The Fassbinder Diaries by James Pate. Civil Coping Mechanisms, $12.95.
Reviewed by Erica Bernheim
Growing up in Italy before the internet, my sister and I maintained meticulous lists of the most ridiculous translations we encountered, translations that were neither literally correct literally nor entirely phonetic. Often, we noticed, there was a food element, something decadent, decaying, or simply just off: the local movie theater showing “Ratty and Ham” (instead of U2’s “Rattle and Hum”), “Porky Coolness” (a strange rendering of salsiccia dolce, or sweet sausage). Coincidentally, the pig—both as animal and symbol and consumable object—features heavily throughout The Fassbinder Diaries, James Pate’s 2013 collection of “filmic poetry.” Upon its publication, The Fassbinder Diaries received well-deserved attention from a number of readers and critics who praised the wide scope of Pate’s lens as well as the generosity of his allusiveness, the pop culture references made both familiar and ominous throughout the text. In a Montevidayo post, Johannes Goransson alludes to Pate’s formative years in Memphis, a city which evokes crime and decay and a specific type of Southern grittiness replacing the more straightforward gothic tropes. In this instance, as in Fassbinder’s oeuvre, realism can become much more horrifying than the imagined.
By structuring this collection around the notion of the late director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the author of this collection establishes himself either as someone who really likes Fassbinder, or—more interestingly— as someone considering what it means to be perceived as someone who likes Fassbinder. Pate is not writing exclusively about the films; he is writing about the experience of watching them, whether in the first or the third person, his words often mimicking the techniques in the films themselves. The Fassbinder Diaries is a text about art, cinematic and problematic, exclusionary, and contradictory. We are inside the movies and then we are clearly outside of them outside, floating in the meta, “the Catonic Room” (“U-Bahn”), and we are navigating the territory as newly released synesthesiac agoraphobics or clostraphiles: “I hear, among other things, your fingers with their crowns of blood.” Each poem is a striation; the book is the muscle, pulsing with energy perverse and erotic, as we are never loved exactly the right way, the aforementioned compromise cum exploitation, the magnetic boomerang-esque projection of the idea: “The figure without hair probes part of its thinner shoots into the soft patches of the figure without brains and the figure with only a few branches of meat curls around the figure that consists of pink mist” (“Exhibit x:”).
“Return of the Holy Beasts” is where, for me, The Fassbinder Diaries navigates the most surprising territory. We have a clear sense of the speaker, even as s/he shifts between ages, times, locations, (perhaps more reminiscent of Orlando than Fassbinder in places), but anchored to the banal as a way of navigating and, ultimately, moving towards nowhere. Some of the questions this collection anticipates are also banal: the difference between poem and prose poem, the (auto) biography and its value as artifact, and Pate seems well-aware of how such territories have been previously broached. For instance, in “Imperial Tangos,” as the entire poem reads: “The endless boulevards extend among endless extractions.” Precisely half as long as Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro,” in this poem Pate is less concerned with Imagism than with the machinations of readers and critics, eternally bound to finding meaning and following all possible paths in a text in search of that elusive signifying, something to be proven, something victorious.
While rereading this text, I thought of that distance between translation and original, the humor that comes not necessarily from a joke or utterance, but from the mere presence of a word where it is not supposed to be. There must be a long German word that encapsulates this, and if so, I have little doubt that Pate, as Ken Baumann says, “gets it,” but keeps it from his readers. Throughout the entire collection, the diary motif returns, as does the idea of reading on more than one level. In “The Double Life of Mick Jagger,” we enter the culmination of the doubling, although it explicates little for the reader. The doubling is a complication, rather than an explication, a wrinkle rather than a clean crease. The images throughout the collection are stacked, fitting tightly together, but allowing for the unexpected. In an earlier essay about Fassbinder’s fourteen hour film, Berlin Alexanderplatz, Pate himself describes the work as, “cavernous and roomy and full of echoes and a dizzying amount of characters wander through it.” This effect is certainly present in The Fassbinder Diaries, and as the collection resists the human impulse towards classification, it also reflects characteristics from Fassbinder’s films, creating a connection where we would expect one to be.
Part Two of Pate’s collection veers from reimaginings of Fassbinder’s daily schedules and into a consideration of his “first theatrical production at a farm in southern Germany.” The seven poems in this section position the aforementioned pig against humans (“The pig has a human wail and the pig has a human tongue”) and also place the human speaker in their domain: “I am fond of pig parties. / I have been to many pig parties” (from “Pig Knot”). These pigs are not Mina Loy’s “Pig Cupid,” yet they are immersed in a sort of erotic garbage, rooting in search of something unspeakable and unnamable. Animals show up later in “Dream of the varying Pork Cloud,” an ominous poem which personifies dreams and ends with possible dream interpretations of mice, rats, tigers, and panthers, ultimately foregrounding the ridiculousness of the idea of trying to define or decipher one’s own dream.
The Fassbinder Diaries ends not only with the final entries in the imagined diary, but with the reprise of an eight-question quiz which appeared earlier in the text. In the earlier version, Fassbinder is the subject of the questions, which begin with his birthplace and end with his death and an examination of it. In the second version of the quiz, it’s Querelle (the protagonist in Fassbinder’s final film, released posthumously in 1982). I read this as the inevitable conflation of one’s own life with one’s creative work, the desire on the part of the audience to substitute the artist for the protagonist, particularly when death is involved. This is also another type of translation. Fassbinder is dead; long live his diaries.