The Poet of Sewer Rats

“A poet who is not also a heretic,” Aldo tells me as I lean forward to catch his words, “is not a poet.” As for the miller Menocchio and for Pasolini, heresy was connatured to Federico’s persona—not a mere intellectual exercise. For Pasolini and Federico, furthermore, it was no longer only about the Catholic Church. It had to do, instead, with their inability and unwillingness to participate in the reigning ideologies of their time: petty bourgeois propriety, at first, and the hedonism that crept behind the countercultural movements of the ’60s and ’70s, later, when capitalist power needed “a new kind of subject,” in the words of Pasolini.

On Federico Tavan

Photograph by Danilo De Marco. Image courtesy of the photographer.




Sunday, July 31, 2022

When we exit the two-mile tunnel, night is falling. On this side of the valley, the mountains cast their shadow as early as 6 PM. We cross a long, tall bridge, which rests on huge cement pillars that plunge into the basin of the Cellina torrent, gathered here into the size of a lake by a massive dam. Gray, muscular clouds hover in the sky. The air is blue, slowly bled of light. The valley is sunk in a deep silence.

Burning the old car’s clutch as I clumsily shift gears and bury my foot too deep into the gas pedal, we climb up a few steep bends in the road and drive into the village.

Founded in 996,

reads a sign. We were meant to arrive just after lunch, but, at the border between Umbria and Tuscany, I got distracted while trying to turn on the defective air conditioning, and the car veered against the road barrier on the highway, at 100 kilometers an hour. The damage was a flat tire and a look of fear and skepticism imprinted upon the face of my travel companion, who sat uneasily on the passenger’s seat for the rest of the journey.

I haven’t seen Dodo in over a year. On the phone, I told him I was traveling to my grandmother’s village, to find out more about Federico Tavan. “Something of a relative of mine,” I said, already regretting the cursory description that was about to follow, “a local poet, kind of crazy, an anarchist. . . .” Dodo jumped on a train from Rome to Assisi, my hometown. I picked him up at the station, and we left towards the northeastern region of Friuli. Ten hours later, instead of the five we planned, we reached our destination. I’ve never brought anyone here. Since my childhood, the village of Andreis has been a private hideaway where my family and I would return during the holidays, our visits becoming less and less frequent as we grew distant from the relatives who still live here. I observe Dodo as he leans against the car window and watches the handful of houses we are driving past, the meadows, the little church, the minuscule post office, the stone fountains that used to incessantly pour forth fresh spring water (all but one now shut, due to the drought that has been vexing the country this summer). Is he charmed by the place, can he imagine life on these cobbled roads and alleys, or does he already regret coming to spend his vacation in a ghost town?

We are staying with my uncle Maurizio, Federico Tavan’s first cousin. Five days a week, Maurizio lives in Andreis alone, in his childhood home. He works for a pharmaceutical company down in the valley, eats all his meals out, and comes home to sleep. On Friday evenings, as soon as he gets off work, he drives back to his wife and son in the province of Milan, all the way across the plains of northern Italy. The house, expanded in the 1990s by incorporating what was once a small barn, is a narrow, three-story building, its interiors built mainly with wood fetched from the surrounding forest. Dodo and I are staying in the attic, under a low-hanging ceiling on whose wooden beams I will hit my head every morning for the following three days. I choose the smaller bed. Above it, on the wall, hangs a poster with a large photograph of Federico: it is a close-up of his face and wide-open eyes, which he frames horizontally with his chubby index fingers. The poster advertises a retrospective held in 2014, titled: Alone among people.

We skip dinner—there’s no food in the house, and the kitchen of the only bar in town is already closed. Dodo and I still take a seat at a table outdoors, in the town’s tiny piazza, and order two glasses of grappa. On the wall of a building, facing the square, I notice an enormous mural painting of Federico’s face. It is based on the same photograph that I saw earlier in the attic, only rendered in a blurred, sepia tone. It wasn’t there last year. Who commissioned it? Inside the bar, too, a photograph of Federico—gaunt, beardless, old. The owner of the bar goes through his selection: “Rue flavored grappa, anise-flavored grappa, pear-flavored grappa . . .” On the phone, I warned Dodo: “there is nothing to do there at night.” So we drink, and talk, and smoke. By 11 PM, the last clients of the bar have left. Even the owner, after pouring us a last glass of juniper-flavored grappa, turns off the lights, locks up the door, and bids us good night. When we leave our table, an hour later, silent lightning, too far for us to hear its thunder, flashes above the mountains that enclose the village, illuminating for an instant their bare peaks. On the short walk back to Maurizio’s place, I notice a large plastic-coated panel affixed to the wall of a building. Printed upon it is one of Federico’s poems, entitled “The end”:

Of the old


of my family

only I

am left:

stinging nettle.

“When he died, the memory machine began. They named a parking lot after him . . .”

Ten years ago this month, the poet Federico Tavan died in his sleep on a rainy morning two days after his 64th birthday. He died in Andreis, in the house in which he was born. He lived in Andreis his whole life, save for periodical stays in the psychiatric hospitals of Maniago and Sacile, and only rarely did he travel outside the region of Friuli. In one of several poems dedicated to his literary idol, Pier Paolo Pasolini—whom he called al mestre, the master, or teacher—he writes: You lived in Rome and traveled half of the world / I never go further than the Molassa tavern. Disregarding the appeal of the wider readership that the Italian language could have afforded him, he wrote in the language spoken in his village—Andreian, a variant of the Friulian dialect that, at its demographic peak, counted about two thousand speakers. The choice was in line with his fierce antagonism toward “any hegemonic power, both locally and universally,” as the poet and educator Paolo Coceancig has written in a short commemorative text. But perhaps it was no choice at all: although he was perfectly capable of writing in a polished Italian, Tavan repeatedly stated that only Andreian granted him true self-expression. A posthumous collection of texts published by USMIS, an anarchist collective with which Tavan frequently collaborated, is entitled Nome chê lenga chì a ne permet da favelâ (2014), meaning, in Andreian, “Only this language allows me to speak.”

In his lifetime, Tavan’s poems were published in cult satirical magazines such as Il Male and Frigidaire, but also in the parish bulletin of Andreis. In 1984, at 35, his first chapbook, Màcheri, was published, followed almost immediately by three more: Lètera (1984), Cjant dai dalz (1985), and La nâf spâzial (1985). Later, along with several collaborative projects, the collections J’ sielc perávalis (1991), Da màrches a madònes (1994), Cràceles cròceles (1997–2003) appeared. Most of these books are out of print, and hard to come across even in the region of Friuli. That may change with the new edition of La Nâf spâzial, published in June 2023 by Morganti Editori, who recently purchased the rights to Tavan’s body of work, leaving many of his closest friends and former publishers upset.

Tavan himself never made a living out of writing. He survived on the occasional support of some family members, until, in 2008, a petition signed by dozens of friends and admirers obtained him the Bacchelli pension, a rarely assigned, state-issued stipend for destitute artists. An appeal to sign the petition appeared on Il Corriere della Sera, Italy’s leading print newspaper. The list of signatories speaks to the extent to which Tavan’s work was known and appreciated in the literary world: it includes Italian stage actor and director Marco Paolini, the historian Carlo Ginzburg, Austrian Nobel-prize-winning writer Peter Handke, French medievalist Jacques Le Goff, Spanish-Mexican novelist Paco Ignacio Taibo II, Croatian writer Predrag Matvejević, as well the endlessly decorated Italian writer and former Senator, Claudio Magris. Tavan’s audiences embodied something of a paradox. On the one hand there were the inhabitants of Andreis and its surrounding villages, or the members of obscure anarchist circles in Udine and Pordenone, and on the other a pantheon of literary and academic celebrities, who’d learned about him through word of mouth, and occasionally took steps to support him. In the middle of this gap stood a few very patient friends, who took it upon themselves to have Tavan’s work printed and translated with almost artisanal zeal (his first chapbooks were manually printed with a cyclostyle machine, at a time when the device had almost entirely been replaced by Xerox machines).

If, despite a prestigious rank of international admirers, Tavan’s work remains marginal to the Italian literary scene and market, it is at least in part due to the fact that, for most Italians, Friulian remains a foreign language, and Tavan can thus be read only in translation. There are more fortunate dialects—Neapolitan, for example, which enjoys wide representation in music and cinema—but it is generally unlikely that literature in dialect will travel past its region of origin. As often happens when the speech from a periphery makes its way to a center of wealth and power, when dialect is encountered by mainstream Italian culture it is usually turned into folklore, at best, or caricature. It is associated with tradition, an abused word that haunts most Italians (and doesn’t haunt the rest enough). Perhaps that’s in part because modernity hasn’t made it into most dialects: in order to name things like the television, psychotherapy, or the dishwasher, one has to resort to Italian. (Late modernity, in fact, isn’t even making it into Italian, as the language becomes filled with anglicisms and neologisms born from the cringeworthy coagulation of anglophone brand names into Italian morphological constructs—but that’s another story.)

By the time Tavan obtained the Bacchelli pension, in any case, psychiatric drugs and frequent compulsory health treatments (forceful sedation administered when his schizophrenic episodes became more acute) had successfully extirpated his personality—let alone his ability to write—and turned him into a ravaged, hollow-eyed man, with only rare flashes of his former exuberant self. All along, it seems, he had been aware of his fate. In “Genocide,” a poem from 1994, he had written: Tranquilizer after tranquilizer / mad people / are disappearing. / Federico’s the only one left / while he lasts. Death—la muart, in Andreian—had obsessed him since his teenage years. I started writing poems, he wrote, when suicide was still a serious thing / that only a few chosen ones would do. Tavan’s first poem, written as an 11-year-old, goes: Oh how many times / have I longed to read in the air / the word End. At fifteen, after the death of his mother, the same awareness of his precarious attachment to life resurfaces in his lines (written in Italian, not Andreian):

And when the smell of the roses

will no longer be able to sustain

the falling of my head,

I, too, will come . . .

But his lust for life outdid his longing for death. What emerges from his poetry, from his letters, from the recollections of those who knew him personally, and even from the hundreds of photographs that his friends Danilo de Marco and Ivette Vandeweughe took of him—in which he’s portrayed dancing, laughing uncontrollably, smoking, screaming, kissing statues, picking flowers, hiding from the camera, declaiming Catullus in a toga, crushing friends and acquaintances under his massive presence, or pretending to murder them while glaring at the camera with a homicidal gaze—is his exceptional blend of “desperation and joie de vivre,” to borrow the words of Ida Vallelurgo, herself a poet who wrote in the Fiulian dialect.

Eternally unemployed, unkempt, and mischievous, as far as conventional conduct was concerned, Federico flunked. He commanded respect, on the other hand, as a phenomenal card player who worked miracles at the game of bisatela, taunting his opponents with an air of sprezzatura as he memorized the points they had scored and guessed the cards in their hand. His voracity, too, was legendary: in a short commemorative text, Cristiana Lazzaro and Franco Fasan, former managers of the same bar in which Dodo and I had our grappas on the night of our arrival (and on the second night, and on the third), recall Federico’s breakfasts, made up of “sixteen croissants, innumerable coffees, and several juices,” followed shortly after by a gargantuan lunch, many ice creams throughout the afternoon (as he sat at the bar and played cards), three whole pizzas for dinner, and a visit to their house in the middle of the night, during which he demanded to be fed breakfast, again. Federico was their neighbor, with whom they would sometimes chat from across the street, as he sat on his toilet. Fully naked, he’d lean out of the bathroom window and yell: “I’m creating!”

Everyone in Andreis and in its immediate surroundings seems to have an anecdote to share about Federico. “Of course I remember when he’d come to the library,” Rosanna Paroni Bertoja tells me, laughing. Rosanna is a retired schoolteacher and poet who, in the 1980s, led a writing workshop in the nearby town of Montereale, and was among the first to notice Federico’s poetic gift. “He’d arrive with his puffy, worn-out winter jacket and pull out of its pockets the crumpled sheets of paper on which he’d scrawled his poems,” she continues. “But before reading them, he would gesticulate and sing and do his whole ritual, until he’d filled the whole room with his presence. Then, once all eyes were on him, he’d begin.” Self-centered and eccentric to the bone, something nonetheless redeemed, or at least allowed, Tavan’s egocentrism, which in another would have been intolerable. “Misfortune bestows certain rights,” wrote Voltaire in Candide. So does talent.

“I remember when he’d drive up in his blue Fiat 127 mini car, with a hole on its side,” writes Lorena Roman. “He’d make such a racket—he’d scream, and sing at the top of his lungs.” Lorena is the owner of La nâf spâzial, a children’s bookstore named after one of Federico’s poems. She is among the contributors to Nostra Preziosa Eresia (“Our Precious Heresy”), a rich, beautiful book that gathers photographs by Danilo De Marco, scans of Federico’s original manuscripts and letters, and a collection of texts from his friends and admirers, ranging from affectionate and anecdotal narratives to academic discussions of his work. Copies of the book, today, are hard to come across, but I was able to borrow Maurizio’s copy, complete with Federico’s dedication on the first page, handwritten in his large, heavily pressed and uneven calligraphy. Even in Lorena’s bookstore, where one corner has been turned into a veritable shrine to the memory of Federico, replete with drawings and photographs, his books are scarce.

“After his birth, no other newborn child in town was named Federico”

The fate of a man

It could have happened to you, too,

to be born in a cauldron

among toads and a hodgepodge

prepared by witches who were granted no trial

and the great pain of a mother.

I found myself

passing by there.

When his mother Cosetta was pregnant with Federico, she went one morning to pray in the village church. It was early, and the small church was still empty. An old woman named Giacomina, who fashioned herself as a witch, silently sneaked inside. After giving Cosetta a scare with her wild bellows, Giacomina uttered her prophecy: the child would turn out to be a “monster,” and live to be a plague to his family.

In 1949, the year of Federico’s birth, witchcraft was still taken seriously in Andreis. As late as in the 1980s, wishing to let go of what they now considered an embarrassing past, some elderly locals were irritated by Federico’s retelling of episodes like the one that preceded his birth. (One of the readers, who feared that Andreians would come off as superstitious simpletons if such incidents were given attention, happened to be a great-uncle of mine, himself a poet, albeit an unbearably sentimental one, and, I am told, “a fascist”—who knows what other jealousies and ideological divergences were bound up in his objections.)

In the past, the town, and the region of Friuli-Venezia-Giulia, had been a theater of religious hysterias and mob lynchings. The mention of the “witches who were granted no trial” in Federico’s 1984 poem, for example, refers to Lucia De Bucco and her sister Maddalena, two women from Andreis. In 1663, after the statue of the Madonna held inside the village church had supposedly come alive and disclosed incriminating evidence against several local women, an emissary from Andreis was sent to inform the provincial inquisitor. Too scared and aroused by the prospect of violence to wait, a mob armed with clubs and farming tools went on the hunt. One woman was able to flee in the woods. Lucia and Maddalena, instead, were caught and lynched by their fellow villagers.

A sympathizer of witches, lunatics, and the dispossessed, Federico showed gratitude for his curse:

I thank

my witch . . .

who gave me the loneliness to become a poet . . .

I thank madness

that allowed me

to remain myself.

Whether true or invented (“But it is true, everybody knew,” my grandmother assures me), the story of the witch Giacomina provided Federico with an origin myth for the mental illness and the sense of exclusion that had haunted him since childhood. But it also cast the institutional treatment of his mental illness in a ridiculous light. What could be more absurd than trying to undo a magical spell by means of numbing psychopharmacological drugs? In “Ashes on the fields,” which evokes the stake burnings of the nearby town of Alpago, he alludes to a different misconception, but one equally prompted by the desire to deal with a troublesome alterity: Those burned without sins / where the Tesa torrent ends / were praying the gods of the seasons / but people thought / they were muttering curses against the Lord. / . . . They pulled them down / and scattered ashes on the fields.

In Federico’s writing, witches and the mentally ill have been victims of a similar misunderstanding, the same failure to articulate their condition, the same failure, on the part of ordinary people, to act outside of their fear. A great part of Federico’s poetry addresses this failure, and attempts to bring the reader over to the other side—the side of the mad, the misfits, the heretics. In his “Letter to the pretty and the healthy,” he explains:

Being crazy, more than anything, is like being always elsewhere.

I know it’s hard to understand

for those who haven’t had this privilege

at least once.

Being crazy means that you’re walking down the street

and at the same time your mind is out drinking in some tavern,

or else you’re right there, in front of you, shaking your hand.

What a struggle to convince people, he laments elsewhere, that my way of living / doesn’t keep anyone from / working, from screwing, from voting, / from acting like morons. / What a struggle to convince people.

Federico il poeta

For me, growing up, Federico was the poet. Not the greatest, not my favorite, not even one I had read, but the only one I knew, or knew of. My family referred to him as Federico il poeta, to distinguish him from other Federicos, or simply because the epithet had stuck to his name, as if to fill a void. And it made sense: professionally, or rather vocationally, Federico was nothing else but a poet. Not an academic, not a creative writing professor with a forthcoming second book, not a laborer in any field, in fact, but only, or wholly, a poet. So, before becoming aware of the existence of a broader category—poets—I was acquainted with the particular case of Federico, the poet: as far as I knew, the only one out there. We weren’t really related—he’s my acquired uncle’s first cousin—but the anecdotes I’d heard and the photographs I had seen had created an aura of myth around him.

The only time I met him I was scared. I must have been 8 or 9, and my mother and I had driven up to Andreis to visit my grandfather’s grave on the Day of the Dead. My cousin and I, clad in a white sheet with two cut-out eyeholes, roamed the streets of Andreis, ringing doorbells and asking dolcetto o scherzetto. When we knocked at Federico’s door, a bearded giant swung the door open. Looming over the threshold with his eyes wide open, he slapped his hands on his thighs. What do you want?!, he screamed, in an angry tone that, in retrospect, I realize was playful. Then he let us into the kitchen, where three other men, their hair past their shoulders and their beards to their chest, were playing cards, smoking cigarettes, and drinking tall bottles of cheap beer. Here’s your treat!, said Federico, as he handed us one of the bottles of Peroni, still unopened, and let it fall into our candy bag, which my cousin and I held on each side. The three men laughed. Just kidding, boys, he followed, reaching back into the bag, these guys over here need it more than you! I don’t remember what he gave us, in the end, but I remember he rummaged through the meager contents of his pantry and shook a half-empty pack of biscuits to assess how many were left. Then he examined the remains of a jar of Nutella, probably wondering if there was enough left to classify as a treat. When we left, I was relieved.

As for his poetry, I wasn’t particularly drawn to it until my late twenties. A couple of his poetry collections had always laid around the house, autographed and dedicated to my mother, but if I ever leafed through them, I was probably discouraged by the incomprehensible dialect in which they were written. I had an ear for it—my mother speaks it with her family—but seeing it written was something else, and there were moments when intuition only helped so much. As with the word for “toad,” for example, which in Italian is rospo, and in Andreian is zovàt, or the verb “to scream”: urlare in Italian, gožar in Andreian. Besides, I probably had my own ingrained prejudice towards literature in dialect, and an intolerance for anything remotely provincial.

In 2019, in my grandmother’s house, I came across a VHS with a photograph of Federico on the cover, and the title: Al poeta de li pantianes. The poet of sewer rats. In the back of the VHS, listed among the credits in cubital characters: “Federico Tavan, interplanetary poet from Andreis.” Interplanetary—the word choice pleased me. Surely it was an allusion to one of his poems, “The Spaceship,” which is a re-telling of a schizophrenic episode, but also a journey into space, interrupted when an alien species—humans—burst into the spaceship. Forget about provincial, this man claimed to be from another planet altogether.

Thankfully, my grandma hadn’t thrown out her VHS player. Al poeta de li pantianes is an eight-minute video produced by USMIS, an anarchist collective based in Udine with which Federico collaborated in the early ’90s. In the video, a flickering sequence of still images of Federico overlaps with footage of Andreis and with close-ups of a mischief of white rats, crawling over the floor and piling onto each other. In voiceover, Federico recites the eponymous poem, in which, like the Pied Piper, he summons by name his fellow outcasts from Andreis, “with their stories that won’t make it into history.” Hardcore techno plays in the background.

After that day I began to seek out Federico’s books with renewed enthusiasm, borrowing them from relatives when I could not find them on sale—which was the case for most of them. Even though the Italian translation appears at the bottom of each page, I read them in the original Andreian, this time with the help of my grandmother, who would also fill me in about the people and places mentioned in Federico’s poems. I began to translate the poems into English when I moved to the States, but the translation was never enough, at least it seemed to me. What if, I thought one day as I was about to email a translation to a friend who had just gotten back from a trip to Southern Italy, what if he imagines Andreis as some sun-kissed Mediterranean town where people sip spritz at dusk, wearing sunglasses and white linen shirts? Out of the slightly deranged desire to control my friend’s imagination, then, I began to add to the email what was initially meant as a short sketch of Federico’s life, but turned into a failed attempt to condense a century of Italian history into a few paragraphs, with several digressions into late antiquity—for context. But I realized that I didn’t actually know very much about Andreis, nor about my mother’s family, nor about Federico. The last few times I had been to Andreis, mostly during our Ferragosto family gathering—a pagan-turned-Christian holiday in the middle of August, which marks the time when virtually all of Italy goes on vacation, leaving cities deserted but flooding the coasts and forming queues along mountain paths—I had spent my days rolled up in a hammock in my uncle Maurizio’s backyard, indifferent to everything around me except the book I was reading. All the while, I thought now as I composed the email for my friend, people got older, their collective memory was getting weaker, and the past was crumbling with it. Remembering those visits spent swinging on a hammock half asleep, a sense of urgency mounted in me. I saved the email in my drafts. First, I had to go back to Andreis.

“In one of these language-islands, spoken by 300 people, there is a poet . . .”

 In Federico’s words, Andreis is Four crucified houses, and if you don’t escape in time / here you grow old and die. He continues:

A few meadows

two or three mountains —

if you don’t escape

you’ll never escape:

you become Andreis.

Most, by now, have either escaped or died—many without growing old, caught up in the rampant alcohol addiction that besets the region. For decades now the residents of the cemetery have outnumbered those who still inhabit the village year-round. Federico says he was born “when Andreis numbered 2000 inhabitants”—but these days, in the winter, Andreis houses no more than 200 people. The earliest signs of depopulation began with the first emigrants in the late 19th and early 20th century, although a good half of them returned.  My great grandfather Bepi, for example, once the owner of the town’s bakery, left the mountains of Andreis in the late 1920s to spend three years working in New York, until, having raised enough money to purchase his father’s bakery back (his older brothers had gambled it away at the Venice casino), he resettled in Andreis, where he spent the rest of his life.

A more abrupt demographic decrease began in the postwar period, and especially in the mid-’50s, during the period of exponential economic growth known as the miracolo economico (“economic miracle”)—an expression that, in its subtle blasphemy, encapsulated the transformation of Italians from devout Catholics into fervent consumerists. Across Italy, the miracolo drained small towns of their young, who sought work or an education away from the rural microcosms in which they had been raised. With the gradual diffusion of the television set, new desires started creeping their way even into remote villages like Andreis: on screen was an alternative to the poverty, hard labor, and conservative sexual mores of their world. Men and women from Andreis, too, and from the other villages of the Valcellina—the alpine valley above which Andreis is nestled—began to leave. Most found work in the nearby city of Pordenone, where hundreds became employed at the Zanussi-Rex factory, assembling dishwashers, ovens, and other appliances they had likely never seen before, and that only years later they would be able to afford. Federico himself worked, briefly, at the Zanussi-Rex: it was the first of the (few) jobs that his relatives sought out for him, and that he was unable and unwilling to retain for longer than a week, before his chronic insubordination got him fired.

Almost unnoticed, local cultures that had taken shape over several centuries came undone during the few years of the miracolo. Since the fall of the Western Roman Empire, towns and cities separated only by few miles had gradually developed increasingly unique customs and specific dialects, which, due to their almost exclusively oral practice, were naturally very malleable. The common ancestor of these dialects was not Italian but Latin, which would remain the lingua franca of learned Europeans well into the 17th century. According to some estimates, as late as 1861, when Italy was unified under a single flag and a single state, less than three percent of the population spoke Italian.

I would write my first poems in Italian, remembers Federico, because when I went to school in Andreis the teachers would beat us and tell us that speaking our dialect was a sin, and that we’d go to Hell (there was only one priest in Andreis and he too would only speak Italian). Even after the fall of the fascist regime, state and religious institutions treated local identities as a subversive threat and openly sought to conform them to a national standard. But it was with the advent of the TV that Italian, the official language of the state, became the actual language spoken by all Italians. Language was no longer made in the public square, in the tavern, in the household; it was no longer a thing between you and I and our neighbors, but something between one and a nation.

Pasolini, perhaps the only author truly revered by Federico, although one he never met, had spent his childhood in a village a mere fifty miles from Andreis, and had been an outspoken advocate of the expressive potential and literary dignity of dialects in the face of linguistic homogenization. As he put it in a speech delivered during a fundraiser event organized by the Italian Communist Party, in the summer of 1974, and later published under the title “Genocide,”

All of Italy . . . had its own regional or local tradition of a lively language . . . that was regenerated constantly by new inventions . . . to which everybody contributed, day after day; each evening a new expression was born, out of unforeseen combinations of words, out of individual or collective jokes: there was a marvelous linguistic life.

La muart

There was a marvelous material life, too. Virtually every object from the largest to the smallest was the product of artisans who crafted it according to the technique and taste inherited from their community, if not directly from their family. In this economically precarious world, which could hardly afford luxuries, beauty was acutely felt and painstakingly pursued, even if this meant inscribing it in the few objects in one’s possession. Here, for example, is Federico describing a childhood toy:

How dear I held

the most beautiful gift my grandpa ever gave me:

a wooden log twenty inches long

with two holes to resemble a pair of eyes.

A wooden doll

that cost nothing.

My cousin and I

baptized him at the fountain.

Màcheri, we named him.

We’d take him out for strolls

and when his belly hurt

we’d prepare him heated compresses,

we’d give him chamomile tea,

we’d make him burp with a couple of pats on the back.

How dear I held that first friend,

perhaps the only one.

Màcheri, time passes for everyone.

Federico was born in the twilight of a rural civilization that, although at the time still perfectly preserved in isolated nooks such as Andreis, had in fact begun to fade inexorably. As if to seal its definitive disappearance, in the early 2000s, the town administration of Andreis inaugurated the Museo dell’Arte e della Civiltà Contadina, a small and well-curated museum dedicated to rural art and civilization. On our first morning in Andreis, Dodo and I found it closed, but later, after calling my grandmother Lida to ask for the janitor’s address and knocking at his door, we’re let in. The museum occupies three floors, each consisting of a single large room, and it is filled with a wealth of beautiful artifacts of all sorts, rescued from abandoned storages or donated by the inhabitants of the town. Here is a pair of scarpètes, hand-sewn, soft cloth Sunday shoes; here a bride’s wedding dress—black, according to local tradition; here a crucifix called la Pašion, which was paraded around the village on Holy Friday, and from whose arms hang several small wooden icons, each representing an aspect of daily life: the sun, the moon, a woman’s dress, a cup, a water jug, a rooster, and, of course, work tools. A corner is dedicated to my great-grandfather Bepi and his brother Vigj, the town bakers famous for their biscuits, called tortiglioni, whose recipe has been lost. In another corner, three cràceles—large wooden clappers, or noisemakers, which on Holy Friday substituted the bells that had gone silent in mourning for the death of Christ.

On the third and last floor, suddenly, I feel dizzy. Inexplicably agitated among the beauty of these relics, I stop listening to the janitor’s melodious voice and to his meticulous explanations. The wonder with which I’ve glanced at all these objects has morphed into a strange sense of loss. If my grandma Lida hadn’t been the storyteller that she is, perhaps these old artifacts would not speak to me so loudly as they do today. But in each of them I see her, a child with too many duties, and with only scarce but sacred joys. (The visit, meanwhile, is over: I let Dodo and our guide return downstairs, gesturing that I will join them in a moment). Alone, I stand before a glass case holding a collection of simple, wooden playthings that children like my grandmother must have prized immensely: spinning tops, a rough-hewn doll and her little wooden cradle, a fragile-looking sled.

At once I understand that Federico’s obsession with death was not only an individual longing, but a collective experience. Every Andreian of his age lived with the sense that they would be the last of their kind. Sure, some of the many abandoned homes have been restructured and converted into Airbnbs, and in the summer months the town repopulates with tourists and with the descendants of emigrants. A young couple or two, sick of city life and in search of fresh air and a backyard, have even moved here. But the ties with the past have been severed irreversibly. And in ten, twenty years, when my grandmother’s generation is gone, the world preserved in this room, already so distant, will have lost its last witnesses. “All these artisans are dead,” the elderly janitor tells me, standing by the doorway, as though he had guessed my thoughts.

Wooden stamp for butter. Andreis, early 20th century. Courtesy of Andreis’s Museum of Rural Art and Civilization.

And when the blackbird / has lost its voice / suddenly, how cold / is the valley.

Andreis stands underneath the massive Mount Raut. In the Andreian imagination, Raut holds as prominent a place in the cosmos as the sun or the sky, and has become the object of fairy tales and popular wisdom. So disproportionate does this huge, rocky mass appear compared to the small settlement beneath it, that the existence of the latter’s inhabitants can feel as merely peripheral or incidental to its geological permanence. As Federico put it: Under the Raut / we cry / we laugh / we live / we die / we curse / we sing / we fall / we get back on our feet / we run away/ we return. On the side of Andreis opposite of mount Raut, past a winding road carved into the flank of the Molassa mountain, lies the slightly more populous town of Barcis. Until the 1990s, when three tunnels were drilled according to modern safety standards, the Molassa road was the only way to get in and out of Andreis via car. At several points, the road was so narrow that it only (and hardly) allowed one vehicle at a time to pass. More than once, before a balustrade was finally installed, the bus that connected Andreis to Barcis (with a single trip per day) got stuck on the edge of the precipice. The driver’s drinking habits, apparently, facilitated this occurrence.

In the opposite direction, descending into the lower side of the valley, lies Montereale. Now a rather anonymous small town pierced through by a sidewalkless road, in the 16th century Montereale had been the home of Domenico Scandella, known as Menocchio: a heretic miller who, blending peasant beliefs, Reformation attitudes, and ideas gathered from the readings of forbidden books, had devised his own cosmogony, and, in fact, his own version of Christianity—a story Carlo Ginzburg unearthed from judicial records and told in his seminal micro-history work, The Cheese and the Worms.

Had Menocchio kept his theories to himself, today we would probably know nothing of his extraordinary vision of the universe. But, like Federico Tavan, Menocchio was a boisterous man who had no respect for authority and no interest in a respectable reputation: he was denounced by a fellow inhabitant of Montereale, brought before the Inquisition, and tried for heresy. During the trial he seized the opportunity granted by his erudite (though ill-disposed) interlocutors to register issues with a number of aspects of Catholicism: he had doubts about the virginity of Mary; the entire social order seemed to him unjust and oppressive towards the poor, especially as far as the land dominions of the Church were concerned; he detested the intolerance of the Church towards Muslims and Jews; he believed the cosmos to have been born in a state of chaos, rather than in the orderly fashion described in the Book of Genesis (to better explain this view to the baffled inquisitor, he likened angels to worms borne out of putrescent cheese). He was condemned to house arrest, and eventually burned at the stake.

Four centuries apart, Menocchio is Federico’s neighbor, and, in a way, his poetic ancestor. Federico’s only theater play, a short text entitled L’assoluzione (The Absolution), stages a trial in which the culprit is accused of having “refused to live, to operate in reality, in his surroundings; having refused nature, the others—he has absorbed his own false reality, stitching it onto himself and . . . giving to the whole thing moral, philosophical, anatomical justifications!” Aware of the fate that linked him  to Menocchio, Federico titles a short autobiographical text, in which he interviews himself, Interrogatus . . . Respondit . . . (“Questioned . . . He replied . . .”), borrowing the Latin formula with which, in the Inquisition’s judicial records, Menocchio’s answers are introduced.

In the 1980s, Federico met Aldo Colonnello and Rosanna Paroni Bertoja, the founders of Circolo Menocchio, a cultural association based in Montereale and named for the heretic. Circolo Menocchio published Federico’s first chapbooks, printed by Aldo himself. Hoping to make Federico’s poems more accessible, he also provided Italian translations alongside the Andreian originals. Although retired, Aldo still spends every morning at the Circolo, and it is there that I meet him, in a large room walled in by books on four sides. On a long table, which occupies most of the room, still more books, piled onto two, three sedimented layers. In a corner, at a cluttered office desk, sits Aldo.

He is an old man, his face no longer the slightly plump figure I had seen in some photographs. Perhaps not the most technologically savvy octogenarian, I had gathered from our email exchange and phone call; I worried that this meeting might have been an annoyance to him. But his cheerful blue eyes and his jovial smile dispel that impression at a glance. His voice is little more than a whisper, but his memory is remarkable, especially when it comes to Federico’s poems, which he recites by heart, in the original Andreian. His first chance encounter with Federico took place in Andreis, Aldo tells me, when he spoke continuously for two hours about the legends of the Valcellina, and Federico listened without interrupting—a rare occurrence. The next day, Federico appeared in the public library of Montereale, his pockets filled with several densely scribbled pages. He had put into verses everything Aldo had told him on the previous day.

“A poet who is not also a heretic,” Aldo tells me as I lean forward to catch his words, “is not a poet.” As for the miller Menocchio and for Pasolini, heresy was connatured to Federico’s persona—not a mere intellectual exercise. For Pasolini and Federico, furthermore, it was no longer only about the Catholic Church. It had to do, instead, with their inability and unwillingness to participate in the reigning ideologies of their time: petty bourgeois propriety, at first, and the hedonism that crept behind the countercultural movements of the ’60s and ’70s, later, when capitalist power needed “a new kind of subject,” in the words of Pasolini. It may be that today, in the imagination of most, there really is “no alternative” to capitalism—but for Pasolini and for Federico, the erosion of a different, preexisting social fabric was still visible, perceived daily as it conquered one more inch, one more inch of the variegated rural worlds across Italy. “One is not nostalgic for hunger and for thirst,” cries out Federico in the first track of a CD Aldo Colonnello gave me, labeled by hand Federico Tavan’s thoughts, “but for the diversity, the diversity!” Federico had tried to articulate this feeling in a poem titled “Adés” (“Now”), in which he registers the sinister social changes that came alongside material wealth and laxer social codes after the miracolo:

Back then, fascism,

Now I can’t tell

Bread and hunger back then

Everything a sin back then

Now a full belly and extra stuff

Now this mandatory freedom

Bosses and scoldings back then

Now pats on the back

All the fears back then

and singing back then

Now each on our own, just more afraid

Now the voice that dies

“In ’62, there were two alternatives: kill myself, or write poems.”

Federico left Andreis for the first time as an 11-year-old, when his father enrolled him in the Don Bosco boarding school of Pordenone, a Catholic, boys-only institution run by Salesian priests with bitter discipline and an eye for the social rank of their students. For the standards of Andreis, Federico’s family was fairly prosperous, and could afford the tuition. But at the school he was a poor village boy amid the sons of the city’s middle and upper bourgeoisie. Class difference was not the only gap that set Federico apart: he was an unusually sensitive kid who had grown up without friends; he dressed differently and spoke differently, and the twenty miles that separated Andreis from Pordenone were enough to make him something of a foreigner. He became the target of physical abuse and humiliation from his classmates, as well as from the priests—37 ruthless jailers ready to beat a poor mongoloid to a pulp only because he bit his toenails. No, it wasn’t me, the poor mongoloid, . . . he retired right away, whereas I spent a year and a half in there.

From the blunt statements with which Federico later described this period of his life, one can imagine his calvary at the institution. It is there that I started to write, and that I went out of my head. The two moments—writing and suffering, poetry and madness—are inextricable, as he remembers in “Curse the day” (Maledeta chê volta):

Curse the day

I started to write.

Not because

anything’s wrong with writing

but because

that day was cursed

and I was all alone

and I was crying

and that’s why

I started to write.

During these years Federico was hospitalized for the first time, and had to quit school. Accounts of these first episodes are summary, and perhaps purposefully vague: first there was the fainting, then a stubborn stiffness in the neck, which left his face bent obstinately upwards for days on end, then something worse. As an adolescent, between hospitalizations, his family took him on a journey to Lourdes, in the hope that the Virgin Mary might work a miracle on the young boy. Federico’s impression of the journey is fixed in a caustically epigrammatic poem: Hotels / packed one next to the other / and the Pyrenees / over there. / Here / you heal / or you die. / When I went / no one healed.

So, back to Andreis.”

Letter to the little boys and the little girls

Have you ever heard

of the one who walks

with his hands in his pockets

talking to himself

while the stars wink

at each other

as if to mock him.

Some of you


and know lots of things

others whistle


to be ignorant.

Some work

and have great projects

and some



at the holes in their arm

In 1968, Federico was 19. Stuck in Andreis, he followed the students’ protests and the workers’ strikes on TV: Fun! Very fun! From then on, ideally, I side with the extreme left, or rather with all things extreme, even though anatomically speaking I am an anarchist. Individualist. Nihilist, moreover. Then, “fourteen years of nothing”—which is to say, fourteen years of life in Andreis, punctuated only by his unplanned and unpredictable escapes to Milan, where he would stay with Maurizio’s family.

“Sometimes he’d show up for dinner, unannounced,” my uncle tells me, “after he’d managed to hitchhike his way here, who knows, perhaps over the course of a whole day.” Maurizio, Dodo and I are sitting at a table in the backyard of the Molassa tavern, where Federico used to be a regular. “He’d be wearing sandals, a light jacket,” Maurizio continues, “no bag or backpack, no underwear change. Sometimes he’d call us in the middle of the night from a public phone in the Piazza del Duomo, where he’d been talking to strangers and reciting his poems until 4 AM.” Once, as Federico’s visit prolonged indefinitely, Maurizio’s mother, Rosina, found him work at a textile wholesale merchant. He was fired after six days for talking back to his supervisor. They said I was loading merchandise on the wrong trucks, remembers Federico in a short autobiographical text published posthumously, that I was throwing packages down the stairs. So, back to Andreis.

In this period, these fourteen years of “nothing,” Federico wrote and published some of his most iconic poems, such as “Màcheri” or “La Nâf Spâzial.” When he delivered a speech in the town square of Andreis in 1986, however, his reputation still seems to have been connected to his status as a local colorful character, rather than to his poetry. After his speech, the event host walks up to the microphone and, having thanked Federico, reveals that he “actually wanted to introduce Federico as the town poet, because he writes poems . . . but Federico told me not to dare tell you! But now I told you . . .”

Federico’s speech is delivered with theatrical emphasis. Hearing him juggle between popular humor, historical references, and poetic allusions, one is reminded of the miracle of the written word: here is a man who hardly ever left the somber alpine enclave of his village—but who read virtually every single book available in the nearby library of Montereale—speaking with the sophistication of a cosmopolitan orator. Again I think of Menocchio. Of how, without reverence towards mysteries that others in his social condition might have deemed impenetrable, he was able to spin an imaginative theory that accounted for the birth of the universe and the presence of God among humans, indiscriminately finding evidence and inspiration from Mandeville’s Travels and Boccaccio’s uncensored Decameron (two medieval bestsellers if there ever were such a thing), from several Biblical commentaries, and, somewhat bafflingly, from the first Italian translation of the Quran, printed in Venice during his lifetime.

“The language of Andreis is so beautiful—it is the only one that can allow me to speak,” Federico begins in Andreian, before switching to Italian: because the dialect, “with its long, open vowels,” is a “delicate honey that should not be wasted,” but “jealously protected.” “This is not about some kind of sterile autarchy,” he specifies, “but merely a safeguard of our particularity.” As a spoken dialect, he adds, Andreian never acquired the rigidity of official jargons, allowing its speakers to choose between different spellings and pronunciations, or to create their own, without incurring any such thing as a mistake. And isn’t this the best a poet could ask for, I think to myself. Hardly any modern experimental writing practice can match the linguistic freedom that, every now and then, history grants to—or forces upon—those who write in a language that is yet to be canonized.

Translating Federico’s poetry into English directly from the Andreian dialect, the sense of loss I still feel is tremendous: his poems slip through my hands, as though they were untameable birds from which I can only retain a few feathers to show as proof of their splendor. An extraordinary performer, a great part of Federico’s poetic force resides in his intimacy with his own language, of which he is at once a jealous custodian and a proselytizer, and in the fireworks of his explosive delivery—all of which inevitably get lost in print, and doubly lost in translation. Allergic as I have become to the affected, deadpan tone of too many poetry readings in New York, watching my aunt’s VHS recordings of Federico’s dramatic—and yet spontaneous—recital of his poems reminded me why, at some point in my life, I was convinced that nothing quite like poetry could bring us closer to ourselves and to others. Where else can such clear-sightedness exist amid exaltation? Where else does ambiguity produce such disturbing exactitude, or an assonance take on the texture of snow, a rock, a person’s hair? Surely, poetry is not as vivid as life itself: at times, however, it may be more so.

At the cost of making an ass of myself, Federico wrote in Cràceles Cròceles, a poetry collection from 1997, I speak of old / summer evenings / and of crickets and fireflies, / and of cows who take / a shit in the middle of the square / I speak of trifles / and of myself. Somehow, even though Federico’s writing is almost always self-referential, I can’t imagine labeling it as “confessional.” Confession is done in private, whispering. It is at once a complaint and a plea for pity. Federico, instead, treated taboo subjects rowdily, as though yelling from his bathroom window at a passerby. Mental illness, suicidal tendencies, and sexual frustrations were trumpeted out offhandedly, and it was precisely due to this rippling couldn’t-care-less attitude that one could catch a glimpse of the pain lying beneath it. Solemnity and affectation, the plagues of poets, had no place in Federico’s readings. His poems lack complexity only insofar as the words of someone who is unashamedly frank and sincerely moved do not require rhetorical pirouettes, endowed as they often are with the velocity and boltlike precision of an awakened intuition. Performers prompt ridicule if they attempt to mimic the very sentiment their art has failed to ignite in the audience: in Federico’s case, on the contrary, theatricality displaced the spectator’s expectations, generating a synthesis between the man and his words, be it through the jaunty exclamations with which he spoke of tragic fates and tormented existences, or the mournful, lyrical cadence which he reserved for fireflies (fugulìns) and lonely mountain flowers (stèles alpines).

Paris, a suburb of Andreis

The rest of Federico’s speech in the square of Andreis involves a brief history of the town and its language, before moving on to an assessment of their present status. Listing some of the shortcomings and the worrisome tendencies of the town as of late, Federico manages to wrest several laughs from the crowd. But his ultimate estimate is hopeful, as, switching back to Andreian, he invites his audience to “believe in a story that continues.” A short panoramic of his listeners, however, reveals a crowd of elderly men and women, with hardly any children, teenagers, or young adults in sight—a foreboding image I cannot help but call to mind on our last morning in Andreis, as Dodo and I stroll through the streets of the semi-deserted town.

It’s just after dawn. We pass by the dry fountain, the distasteful mural painting by the main square, the former dairy store, the small town hall building, which holds a mosaic portrait of Federico, made up of tiny stones from the Cellina torrent . . . and every few yards, a panel, with another poem by Federico. A sense of suspicion rises in me, as I contemplate this posthumous triumph of Federico’s image and work. Dodo emits a vaguely skeptical hmm, and we exchange a meaningful glance. Still cloaked in the morning’s torpor, we walk up a gravelly path through an overgrown meadow, and reach the recovery center for injured birds—eight large aviaries where falcons, buzzards, howls, and other predatory birds are sheltered for recovery before being released back into the wild. Only one of them, a golden eagle, has been there for as long as I can remember. As I reach the cage with some anticipation, I see it, still perched on its wooden bar, slowly turning its head and casting its imperious gaze now towards the wall, now towards the rare, deferent visitor. Its left wing is trimmed, and hangs lower than the other one. Unable to fly, the eagle will spend the rest of its days in the cage.

I imagine that Federico, too, would come up here from time to time. Looking down from the slope on which the shelter is built, one can see almost the entirety of the town, from the old run-down mill, on the left, to the cemetery at the edge of the woods, on the right. It was perhaps on one of these visits to the shelter that he wrote, or thought, his poem “Andreanuta”: A caged eagle hurts. / It is like seeing a lion at the zoo, / a fish in the tank, / a clown at the circus, / a poet in Andreis. Federico was aware of the limits Andreis had posed to his existence. Greeted as a charming and original poète maudit elsewhere, in his hometown he remained little more than the village fool. And yet Andreis remained the inescapable but beloved center of his life and poetry.

An example: in 1997, photographer Danilo De Marco and Federico embarked on a car journey to Paris. Federico loved Paris, where his eccentricity was perceived as fascinating, rather than as a threat. A shy man in his own way, as many exuberant, attention-seeking people can be, and one for whom women had always been a source of frustrated longing, in Interrogatus . . . Respondit . . . he even alludes to a romantic or sexual affair in the French capital: Since I’m at it, I’d like to thank, for my own secret reasons, a dancer duta cuòssa [all legs and thighs] who lives in Paris, and who did me good. Asked what he thought of Paris, he answered that it is the only city that is more beautiful than Andreis, a place where anything you do feels like making love. But, he added, Paris is a suburb of Andreis.

After our visit to the bird shelter, it’s time to leave. We return to Maurizio’s house to fetch our luggage. He’s in the kitchen, getting ready for work. He’s prepared a pot of coffee, and we all step out into the backyard—an unfenced meadow that expands into the distance, eventually merging into a pine grove that descends towards the torrent. We sit silently for a few minutes, lost in thought. In front of us rises Mount Raut, bathed in sunlight and still wreathed by a few thin shreds of mist. Then an apple falls from a branch, with a thud. As though it were my cue, I ask Maurizio what he thinks of the panels with Federico’s poems that I’ve seen all over town, of the mosaic held inside the town hall, of the giant mural painting in the main square. He shrugs. “They all celebrate him now, here, but when he was alive . . .” He doesn’t finish the sentence, and instead raises his middle finger: when he was alive, most of them, at some point, told him to fuck off, once and for all. “But he did find some true friends, mostly outside of town,” he adds. One of them, in fact, lives right in front of Maurizio’s house: his name is Andrea Comina. Andrea met Federico in the late ’90s, after winning the Federico Tavan Prize, a one-off literary prize Federico instituted in his own name, since, he’d say, he’d rather be commemorated while he was still alive.

By the early 2000s, Federico Tavan had become something of a celebrity in the literary scene of his region, which saw in him a champion of their underrepresented language, and the sole writer who could live up to Pasolini’s legacy. He was invited to read in Milan and in Bologna, and even made an appearance on Italy’s most popular talk show, the Maurizio Costanzo Show. “That was the beginning of the end,” Andrea Comina told me, noting with a sigh that the journey to Rome, and the hectic experience in the television studios, marked a point of no return for his already fragile mental health. At the time, Andrea was hosting Federico, since the latter’s house had gone in disrepair. “He stayed with me for a few months, until, one day, while I was out on a mountain trail, I got a call . . .” In one of his ever more frequent psychotic episodes, Federico had wrecked and flooded Andrea’s house.

Andrea and Federico remained friends after the incident, and in 2006 they co-authored one of the last texts that Federico would ever write, a short story in which Fidel Castro decides to invade Andreis. But in the last decade popularity had also brought new friends, and it had become harder to distinguish friends from “friends.” After Federico passed away, some of these friends turned against each other with accusations of having exploited his image, of having neglected him during the last and hardest period of his life, of having, posthumously, gentrified his irreducible diversity and dissent, rendering it pitiful, innocuous.

On the occasion of an institutional commemoration of Federico’s work, organized by the city administration of Pordenone just months after Federico’s death, some of them decided to stage a protest. These were members of the anarchist collective called Coletif Chialtres, with whom Federico had been involved for several years, taking part in the squatting of a community center in Udine between 1989 and 1995, and contributing his thoughts and poetry to the collective’s print publication. Feeling that this insurgent aspect of Federico’s personality had been omitted during the institutional sanctification of the poet, on the day of the commemoration, Coletif Chialtres handed out flyers that read, half in Friulian dialect and half in Italian: FEDERICO TAVAN  SUICIDED BY THE CULTURE INDUSTRY  IN THE LAST YEARS OF HIS LIFE  NORMALIZED BY HIS INTELLECTUAL ‘FRIENDS’ MURDERED IN HIS VERY DESIRE TO WRITE POETRY  SILENCED AND FINALLY HIDEOUSLY ANNIHILATED BY MEANS OF PSYCHIATRY. Below this emphatic headline, a few terse verses from Federico: You’ve made me become / normal / you huge sons of bitches /  . . . I can no longer act / like a madman / and inside, the madman / dies. Just as he had started writing in order not to die, now, in order not to die, he stopped writing.  “Words make me nauseous,” he wrote to a friend, in a letter published in 2007, “and so do literary evenings. The last poems I read in public gave me dry heaves.” So, silence, “at the cost of isolating completely.” The psychiatric hospital of Sacile. And, in the end, Andreis.

The person has to disappear in order for the POET to remain. Even though they are the same thing.”

We drive down the winding road, leaving Andreis behind us. After a few minutes, as we approach the town of Montereale, I almost miss a stop sign, and brake abruptly.  The tires screech, Dodo twitches uncomfortably. He offers to take the wheel, in case I’m still feeling sleepy. I decline, promising I’m wide awake. But it is true that I’m distracted. The people and places I’ve encountered during the last three days keep flowing back before my eyes. As usually happens when one probes any subject in greater depth, I have more questions now than when I began. If at first I had a concise, finite image of Federico—“a local poet, kind of crazy, an anarchist”—now I can’t help but see the intricate patterns that compose that picture.

A large cast of characters now looms behind him, each as constitutive of the life that I have traveled up here to investigate: his mother Cosetta; the witch Giacomina; the black-clad priests at the Don Bosco school; the teenage boys who taunted him and abused him; his first unrequited love (a young middle school teacher); the librarian Aldo Colonnello; the other Friulian poets who recognized his talent; the lunatics, drunkards, wretches, and outcasts of Andreis that he celebrated in his ode to the abject, “The poet of sewer rats”; the famous writers and theater actors who fell in love with his work; an anonymous lover which he apparently had in Pordenone (a revelation Maurizio made to me, smiling affectionately, moments before we left); the townsfolk who despised him, and the anarchist collective where he must have found some degree of affinity, but which seems to have abandoned him in the last years of his life. On one hand there is this crowd, this complexity of viewpoints, of discordant memories, of material and immaterial traces, all of which, in their irreconcilable chaos, make up the divinely coherent, unfathomable maze of a life. The alternative to this tangle of clues and impressions is the mural painting in the town square, which keeps appearing in my thoughts as I launch the car along the highway. On that wall, Federico is an icon, or worse, a local specialty—something the town can flaunt to the occasional tourists who visit it, in the interval between a hike and a dish of polenta e frico. The boundary between tribute and exploitation—though not necessarily monetary—is hard to trace. Since 2013, when Federico died, the town has branded itself as the home of the poet and bizarre type Federico Tavan—which is an ironic realization of Federico’s prophecy: If you don’t escape in time / you become Andreis. But things happened in reverse, and his wide-open gaze, constantly watching over the few inhabitants that are left, attests it. It is Andreis that became Federico.

The poet of sewer rats

I am the poet of sewer rats

who smear my hands.

I like the sewer

because it’s underground,

like hell.

I gather them all around me

with their stories that won’t make it into history,

I play the pipe for them

but I don’t lead them to drown.

“Vitorino!” “Present!”

At forty three

with the face of a twenty-year-old

who has suffered

all the evils of this world

(winds Aeolus has let loose)

wooden face carved by pimples

mumbling so he won’t be understood

not even by himself,

sacred eyes fixed

on old images from the asylum.

And then his brother “Vigj!” “Present!”

Broken at thirty

intelligent and engaged

and now “frozen cum

that catching fire becomes hell itself,”

old priests old communists

the taste of his mother

the only woman he’s ever known.

Sewer rats on leave

in the streets of Andreis.

“Barba Mario!”  “Present!”

He’s my age

and yet as old as Raut,

he drags along

with his pain

wearing a smile on his mouth:

“without lungs without heart”

without tales to tell children

in the world he built brick by brick

as a game, as a kid.

And then his brother “Paule!”  “Present!”,

who never leaves home,

to wait better.

Sewer rats in procession:

“Jacu de Prapiere!”  “Present!”

“Tone de Cincju!”  “Present!”

“Petrula!”  “Present!”

“Gidja!”  “Present!”

“Chiel d’Isorz!”  “Present!”

“Fiorino!”  “Present!”

“Vigj de Petìc!”  “Present!”

“Bert the expert!”  “Present!”

with his big secrets

that come from Belgium,

that come from France,

that come from Spain,

old young man folded in on himself,

dark shades to hide his expressions,

suffering from hunger,

suffering from the cold,

suffering from the filth,

suffering from what’s between his legs.

Italian rats

that spoil the landscape

little christs

without a calvary

without a cross

without heaven.

“Tina de li Ribes!”  “Present!”

She scares all the children

down the Colognòn, she screams

her poems, she dusts

a house that doesn’t exist

she hoes a field that doesn’t exist.

Sewer rats photographed

a long time ago

who stick their nose

into the present.

I sing about them

the frost on their hands

fever in the head

silence in the voice,

the exhaustion in their feet

the dead tears,

winter in the balls.

Sewer rats storming out

of all the churches

all the houses

and the taverns

to steal from the garbage

a rotten apple.

All poems by Federico Tavan property of the publishing house Morganti Editori (Italy).


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