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Obituary: Piero Heliczer

Tom Raworth
Wednesday 11 August 1993 00:02 BST

Piero Heliczer, poet, film-maker, actor, printer; born Rome 20 June 1937; died Preaux du Perche, Normandy 22 July 1993.

DURING the very early 1960s a door opened briefly into the room of British poetry and for a while the air was breathable. Public readings by Michael Horovitz, Pete Brown, Adrian Mitchell, Libby Houston, Michael Shayer and many others gave energy and hope to a generation bored with verse that seemed without connection to their experience and surroundings. Among the poets from abroad whose contribution to this moment should not be forgotten were the Finnish- born Anselm Hollo, the American David Ball, and Piero Heliczer, who was tragically killed in a road-accident in Normandy two weeks ago.

Heliczer was born in Rome on midsummer's eve, 1937. His mother was Jewish, from Prussia; his father Italian-Polish. Between the ages of four and six he was a child film-star ('Il Piccolo Tucci') after winning a contest for the most typical Italian boy in Rome. He acted with Alida Valli, and in Augusto Genina's Bengasi, which won first prize at Venice in 1942. After the war he was offered parts in Shoeshine, and Rome - Open City, but his mother 'didn't want me to play with the dirty kids from the streets'. The family was in hiding during the last two years of the war.

For a time Piero was secreted in a Catholic orphanage, where he was baptised. His father, a doctor who was a member of the Resistance, was captured, tortured and killed by the Gestapo.

In 1947 he moved to the United States and after attending Forest Hills High School he went to Harvard, which he left suddenly after an aesthetic difference with the authorities about the siting of a statue. By 1956 he was in Paris putting on plays and writing poetry. He began a small press - The Dead Language - hand-printing books, broadsides, and A Pulp Magazine for the Dead Generation, which included early work by Gregory Corso and Angus MacLise. Moving to England for a few years, he married Catharine Cowper, living first in London and then for some time in Brighton, where he made his first film, The Autumn Feast. He listened to William Byrd and Henry Purcell, gave readings around the country, and was an example to the growing small-press network of what could be achieved with very little money.

Back in New York he became involved with the Film-makers Co-operative, acted in Jack Smith's Flaming Creatures and continued making experimental films: Satisfaction, Venus in Furs, Joan of Arc (in which Andy Warhol had a role), and the unfinished three-hour epic Dirt. Another magazine appeared: The Wednesday Paper. After many years the German government awarded him a sum of money in reparation for the death of his father. Heliczer, true to his vision, gave most of it away to fellow artists, using what remained to buy a small house in Normandy to which he would retreat.

For a while, in the 1970s, he lived on a dilapidated house-boat in Amsterdam which was mysteriously scuttled during one of his absences. In 1978 when I visited him he was staying on the worst street in the city, surrounded by books in a storefront that had been a Chinese restaurant the ownership of which was being disputed by two violent gangs.

He survived that, as he had so much else, and moved permanently to Normandy, where he lived simply, selling second-hand books in the local market. It was while travelling on his mobylette to visit his family in Holland that he was killed.

Piero Heliczer's early books, Imprimatur 1281, You Could Hear the Snow Dripping and Falling into the Deer's Mouth, The First Battle of the Marne, have long since disappeared. The Soap Opera, a collection published in London by Trigram Press, with illustrations by Warhol, Wallace Berman and others, although out of print, is well worth searching for. As an American living abroad, he missed inclusion with his contemporaries in such anthologies as The New American Poetry, and as a foreigner he is in (with the honourable exception of Children of Albion) no British anthology of the period. He deserves better.

While his way of life might have been an irritation to the trendy newcomers, the old Norman farmers who, along with the Mayor, attended his funeral were more tolerant. Reporting his death, the village newspaper said that he was 'apprecie pour sa gentillesse et son rire'. He would have liked that.

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