To be terrible news, or die
This is the only documentary to explore Curnow's remarkable life and work. It's a compelling, close-up portrait of a man who worked on the cutting edge of literature for nearly 70 years. Beautifully filmed, with music by Jonathan Besser and Douglas Lilburn, the film takes him to the scenes of may of his most important poems - from New Zealand's South Island landscapes and Auckland’s West Coast beaches to the streets of Rome.
Horrocks goes to Rome because one of Curnow's best-known poems, 'Moro Assassinato', was written in Italy in the aftermath of the kidnapping and assassination of the Christian Democrat statesman Aldo Moro. 'Moro Assassinato' gets inside the heads of Moro's Red Brigade captors and executioners, and manages to make the world of the urban guerrilla seem eerily like that of the statesman. Both Moro and his enemies are curiously thwarted characters, despite their pretensions to power and images as men of action. Curnow, who had an unsentimental fascination with violent death, reminds us of the banality which is one aspect of the horror of violence, and also - if I'm not reading too much into the poem - of the state of exhaustion that pervaded Italian society and politics at the end of the '70s, after a decade of economic crisis and intense but inconclusive class struggle:
the faces that came and went,
the seven of us comrades
like the days of the week repeating
it was cleaning your gun ten times
a day, taking time
washing your cock, no love
lost, aimlessly fondling
the things that think faster than fingers,
trigger fingers, gunsuckers...
Dust thickened the mirror,
the once gay playmate,
on the dildo in the drawer,
dust on the file of newspapers,
silence as dusty as death
on the radio, nobody can hear
the police dragging their feet;
sometimes we squabbled, once
we could have shot one another
in the dusty time, we had to be
terrible news, or die.
I remember seeing a very sprightly ninety year-old Allen Curnow at the premier of Early Days Yet in the winter of 2001, and being surprised when the great man died suddenly only a few weeks later, in the middle of September, when the world was preoccupied with Osama bin Laden's attack on the United States. Its author may have lived only a few days into the 'age of assymetric warfare', but 'Moro Assassinto' tells us more about terrorism than a thousand columns by Christopher Hitchens or Thomas Friedman. Read it, and watch Shirley Horrocks' documentary tomorrow night.