REVIEWS For Vincenzo Ancona, Mario Fratti and Anne Paolucci, Philip Gambone, Kenneth Gangemi,
In his English versions of the Sicilian Giovanni Meli’s The Origin of the World (1985), Don Chisciotti and Sanciu Panza (1986), and Moral Fables (1988), Gaetano Cipolla emerged as the premier translator of one of Europe’s foremost Enlightenment poets. Now Professor Cipolla has successfully undertaken a project that is an organic development of his indefatigability as president of the Brooklyn-based cultural society Arba Sicula and editor of the literary/cultural journals Arba Sicula and Sicilia Parra: the translation and bilingual publication c/o LEGAS of the first in a planned series of “pueti siculi.”
Justly, the poet inaugurating this venture is Vincenzo Ancona, the Bard of Siculo-Brooklyn (originally from Castellammare del Golfo, Trapani Province). His verses reeled off in cantastorie style are aptly rendered and often refined by a translator eminently equipped to handle the urbane, subtle wit and verbal elegance of an 18th-century aulic poet or the earthiness, down-home lyricism and emotive vicissitudes of a modern immigrant/folk poet.
Accompanying Cipolla’s translation, which gives us a fine sense of Ancona’s orality, are two tapes of the poet reading/reciting/performing his works in Sicilian (some with the spirited participation of Maria Portuese and Antonino Provenzano, himself an “Ameri-Siculo” poet). Although the order of the verses on the tapes differs slightly from that of the printed poems, and while some extraneous pieces are included in the recordings, hearing Ancona’s gravelly voice in all its tonalities (from nostalgic to burlesque, from wistful to histrionic) convinces us that the tradition of folk oral poetry is still very much alive—even in the most sprawling metropolis of this cybernetic-bent country.
Judiciously categorizing Ancona’s corpus poeticum under four headings, Cipolla provides the foci of its coherence: (1) The American Experience; (2) Life in Sicily; (3) Anecdotes; (4) Tales. Such an arrangement makes it clear that Ancona is, first and foremost, a paradox: an urban/immigrant/folk poet who, from “Brucculinu” (the setting for section #1), struggles not only to function in an estranging land, but also to preserve that oral peasant tradition disappearing behind him in Sicily and the recollected agrarian images of his terra, the via crucis of his spiritual survival and very identity (see section #2). Moreover, the insertion of anecdotes and tales, folk poetic forms par excellence, after “Life in Sicily,” represents a reaffirming of Ancona’s transplanted but enduring popolarità (a quality consistently reconfirmed by his smashingly successful performances in Sicilian cultural circles all over New York City, especially in Brooklyn’s Castel del Golfo Social Club).
The editors’ decision to round out each section of the book with a contrasto, the poetic dialogue mode bequeathed to Sicilian and Italian literature by the 13th century Siculo-bard Ciullo d’Alcamo, emphasizes how integrally Ancona is related to the popular and literary tradition of a people that has always thrived on mimesis and dramatico-poetic performance in art and daily life via their passion for verbal cleverness and hair-splitting argumentation. Unfortunately, in their introduction, Chairetakis and Sciorra fall short of substantiating the value(s) of Ancona’s poetry within this tradition.
While the English translation does not restage every moment of the original’s comicality (specifically in the instances when Ancona resorts to macaronics and “Siculish”), Cipolla resolves poetically most of the problems posed by the curious phenomenon of linguistic bastardization that is part and parcel of immigrant alienation (“If I do not learn English soon, I’ll be ruined”—p. 47) and of malaprop humor (e.g., “truvai giobba nta na fatturia”—p. 46). In “Amerisicula” (p. 55) and “Things Happen to Me Even on a Bus” (p. 59), the translator preserves Siculish phrases by integrating them into his climactic rhyming couplets. The former poem, with tongue in cheek (and clenched between the teeth!), describes how “misery loves company” (“mal comune, mezzo gaudio”) among the immigrant neighbors of “Bensinosti” (Bensonhurst), who seem to be losing their battle against linguistico-social isolation:
. . . and if they don’t know English, they can say,
“Sampari spicchi Italia?” and talk away.
In the latter poem, Ancona is boarding a bus after a woman with a voluminous posterior:
As I was climbing up two steps behind her,
I was distracted and kept looking down.
That’s how my face went smack in her backside!
Rhyming English and Siculish in the last two lines, Cipolla injects the proper dose of humor into the poet’s attempt to extricate himself graciously and thus achieves a bombastic collapse:
But then the bus pulled out without ado.
I said, “Amissari!” She replied “Forchiù!”
Cipolla, by opting not to reproduce Ancona’s ababcdcd rhyming octaves as such, has taken the route of many translators of poetry from the Romance languages where “natural” (i.e., grammatical) and unobtrusive rhymes abound as they do not in English (except in cases of heavy Latinate endings like -tion, -ncy, and -ity). But, in Maliditta la lingua, Cipolla’s decision to implement rhyme mostly to round out each octave with a couplet grants him the freedom to render more faithfully Ancona’s poetic moods and nuances and to chart the flow, dips, rises and bumps of the bard’s crinkly, up-and-down-to-earth language.
Cipolla rises to the task no matter what the predominant tone or traditional form Ancona employs. In “The Life I Lead” (p. 77), the poet reflects on all he has lost via emigration and the translator ex-presses the core of that famous Sicilian tragic sense of life:
What living memories, and yet what shambles!
Sometimes I even get the urge to cry.
It feels then like the burning of a knife,
when I review my past. But what is life?
In “The Dawn is Breaking . . .” (p. 91), Ancona’s folk lyricism cum alliteration resounds limpidly in the English version:
I hear the cock call cock-a-doodle-doo,
and in the eastern sky a flame is rising.
The sun appears and spreads abroad its rays
decking the earth with silver and with gold . . .
And, although Cipolla’s rendition of one of Ancona’s most heart-wrenching poems, “Bread from Wheat” (p. 95 f.), lacks some of Ancona’s “folksiness,” the translator fully captures the rhythm, pace, and rugged beauty of this work song/prayer, a ritualistic and mythic evocation of a bygone Sicily.
I sense that Cipolla had the most fun and felt most creatively fulfilled himself in finding the keys to Ancona’s Sicilian wit and gallows humor with all their punch lines and ironic twists of fate and language. Examples of Cipolla’s art in meeting the stiff challenge of translating such conceits are rife throughout Malidittu la lingua.
Anne Paolucci. Gorbachev in Concert (and other Poems) Griffon House Publications, Whitestone, N.Y. 1991. 60 pp.
One of the lesser known fallouts of the changes in world affairs is the promising appearance of Gorbachev as one who inspires poetry. As if by fortunate coincidence Mario Fratti and Anne Paolucci have suc-cumbed to Gorby’s charm.
Mario Fratti, award winning playwright put together an anthology of poems entitled Thank you Gorbachev! The poets range from Katherine Hepburn’s short poem which opens the anthology with:
We need you
Man of the decade
Man of the century
to a Russian pensioner’s lament:
We are 65 now
And you are destroying
Our faith and
You are taking our bread away
After we sacrificed so much
for mother Russia.
There are thanks also from a Rumanian professor, Daniela Gioseffi, and Richard Davidson, a socialist poet. Certainly as Fratti writes in the forward, the anthology is an unusual and unpredictable portrait of the man chosen as a symbol of a new decade.
Anne Paolucci’s Gorbachev in Concert and Other Poems begins with a brief soliloquy, a poem in the human emotions of rage. The poems read like a dialogue the poet has with history, with a personal past, all in a language filled with fresh imagery and the unexpected arrangement of words that keeps one reading.
There are poems to Faulkner, to the universe and to a family album and of course to Gorbachev: Purpuric on his scalp / Set there at some early date / By a brooding fate.
Both volumes bear witness to our times.
The Language We Use Up Here is a collection of stories about a variety of men who happen to be gay. Most live in Boston with their life partners. Philip Gambone thus resists two powerful injunctions: don’t talk about Italian-American family life, and don’t talk about being gay. It is good that he chose to heed neither, because the talking his characters do is well worth hearing. All of the stories refer to language—cliches such as “too much” or “losing it” are transformed into surprising insights. In one story we reconsider “family”: family of origin; gay family; infertile heterosexual couples; lesbian couples who choose pregnancy.
These are stories about belonging. Whether gay or nongay, people yearn for acceptance and love. Yet many of us must overcome the childhood lessons we learned too well: Don’t trust. Don’t talk about your feelings. Adults are often burdened with a habit of avoidance and denial, preventing them from sustaining love and intimacy. These stories are most eloquent when they depict characters trapped in their own repressed feelings, unable to articulate their needs. In “Saying the Truth” two lifelong friends learn to become more honest with each other on a trip to the American Southwest. In “The Words,” Matt’s pal Ellen doesn’t fall for his defensive attacks and keeps to the point Matt is trying to avoid—his fear of losing Brad and what to do about it. “Matt, what does he need to hear from you?” she asks, then tells him, “Come on, Matt. . . . The words. Say the words.” What Gambone’s really after is the cathartic release of emotion through small epiphanies. All of his characters are carrying some nugget of pain or anger or grief—difficult to carry and even more difficult to let go.
The stories are not all seriousness. In “Babushkas,” “Body Work” and others, Gambone offers humorous depictions of gay men with great affection for the people (including, perhaps, himself) he satirizes.
In “Acceptable” Brian’s ex-roommate Janice has a new roommate who pursues Brian at work and falls in love with him. He tries to tell her, “you just cannot fall in love with a guy like me,” to which she retorts, “Is there some law against it?” Gambone confronts stereotypes held by gays as well as anti-gay bias. An especially painful dramatization occurs in the title story, where racial stereotypes are juxtaposed against internalized homophobia. The narrator wants his young lover to be an acceptable form of gay, not to socialize with embarrassing drag queens. What good does it do, Gambone seems to ask, to overcome racism only to oppress people in other ways?
“Enrollment” and “Pallbearer” focus significantly on their narrators’ membership in Italian families. In “Enrollment” the “mixed marriage” of the narrator’s cousin Monica to a Jew is paralleled by the narrator’s own partnership with a Jew. And in “Pallbearer,” Michael’s uncle has died, but a sharper grief is fueled by what no one talks about: a cousin’s impending divorce and Michael’s looming breakup with Clark. When Michael says, “Clark, I just didn’t know how to reach you,” he could be echoing Raphie or his wife or any spouse anywhere faced with a crumbling marriage. But of course Michael and Clark aren’t married, or are they? Gambone gently invites the reader to judge.
The reader becomes so immersed in these men that it’s easy to forget how both American and Italian culture deny that gays exist. Gambone’s characters nearly leap off the page and into the reader’s own world. The sheer fact of their vibrancy will change forever the reader’s awareness of Italian-American men, of gays, and of Italian-American families.
In “The Summer of the Daiquiri” a group of mostly Italian-American gay men speak in bastardized Italian and give themselves colorful names such as Lucrezia della sport and Beatrice Biblioteca; the narrator is dubbed Carlo Masculino-Immaculata. But for all the joking, some serious loss and betrayal is going on, and at the end Carlo wants to scream both at his friends and at his lover, though “with him I can never find the right words for that combination of rage and affection he always brings out in me. Instead, I don’t say anything. But then, I feel the ache of wanting to give him something, of wanting to give something to each one of these men, these men, of wanting to give something to myself: something sharp and certain, the knowledge of our needs.”
Knowledge of our needs is what these stories give us. Read them for the recognition of our common humanity, for the lovely release from silence they bring.
Columbia College, Chicago
Though I’m a fan of the spare, post Modernist style for which Ken Gangemi is famous, I confess to bafflement when I first encountered this ostensible Mexican “travel book,” with its odd array of alphabetic entries (Eggs . . . Guadalajara . . . Pulmonías . . . Young Girls, etc.). But I quickly caught onto his joke: the seemingly haphazard frame is perfect for this whimsical/serious and compressed account of his lengthy motorcycle journey through the federation. And he has the best sensor for serendipity in the business: when I traveled to Mexico I depended on The Volcanoes to ferret out the most savory experiences Mexico has to offer.
Gangemi is a lapidary prose writer: he can’t afford to be careless since he knows that at some level we choose our experiences, and what we select powerfully illuminates our character. Nonsense and trivia (which he loves) interplay with the author’s major and minor epiphanies during his Wander/Bildungsjahr, and each adventure and anecdote yields tantalizing glimpses into his decidedly remote persona. Thus, while we learn about Mexican goats and raincoats, we also gain insight into such deeply personal issues as the narrator’s dedication to “voluntary poverty” (Mexico gave him a distaste for “bourgeois comforts”), his rejection of his scientistic education (Gangemi is an engineer by training), and his unambiguous feelings towards women he meets along the journey. Some of his strongest criticism is levelled at pig-headed forms of Mexican behavior, such as machismo, whose expression on the road nearly killed him a number of times. But anger is not the leading motif: Gangemi patently adores Mexico, not for the sights at which tourists normally goggle, but for the rare, the evanescent, and the sensual. A visit to a young dentista provides this unique insight: “I remember her leaning over me, and the slight smell of perfume. It is not often that a young woman is so close to a man in a non-sexual way. As she leaned over me I could smell her. I could hear her quiet breathing, I could even feel her warmth.”
Dark sides of Mexico are no less provocative: we learn of widespread alcoholism among retired and expatriated Americans: “I was only twenty-four when I lived in Mexico and had no drinking problem, but I observed that the longer I lived there, the more alcohol I consumed.” Poor road signs, Mexico City smog, rotten road maps, and conspicuous consumption amidst devastating poverty all dismay but never sour him on this fascinating country.
Whether he’s fumbling with rudimentary Spanish, feeling his way with Mexican etiquette, distinguishing types of Mexican hummingbirds or people (Oaxacaños, Chiapanecos, Yucatecos, Capitaleños, etc.), or noticing the moon, Gangemi has all the tools for piercing the veil of the ordinary (as always, his training in scientific observation is invaluable). This book is recommended whether you are a veteran traveler, or making your first trip to Mexico, or have no intention of going there at all. Gangemi’s sympathetic insights, from the point of view of a diffident and unthreatening traveler, are the best aids I know for reappraising our southern neighbors.
Barbara Grizzuti Harrison’s book has received much press and is already in paperback. Her by-line keeps surfacing on articles about Italy or Italian America—on Coppola’s Godfather III in Life, on “The Secrets of Italy” in European Travel and Life, and on the Costa Smeralda, which she fatuously calls “La-La Land,” in Travel and Leisure. Yet however muddled and shallow, Harrison’s divagations are a bellweather of yuppie-ish fascination with Italy as a phenomenon of consumption and conversation (pasta and Pavarotti). Italian Days attempts to “explain” Italy to a generation, and such widely circulating claims should be taken seriously. Her book recalls Luigi Barzini’s The Italians published thirty years ago, though his is immeasurably superior to hers.
One would think it hard to write a boring book about Italy. Harrison’s book is dull, and not even dull in a new way. It combines two genres, a travelogue, covering the high points from Milan to Naples, and an autobiographical quest for personal origins that we may call “roots” autobiography. Her knowledge and taste are inadequate to the travelogue, and her emotional courage and powers of self-examination fail her in autobiography. She tries to spice the narration with soap-operatic tales of friends and acquaintances, false intimacies, and a veritable chatter of observations and pronouncements. “The Forum mocks our hopes.” One should think so, but then a little modesty is not such a bad thing. “The ‘sin’ of science is to presuppose that all of reality is knowable and to deny that which we know not theoretically but from direct experience” (211). Does she think she knows from direct experience that the earth goes around the sun? One hundred pages later she is at the doctor’s (320) and two hundred fifty pages later she fears falling seriously ill in Italy (471). Suddenly modern science is no longer a “sin.” Essentially a food-and-travel writer, she wants good food, stirring views, “roots,” and no hassles, all of which her audience wants, except for the “roots,” which puts her on a level above them. But she has reached far beyond her capabilities. Italian Days are long days.
I came to Harrison’s book after reading George Dennis’s Cities and Cemeteries of Etruria (1845) and Rodolpho Lanciani’s Wanderings in the Roman Campagna (1909). These books emerged out of the deeply educated culture of the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie and, whatever else might be said of that society, I can think of no sharper contrast between the sensitivity and inquisitiveness of these learned, adventurous travelers and the contemporary tourist of Italian Days, a person with great pretensions and a thin patina of culture, with an expense account and all Italy before her, complaining of airports, traffic, and hotels, and documenting menus down to the last atom of pasta and droplet of oil. In Dennis and Lanciani, incidents and anecdotes are chosen from a vast trove, and are lingered over so that they reveal the full richness of their historical relations. For Harrison, Italy is a table heaped for consumption, where all things are levelled by the eye of the beholder, like her list of forty-two kinds of ice cream at Giolitti’s. (Grizzutti Harrison likes to list things, and one is reminded that the list is the most primitive form of the gathering of knowledge.) Santa Maria della Pace and a girl in black tights may be found in the same sentence, illustrating that the whole “material world” belongs “to God” (310). “Sitting in the Piazza Navona, eating a gelato, I am reminded of the Trinity” (332). The dominant theme of the book is eating, which even she admits is an “obsession” (239). In this regard, she betrays the yuppie phenomenon, obsessed by food (and dieting, its dark shadow) and the body, concerned to get the maximum of pleasure out of its tight caloric budget.
Harrison’s prose is fluffy and ponderous by turns. The following sentence is placed in a position of strength, at the very end of the book: “Among the worn coins of sadness and despair is the gold coin of hap-piness, inexhaustible” (473). The coin metaphor for happiness links pleasure with money. “The world is lovable when the world is Rome.” Such a jejune comment reduces Roman grandeur to the “lovable,” a cuddly doll. She finds the Forum “taciturn” (221): evidently this means it does not “speak” to her “I spend no time in the Colosseum, preferring to see it—always amazing, never friendly—from a taxi” (219). Actually the ruins will “speak” if you have ears to listen, but it takes time. “Everything good in my nature is nourished here [in Rome]. My body feels safe here. When I love the space around my body, I love my body” (p. 212). What of the mind? what of intellectual risk and challenge? Far from feeling “safe” in Rome, Du Bellay, Piranesi, and Shelley were haunted by death and terror: Rome put the fear of God in them. Desperately attached to Italy, Freud nonetheless avoided Rome till he was forty-five. The theme of safety preoccupies Harrison: “All journeys, carried to their logical, their ultimate, conclusion, are safe journeys; they lead into light” (311). What of Dante’s Ulysses? Columbus? Leopold Bloom? Dante himself? “Inside the Pantheon I feel (no other space bestows this blessing) absolutely safe” (317). She says she wants to die there; her Pantheon is a womb metaphor; she wants to be reborn. She glosses the Paolo and Francesca episode: “Dante believes that in love all things are safe” (150). If such things were safe, Paolo and Francesca would not be in hell. Harrison fails to distinguish between Dante the voyager who can sympathize and Dante the author who must also judge. The plight of the lovers “doesn’t seem fair” to Harrison. Yet Dante recognized that Paolo and Francesca committed adultery.
Harrison’s epigrams have a sometimes crushing logic: “I think that what I hate about the Forum is that everything that has happened there has already happened” (223). (This could have been said ironically by Yogi Berra.) Rome, of all places, should nourish the historical sense, not lead to its repudiation. She masquerades in high emotions: “I begin to feel Dantesque. We are, or seem to be, in the middle of a dark wood . . . Felliniesque, in fact” (177) In fact? Note the imprecise sliding of very different aesthetic states into each other, but in this emotional legerdemain, what is the difference between one cliche and another? She likes to shock us: “ ‘FUCK!’ is written inside the elevator at the Uffizi; the world intrudes upon our dreams” (174). Meaning is read into everything: “On the Piazza Sonnino I buy cherries: the explosion and the trickle of dark-red sweetness their firm flesh yields feels as if it should be illicit” (225). As awkward in rhythm as in sound (“yields” followed by “feels”), this sentence undercuts its own false heightening: the “firm flesh” that “yields,” the “explosion” that is too strong a metaphor for chewed cherries. Elsewhere “explosion” mistakenly describes the light as one enters the Piazza Navona from a side street. “Twin images of goodness: water and oil. Everything is soothed by oil; everything is purified by water. Think of Trastevere as innocence frayed; innocence renewable” (255). Innocence hardly characterizes the experienced trasteverini, streetwise from two thousand years of urbanization.
Harrison corrects Zola’s Italian (“compagna” to “campagna”), but her own knowledge is untrustworthy. It was Clement VII who witnessed the Sack of Rome, not Clement VIII (203). It is magazzino, not magazino (239); e, not è (230), Barzini, not Barzani (475), Affinità, not Affinitá (476). She translates Ungaretti’s “Mattina” poorly and cites the original incorrectly:
Millumino On the edge of night
d’immenso I fill with the light of Immensity
The original (“M’illumino/d’immenso”) does not need to be a syllable longer, even in translation. Harrison supplies “On the edge of night,” leaving nothing to the imagination (“The Edge of Night” is incidentally a soap opera). It was in rustic Torbole, and not in Venice, as Harrison says (95), that Goethe asked a servant where he could relieve himself. Having just crossed the border, Goethe relates this story to introduce the naturalness of the Italians. The servant replied, “in the courtyard” (Hof hinunter); Goethe then asked where exactly in the courtyard and the servant said, “Anywhere you like.” To place the story in a Venetian courtyard is absurd; imagine those elegant Venetians excreting in their own courtyards. Cardinal Bembo would have had a heart attack. Harrison quotes a friend about the “only sentimental poem Leopardi every wrote,” on mountain flowers; the friend was probably thinking of “La Ginestra” (Broom), because he called it Leopardi’s “last poem” (278). Harrison chimes in with “Sempre caro mi fu quest’ermo colle,” the opening line of “L’infinito,” one of Leopardi’s earlier poems, and compounds the error by mistranslating the last line, again by addition: “The sweetness of being shipwrecked in that sea of flowers.” Leopardi’s conclusion may be translated: “And being shipwrecked is sweet to me in that sea.” Leopardi offers no flowers, only the apeiron, the boundless. Harrison reduces the poet’s sublimity to the lyrical bathos of a Hallmark greeting card. In the Piazza Navona she concludes that “a great deal of happiness has accumulated here”; note the quantification, as if happiness were a material: she has a tendency to err on the side of addition. As for happiness, she had just mentioned the church of the martyred saint that dominates the scene, Borromini’s Sant’Agnese in Agone (311). She does not realize that the Piazza Navona originated as Domitian’s stadium.
Nor are Harrison’s opinions properly explained. “If one were to spend all one’s time looking at Raphael,” she says, “one would feel nothing but serenity and sweet repose” (174). What about the Expulsion of Heliodorus in the Vatican? or the Deliverance of St. Peter? or the Transfiguration? Romans earn her praise “because their not taking it upon themselves to organize the world makes Romans in some ways trustworthy” (224). What about the papacy? She gets tickets to The Magic Flute at La Scala and reflects that there, too, Stendhal saw this opera “which he didn’t particularly fancy (nor do I)” (86). From that lofty perch she can put down Mozart’s masterpiece. She never tells us why she dislikes it. As for her aesthetic principles: “That is the function of visual art—to erase questions . . . not to mean, but to be (a function which, Archibald MacLeish nothwithstanding, poetry cannot fulfill)” (163). Why should poetry be excluded? Too intellectual? Note the put-down of MacLeish while she makes a cliche out of his deft conclusion to a poem. Her failure to understand the connections between pagan and Christian Rome might have been corrected simply by reading Lanciani’s Pagan and Christian Rome.
In a blurb on the dustjacket Norma Rosen has the audacity to claim that “If, instead of Virgil, some great-souled woman had guided Dante through the Inferno and Purgatorio, Barbara Grizzuti Harrison’s voice is the one which might have spoken.” Like Harrison, Rosen is sufficiently knowledgeable to recall that Virgil leads Dante only through Hell and Purgatory, and not Paradise, but what did that knowledge of Dante do for her sense of scale and value if she is capable of making such preposterous claims?
Although Harrison professes to be partial to the south (5) and bristles like a Southerner whenever its glories are maligned, the region receives far less treatment than the north and central regions—there is less to consume—and most of that concerns her search for the various branches of her family tree. But she gives up in the wilds of Calabria. “We keep putting off my trip to Canna”: lingering on the beach with family and friends delays the day of reckoning and supposedly builds tension. She meets someone who may or may not be a relative and decides to treat the meeting as “symbolic” (464), promising to return when she knows she won’t. The town of Grizzuti is located on a map and we are told of her being “immensely moved” (462), immensely but still not sufficiently moved to visit it. What abverb would that take? At Oriolo, from which her grandparents emigrated eighty years before, “We find no Grizzutis here. I do not look very hard.” When an old man points to the higher fortress town and encourages her to go on, “I choose wearily not to regard his gesture as definitive” (466). Barbara Grizzuti Harrison cannot walk the final mile in search of her heritage, but she would traipse across Trastevere for a good penne all’arabbiata.
University of Miami
Perhaps even more than Spain, Italy was Ernest Hemingway’s favorite foreign country. But though we have at least two studies of Hemingway and Spain and another on his relation to Cuba, and despite the fact that twelve of his short stories and two of his major novels (A Farewell to Arms and Across the River and into the Trees) have Italian settings, thus far no comprehensive study of Hemingway and Italy exists. Such a work would find a welcome place alongside the many valuable studies and collections on Italy and nineteenth- and twentieth-century writers: Shelley, Byron, Stendhal, Browning, Ruskin, Proust, and Pound, to name a few. Hemingway in Italy and Other Essays, a collection of seventeen essays chosen from among the fifty presented at the Second International Conference of the Hemingway Society at Lignano Sabbiadoro, Italy in June, 1986, partly but far from exhaustively explores the subject of Hemingway and Italy.
The collection lacks focus, for seven of the essays have nothing to do with Italy or Hemingway’s Italian writings. Of these, the best are Michael F. Reynolds’s analysis of Hemingway’s imaginative transformation of the sources of “My Old Man”; Paul Smith’s study of the narrative function of a brilliant fragment (he titles it “Mons [Three]”) which probably should have been included in In Our Time; and Alan Margolies’s discussion of how F. Scott Fitzgerald purged the stylistic influence of Hemingway from successive drafts of Tender is the Night. Barry Gross’s “Dealing with Robert Cohn” demonstrates what is often denied, that Hemingway shared the anti-Semitism of the Gentile characters in The Sun Also Rises. Yet Gross never illuminates the thematic and narrative significance of anti-Semitism and its effect upon our judgment of the novel. The worst of the essays is Eugene Kanjo’s “Signs are Taken for Nothing in The Sun Also Rises,” which merely translates Hemingway’s post-war nihilism into the ponderous, inappropriate, and by now hackneyed jargon of existentialism and post-structuralism. For example: “Sexually viable Brett Ashley suffers from having to endure the phallocentric order that de-privileges the female.” There’s more misery, surely, in having to read such prose.
In the absence of a general study of Hemingway and Italy, the remaining essays would have benefitted from an introductory discussion or a separate essay outlining the significance—personal and literary—of Italy to Hemingway. There should have been a review of Hemingway’s experience as a Red Cross ambulance driver on the Italian front as well as a clarification of the circumstances of his traumatic wounding in the feet and legs by an Austrian canister on July 8, 1918. Contrary to what Hemingway led others to believe and what some still believe, he did not fight at Caporetto, did not, while wounded, carry another wounded soldier to safety, and did not on that July night also suffer a knee wound from an Austrian machine gun. Nor did he, as legend has it, serve as a lieutenant in the Italian Army, nor as a member of the Arditi. Likewise there should have been a summary of Hemingway’s Toronto Star dispatches on Italy from 1922 to 1923. Besides observing the collapse of Italian Communism and the rise of fascism, Hemingway interviewed Mussolini, at first regarding him as a heroic type but ultimately deriding him as a swaggering bluffer and opportunist. Hemingway’s disgust with fascism is evident in “Che Ti Dice la Patria” and in his journalism of the 1930s, especially “Wings Always Over Africa,” which combines detestation of Mussolini’s Abyssinian campaign with sympathy for Italian soldiers sent to die in Africa. So too, something might have been said of Hemingway’s frequent visits to Italy, his days in Taormina in 1919, his walking tour with Ezra Pound in 1923, his later sojourns in Venice and Torcello, his familiarity with Italian night-life and game hunting, and especially his knowledge of Italian architecture and museums (the Brera, Uffizi, Scuola di San Rocco, and Accademia), whose paintings influenced his writing. All this would have provided a context for Hemingway’s statement that he “loved Northern Italy.”
What did Italy mean for Hemingway? The single key event of his life seems to have been his wounding on the Piave. In this overwhelming confrontation with mortality, he felt his soul leave his body and return, as if he had died and been reborn. The fictional repetition of this trauma figures in “Now I Lay Me,” “A Way You’ll Never Be,” and A Farewell to Arms. In a Toronto Star article Hemingway reports his return to the scene of his wounding, an act repeated by his fictional alter ego Colonel Cantwell in Across the River and into the Trees. For Hemingway, Italy mingles paradoxically the ideas of death and life, annihilation and rebirth. In “Out of Season,” the narrator’s desire not to force an abortion upon his wife takes place beneath the sacred life symbol of an Italian campanile. Colonel Cantwell returns to Italy, the scene of his first wound, in order to die. Hemingway’s identification of Italy simultaneously with vitality and morbidity well consorts with that element of aestheticism and even decadence which runs throughout his works and which reflects the influence of Walter Pater, whose Renaissance celebrates Italian art for combining life-like intensity and death-like stillness.
Two of the best essays in the collection, by Frank Scafella and Erik Nakjavani, focus on “A Way You’ll Never Be” and “Now I Lay Me.” Whereas Scafella demonstrates that Nick Adams’s (and Hemingway’s) trauma results not from a cowardly fear of combat but from his fear of the vagrancy of his soul, in short mortality, Nakjavani shows in a subtle phenomenological reading how Nick masters his anxieties as a necessary stage in becoming an author. Another well-argued and well-detailed essay is Robert E. Godjusek’s study of the dense symbolic patterns of life, death, and cyclical rebirth which inform A Farewell to Arms with Hemingway’s antitranscendental paganism. One sees at a microscopic level the extent to which Hemingway identified his Italian experience with the inextricable powers of destruction and creation. The most unexpected essay is James D. Brasch’s study of Hemingway’s extensive correspondence (1949-1956) with the aged Bernard Berenson at Villa Tatti, to whom Hemingway wrote in search of an aesthetic mentor and father figure, and whose passion he shared for Italian art and landscape. Notwithstanding Berenson’s amusingly anxious misreading of Hemingway as an inveterate macho warrior, the novelist emerges as a soul tormented by loneliness and extreme sensibility.
Many critics have dismissed Across the River and into the Trees as Hemingway’s erotic wish-fulfilment fantasy or as an unintentional self-caricature in which the swaggering, opinionated, embittered, hard-drinking Colonel Cantwell does little more than settle the author’s old scores. Actually, for all its flaws Across the River has been misunderstood and considerably underrated. Charles K. Oliver proves that the novel is no self-caricature but a careful portrayal of Cantwell’s painstaking preparation for death and hence his farewell to Italy and life. The best and most original essay in the collection is John Paul Russo’s “To Die is Not Enough: Hemingway’s Venetian Novel,” which argues convincingly that Across the River needs to be understood thematically and emotionally in relation to the many European literary representations of Venice, as in Byron, Ruskin, Barres, Proust, Mann, and D’Annunzio. Russo’s dense and richly textured readings demonstrate the depth of Cantwell’s (and Hemingway’s) appreciation of Venice’s “classical” and “romantic” mythologies, its architectural and painterly traditions, its sinister associations with death and luxury, its richly ambiguous littoral origins, and its masculine and especially feminine symbolism. The novel is Hemingway’s fullest exploration of his familiar Italian themes of death and rebirth. Russo is also the first to elucidate the ambivalence of Hemingway-Cantwell toward Gabriele D’Annunzio, whose Venetian novel Il Fuoco helped to inspire Across the River, and whom Hemingway resented for his superior military exploits. This essay abundantly confirms the need for a general study of Hemingway and Italy.
University of Miami
Janet Capone and Denise Leto, eds. “Il viaggio delle donne”. Sinister Wisdom Vol. 41. (Summer/Fall 1990).
Italian/American lesbian women writers depict the struggle to survive in a heterosexist world with conviction and disarming honesty. Rose Romano’s book of poetry Vendetta and this special issue of Sinister Wisdom are dedicated to exploring the riches of the Italian/American cultural legacy predominantly from the perspective of Italian/ American lesbian writers. Vendetta, Romano’s first book of poetry, explores the relationships between the poet and her culture. Thus grandmothers, mothers, and aunts are preeminently figured. Women from the family and the lesbian community are central to Romano’s analysis of the intersection between Italian/American ethnicity and sexual orientation. The term gridare vendetta, or, to cry out for retribution, places Romano in her Italian culture, but with a distinction. Her anger is not silenced by the traditionally Italian injunction to be quiet (codified by the term omerta). Rather, Romano voices her anger not nearly so much at her Italian culture, but at the larger culture that would encourage the silence and define Italian culture according to popular stereotypes.
For Romano, this larger culture includes the American lesbian community, which is prescriptive in its definition of otherness. As Romano says elsewhere, “what a lesbian is depends to a great extent on where she fits in what is known as a ‘hierarchy of pain.’ . . . The lighter one’s skin, the less respect one is entitled to.”1 Romano’s concern (if not fear) is this: if she, as an Italian/American lesbian, is not allowed to name herself as “Olive, / neither white / nor of color,” she will become the quintessential invisible woman, unrecognized by her culture of heritage and the lesbian community: “not Madonna or puttana enough, . . . not light or dark enough” (from “Permission—Two Friends,” and “The Fly”). Such a fear compels Romano to reinvest with new meaning the old proverbs of her culture: “Sicilians tell their children—‘A fly doesn’t enter a closed mouth.’ / I’m standing now and I’m / telling the Sicilians, / the Italians, / and the Lesbians— / You can’t spit a fly / out of a closed mouth” (“The Fly”). Romano strongly insists here that, whether we are Italians, Sicilians, or lesbians, we cannot afford to be silent and allow others to interpret and define our behavior. If we are falsely and narrowly defined, then we had better learn how to use language to redefine ourselves and thereby empower our lives. Romano’s greatest sense of power is, in fact, given to her by her Neapolitan and Sicilian forbears, especially by her grandmothers. Werner Sollors reminds us of the by-now famous formulation that one cannot change one’s grandparents, a theme that is central to ethnic rhetoric (Beyond Ethnicity, 151). Romano happily consents to embrace the power she feels in the hands of her grandmothers, a power reinforced by their unceasing availability and constant nurturance. Rather than interpreting her grandmothers’ situation as a form of patriarchal oppression, Romano sees the women’s strength and independence as fundamentally matriarchal: women are the heads of their households, a position that lesbians emulate in their own families. In “To Show Respect,” for example, Romano implores us to imagine and to remember our grandmothers, creatively connecting Italian/American lesbians with their foremothers, “all of us our own bosses.” Romano quite ably explores the intersection of ethnicity and sexual orientation, thereby diminishing differences between the generations and between heterosexual and lesbian women.
The writers published in the Italian/American issue of Sinister Wisdom similarly begin with their grandmothers, asking, “Don’t die, old woman, you are unique / . . . You showed us strength within the limits of the possible” (Jean Rietschel, “Rose”). Editors Janet Capone and Denise Leto have truly broken another silence for Italian/Sicilian-descended lesbians, who enter into the conversation about cultural heritage with increased sensitivity because of their own position as outsiders. Careful not to exclude well-known Italian/American women poets, Capone and Leto begin their issue with what may be called the anthem song of Italian/American experience, Maria Gillan’s “Public School No. 18: Paterson, New Jersey.” Like the speaker who has found her voice in Gillan’s poem, the writers in this issue, through poetry and prose, have expressed the importance of la famiglia to aid in their understanding of themselves. Thus, many of the writers have learned to reevaluate their families because they are poignantly aware of the fact that being a lesbian without family is unhealthy and damaging to the soul: Elizabeth Fides writes, for example, “I stand back and wonder how it all blends together; my love of womyn, my love of home, my need of family, my respect for culture, tradition, and my lesbianism” (“La Mia Polenta,” 11). In a non-fiction piece called “Turning Away from Secrets and Shame,” Rosanna Sorella realizes the necessity of returning home, “to a stable cultural identity for support,” despite the restrictive nature of the family (44).
Throughout the Sinister Wisdom issue, in fact, there’s a feeling of profound sadness over the loss of one’s cultural heritage because of enforced assimilation (Capone, “Italy”); internalized hatred and fear of one’s difference (Gravenites, “Shadow Sister”); and fear of cultural genocide due to the experience of migration and the denial of heritage (Mattioli, “Legacy”; Pascale, “Photographs of Home”). These issues clearly shape the content of Italian/American writing in general, thus suggesting the shared experience of lesbians and heterosexuals in the Italian/American community. I do not mean to deny or undercut the alienation that Italian/American lesbians have felt from their families, but the overriding theme of both Romano’s book and the Sinister Wisdom issue is the need to reclaim familial culture in a homophobic, life-denying world. The means taken to fulfill such an end are decidedly Italian: to overcome feelings of loss, many of the second- and third-generation writers return to Italy, as Mary Anne Bella Mirabella does in order to understand her position in America as an Italian/American: “if immigrants cut themselves off from the land and culture they have left, they cut themselves off from their history” (“Connections,” 98). To regain a sense of the history, Italian/American lesbians not only return to Italy, but they inculcate a feeling of italianita through feasting and ritual, thus revitalizing the connection between their immigrant forbears, many of whom maintained their ethnicity through eating well. One thinks of Helen Barolini’s Festa, a collection of recipes and recollections in which she makes a connection between Italian folktales and recipes—both are efforts “ ‘to ensure the survival of the race’ through preserving its heritage” (xiii, 1988). In a similar vein, Italian/American lesbians are claiming (or reclaiming) their familial heritage by carrying on food traditions. Janet Capone escapes the “nutritionally bankrupt” fast-food queues in favor of stockpiling pasta in her kitchen, “Italy captured in a jar. In this way, she fed herself well, . . . reviving her Italianness day by day” (52). For Italian lesbians who are alienated from their families, Patrizia Tavormina suggests that they apply their Sicilian customs to lesbian culture: “When my mother cooks ‘springi’ (sweet rice balls) in October to celebrate San Martino, I celebrate National Coming Out Day on the 11th, and when we cook ‘cubata’ (honey-coated almonds) at Christmas, I celebrate Solstice.” Tavormina reinvests food traditions with lesbian meaning, but at the same time, she celebrates the shared connection between mother and daughter: both use food as a means to survive in a harsh world (78). Rose Romano best expresses the connection between food and ethnicity in her belief that the love of food and the love of woman is as natural and necessary as grandmother: “I never knew where / her food ended and her body began— / like love. . . . Everybody must know / that we eat. Until we have / a right to this place” (“That We Eat,” Vendetta, 26). Both Vendetta and Sinister Wisdom (Vol. 41) give attention to a group of Italian/American women whose voices refuse to fall between the cracks. They are opening their mouths and making beautiful worlds.
Poets prematurely own the earned wisdom of the elderly. One way they do this is through their working out of—reconciling or not—tensions between opposing concepts. It is no exaggeration to claim that Rose Romano demonstrates this wisdom in her first book of poetry, Vendetta, surpasses it, by becoming her grandmother’s generation, forging a path for future generations of Italian-American women. She accomplishes all this with the sparkling touches of humor Henri Nouwen calls “the soft smile of wisdom.”
To name just a few of the tensions dramatically explored within Vendetta are those between: Italian-nonItalian, lesbian-straight, friend-lover, feminine-masculine, female-male, matriarchy-patriarchy, goddess-woman, sexuality-asexuality, holy-unholy, mother-daughter, grandmother-granddaugher, poverty-wealth, peasant-royalty, rebellion-acceptance, and silence-voice. Detail and layers of these tensions refine and intensify upon rereadings; reread is what the teasing-inviting poetry tempts readers to do. Satisfaction recurs in the speaker’s willingness—pursuit, even—to embrace initial conflicts as she does “big, round women / whose bodies curve up / around the sides of me in the best / kind of hug.” Resolution lurks in the reason for their roundness (wholeness?): “Everybody must know / that we eat. Until we have / a right to this place” (28 “That We Eat”).
Since Romano wisely subordinates resolution to honesty, the tensions she disrobes—like the fig tree’s fruit that is its own flower—multiply whether or not they are reconciled. Resolution is surpassed or supplanted with unforgettable cycles and transformations. Rich in the traditions of their past and those they are establishing, these evolutions fall surprisingly into the pattern of the epigenetic theory of life stages described by Erik Erikson (Vital Involvement in Old Age). The stages most evident in Vendetta are: Identity and Identity Confusion: Fidelity; Industry and Inferiority: Competence; Integrity and Despair: Wisdom; Intimacy and Isolation: Love; and Trust and Mistrust: Hope.
In the opening poem, “Facing Mirrors,” identity is confronted across three generations: the daughter-speaker does not “see the resemblance” between herself and her mother until passing a mirror once she has a child of her own. “That’s Mommy,” she whispers, and “her daughter says, ‘Well, / who did you expect’ ” (7). In “Like the Mother” the speaker cringes in embarrassment when her heritage in its second-language speakers is mocked in American books; in the closing stanza, a transformation occurs when relatives declare her “just like / the mother.” The line in the first stanza—“I listen as I read and cringe without / thinking”—finds its new reflection in the closing line—“I remember as / I read and soften without thinking” (12).
Many of the poems establish the poet’s connection with her grandmother. This identification, once the confusion over the mother has been settled, escalates into the subject of religious celebration in poems like “Invocation to the Goddess Grandmother.” Several pages later, “To Show Respect,” the grandmother responds to the invocation, the festivities begin in an irresistible paradisical atmosphere:
. . . the Crone, sitting at the
head of the table, sharing wisdom. Imagine
the Mothers, sitting around the table,
sharing food. Imagine the Maidens,
sitting around the table, sharing
When they’re all together like this, the transformation can occur. The speaker begins a long comparison in which she becomes her grandmother: “someday / I’ll be round, like a meatball, like my / grandmother.” Familial ties established, fidelity to heritage is then established through them: “That’s no stereotype; / that’s my grandmother” (22).
Since the speaker is a woman, it is most natural that the female lineage of her identity be traced. Once accepted, the females are subjected to the speaker’s scrutiny: they are found superior both religiously and humanly. The “Grandmother Cooking” says “Take ye and eat” (27) while a jar of sauce is offered and reoffered in the “Confirmation” poem (8). When the grandfather in “The Chopping of Wood” accidentally cuts his leg, he must relinquish what was earned by “the fully / developed muscles found in / men.” “Using the fully developed / attention to detail / found in women” (11), the grandmother takes over (and doesn’t cut her leg). In “Three Quarters” a daughter is that much of an inch taller than her disbelieving father; her poem, however, is permanent testimony to that fact (13). While outsiders insist the Italian-American culture is patriarchal, the poet in “Explaining Again,” humorously reconfirms the truth.
Doesn’t the woman
announce what will be done, only waiting
graciously until the man finds a way to make it look like it was his idea? (29)
Through the poet’s industry, and the industry of the women in her poems, all imposed inferiority dissolves into “steam rising like the smoke / of incense” (27 “My Grandmother Cooking”); what lingers is the sweet smell of competence throughout all the poems.
When womanhood is truly embraced, it can only be declared unnatural to deny the love of women celebrated by all lesbians. Thus the tensions between integrity and despair must be confronted by the poet. As an Italian-American lesbian, the speakers’ situation complicates; she’s truly “Sitting Outside” (poem title) all cultures when a woman at another table buys a beer for the narrator, who is uncertain whether to interpret the gesture as one of compassion intrinsic to food-bringing, or as an insult to all that is feminist (35). In “Mutt Bitch,” however, integrity is achieved through the hopeful choice to speak.
If I have no culture
I can say nothing;
therefore, if I
I have no culture. (37)
For “a culture / whose most profound statement of anger / is silence,” this becomes an achievement. The speaker takes inventory of all her traits (woman, contessa, contadina, scholar, dyke, mother—not “just / one / person”), culminating in a loud curse to anyone who would cram her into a single, stifling category.
What could have been despair becomes the wisdom of integrity for this poet. What could have been isolation, through confrontation, becomes intimacy and compassion in poems like “Coming Out,” “Sitting Outside,” and “First Scent.” Even in “Over the Edge,” a loved woman will be given yet another chance: “she who has hurt me . . . / . . . I suspect, will hurt me again” (25). Avoidance of pain is no antidote to isolation; informed compassion is better.
Finally, by openly communicating the sufferings, cycles, and transformations undergone by an Italian-American lesbian feminist daughter-mother-grandmother speaker, Romano has eradicated much of the mistrust between herself and a world of potentially antagonistic readers. Mistrust has been replaced with the hope of trust. A true epigenesis has occurred—the mineral character of the rock has changed due to outside influence, but for those of us who desire it, the most beautifully colored rough and smooth rock solidly remains.
Erikson, Erik H. Vital Involvement in Old Age. W. W. Norton: 1986.
For relevant background on this tradition, see my article, “Sicilian Oral Poetry: Myths, Origins, History,” Almanacco: Quadrimestrale di Italianistica (Interflow Publications, Box 35174, Roxborough, PA 19128), 1, 1 (March 1991): 74-82.
Such oral qualities, displayed by Sicilian folk and their American transplants in their poetry and everyday culture (e.g., in games like the passatella—called the “scomp out” where I grew up in New Jersey), are also crucial in the works of Sicilian classics like Verga, Pirandello, Vittorini, Brancati, and Sciascia.
As an associate editor of Arba Sicula, I had access to the editorial matters discussed in the above two paragraphs.
That is, the Sicilianization of English words. Examples in Ancona are too numerous to quote.
The use of “fatturia” here creates an odd comic distortion since, in Sicilian, it actually means “farm.” Similar comic malapropisms occur in Italish words and phrases like “magazzino,” “tappa cotta,” and “non spoglia la grassa.”
1“Coming Out Olive in the Lesbian Community: Big Sister Is Watching You,” unpublished paper.