At the end of the ’60s, hedonism and terror collided with each other. All of a sudden, youth culture and the sexual revolution found themselves entangled with mortality and the decay of the flesh, and a lot of that moment’s most notable art, from Easy Rider to Bitches Brew to Slaughterhouse-Five, came out of that collision and entanglement. The Italian polymath Dino Buzzati’s 1969 Poem Strip is a lost marvel: absolutely of its time in some respects, 40 years ahead of it in others.
Buzzati’s best-known novel was The Tartar Steppe, and he also wrote short stories, plays, and a science fiction novel. He was a visual artist of some repute, too. Poem Strip, though, was a unique project, as its title suggests by describing its form rather than its content. There were book-length comics in Europe at that time, of course, but what Buzzati did was something different; it’s essentially a long poem augmented, and sometimes dominated, by Buzzati’s illustrations, built around the drawing tropes and narrative techniques of comics (contour drawings, word balloons, multiple panels on many pages).
The body of Poem Strip concerns a young Milanese rock star by the name of Orfi, who sees his girlfriend, Eura, disappear into the realm of the dead. (Those names’ resemblance to Orpheus and Eurydice is not at all coincidental.) He goes down to the underworld to investigate; he meets an empty jacket who explains that the joys of life are meaningless without the threat of death, and who tries to tempt him with the delights of the flesh that are meaningless to the dead. Orfi sings to the jacket about the world of the living and its ever-present disintegration and despair. Finally, he’s permitted to search for Eura, but he’s no more successful at bringing his beloved back to the world of the living than his namesake was.
Orfi bears a strong resemblance to another Italian auteur’s icon of Eros and Thanatos: David Hemmings in Michaelangelo Antonioni’s film Blow-Up. (In the scenes where Orfi is playing guitar, you can practically hear the Yardbirds jamming on the “Train Kept A-Rollin’ ” riff.) He’s also virtually the only character here who gets to wear clothes: the voluptuous women who appear at every possible opportunity are, for the most part, obviously drawn from photos in girlie magazines, with the kind of adoring, objectifying specificity some old men reserve for young women’s bodies. Buzzati was in his 60s when he drew Poem Strip — he died three years later — and time’s winged chariot is palpably close in Orfi’s songs about mortality.
But so is the brash newness of the art that was exploding around Buzzati in the ’60s. His language, at least in Marina Harss’s elegant English translation, often recalls the imagistic barrage of that moment’s avant-garde poets: “Strum strum nine gentlemen in the dark of night / In their demonic carriage wearing tails / Leaving the party at the casino going fast / Gliding like spiders down tree-lined streets past mansions.” There’s something of Pop Art about Buzzati’s drawing, too: its pastel tones, its hints of photographic collages re-rendered in cool pen lines. The most resonant images in the book, though, are all Buzzati’s own: Orfi, in profile, his silhouette constructed entirely of handwritten script in half a dozen languages; a vision of everyone who has ever lived, “all together in the valley of Jehoshaphat,” orderly rows of abstracted men and women and the occasional child, receding into the background until they become tiny dots and disappear; an old-fashioned carriage and driver constructed from pointillist spatter, with a quizzical, cowlicked skull peering out from the inside. The subtitle of Poem Strip promises “an explanation of the afterlife”; perhaps Buzzati could draw the next world as indelibly as he did because he knew he was close to it.