Ashes of Gramsci” of the 1954 poem “Le ceneri di Gramsci” which Alfredo considers the great poem of the 20th century. And November 2 will mark the 40th anniversary of Pasolini’s assassination. — Norman MacAfee.


[1] PEN:;

[2] Bariona: The Son of Thunder, in Selected Prose: The Writings of Jean-Paul Sartre, edited by Michel Contat and Michel Rybalka, translated by Richard McCleary (Northwestern 1974), p. 99

[3] Barth David Schwartz, Pasolini Requiem (Pantheon 1994; Vintage 1995), p. 458, citing Maria Antonietta Macciocchi, Duemila di felicità (Mondadori 1983), pp. 332–335.

[4] Ibid.

[5] “We’re All in Danger,” Furio Colombo, translated by Pasquale Verdicchio, In Danger: A Pasolini Anthology, edited by Jack Hirschman (City Lights, 2010), pp. 233–242.

[6] It can be found in the late Doug Ireland’s blog, Direland, and also in In Danger, pp. 205–218; and in New Politics, vol. XII, no. 1.

[7] Pier Paolo Pasolini, Poems, selected and translated by Norman MacAfee, with Luciano Martinengo (Random House 1982; John Calder 1984; Farrar Straus Giroux 1996), p. 109.

[8] I refer you to his website:

[9] Westview Press 2004; Basic Books 2008.

[10] From C-SPAN:

[11] David Rieff, during panel on WikiLeaks, PEN World Voices Festival, Cooper Union, April 28, 2011.

[12] Based on current 400-to-1 ratio of US worker pay to US CEO salary times average worker height of 5′6″.


Norman MacAfee is a writer of poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and performance work; he is also literary translator, visual and sound artist, and freelance book editor. Books: One Class: Selected Poems; The Gospel According to RFK; The Death of the Forest, opera to Charles Ives; co-translator of Pier Paolo Pasolini: Poems; two volumes of the letters of Jean-Paul Sartre to Simone de Beauvoir (Witness to My Life and Quiet Moments in a War); and the first complete modern edition of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables.
On Norman MacAfee’s One Class: Selected Poems: One Class presents a unified social theory of life and art, love and politics and aesthetics, that is fearless and human—it’s real, it’s unwavering, it’s art in the classical sense that gets dirty as life is in this Horrific Triumph of Capitalism. Somehow MacAfee tells the truth and doesn’t leave you hopeless. Somehow MacAfee gets it right.’ —Bob Holman

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