‘Innocent Postcards’: Progressive poetry reflects 20th-century politics and culture
Temporary Basement Fallout Shelter, ca. 1957 / National Archives and Records Administration (public domain)

Author-poet-musician John Pietaro has been a constant, positive force in the ongoing progressive culture of New York City. Hailing from Brooklyn, Pietaro’s passions are equal parts literature, music, workers’ rights, and social activism. He founded the Dissident Arts and Brecht Lives! festivals, and fronts the poetry/punk jazz ensemble the Red Microphone, who regularly record and perform in the New York City area. Pietaro’s latest project, Innocent Postcards: Poetry, Ciphers, Verse, is a collection of poems and verse recalling the 20th-century era of Cold War, cool jazz, and American pop culture.

The collection is thought-provoking, influenced by mid-century jazz and politics that help define the psyche of the author. Pietaro absorbs much inspiration from the 1963 Bill Evans recording Conversations with Myself. In fact, four of the poems found within, “How About You?,” “Round Midnight,” “Love Theme from Spartacus,” and “Blue Monk” all share titles with selections performed on piano by Evans on this particular album.

Jazz runs deep throughout Innocent Postcards, including “At the Cellar Dog.” Describing this Christopher Street nightspot in Greenwich Village, Pietaro writes:

It’s Mulligan and Chet, late-50s cool,
Rivaled by binges and pools of wine.
Two of the morning a Friday’s revel,
Dipping and splashing yet gaming the noise.
A phantom of summer, this splurge of swing…

The jazz-infused themes of Pietaro’s poetry set the scene for the serious, dark subject within—the injustice and ignorance surrounding the Red Scare, McCarthyism, and American Cold War policies. The author delves into the United States arriving at mid-century in a frenzy of misguided anti-socialist and anti-communist fervor which still exists in some form today. “New Birth” is dedicated to the Abraham Lincoln Battalion’s La Quince Brigada, or the 15th Brigade, in the Spanish Civil War, yet ends with our current struggles:

Just begun
This final conflict, the march for reason,
The fight against fascism—

Pietaro covers much ground in this 80-page collection, contributing “A Mountain Chain of Moments,” his reflection on Soviet-era Russian avant-garde poet Vladimir Mayakovsky:

His verse by labor
Broke the mountain chain
This chain of a lifetime’s howling
The rebel who spoke loudest
Whispered where professed,
Scattering links overground,
Writing at the pinnacle of primal hunger.

The author’s artistic influences run deep and wide-ranging. An example here is a poem for the late musician Lou Reed, “Discreet Foundlings of Quiet Places”:

Velvet dragged
Splintered by words
Shredded intention,
Split by narration,
Dull blade of secrets

Baby boomers who grew up during the height of Cold War tensions were often flooded with images and themes depicting the notion of an anti-socialist, pro-capitalist American Dream. Pietaro really tackles this in “Of Heroes and Monsters,” explaining, “En route to the war to end all, capitalism replaced democracy, unleashing a fully armed market over its children…super beings, master spies, space adventures, classic monsters, enemy agents, hot rods, soap opera vampires…Sounds like science-fiction, but guess again…” As for the real fear of atomic war, Pietaro channels playwright Herb Gardner with the poem, “Cold Wars and Some-Thousand Clowns.”

In keeping with the Cold War hype of the 60s and 70s, Pietaro presents declassified quotes from FBI files at the time concerning popular celebrities, rock stars, and novelists of the day. These files would be laughable if one didn’t realize they were taken with utter seriousness by the authorities. In the context of “Louder, Please, My Watch Can’t Hear You,” the author shares how the FBI noted public appearances of the Monkees as “left-wing innovations of a political nature,” while writer Norman Mailer is characterized as an “offbeat crusader for peace” who admitted to being “a leftist.”

In his introduction, Pietaro explains his latest effort is ultimately dedicated to the cultural workers whose creative visions and unceasing activism offered the people a fighting chance during each epoch of institutional repression. For readers who choose to add this collection to their bookshelves, he also reveals the meaning behind the title. The collection is published by Roadside Press, edited by George Wallace and dedicated to Pietaro’s partner and wife, Laurie Towers.

John Pietaro continues to shine in the realm of proletarian literature, and his enthusiasm and support for essential progressive causes never cease. The author not only shares thoughts within these pages, but also his very soul. Some of the poems note time or place where they were composed, adding a layer of intimacy to the creative process. When reading Pietaro, you may feel you are getting to know the man himself, as if you are interacting on a personal level. Innocent Postcards: Poetry, Ciphers, Verse packs a big political and cultural punch in a little book, and in Pietaro’s own words, none of it should serve as comforting nostalgia.

John Pietaro
Innocent Postcards: Poetry, Ciphers, Verse
Roadside Press, 2024, 88 pp.
ISBN-13: 9798869166784
paperback, $15
Available here.

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Anthony Mangos
Anthony Mangos

Anthony Mangos served with the United States Postal Service and is a lifelong union member. As a freelance writer he contributes regularly to various film and literary publications. He resides in Johnstown, Pa., but considers the world as his neighborhood.