Italy, sweet Italy, and the ghosts the very thought of it evokes. They came from Compiano, in the region of Parma, my grandfather and my grandmother, nonno e nonna, back some 120 years ago. First Giuseppe—Joe—age 25, in 1896, then Giulia, with their one-year-old son, Primo, the following year. They came to the new world through Ellis Island and settled in Manhattan, where they were told the streets were paved with gold, though it was my grandfather it turned out who did the paving. Asphalt streets and paths up in Central Park, then tar roofs, until—bull of a man that he was—his lungs gave out.
They settled on New York’s East Side, first on 59th Street, in the shadow of the Queensboro Bridge, then over to 61st between Second and Third Avenues, until—thanks to Robert Moses—the aging brownstone was torn down to make room for one more exit ramp off the bridge in the 1930s. Their church, Our Lady of Peace on East 62nd Street, was as vital to them as it was to thousands of Catholic families, though it is now closed. They had eleven children, six of whom made it to adulthood. Some died in infancy, and Primo, alas, died after being hit by a drunken truck driver at fourteen. Mary—Mamie—whose girlish image still brings tears to my eyes when I look at the old photo I have of her—died in the Flu Epidemic nearly a century ago in the wake of World War I.
I was nine months old when my grandfather died and of course cannot remember that big, burly, mustachioed man. My grandmother lived on for another twenty-seven years, and always wore widow’s black. Italian songs, basil-laced spaghetti sauce, polenta, fresh fruit when we could get it, mixed liberally with American Jell-O—lime, lemon, orange. And avocados galore, which my father brought home in bags from the Calavo warehouse over in New Jersey where he worked—thanks to my Uncle Joe—when he’d returned home Ulysses-like, after serving in the U.S. Army as a tank driver and carburetor specialist.
Walking as a little boy with my father uptown from 51st Street to my father’s old neighborhood, I used to visit with my Uncle John—one of Jimmy Cagney’s gang from the 1920s—who still lived on 61st with his Czech wife, Mary, and their three kids. I don’t ever remember my father talking about poetry, except to recite the line, “Abu Ben Adam (may his tribe increase),” which he’d memorized in the sixth grade, but I do remember him joking with the old men in that French-Italian patois of his where the final vowels of words were often lopped, asking them what George Washington said when he crossed the Delaware into Trenton during the American Revolution. And being a practical man among practical men, his answer was “Ma che cazzo, che fa freddo,” which, he told me, translated to “But oh my poor balls, it’s cold out here.” Once, when I was sixteen and back home from a year in the seminary, he pulled his dump truck over to the side of the road and asked me if it was true that I was writing poems. I said it was true. After a few moments, he said in a defeated voice, “Well, you’re still my son,” started the engine up, and we drove on to work.
Mi tengo a quest’albero mutilato
abbandonato in questa dolina
che ha il languaore
di un circo….
This mutilated tree gives
Me support, left in this pot-hole
It has the bitterness of a circus….
And of course the poet Giovanni Giudici, who read some of my first poems and told me it was time for me to stop serving as an altar boy—i.e., a critic—and take on the priestly mantle of the poet, bless him.
For me Italy is a hallowed landscape, flooded with light and fig trees and sepia images of the Val di Taro. At the same time it is of course a very real place, one of many Italian landscapes I have visited over the past forty years. In Italy Italians ask me why I don’t speak the native language with a name like Mariani, and I explain that the language was never spoken at home, though the music of Virgil and Dante and Montale and Ungaretti seems to make up my very DNA, and I feel as much at home in Florence and Sulmona as I do in Milano and Lago di Garda. But then I always carry a postcard image of Italy in my heart here in Montague, Massachusetts, staking tomatoes and thinning my Italian parsley, rosemary, and oregano as the sun grows stronger and the thrushes sing.
And so it went, day after day, the four of us, inching
out from the shallow end of the empty Empire
Swimming Pool, the ritual of gearing up to sandblast,
preparing to engorge our peck’s worth of aqua metal dust.
Worse was the glare off the rain-scum slop congealing
at the deeper end, the sun’s reflection blinding us whenever
we looked back. In silence I pushed on, without even
Bo Diddley’s music or the King’s to ease me through my hell.
My father seemed bent on getting a day’s work out of
each of us even if it killed us and the sun didn’t beat him
to the punch. By week’s end it was making good on that
promise as we brushed the pool a second coat of blue.
Florida Blue, Bay of Naples Sheen, Cote d’Azur, the veriest
blue of blue, that would transform fifteen thousand gallons
of chlorine-threaded water so that 700 day camp kids
might plash about, squealing in that too too happy summer
soon to come. Meanwhile there were cabins to Lysol-rinse,
two palominos to quarter (illegally) on the abutting
state preserve, and Rusty the Little Choo-Choo to set
chugging once again along the western chainlink fence
patrolled each dusk by the boss’s German Shepherds.
Come September, I would hie me off to the fall-gold hills
of Beacon Prep, where I would rise each morning to chant
a version of the Office, then struggle with my fourth-year
Latin, singing of the epic birth of the world that flourished
once on the Tiber’s sullen banks. But for now that world
beckoned as oasis only. Here, in this pit of hell ruled silence,
punctuated by the bark of orders from a man who had a pool
to finish, blood-thick paint baking the metal and our hands
under that Egyptian sun, while darkened each day more
my princely skin. Sunt lacrimae rerum.* Prisons are a state
of mind. Oases ditto. Somewhere, I’d heard, were words
and plashing water. A lake, a rope, a letting go. Somewhere too
a plunging downward, then bubbles rising slowly to the top.
*There are tears for such things (Aeneid weeping as he hears the battles at Troy sung at Carthage in the company of Queen Dido).
New Year’s Eve, a party at my brother’s.
Hats, favors, the whole shebang, as we waited
for one world to die into another.
And still it took three martinis before
she could bring herself to say it. How
the body of her grown son lay alone there
in the ward, just skin & bone, the nurses
masked & huddled in the doorway, afraid
to cross over into a world no one seemed
to understand. This was a dozen years ago,
you have to understand, before the thing
her boy had had become a household word.
Consider Martha. Consider Lazarus four days gone.
If only you’d been here, she says, if only
you’d been here. And no one now to comfort her,
no one except this priest, she says, an old
friend who’d stood beside them through the dark
night of it all, a bull-like man, skin black
as the black he wore, the only one who seemed
willing to walk across death’s threshold into
that room. And now, she says, when the death
was over, to see him lift her son, light as a baby
with the changes death had wrought, and cradle him
like that, then sing him on his way, a cross
between a lullaby & blues, mmm hmmm, while
the nurses, still not understanding what they saw,
stayed outside and watched them from the door.
- Pantoum for East Fifty-First
And then, in an instant, it’s gone: the world of East Fifty-First.
Gone the round-the-clock clack of the Third Avenue El,
the clutch-grinding rattle of Fords and the clop clop
of those gray dun drayhorses down on the cobblestone street.
Gone now the demon-like sparkles and screams of the El
that mixed with the curses of streetkids on the sidewalk below.
Gone too the hunchbacked ragman on that flint-filthy street,
and old Mr. Quinn muttering curses, sweeping the stoop.
Gone the shouts of the gang on that sad sidewalk below,
German and Irish, most of them, a wolf pack with little to do
except toss insults at Quinn, as he went on sweeping the stoop
or tarring the roof or stoking the coal and banking the furnace.
Irish and German, offspring of immigrants, who demanded their due
from whomever they could, like my six-year-old self,
as I fled, the one guinea kid on the block, and hid by the furnace,
a furnace in embryo myself as they doused me with cold kerosene.
Back from the movies under the El, my Brer Rabbit self,
humming zippety-do-dah while they torched Christmas trees
dumped on the street, then doused me with cold kerosene,
as my mother ran toward me screaming, and they scattered and fled.
Cold fear glimpsed by the light of those crackling trees…
And the synagogue cantor handing out seedcakes and bread,
then Harry hurtling the bread back at the old man as we fled.
The pity and fear of it, oh, and the gift of that bread.
And the go-cart Quinn built me and Harry broke, and the bread.
And the gang on the tar-blackened roof back those seventy years,
unfurling the flag with the swastika on it. Oh, and the gift of the bread.
And me in my First Communion tie and knickers that May.
And Harry teaching us love words back those seventy years,
when he ordered Bobby and me to jiggle up down, up down.
And me on my roof in those spiffy black knickers that May,
and my father slamming Harry’s brother in his wife beater’s shirt
when he’d had it with Harry and the brother went down.
All gone now, along with the faint cries of the Third Avenue El,
and the sullen Fords and the blood-smeared wife beater’s shirt,
and the dray horses fading west down East Fifty-First.