The Masses Are Asses

Pedro Pietri

Green Integer

2003

Saturday, October 4th, 2003

Little books: at the bookstores they get pride of impulse-purchase place and sit by the cash register, only to get lost in a jacket pocket or stashed in the bathroom. But pick up a Hanuman edition of John Wieners, Willem de Kooning, or Cookie Mueller, or a Semiotext(e) book by Eileen Myles, Heiner Muller, or . . . Cookie Mueller, and you’re forced to confront unmistakable personalities and the liberation they announce. The latest series of little books runs about 4.25″ x 6″ and comes from Green Integer, a Danish-American joint venture risen out of the ashes of Sun & Moon.

GENTLEMAN: If only you knew how mentally gratifying it is to pretend you have no problems in the world. You would also be rich and influential like myself and not fart so loud when you move your bowels. [Another loud fart is heard] Okay, that’s it for you! Get up, it’s getting too risky. That last fart you laid was probably heard throughout the entire building. Come on get up, now!

This speech comes at the midpoint of Pedro Pietri’s 1974 closet drama, The Masses Are Asses. Literally a closet: the Lady and Gentleman who at first seem to be unbearable snobs enjoying dinner at a fine restaurant in Paris gradually reveal themselves to be destitute renters of a hall bathroom in the South Bronx. Yes it’s obvious, but it works—Pietri keeps coming up with new reasons to follow the dialogue, carrying jokes way past the point where they’re not even funny any more to where they start to really get funny, as in the stichomythic opening scene:

GENTLEMAN: You look terrific.
LADY: You look fantastic.
GENTLEMAN: You look gorgeous.
LADY: You look marvelous.
GENTLEMAN: You look exciting.
LADY: You look demanding.
GENTLEMAN: You look outstanding.
LADY: Shall we order?
GENTLEMAN: No, not just yet.

The banter goes on for several pages, culminating in the couple listening to a tape recording of themselves trading the exact same compliments: “Please put the tape back on so we can continue listening to our interesting voices.” Suddenly, the tape has to compete with the sound of gunfire and sirens, and the Gentleman heads off on a paranoid tangent about the “A.B.C.D.E.F.G.H.I. terrorist group”: “Armed/Brave/Comrades/Determined/Efficient/Fighters/Gonna/Humiliate/Imperialism!” Wicked one-liners (“Give me prosperity or give me death!”) lead into more probable demands (“Give me a mink, expensive jewelry and another mink!”).

Pietri’s presence is accounted for in anthologies and histories of Nuyorican poetry, but nobody as far as I’m aware of has taken stock of what a world-class cuddly bad-ass Pietri can be. And in cultural-historical terms, isn’t this moment’s self-image a combination of surliness and charm?

It’s been too long since an American publisher had the sense to collect Pietri’s poems (or maybe just the fortitude to carry the project to completion?). In 2001, an Italian publisher brought out a Spanglish/Italian edition of Pietri’s telephone booth poems, short addresses mostly to wrong numbers but sometimes to specific people, the void, or the audience:

fuck the circus
i get my rocks off
seeing people going
to work in the morning
on my way to the bar!
(“telephone booth number 73237″)

If Asses suggests a meeting of Ishmael Reed and Alfred Jarry, the telephone booth poems remind me of the bluntness and paradox of Nicanor Parra’s work. Where Parra advises young poets that the only condition is that they have to improve the blank page, Pietri wishes that:

you will
call me up right now
that my phone
is disconnected
so I can have the courage
to tell you to get lost!
(“720″)

I notice now that some of the phone booth poems I enjoy the most might best be seen as therapeutic comedies of bad love, as in:

after promising
my mistress
that I will
never ever get
violent with her
as long as we
love each other
she smacked me
across the face
(“568493″)

and:

the biggest mistake
you committed
in this relationship
was to apologize
for being cruel
I never took you
serious after that!
(“346 _”)

But there are also poems that derive straightforward insights from experience too, such as:

I need to be
with somebody
who doesn’t need
to be with me
so that we may do
many things separately
when we are together
(“665403″)

and:

I don’t have to drink
to tell you I love you
I have to drink after
I tell you I love you
(“36421483″)

There are more than a few poems that take off from Jack Kerouac’s no hat haiku (“All day long/wearing a hat/that wasn’t on my head” becomes “you are outside/your apartment/looking for the door/to get outside/your apartment”), and a few that even an American publisher might have found too sentimental. And then, when one is left with several dozen of these memorable poems, the temptation is to minimize Pietri’s accomplishment as a series of one-liners. But they’re not. They’re poems; they deserve to be read widely, and they stand up to rereading. As Pietri writes in “telephone booth number 57″:

if you don’t become
a missing person
every now & then
you will never know
who the hell you are!

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