Prairie Schooner 78.1 (2004) 195-201
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Gerard Malanga and Anselm Hollo, A Purchase in the White Botanica: The Collected Poetry of Piero Heliczer, Granary Books
As the jacket for this volume notes, the poet and filmmaker Piero Heliczer was born in Rome, Italy in 1937 and died in Preaux du Perche, France in 1993. His books of poems include i dreamt i shot arrows in my amazon bra and the first battle of the marne, both of which were printed and published by his own press, Dead Language. Another key volume, the soap opera, a collection with illustrations by Andy Warhol, Wallace Berman, Jack Smith, and others, was published in London by Trigram Press in 1967. On-screen as an actor at the age of five, Piero was a child star in the Fascist film Bengasi (1942). Much later in his career, he performed in a very different sort of film, Jack Smith's underground classic Flaming Creatures (1963). As a filmmaker in his own right, Heliczer made such classic experimental film as The Autumn Feast, Satisfaction, Venus in Furs, Joan of Arc and Dirt. The present volume, edited by Gerard Malanga and Anselm Hollo, brings back into print all of Heliczer's published poetry, supplemented with an extensive illustrated biographical interview with Heliczer's half-sister Marisabina Russo-Stark.
So much for the bare facts. Heliczer's legacy as poet is admittedly limited, at least in terms of his lifetime's output; this slim volume clocks in at a minimal 129 pages, preserving entirely Heliczer's eccentric punctuation, spelling, and syntax. But behind this slight body of work is a story that is both terrifying and tragic. As a child in Rome, Piero was fascinated by the cinema and began hanging around the giant film studio built by Mussolini, Cinecitta; he won his key role in Bengasi at an open audition against several thousand competitors. In the film, Piero, then all of five years old, portrayed the ideal Fascist youth: swarthy, adorable, dedicated to Il Duce, and handy with a submachine gun (this image appears in the film's poster). Bengasi was an enormous commercial hit in Europe, and for a while, life for the Heliczers was good. [End Page 195]
But the Heliczers were Jewish, and despite Piero's poster boy fame, the family gradually became more and more of a public liability. In a pathetic attempt to protect his wife and children from the Holocaust, Jacob Heliczer, Piero's father, saw to it that his family converted to Catholicism before the outbreak of the war. Predictably, this was not enough to appease the authorities. Before long, Jacob was detained in a holding camp and tagged for deportation to Germany. After numerous escapes and heroic service as a member of the Italian Resistance, Jacob was tortured to death by the Gestapo, who had come to Italy to speed up the deportation process of Jews. During this time, Heliczer's mother, Sabina, and his brother, Bobby, had managed to elude the authorities, but were eventually captured through the efforts of an informer. In a remarkably sadistic gesture, the Gestapo forced the now seven-year-old Piero to identify his father's body in the morgue, as Sabina was sick in a hospital at the time. The soldiers had gouged out his father's eyes and brutally mutilated his body. The experience marked Piero for the rest of his life.
With the liberation of Italy, Sabina hitched back to Rome with her two sons and reclaimed the family apartment. One of Sabina's sisters had survived Auschwitz; Sabina's mother had managed to live through internment in the Theresienstadt concentration camp. Sabina had yet another sister in the United States, who had fled Italy before the war. Sabina was convinced that she had to flee Italy; only America offered safety for her sons. With ferocious tenacity, Sabina got a menial job at the Rome airport and scanned the visiting dignitaries every day for a possible ticket to the States. Eventually, she convinced a member of...