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Unfit for the Front Line

Giorgio de Chirico

Translated from the Italian by Stefania Heim

In 1916, during the First World War, the painter Giorgio de Chirico returned from living abroad in Paris to enlist in the Italian army. He was stationed in the north in Ferrara, where after a medical examination he was determined unfit for the front line and consequently worked as a non combatant at a desk, eventually spending the majority of his time in “a kind of hospital, or rather convalescent home.”

This wartime period in Ferrara was to be a particularly productive creative and intellectual period for him, as he notes in his memoirs:

I began to paint again. The appearance of Ferrara, one of the most beautiful cities in Italy, had impressed me, but what struck me most of all and inspired me on the metaphysical side, the manner in which I was working then, were certain aspects of Ferrara interiors, certain windows, shops, houses, districts, such as the ancient ghetto, where you could find certain sweets and biscuits with remarkably metaphysical and strange shapes. To this period belong the so-called “metaphysical interiors,” which I then continued to paint, with some variations, and still paint now. At the same time I read a great deal and wrote some poems.

Most accounts attribute Italy’s offer of amnesty for military deserters as the motivation for de Chirico’s return. In his memoirs though, de Chirico presents a counter narrative, comparing his determination to that of the poet and critic Guillaume Appollinare, whom de Chirico had befriended in Paris, and who was an early champion of his metaphysical paintings. De Chirico believes Appollinare’s rush to the frontline was not “so much for love of France as many ingenious people believe, but because his origins were very complicated and obscure. He was of Polish origin; that is, his mother was Polish, but he was born in Italy, in Rome.... As a result he was yearning to belong to one country, one race, to have a proper passport.” De Chirico himself was of slightly less complicated origins—an Italian born in Greece, he studied in Germany, returning to Italy in his early twenties—but with Appollinare shared “that kind of modesty and shame due to being born in one country while possessing the nationality of another.”

Whatever the true motive or, more likely, combination of motives for de Chirico’s enlistment, in Ferrara he shifted to writing his verse in his native tongue: Italian. The poems from this period share some of the imagery of his paintings, such as The Disquieting Muses and Melancholia—deserted plazas, closed shutters, and towns full of statues and shadows. The dedicatees of the poems also seem to celebrate or at the very least commemorate, the artistic peers of his homeland. There is a poem for the lyrical poet Corrado Govoni, which begins in exalted praise: “In the city where they hail him among a thousand statues on pedestals.” Two poems are dedicated to the painter Carlo Carrà, whom de Chirico met and painted with in the hospital.

Writing of Carrà much later in his memoir, any affection has faded, and de Chirico accuses Carrà of attempting to hijack his painting style “probably in the hope of persuading his contemporaries that he was the one and only inventor of metaphysical painting, while I in fact was one of his obscure and modest imitators.” And, as if to leave no doubt of his true feelings or artistic historical lineages: “Not everyone knows that Carrá plagiarized in an unpleasant way some of my metaphysical paintings which he saw me paint in a military hospital in Ferrara during the First World War.”

Though de Chirico may not be as well-known for his writing of what he characterizes as “some poems,” he did compose poems throughout his life (as well as the novel, Hebdomeros, which was published in 1929). We also know that he certainly valued his poems enough to correspond with Jean Paulhan, the director of the Nouvelle Revue Français, in 1937, inquiring about publishing some of his “numerous unpublished poems.”
—Brett Fletcher Lauer


(The perfect painter recites this prayer every morning, before beginning to work and on his knees before his easel.)

My Lord make it so that my craft as a painter
Is always further perfected.
Make it my Lord that in the means of pictorial material
I progress until the last day of my life.
Give me, my Lord, intelligence, force, and will
To always improve my emulsions.

That they may become ever more helpful.
That they may give to the material of my painting
Always greater transparency and density,
Always greater splendor and fluidity.

Make it my Lord that I may regive to painting the luster
That for almost a century it has lacked
And therefore my Lord help me before and above all
To resolve the pictorial problems of my art,
Since metaphysical and spiritual problems
Are today the concern of critics and intellectuals!


for Carlo Carrà

                        O Quetzalcoatl
Strident rigid banner of zinc
black above the roof tiles of my paternal
house, which I will never see again.
Magnetic pole in the snowy air.
On the sidewalk white with dust and cold,
étrange jouet, of my already far-off
I think of a city in Alaska on a winter
morning, white below the white
mountains, near the dark
I think about a packet-boat taking coal in Tenerife
on a warm September afternoon and then steaming off
toward the ports of old Europe.
And in this hour of grace we don’t remember
the spring, destroying storm,
cyclone of love and of death.
Winter will come loosely dressed with a Browning automatic
in the pocket of its trousers.
“Vous ne fûtes jamais en Italie Madame?”
And you Piedmontese engineer, constructor of new
railway lines, why are you so melancholy today?
That America was not a part of Asia
no one suspected until that evening in 1513
when from the highlands of Panama Balboa saw
the vast Pacific Ocean and understood that the world
discovered was truly
A new world.

for Carlo Carrà, the painter with the seven levels

I set up the beautiful games
In the gardens between the gates
Seraphic mediators. Who won the game? In the packet-boat café they bore in
triumph the president in alpaca.
There was a terrible chest of drawers and a never-before-seen animal speaking
in the street.
I am sleeping. The image comes to me of shadowy trees seen from the corridor
of a house I lived in as a boy.
Someone was calling me from the other room.

I pushed the motorboat near the promontory. It was afternoon, friends. The sea
all boiling. The workshops and the mines were smoking on the jagged rocks of
the coast. A metaphysician in a pink sweater slept under a pine tree. Colorful
tin birds were moving about the beach.
—I gambled soul and happiness. He remained for a long time without moving
a die. The game was impossible. We went out because the air was already
beginning to blacken. In the street, suddenly, I thought of that box of those
bright and multicolored things abandoned alone in the terrifying solitude of
the rental property.

The hurricane breaks out. Where have you led me O dreadful destiny?
I look all around me at the marvels positioned on spring’s terrible stages. Each
booth contains a ghost. I discover them one after another shifting the curtains.
—I am the survivor and the unborn.
I carry the diver’s helmet. My brain’s throbbing shatters into many little
bubbles on the lacquered platform of my seventh ceiling.
The sky is a mosquito net of iron thread.
The shipyards no longer smoke.
Farewell days of tired bliss.
The shutters are closed. The doors barred.
Everywhere is the wait and the gathering.


On this April afternoon, while the idiot almond trees are not the only ones tossing the flowers of promises, I want to affix onto the windows and door of my house the banner of the newly established publicly traded company of which I am the principle shareholder.

My room is a beautiful vessel in which I can take adventurous voyages worthy of a headstrong explorer.

In the anteroom the revenants crowd.

What do they do while I can’t see them? While the wall’s motionless curtain remains drawn between them and me? Nobody could tell me. Whenever, curious, I leave my work and approach on the tips of my slippers that half- closed door and look into the mystery of that anteroom they always appear in the same natural poses. True still lifes.

It is the terrible naturalness, the inexorable logic that each object—destined by the immutable laws of gravity to remain on the earth’s crust—carries within, printed on its Center.

But when I go away and see them again only with my mind’s eye; when I aim my gaze like the metallic dart of a drill on the wall curtain then, oh then every revenant seems still another, and behind every curtain I hear things moving that I’ve never imagined.

Then even the natural pose of the chess player seated at the meditation table appears to me in all its tremendous spectrality. And from the vine-stitched, gagged, sealed, armored mouth, I hear welling up the most dismal murmuring summoning the companion who at that hour perhaps also sits down there, in some faraway city in the industrial territories beyond the seas. Cities sliced by asphalted and shining streets; beautified by the sunny squares’ perfect quadrants and by piazzas pregnant with shade. Cities where the strident life sings night and day amid the cheerful circle of mines and industrious shipyards, with the dwarfish railroads that climb and run pitching like hasty ants along the cement bastions and on the platforms yellowed by the yellow earth, with the armored trucks filled with the flesh and the blood of the freshly sliced channels. Cities that joust between the metallic scaffolding decked out in blasts of steam, and the sweet symmetry of the long, low workshops wrapped in a belt of large academic windows; curled up into herds beneath the noontide heat; kept awake by the solemn sentry of the tall chimneys continually spewing thick, dark clouds that slowly fade in a most comforting premier between the city and the sky turbid with heat where up above nostalgic families of bald-necked birds of prey trace tired spirals circling without rest...

Then I, too, feel beaten by all that distance and fatally as though pressed by the plaster hand of some inexorable ghost who would wake me, I fold beneath the contractions of an imminent birth...

Then the great metaphysical paintings go, the hermetic visions squared for populous cities of faraway continents.

The great river of the idiot crowd will filter them forward without trembling for the terrible mystery frozen within the frames’ rectangles...

But then as centuries will have followed centuries and the new mechanics will have plotted new metal laces, sketched out new complications for the ossified exhaustion of the dead planet, my name, murmured within tribes chosen by the future, will be the sweetest emotion to the brother who I will never know but who will carry stamped in his eyes that strange and tremendous longing that in this faraway today burns my heart and brain, and shakes my weary body with rape, and blackens the veins across all my flesh with a blood pregnant with bile and tears.


All the houses are empty
Sucked up by the aspirator sky.
All the piazzas deserted.
All the pedestals widows.
The statues—migrated in long
Stone caravans
Toward faraway ports.
—Strange inscriptions crop up at each crossroad.
Gloomy warnings to go no further
“Danger of death”
But even immortality is dead
In this hour without name on the quadrants
Of human time.
Can it be that I am left alone with
The remains of vital warmth at the
Top of my skull?
Can it be that I am left alone with a beat
Surviving in a heart that won’t quiet?
Come back tired bliss of my spent years!
That which I have lost I will never have again.
But in your beautiful hand, oh woman, you hold
The sacred token of eternal youth.


In the city where they hail him among a thousand statues on pedestals
so short it seems they are walking with the hurried citizens.
Onstage everything is mystery...
The mirror on its stand. The picture is not yet finished.
The philosopher sleeps. He bangs himself against the door.
It is the friends; because the sun is already descending, and shadows
already long get longer, and invite
peripatetic friendship.
... He bangs himself against the door. In vain! In vain!...
The obscene foot soldier shrieks from the window:
All night he has been wakeful, watching
the piazza, and the red castle, and the clear river...
and now he sleeps, sleeps, sleeps ... and one must not,
must not wake him!

Brett Fletcher Lauer is the poetry editor of A Public Space. His memoir, Fake Missed Connections: Divorce, Online Dating, and Other Failures (Soft Skull), was published this year.

Stefania Heim is the author of the poetry collection A Table That Goes On for Miles (Switchback). She is a poetry editor at Boston Review and a founding editor of CIRCUMFERENCE: Poetry in Translation.

De Chirico’s poetry was translated with the permission of Fondazione Giorgio e Isa de Chirico, Rome.


About the author

Giorgio de Chirico (1888–1978) was an Italian painter and writer. His early metaphysical paintings were championed and beloved by Apollinaire and Breton and the French Surrealists, and had a profound influence on modern artists and poets. His novel, Hebdomeros (Exact Change), has been called the “the finest work of Surrealist fiction” by the poet John Ashbery.

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