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An Old Sicilian Song -- Dario Fo

Guest poem submitted by Jayanth Srinivasan :
(Poem #1404) An Old Sicilian Song
 A woman crossing the square slips in the mud
 and falls head over heels.
 Her skirts go over her head
 She shows her bum
 The fools laugh fit to burst and shout dirty words
 The King passes on horseback, the mud makes him slip
 The fine beast and the King roll on the ground
 and in his turn he shows his bum through his torn breeches.
 The fools rush to take off their hats
 Only a madman across the way
 seeing this new and unfamiliar face of power
 can't help laughing his head off.

 The fools chorus at the top of their voices -
 so as to drown the madman's laughter-
 their praise of the great royal bum
 'Oh, magnificent cheeks basking in the sun
 hailed by God, wonderful spheres'
 The fools, because the King has shit himself, for fear,
 begin to praise the stink of the noble motion
 The madman runs up waving a censer
 and sings Te Deum to the King's shit
 and plants a jasmine sprig in it.
 The fools applaud and then by a miracle understand the jape
 and take up stones and sticks
 and make to lynch the mocker.
 But since they know it is great bad luck
 to kill a madman
 protected as they are by the pity of St Francis
 'the great madman of God'
 the fools, impotently watch the pantomime of the madman.
 Later at home, in secret, each one by himself
 remembers the madman's pantomime and laughs.
 They laugh till they pee themselves.
 The fools for a moment forget they are
 fools but only for a moment
 because, alas, madmen are few and far between
 and the fools don't get much chance
 to see their mad, obscene pantomimes.
-- Dario Fo
I'm sending this in as part of the "poems by people more famous for
their prose" theme [ie, some time ago - t.]; the above isn't exactly a
poem by Dario Fo, rather, it's his translation of an old Sicilian folk
song. I found this in the author's note at the beginning of Dario Fo's
"Accidental Death of an Anarchist" (translated into English by Stuart

This was my first Fo play - I had to trek to a remote corner of my
university's main library to find the play, but it was well worth the
effort. It's a short play and very easy to read. The play itself looks
at police corruption and at a larger level, the unaccountability of
figures of authority.

Fo's translation of the poem  is crude, common, and vulgar. Just like
the language in the play. Fo's writing was intentionally coarse - tuned
more to suit the proletariat, rather than the cultured. Fo was
attempting to create awareness among the common people, the masses. But
the language doesn't prevent him from conveying a deep message - the
need to question and speak against the establishment if they're doing
something wrong.

The political turmoil Italy went through a decade after  WWII inspired
Fo to write a series of plays and popular prose - to a large extent, the
students and general public of today can't relate to the kind of
political and social mayhem that the 50s and 60s saw. However, thinking
about it, lots of themes from Fo's work are relevant today too - if it's
not police corruption, it's corruption in big business (Kenneth Lay,
etc.) - unaccountability of public figures and public bodies (Bush(I
couldn't resist:)), the CIA leak being handled as an internal
investigation, WMD evidence ...). All this seems to make the poem all
the more relevant.

There are some other nice things about the poem - it reminded me of the
"Emperor's new clothes" for obvious reasons. Finally, I loved the St.
Francis reference.


71 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Julian Tepper said...

Re: "But the language doesn't prevent him from conveying a deep message
- the need to question and speak against the establishment if they're
doing something wrong."

I don't understand this comment, unless "the fools" represent the

Julian Tepper

Ian Baillieu said...

Mad, foolish and a little obscene. Thus amusing, even
memorable, but hardly a poem, let alone one worthy of
inclusion in the Minstrels canon. Nothing wrong with poem
translations as such, and well-done if the sense and tone of
the original are accurately conveyed, but as poems in their
own right they must be judged in the new language solely.
IMO this translation fails the criteria by which free verse
is distinguishable from prose, so would be better presented
as a short story, like 'The Emperor's New Clothes' to which
Jayanth tellingly refers.

Jayanth Srinivasan said...

From: "Julian Tepper" <jutepper@>

>Re: "But the language doesn't prevent him from conveying a deep message
>- the need to question and speak against the establishment if they're
>doing something wrong."

>I don't understand this comment, unless "the fools" represent the

No - I meant that the king represents the establishment - perhaps in this
poem (or not-exactly-a-poem as Ian points out), the king doesn't do
anything wrong. However, even though the king was less than decorous, the
common people(the fools) continue to praise him. Only the madman made fun of
him. Only the madman had the courage (maybe he didn't require courage, being
mad and all ...) to say anything against the king, even though everyone
wanted to. The message I got from that was "Don't be afraid to make fun (or
speak against) figures of authority - especially if they're doing something
stupid." Also, remember that this was written in the 50s and I'm guessing
people were a little more afraid of speaking their mind in Italy then.


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