“Mad Dogs of Trieste”

by Janine Pommy Vega
   Janine Pommy Vega’s signature poem was written in Willow, New York, in August 1998 for andy clausen, but its intended audience can be seen as all the fellow travelers of the Beat movement and their compatriots. It can be found in Mad Dogs of Trieste: New & Selected Poems published by Black Sparrow Press in 2000. It is a lament for the passing of a generation of poets and political activists, the “mad dogs of Trieste,” whose “words crept / under the curtains of power, made little changes, / tilted precarious balance, and brought relief.” These poets and political activists “have faded like stories.” It is significant that the poem was written not long after the death of the politically active poet allen ginsberg, who was one of Vega’s mentors.
   It might be assumed that the “Trieste” Vega is referring to is the Caffé Trieste in San Francisco mentioned in ed sanders’s poem “hymn to the rebel cafe,” that was frequented by Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Bob Kaufman, Jack Kerouac, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Harold Norse. Vega herself suggests that the symbolic name is actually in reference to the city in northeastern Italy, Trieste. This city has long been a commercial and cultural hub. It was a free port from 1719 to 1891. This border town was a creative refuge for James Joyce and Rainer Maria Rilke among others. From 1947 to 1954 it was the capital of the Free Territory of Trieste. Thus the “Trieste” of this poem can be seen as a symbolic place that is free from the corruption and philistinism of centrally located and dominating governments. The poem suggests that the “war” between the establishment and the counterculture has taken a turn for the worse. Senseless violence (“kids lobbing cherry bombs into garbage cans”), isolation (“the last hookers heading toward home”), and police brutality (“Cops square off against teenagers in the village square / take the most pliant as lovers, and reroute the rest / into chutes of incarceration”) are now commonplace. The Paris of Vega’s youth, where many Beat poets lived and wrote during the late 1950s and 1960s, is conjured in the poem. Vega reminisces about Les Halles, the colorful wholesale marketplace known as the “stomach of Paris” that was the setting of Émile Zola’s Le Ventre de Paris (1873) and was demolished in 1971 to be turned into a soulless modern shopping center; La Chat Qui Peche (“The Fishing Cat”), the famous Paris jazz club where Miles Davis played and ted joans performed; and Le Chien Que Fume (“The Smoking Dog”), the celebrated Parisian bistro named after a poem by the French surrealist André Breton. But what is truly missing is “The mad dogs of Trieste / we counted on to bring down the dead / and rotting status quo, give a shove here / and there, marauder the fattened and calcified order.” The ambiguous ending of the poem (“your friends my friends nobody left / but the mad dogs of Trieste as we / cover the streets”) suggests that while the older “mad dogs of Trieste” have passed away, their memory can inspire the surviving poets and generations of new poets to take their place.
   Kurt Hemmer

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

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