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In Becket woods, a poet and his international dust collection

The poet David Giannini says his collection of ordinary dust from around the world is unintentional art in the style of Marcel Duchamp. Scottish dust, Korean dust, Haitian dust and Cuban dust; dust from Mt. Etna, Iranian dust, and Tokyo dust

Becket — I went into the forest to see a poet and his dust.

Up Route 20 the woods flash by in color. Sunlight angles across a marsh; a lake is blinding silver. I control my urge to stop and satisfy my fall picture-taking addiction, feeling poetry everywhere now, instead asking why we love these changing leaves, this obsession with capturing them as their veins are closing, just before they separate from their branch and fall, not long before they turn to dust.

David Giannini, at home, with Mina the cat.
David Giannini, at home, with Mina the cat. Photo: Heather Bellow

I’ve come to the right place for such thoughts. After a laugh with the poet David Giannini over his country-style directions (“the speed limit changes to 35, then to 50, then back to 35…”), I arrive at his doorstep to find two seductive black cats, Maya and Mina, and a glass case containing bottles of ordinary dust from around the world. This would be Giannini’s International Dust Collection; “decomposing matter,” he calls it.

Maya settles into a sunray on the couch while Mina peers inside my open bag. The woodstove is going. I give Maya a belly-rub, wondering how both my southern-bred mother and my Romanian paternal grandmother–whom I never met– had the same procedure when faced with black cats no matter how sweet: spit three times over your left shoulder. I waited until I was home.

Giannini, 68, is an award-winning and prolific poet who ran a small press in New York in the late 1960s, and spent more than 30 years working with the “chronically and severely mentally ill,” teaching, and doing, in earlier years, the odd jobs artists — especially those who live in the country — often must.

The early 1970s grave-digging gig was in Florida, Massachusetts, “the only place we could afford to live,” Giannini says. He was the guy who “smoothed out the inside” after the backhoe dug the grave, he said. It disturbed him, he added, to see “leakage” from an adjacent grave, though he couldn’t say exactly what it was.

Dust installmentMore evidence, I think, as both cats have settled for naps on either side of me, that we are all in this together. Dust is already its own collection, naturally picking up whatever it encounters — hair, cells, dirt, sand, etc. — so even what is corralled and labeled is still a mix.

“And even the dust collection gets dusty,” Giannini says from the kitchen, where he’s making us coffee — French roast with a “dash of hazelnut.”

Sunlight slants through yellow leaves on its way into the house, setting the whole place aglow and making one think of, well, poetry, something Giannini’s mental health work has enriched. “This thinking process called crazy is really neurodiversity,” he says. “The schizophrenic pattern of slamming unrelated bits of thinking and imagery together is juxtaposition. Poetry is made largely of juxtapositions.”

The idea reminded Giannini of the flamingo he once saw standing next to an abandoned high heel pump in a Florida parking lot. He and his wife Pam Bachrach, a psychotherapist, spend three months a year thawing out there. “I hate Florida,” he says. “But we need to go.”

Giannini displays a bottle of Iranian dust. Photo: Heather Bellow
Giannini displays a bottle of Iranian dust. Photo: Heather Bellow

Giannini directs me to his study and opens the closet of bottled wonders with labels like Dust from Hemingway’s House, Cuba, 2012, Dust from Cau Bat, Vietnam, 1996, and Mount St. Helens dust.

From there it goes on to even greater enchantments. We are having trouble finding the bottled pinecone that fell on Boris Pasternak’s grave in Russia. Giannini blames the cats. But there is dust from Mt. Etna, Iranian dust, and Tokyo dust sent to him in the 1970s by a Japanese airline pilot. “It came with an anonymous letter in broken English,” Giannini tells me.

Friends, many of them psychotherapists, collect for him when they travel. I see names of people I know on some bottles. I had no idea what they were up to.

I ask Giannini if he is the first person to come up with this. “Geologists do it all the time,” he says. Something like this, he adds, gesturing at the bottles, makes you ask, “who is really mentally ill?”

The collection began in 1975, while Giannini was caretaking a friend’s home in Stamford, Vermont. He wrote, he read, he shoveled snow. And he realized he didn’t have a hobby. “I saw a dust bunny in the corner, and thought, ‘even a corner collects something’. ”

And when you separate dust, “It’s displaced from its usual locale so that it’s looked at differently. If you went to India right now you would be looked at differently.”

Enter the “anti-art” movements DADA and Fluxus. Giannini says his collection of ordinary dust from around the world is unintentional art in the style of Marcel Duchamp, who in the early 20th century displayed, as art, what he called “ready mades,” everyday objects such as urinals.

Through the high windows, Giannini’s woodpiles (he only heats with wood) are lovingly stacked. Perhaps unintentional art, as well, though sometimes, he says, he stacks them to produce a design in the pile, “a way of honoring the roundness of trees.” His most recent design was the outline of a skeleton key.

In his study an assortment of Giannini's volumes of poetry.
In his study an assortment of Giannini’s volumes of poetry. Photo: Heather Bellow

Giannini was raised in a partly Italian-speaking household by his father, a composer and pianist, an opera-singer grandmother, and his uncle, a painter who studied with Fernand Leger. He says he doesn’t consider himself a visual artist because of the dust collection, and music wasn’t for him. It was words that bewitched him. “I heard the music of words first through Italian.”

In his late teens he knew he was “serious” about poetry.

His dust collection, however, has traveled as an installation to the Yager Museum in Oneonta, New York, Images Cinema in Williamstown, and down the road to the Becket Art Center.

That each sample of dust was collected by a different person, in a different place, has inspired his poetry, which he rises to write between 4-4:30 a.m. every morning, unfailingly, noting the routine discipline needed for the writing craft (“You can’t be waiting around for lightning”), and the use of early morning “dream material.”

“One day I was looking at the bottles, and started thinking that each was the first line of a poem from a different poet.”

From that sprung Tricollage, his idea for a new form.

 

When I hear that

                     serenade in bleu,

I can’t have a life with you; shit no.

The least little sound sets the coyotes walking

 

There we have, from top to bottom, Jack Kerouac, William Bronk, and William Stafford.

“Underneath all the arts is poetry, not as a subject but as an event and primary occurrence in the whole creative process.” His hands go up when he says this. He looks at them. “I get excited,” he says. “I’m an Italian locked in a Danish body.” His mother was Danish.

In a bottle a pinecone from the grave of Boris Pasternak and dust from the home of the English poet William Wordsworth. Photo: Heather Bellow
In a bottle a pinecone from the grave of Boris Pasternak and dust from the home of the English poet William Wordsworth. Photo: Heather Bellow

A cluster of bottles were toppled together, evidence of Mina and Maya’s recent foray into the case. He says this Tricollage form is magical for him. Like the dust bottles, one next to the other, and so on, so too are the poets on his shelves. It all runs together, and it juxtaposes.

We look again for the Pasternak pinecone. Giannini hands me bottles as he kneels in front of the case, searching. As I hold Scottish dust, Korean dust, Haitian dust and Cuban dust, I tell Giannini I’m feeling it: as a kid I spent hours with a test tube of Mount St. Helens ash given to me by one of my father’s patients. “I’m still a kid,” he says.

That’s when I see it, a small pinecone in a bottle with dust and a note inside. He opens it. The cats had broken Pasternak’s own bottle, so Giannini had placed the pinecone with dust from William Wordsworth’s home in England, collected by Helen Redl, a psychologist who used to teach at the former North Adams State College.

'Freeway Quality' LA smog, in a bottle. Photo: Heather Bellow
‘Freeway Quality’ LA smog, in a bottle. Photo: Heather Bellow

The light shifts and my mind swings back to leaves and death and how much we love watching the grand autumn breakdown. I tell Giannini this. He laughs and gestures at the bottles. “This is a way of laughing at death,” he says, handing me another bottle: “Freeway Quality” L.A. Smog, 1980.

But first he warns me. “Don’t uncork it!”

___________

Giannini’s most recent collection, Span of Thread, was reviewed in The Edge, here. Giannini coordinates the Writer’s Read series at rotating locations in South Berkshire county. For more information, check our calendar. If you are interested in reading, contact Giannini at davidgpoet@gmail.com.

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