In Search of Mystery

Bernardo Bertolucci was born (in 1940) into a world – and more specifically, a household – of poetry. “I began writing poetry as soon as I could write, when I was about six.” His father, Attilio Bertolucci, was a celebrated poet in his lifetime and beyond; during the 1950s and ‘60s, he edited the important magazine Il gatto selvatico (see the essay in this issue by Sam Rohdie). Bertolucci junior often fondly recalls the visits to his home of another significant poet of those years, this one destined (like Bertolucci himself) for a career in cinema: Pier Paolo Pasolini. In 2005 he told The A.V. Club:

One day – I think I was 14 or 15 – he knocked at the door of our house. I went to open it, and there was this man … That was the first meeting. He was so intense. Soon, later, he came to live in the same building as my family. I was writing poems when I was young, you know, because my father was a poet, so it was absolutely normal to follow my father. At that point, I had a new father, which was Pier Paolo. I was writing, and then I was flying down the stairs to the first floor, knocking at his door, giving him the new poem. He was telling me what he was thinking. In fact, when I was 20 or 21, he introduced me to a publisher.

The book that resulted from this encounter of poets was In cerca del mistero (In Search of Mystery, 1962, untranslated in English), which won Bertolucci the prestigious Viareggio Prize for a first literary work. The translations of the three poems presented here were commissioned from the poet James Greene for PIX (no. 2, January 1997) and published together with the Italian originals, placed in the context of a general appreciation of the director’s cinematic work. The translations are reprinted here with the kind permission of Bernardo Bertolucci, PIX editor/publisher Ilona Halberstadt, James Greene ( and his collaborators, Jonathan Weatherill for the first poem, and Gianmaria Senia for the second and third ( The original poems were written when Bertolucci was, respectively, 15, 18 and 21 years old.

Adrian Martin


“Il bambino e le rane” / “The Boy and the Frogs”

To be a frog, swollen and blissful,
and see in the air
the swallows kiss
now that the elms are
humble green lamps
and the gates are open, the poplars
pillars covered in leaves.

When the boy passes, the frogs
cease their green tortures
from the river bank stretching beyond.
No one on the path
who can hear, no one
to hear a shout or a lament.

The boy alone
me myself
how strange this training for combat.

Bernardo Bertolucci, 1955


“A Pasolini” / “To Pasolini”

Near you, my emotion – shy like a bride –
was the only peep-hole, only spy
of that country modesty here domiciled
which I discover as fragile poetry.

That’s why in your youths I could discern
the treasure of sex being saved;
and in others a fall – betrayed
through a fault not their own:

Those youths whose sharp sensual disposition
only seemed salvation

But if you disappear and, in your verses,
despair is fury, hope is dust,
I can see no other rags for them to live in
than the ancient ones they must,

unless you’re like me, like us,
a communist in soul and skin,
unless you who want to help us can.
Use your rebel passion for the boys betrayed,
if not for us – bourgeois, penitent, dismayed.

Bernardo Bertolucci, 1958


“I cani costieri” / “Coastline Dogs”

Naked enough
to allow you to slip
into unconsciousness:
two dogs came by, two stray
coastline animals
sniffing at our feet.
You laughed then;
you never laugh, made of sea,
when you know I can recall you laughing,
and a sigh spreads its ripples
to erase your sea in your laughter.
Between the walnut tree
and me, the boy
beginning to weigh on you,
was the green of a Filipino sun
and, astonished, the lake
lost in coastline.
Surrounded by the smell of the grass
growing under the plants,
I could astound myself no longer:
happy, grown old,
having abandoned so many things that count.

And they don’t know, they can’t sense
the dogs who are coming back –
they, the motionless oriental larvae,
lovers from a film by Mizoguchi.

Bernardo Bertolucci, 1961


Translations originally published in PIX 2, 1997 edited and published by Ilona Halberstadt copyright PIX and Authors 1997

About the Author

Bernardo Bertolucci

About the Author

Bernardo Bertolucci

Bernardo Bertolucci is an Italian film director and screenwriter.View all posts by Bernardo Bertolucci →