Mario Petrucci is a scientist, freelance writer and Blue Nose poet. He was awarded this year's New London Writers award and is founder of the experimental poetry group ShadoWork. His first book, 'Shrapnel and Sheets', was published by Headland and is a PBS recommendation. His most recent publications are 'Bosco' (1999, Hearing Eye) which deals powerfully with environmental issues; and 'Lepidoptera' (1999, KT Press) which inventively combines prose and poetry. 'Negatives', written by Mario on the very first day of his residency, has since won the Bridport Prize and will appear in his award-winning collection with Enitharmon entitled Flowers of Sulphur.
War and Place at the Imperial War Museum
"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to fulfill it."
I'm reliably told I've raised eyebrows at the Museum by NOT merely musing in corridors. I've tried to make inputs to the exhibit space which are linguistically exciting, and to initiate new literacy projects which would engage and delight all visitors regardless of age: it's important for the principle of a residency to survive its first resident!
The Poetry Hunt ("Search and Create") involves poems hidden provocatively among the artefacts: I wanted poems that were varied, accessible, challenging yet fun, and able to shoulder a wide range of language-based activities. Each piece had to relate imaginatively to its exhibit, able to "draw out" (educare) a creative and empathetic response, particularly from children; and yet the poems had to maintain an authentic and novel presence in their own right. Poems were sited so that their discovery generated unusual postures (crouching, peering, etc), bringing a fresh and suggestive physicality to their reading. In every sense, I was at full stretch: how can a deranged "sideways" couplet embellish or subvert a fully-fledged Exocet missile? Why should it? As part of a generation which experiences the horror and fascination of war mostly through the cellophane of media representation, I had to heed Heaney's advice not to "rampage permissively" in other people's tragedies.
Key moments? A five-year-old's cry: "Look Ma, a poem!" The moonlit all-nighter spent alone in the Museum's galleries. BA videoing the poems for its long-haul flights; the Public Art Journal featuring the Hunt as a novel concept in "synaesthetic" captioning. That fragrant archive where I discovered (or rediscovered?) how Sassoon's famous protest letter of 1917 mirrors the language of Joe Dottrell's (little-known) correspondence with him, using Dottrell's ambivalent position to buttress his own, unilateral one. Handling Rosenberg's grubby trench-scribblings, which left me appalled and speechless. Perhaps most powerful of all: an ordinary soldier's letter to his daughter, desperate to cram an entire fatherhood into its few tightly-scrawled pages.
I sincerely hope my work at the Museum is a tangible challenge to Adorno in reasserting the enduring need, in humility and humanity, for poetry. Santayana's is a linguistic as well as philosophical truth, and every age needs its poets to see and to re-member; or at least to act as mitigators against what Minhinnick calls "our amnesiac selves".
(Written for the Poetry Hunt.)
Readings at the Imperial War Museum on National Poetry Day
(October 7, 1999)
12:30 pm and 4:00 pm
Lambeth Road, London