Alan Morrison on
Your Call Keeps Us Awake –
Translated by Caroline Maldonado
and Allen Prowle
(Smokestack Books, 2013)
In spite of dying at the incredibly young age of 30 of an undetected heart complaint, Italian poet Rocco Scotellaro (1923-53) lived a very full and vivid life, one heavily involved with the seismic political events of the time, and this is clear from Maldonado and Prowle’s compendious Introduction. The eminent Italian writer Carlo Levi met the young socialist poet Scotellaro in 1948, both living in close proximity to one another, the former in Aliano where he’d been exiled by the Fascists since 1936, and the latter in Tricarico. Levi came to admire the younger man and once wrote that he was ‘dear to me above all men’. A year after Scotellaro’s death, Levi proved his dedication to the memory of his work by editing his posthumous collection È Fatto Giorno (It’s Light Now) won two prestigious Italian literary prizes, the Pellegrino and Viareggio, in 1954.
Scotellaro’s poetry first came to critical notice through publication in some prestigious Italian literary journals, such as Botteghe Oscure, when he was just twenty. Scotellaro entered Italian literary society, then, at an extremely young age, and became acquainted with such leading Italian poets as Giorgio Bassani, Italo Calvino, Cesare Pavese and Eugenio Montale. But Scotellaro’s main poetic influences had come through recently translated non-Italian poets, such as Sergei Yesenin, T.S. Eliot, Verlaine, Mallarmé, Lorca and Rilke (though arguably, as with most poets and writers, Scotellaro’s actual poetry resembles that of poets not cited by him as conscious influences –though Lorca’s work leaves its mark).
In the new cultural curve towards greater social justice in a post-war Italy liberated from the dark shadow of Mussolini’s Fascism, Scotellaro was among the poet-pioneers of a late Forties Italian neo-realism, which flew in the face of the conformist and reactionary cultural ethos of what was termed ‘telefoni bianchi’ (‘white telephone’) school of the Thirties:
The cravenly conformist ‘telefoni bianchi’ of the 1930s (the white telephone was the perfect metonym of material success and of membership of the club of the socially acceptable) had projected wholesome images of a conservative country rooted in family values and respect for order and authority; country life was seen as benign, provident, morally impeccable and socially harmonious. Scotellaro’s Lucania was not Arcadia. His poems depicted a region where people struggled desperately to sustain their families on land which had historically been neglected and badly cultivated, where deforestation and polluted water supplies had contributed to the spread of malaria.
Perception of history as sempiternal and constantly relevant, and the perception of one’s own place within it, was pivotal to Scotellaro’s art:
In an early poem, ‘Mythology’ (1943), he signalled his own rejection of the world-weary self-obsession of the ‘crepuscular’ poets and the vision of the ‘hermetics’ of mankind’s essential solitude: he ironically capitalised ‘Nostalgia’ and ‘Pain’ as the titles of the paintings that he had himself hung in what he calls that ‘temple to my life’.
Scotellaro wished ‘to give voice to the silent tongue both of the present and of the Past’. According to David Constantine, who is cited in the Introduction, Scotellaro has much in common with the English Romantics, although arguably the Italian has most in common with Blake and Clare, the one being the godfather of or even precursor to the Romantics proper, and the latter, of the same period but debatably not a fully-fledged Romantic in his actual poetry. Constantine cites one of Blake’s myriad aphorisms as applying very much to the poetic take of Scotellaro: “Labour well the minute Particulars…”.
However, it is arguable as to whether Blake ever exemplified such a dictum in his own poetic works: Blake was nothing if not the exponent of poetry of the ‘great’ and ‘universal’ themes, of a mostly Miltonic calling, albeit more colourful and musical and spiritually promiscuous than his Puritan influencer. Even in Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience it is not experiential Particulars but more Particulars as symbols that are mined for universal comment, which is really something quite different to the approach of the likes of Clare or Scotellaro, who are compared here by Constantine for having both written poems about what they knew and experienced in terms of place and locality and economic condition and then projected these to touch on universal themes (though this, surely, applies to most poetry, with the exception, perhaps, of Surrealism).
Constantine’s placing of Clare and Scotellaro as poets of Dasein, or ‘being there’, holds some weight; as does the affinity of their both having been born into the rural labouring classes of their respective countries and times, “Peasant Poet” Clare the son of a farm labourer and Scotellaro the son of a shoemaker –Scotellaro’s people were the labourer tenants of absent landlords similar to how Clare’s were agricultural labourers dispossessed by the English enclosures. Though Scotellaro arguably has something more in common with a poet closer to home, Dino Campana (1885-1932), the elective vagrant Italian poet whose vivid symbolic lyricism foreshadows Scotellaro’s own, although it has a slightly more urgent, gushing quality, and is markedly more disturbing (Campana died in an asylum suffering from what has come to be described as ‘disorganised schizophrenia’ or ‘hebephrenia’).
The ‘strumpet grape’ of the title is a metaphor of the mezzogiorno: small, tart yet ripe, so it has to be pressed to contribute to the wine. It was ever thus. ‘No one has come to this land,’ wrote Levi, ‘except as an enemy, a conqueror, or a visitor devoid of understanding’. Even after Lucania declared itself part of the kingdom of Italy, following an uprising in Potenza in 1860, things hardly improved for the contadini. Vast areas of land which had formerly belonged to the church were confiscated and sold off to a small number of rich aristocratic families, and so the region’s poverty increased and its population dwindled. The peasants who leased land largely from absentee landlords were ruthlessly pursued by their agents for the debts which they inevitably incurred; the land they farmed was poor, the taxes they paid iniquitous, starvation a tragically common experience, malaria endemic.
Scotellaro was educated by Capuchin friars, an experience which influenced his moral development and academic interest in the Classics but at the same time repulsed him sufficiently to cultivate an anti-clericalism implicit in much of his later poetry. Scotellaro felt a profound sense of personal displacement through having to periodically uproot and attend schools in different areas. The region of Lucania where Scotellaro spent his entire life was historically one of continual invasions and colonisations by foreign empires –such as the Ancient Greeks and Turks– and this also encouraged the poet in his interest in ethnology. Lucania also has a rich history –and architecture– of Arabic influences consequent to past Saracen colonisations, which in that sense makes it a kind of Italian version of Spain’s Moorish Andalucia. Scotellaro was immensely proud of his Greek and Arabic ancestral links.
Through the Second World War and the bombing of Rome, Scotellaro was courageously a member of the Italian anti-fascist Union of Resistance. After the war, he joined the Italian Socialist Party and became a union organiser and a militant activist in the cause of land reform. In one particularly bloody confrontation between farm workers and police in Montescaglioso, Giuseppe Novello was fatally wounded, and Scotellaro composed a poem after the place of the incident, ‘Montescaglioso’, demonstrating how his political activism was inextricably linked to his poetic output in much the same way as Shelley’s Peterloo-inspired ‘The Mask of Anarchy’, and much of the oeuvre of Jack Lindsay, for just two examples.
At the staggeringly young age of 23, Scotellaro became Tricarico’s first Socialist Mayor, and, among other achievements, helped set up the town’s first hospital in the wing of the bishop’s palace, with mediation from the bishop’s personal physician, Professor Rocco Mazzarone. As the Introduction notes: ‘It remains a matter of dispute and conjecture in the town even today how an agreement could be reached between a radical socialist and an eminent Catholic prelate’. But Scotellaro’s ‘luck’ ever fluctuated:
His political opponents had thought that, given his young age, his low social status and the precarious financial position of this now fatherless family, Scotellaro could be easily manipulated. This proved not to be the case. He was arrested on trumped-up charges of bribery and fraud and imprisoned in Matera. Thanks to the unstinting efforts of Carlo Levi and to the impartial presiding magistrate he was released after 45 days, without charge, a recognition that he had been the victim of a political vendetta.
As befitted his empirical and humanly immersive personality, Scotellaro’s poetic output was pretty prolific, not to say, as well, stylistically varied:
His poetic output continued to be prolific and he explored new avenues, writing stornelli or short popular lyrics, poems in dialect, epigrams, and translations. The latter are a particularly poignant indication of Scotellaro’s state of mind at this time: there is an elegiac thread running through the poems he chose about the loss of love, absence and separation, the approach of death, poems by Catullus, Goethe, Robert Louis Stevenson, Edgar Lee Masters and Edward Arlington Robinson.
Rather like Lorca in Granada, Scotellaro became something of a posthumous legend to his locality and his untimely death at the absurdly young age of 30 was met with public disbelief:
Many peasants refused to believe he had died at all. In their homes his portrait hung by the side of images of the saints. On the anniversary of his death the following words were inscribed on the wall of his own house: il poeta della libertà contadina, and he is remembered in Tricarico with enormous affection and veneration to this day. Levi recognised some of the qualities in his friend and described them in an essay he wrote about Scotellaro’s novel L’Uva Puttanella: how the peasants considered Rocco (as the people of Tricarico still call him) to be truly their representative and their brother, not only as a poet and because he stood by them during their land occupations, but because he shared their emotional world, their doubts, the anguish of solitude, their sense of abandonment; his vulnerability exists in his poems side by side with his radicalism.
A striking contrast to today, where almost all poets –bar the most famous– aren't even known by the general public let alone mourned by them when they pass; but in part there is a lesson here in that Scotellaro was so emphatically a poet as well as man of ‘the people’ of his place and time, as well as their spokesperson. The Introduction concludes sonorously:
In ‘È fatto giorno’ (‘It’s light now’), written in the year before he died, he expresses his vision for the enlightenment which he believed would deliver that ‘lost legend’ and ‘a night no longer dark and silent’. In many ways, that last phrase would arguably have made for a more striking and sublime title for this first English edition of Scotellaro’s poems, A Night No Longer Dark and Silent, than the one chosen, Your Call Keeps Us Awake, which instantly made me think of a late night phone call interrupting someone’s sleep –however, that very misinterpretation of ‘call’ (actually a bird’s) is perhaps also serendipitous in the context of Scotellaro’s poetic trouncing of the conformist ‘telefoni bianchi’ aesthetic: as if metaphorically he was the first to make that long-defunct telephone ring in order to wake up the complacent conservatism of his time.
Now, to Scotellaro’s translated poems. There’s something strikingly Blakeian about the opening poem, ‘The Garden of the Poor’, which is almost like an Italian Song of Innocence in its deceptive simplicity of diction and image –here it is in full:
The basil has grown
in the garden of the poor:
they have robbed the windows of air,
sowed the seeds on two boards.
The sparrows will come,
the flies will come,
in the garden of the poor.
Now when you don’t know what to do
pick up the pitcher in your hand,
then I will see you grown among the roses
in the garden of the poor.
Scotellaro is masterly at the aphorism, as in the Lorca-esque ‘to beat the stars away with his whip’ from ‘To the Carter’s Daughter’.
‘The Catherine Wheels’ depicts poor children playing in the post-war rubble trying to find a ‘live bomb’. The poem sardonically depicts a September Festival coming to the locality through some startling alliterative sense-impression merged with social polemic:
Last night, the clarinets
together with the bangs and the voices
of the families sitting round the square,
and our own, thick and warm,
on the dark edge of the villa.
If I could only tell her again of the other September festival,
when the farmhand will find a new master
and get a new jacket at the fair!
How many of the jugglers and haberdashers
have come to fleece the pockets
of the spruced-up peasants!
‘A Fuchsia’ is a startling little imagistic lyric:
You held a fuchsia in your hand
like Saint Anthony’s images
Because you gave me a flower like this,
it roused in me a memory
of those madcap village festivals
when the bands are summoned by a bang
to the place where fireworks light the sky
and the prize is won
by the brightest fuchsia blaze.
I remember too, a year ago,
the plumes of chaff on the threshing floor.
See, I bring you the country in the city.
We are invited into ‘We Should Have Left’ with some sense of mysteriousness:
You no longer wanted to leave.
We counted the amphitheatre’s lights,
pale eyes surrounding us.
Through the dense scents of mint
The alliteration and assonance of the last line is striking. The closing image, ‘Now we talk to each other through bars’ presumably speaks of Scotellaro’s brief period of imprisonment in 1948, when this poem was penned.
Scotellaro’s lyrics are indeed focused on particulars in order to project universalisms, as in the aphorismic ‘The Leaves of the Olive Palms’:
Vulgar crows circle above
the smoking chimneys in March.
For our unmarried women we burn
the leaves of the olive palms:
flame-bitten they writhe, tortured souls;
to our questions
they say yes, they say no.
‘To a Mother’ sports some particularly fine aphorisms: ‘always so busy with trousseaux/ and with finishing off the uppers/ of peasant women’s shoes’ and ‘They unhooked me from your skirt,/ young cockerel bought from its mother hen’. The final verse of this poem is particularly intriguing in terms of familial narrative or, as the case may be, son-mother symbolism:
I first, and forever after, cared for you
when papa’s other son arrived.
Born of a love affair in flight,
he was sold to a childless couple
who were working on the land
in a village near our own.
You then set up one bed for the two of us
and gave the name Rocco to us both.
According to Scotellaro the poet, his mother never taught him ‘sweet words’. As for his shoemaker father, he is depicted, in ‘My Father’, as having been rather rough of nature, as his manual trade perhaps:
He always kept up his sleeve
a blade ready sharpened
for the tax man’s paunch.
It was he who planted doubt in the mind of his friend
who got himself arrested
when one day in despair
he sent his bench to the tax office
together with a note:
‘Now you, owl eyes,
can wear yourself out.’
This poem closes on a poignant polemical aphorism, which plays in part on Benjamin Franklin’s perennial phrase, ‘Nothing is certain but death and taxes’, while commenting on his father’s innate recalcitrance of character, something the son resoundingly inherited from him:
They stretched him out, his face distorted,
words of revolt still in his throat.
Then they said what a fine man he was,
even the tax-man, and they made such a fuss.
It’s in such poems as ‘My Father’ that Scotellaro’s exceptional gift at imparting social and political comment parcelled in aphorism. The small poem ‘Christmas’ is practically one long aphorism:
They walk up and down
past stations and along these streets.
There is one who says to me: leave behind the fog,
the slippery asphalt,
the shop windows: light from ten candles
slants down on berets and on toys.
My families fill the houses;
they have left untouched the table set
for the child of midnight.
The juxtaposition of ‘berets and toys’ is nicely evocative of experience and innocence. The title of the poem ‘Despairing Cuckoo, Your Call Keeps Us Awake’, should, in this writer’s opinion, have been used in full for that of this collection, rather than just its second clause. This title appears verbatim as a lyrical pausing point in the poem itself. The closing simple image is particularly thought-provoking: ‘and the wind billows/ our coats in the cupboards’.
In ‘They Stole You from Us Like an Ear of Corn’, subtitled ‘for a young friend murdered’, there’s a declamatory Rimbaudian flourish:
In this way death makes us enemies!
In this way a sickle cuts clean through!
(What harm did I do you?)
We will strike fear into each other’s hearts.
This poem’s bitter narrative closes on a particularly desolate note:
At the time when the grain ripens,
at the humming of these branches,
we would have sung together as friends.
And my old father,
will he not cut through his veins
now that he has to harvest alone
the fields of oats?
One of the most striking poems in this book is ‘The Peasant Saints of Matera’ –it needs to be excerpted in full:
Spirit of the ancient wolf
murdered before the doors
on the day of cruellest hunger,
neighbour, you laughed at us
as you melted into the booming of the mournful clock
and craved bread and onion, and honey
for the ultimate wound of the crow.
And what an agony in the air the church bells
which prick our hearts with needles!
What is it they want from us?
They strike fear in the innocent
as do the dying breaths of that slaughter
in children who are blessed.
Be done with it, holy bells!
With these winds blowing through our hovels
bring back life to those who died a violent death
and make us more wolf than before.
And lend us a hand
for they will have buried
the witch’s doll deep down
in the Gravina that winds round
the peasant saints of Matera!
Scotellaro’s use of o-assonance is profoundly effective throughout in such wonderful phrases as ‘booming of the mournful clock’, ‘wound of the crow’, ‘blowing through our hovels’, and ‘more wolf than before’; and its vocabulary abounds with o-sounds: ‘onion’, ‘honey’, ‘agony’, ‘holy’, ‘violent’. This is a poem simply howling with agnostic anguish in a Roman Catholic culture, even if Scotellaro was deeply sceptical of his nation’s faith, if not an actual atheist. Wolves are, of course, in an Italian context, evocative of Rome and its founding fathers, Romulus and Remus; though here ‘wolf’ seems to be employed more as a motif for foraging in impoverishment.
Many of Scotellaro’s poems sport declamatory titles, such as ‘And Together We Let Out Our Curses’, having the ring of anti-hymns. This poem has an ominous tone:
We are in the month before harvest:
the slightest shift of winds
and the men on the square turn nasty,
women leave their houses,
At the town hall they scream their want,
a crust of bread, a day’s work,
and shoes and roads and everything.
It closes on an image of impotence, ‘raising the limp corn-stalks to our scythes’, the impotence of poverty –or poor harvest– perhaps. The first verse of ‘It Was the Cavalcade of the Bruna’, subtitled ‘Festival of the Madonna della Bruna at Matera’, is distinctly Rimbaudian:
Tormented olive trees
on Matera’s tufa crags.
Oh the bitter poems
of dead seasons!
Its symbolism has an almost holy emphasis:
It is a night when the stone marten flees,
its eyes like embers,
and our ancestors hear themselves again
in songs all over the stunted country:
they were the peasants who wore checked cloth.
In ‘Olympics’ Scotellaro intones with almost religious gravitas: ‘Our fathers were children,/ fast and furious and giants in their games’. Scotellaro is speaking of his Ancient Greek ancestors; he places special emphasis on the poverty of their most omnipresent of poets:
Their gods were the land, the sky, the sea,
and Homer heard them, that pauper
who begged for a trough of bran at Cumae.
Scotellaro then turns to Christ, making sardonic comment on the Eucharist, so central to Roman Catholicism:
you enjoyed the game of bread and wine
and we enjoy it too.
In Cumae the blind old man;
in Naples, in New York, showing his teeth
a young singer knocks on doors.
Then, curiously, Scotellaro samples an English nursery rhyme/folksong to give a sing-song Blakeian quality:
Ring-a-ring-a-roses children and their fathers,
marvellous games in their times
on our clods of earth! We sang to the towers,
to the springs, our clear voices
reached the remotest places.
We then get another Rimbaudian song flourish:
O my fathers, dead and in peace,
the world crumbles again
before the eyes of children.
The closing image is sardonic, defiant and sublime:
The eternally poor stay behind to sing
and at some time in the night granddad shouts out,
he, the athlete at feasts, slipped down
from the tree of Cockayne as the sun was setting.
Cockayne, or Cockaigne, was a mythical medieval land of plenty, here alluded to sardonically. The oddly titled ‘Brats’ is a lesson in lyrical succinctness:
You see no more
the flights of cranes
that sear our sky with screams.
All the black swallows are leaving us
on the narrow skyline of our district.
We clip the wings
of the wild doves:
with wary love they bump together on rooftops.
‘Green Youth’ is another gently assured lyric which lulls like a reverie:
There is a time when the vines
are alive with lizards,
some with new tails tinted blue,
when impatient corn sheaves in the fields
sprout up like flames
and the cicada deafens and stops me hearing
the bells, the songs,
the drawn out calling of my mother
who wants me back, wants me hers.
When the torrent is white…
then I want to drain the jug
and lie down on the ground
with no more memories
of green youth.
In ‘The Monotonous Singing of the Lucanians’ Scotellaro suggests the affinities between Arabs and gypsies as ancestral outsiders to his native locality of Lucania. The first line is practically a haiku:
Our Arabic song howls
because we only ever trusted
As with much of Scotellaro’s poetry, there is an aphorismic focus strongly reminiscent of Lorca:
The gypsies’ animals
have the docile eyes
of travelling companions.
Gypsy fire in the breast
on nights that our drum
summons the Lucanian peasants,
beating along the dark alley.
‘Ticket for Turin’ is a curious poem, a vignette of Arabic-influenced childhood, slightly discomfiting:
They fondled me on their knees,
my hard Saracen fathers,
would laugh at the rhymes that I made up;
just like a puppet they would make me jump,
The poem ends rather cryptically:
How keen I was when I came to touch
the working men’s blue overalls:
I want to tell them that, those Saracens.
‘Broom’ begins and ends on the same variably phrased aphorismic image:
Virgin with the basket
carrying broom back to the saints,
no weeping is more silent than yours:
what will your stiff silver hand do
when it is raised to bless the countryside?
The exhaustion, and ears of corn and vines in the wind’s throat,
will the chestnut split open to the dead?
O beautiful lady with the basket, singing,
bringing broom for the living, broom for the dead.
‘Broom’, as with so many other of Scotellaro’s short lyrics, has the lingering afterglow of fable. ‘Return Journey’ features some imaginative descriptive imagery, as in ‘the jaded newspaper of Italy/ with nothing more to say to anyone’ and closes on a haunting if obscure aphorism:
From village to town the stripped land,
the church bell silent
and a voice how much more distant.
‘The Grain for the Sepulchre’ is one of the most striking short poems in this book, though one almost wishes it ended on ‘touched’ rather than on the slightly clumsily sentimental closing trope, especially since the opening trope is so stunning. This is it in full:
The grain for the sepulchre of the blindfolded Christ
has sprouted in the cupboard.
June will come, my mother will die.
I want to bring her ears of corn just gleaned
and wrapped up in her sacred shawl
which I would not otherwise have touched.
Then home will be the road I follow:
Mamma, do not die, so I may love you more.
‘The Crags of Positano’ closes on a Heathcliffian invocation: ‘How I want, dear one, to love you/ as long as the crags last, as long as fear’. ‘Amalfi Coast’ ushers us in with a painterly first verse:
Pale blue sea with darker-coloured pools and milky streams
and you streaked by the carob’s dress of leaves,
to the even and indifferent rhythm of your breath
the waves’ long hair is folded over sunken, violated rocks.
‘Love asks for nothing’ writes Scotellaro; ‘You only are the love I want, little girl still growing up’ who has ‘the smallness of the still green orange,/ and will need to turn yellow to be of my age’. This poem ends on a captivating Shakespearean flourish pressed between effective half-rhymes:
Our lot to flower and die, departing blessed,
each one in turn, to each their season,
throughout the days and nights, loveless.
‘Tragic Song’ closes with a very simple but effective trope punctuated by a subtle half-rhyme:
That is the house that fell down,
the house of two old people, married young,
each with a son:
two walls, a battered shutter.
This is perhaps a typical example of Scotellaro’s focus on ‘Particulars’, so much being said by the ‘two walls’ and ‘battered shutter’. Scotellaro impresses with some luscious descriptive imagery in ‘Villa d’Este’:
and down down with the roar of the water
Everywhere statues sleep
on their plinths,
their stone heads lean
over tumbling streams.
Fine moss veils
down, down you go!
As when, solemnly, the echoing wind
blows through the woods to the sea.
In ‘Women’ Scotellaro manages to evoke the feminine gender in two short sibilant images: ‘distant stars’ and ‘the rustle of skirts’. ‘A Time of Nostalgia’ starts wistfully:
A law imposed
an ode on my life:
to search my shores alone,
songs of arrival and departure.
‘Solitary Nature’ conveys much of innocence and experience in the colours green and red: ‘Only green vines survive:/ red grapes will lie fermenting in their vats’. The second numeralled part of this short poem imparts some beautiful natural images, subtle p-alliteration (‘puppets’, ‘sprout up’) and assonance simmering throughout:
Children amaze us
with puppets they have moulded
out of quarried clay,
shoots sprout up
in wind and shadow.
Over my father laid in the ground
a carpet of dahlias is blooming.
It concludes on a sublime aphorism:
The only garden in the village
is the graveyard.
‘Mythology’ begins with a trope which this book’s introducers see as pivotal to Scotellaro’s poetic credo:
I had been raising a temple to my life
hung with paintings of Nostalgia
and of Pain
‘Nostalgia’ and ‘Pain’ are, apparently, the poet’s sacramental mascots. This mysterious poem, which almost seems like a kind of dread prayer to haecceity:
shards of vases of glass,
ceramic and terracotta,
bound my eyes in a cloud
from which to gaze upon their story.
Terror seized me: that scattered
should possess tongues beyond the human!
And one among the shards gleamed white,
sure of its secret.
In the cryptically titled ‘Auctioneer’, Scotellaro captivates once more with his dusky rustic descriptions –here homes are described organically, but as empty, as ‘caves’ or hollow ‘shells’:
Across silent landscapes I have come
and a chorus of cocks is crowing
in the caves of the village shaped like a shell.
And the auctioneer whose cries are muffled
among houses hollowed from the earth
tells of our inexorable path
into the sunset.
‘Mass to ‘The Holy Spirit’’ is Scotellaro expressing his Catholic scepticism and, perhaps consciously, c/k-alliteration scores through the poem –‘catacombs’, ‘pink’, ‘neglect’, ‘flickers’– as if to give a scraping quality to its sound:
Scent of catacombs
‘Let us pray’.
On the walls
pink from the damp
or even from neglect,
humble flickers of light.
Scotellaro then plays sinisterly on the subliminal hint of vampirism, even cannibalism, implicit in the ritual of the Eucharist:
‘Lord, I tear your flesh,
I drink of your blood.
Throughout the ages
we have on this crude altar
slain you anew, Lord.’
‘Potenza Evening’ is an evocative depiction of war-torn Italy:
…everywhere are ruins
of bombed-out things,
and wires dangling.
Shadows, though, deceive us,
‘Canticle’ has some lovely natural imagery, fields are a ‘milky green’ and ‘paths and rocks’ ‘an immaculate white’ –with the religious connotations of the word ‘immaculate’ one might read this as Scotellaro’s own way of making simple rustic features of his surroundings somehow sacred; this is an evocative poem, again, of particulars imparting universal quandaries:
Children build little houses with the soil
or, in groups of not more than four,
act out their fabulous tales.
An adult shadowed in a sunny porch
does not know what to do.
The laundry is spread on the stones by the tower.
In ‘Young Just Like You’ Scotellaro depicts some ‘drifters’ in the streets with some of his most effective descriptions:
With nothing in their pockets
but the blackened stubs
of scavenged cigarettes,
all they know is how to lose themselves
in sparkling shop windows,
at the entrances of bars,
by the speeding trams,
or the publicity hoardings
that own the city squares.
Again there’s some wonderfully subtle alliteration at work here: ‘…pockets/ blackened stubs/ of scavenged cigarettes’ etc. This is one of Scotellaro’s most effective poems in terms of descriptive language, image and mood, not to say aphorism, as in ‘how very many of them/ wish for the moon at the bottom of the well’, and this is all without counting the social polemic:
When they make a move, their only move,
they’re at the side of the reapers
sleeping by the monuments,
waiting for a hand on their shoulder
from the man with an offer of work.
They’re by the harbour porters
happy with their dirty faces
and their dangling arms
after they have dropped their burdens.
This poem includes my favourite trope of Scotellaro’s, striking in terms of its mixture of gritty tangible imagery and abstract:
Sometimes they’ll lounge around together
orgying on smoke and existentialism,
young and like you sick from nothingness.
Once again, there’s a superb deployment of alliteration and assonance: ‘smoke’, ‘existentialism’, ‘sick’ –‘orgying’, ‘young’, ‘nothingness’. The only thing arguably missing here are commas either side of ‘like you’ in the last line; but it’s a scorching trope. This poem flows to its close in similar style, rich in aphorism, religious imagery and alliteration, sibilance and assonance:
Souls ready to respond to any call,
conscripted and wandering,
companions to stray dogs,
ours is the filthiest banner,
the period of our youth
the crudest of torments.
Now in the long summer noons
when the scorched land
turns us as restless as fire,
it is the time to cross ourselves,
to say yes to the Man we will become
and who waits for us
on the Corner,
sickle and book in his hand!
‘Distant Evening’ begins memorably: ‘Already the mule’s iron hoof is striking the cobblestones/ as they fit their pillows into their saddlebags’. It’s a wistful poem, weighted with a sense of decline and death:
It’s certain that I will no longer hear the songs,
my mother’s lullabies and drowsy rhymes
played on the zampogna and tambourine.
It ends on an almost synaesthesic note, crackling with c/k-alliteration in its striking penultimate line, only to then hiss out on e-assonances:
Away from home, your words have lost
their flavour. Your land, your beloved
land, breathing over there tonight
with re-awakened crickets and the stars,
is suffering here a useless hell.
Rather ironically, or perhaps deliberately, ‘Easter ‘47’ begins with an arboreal scene straight out of Greek mythology:
The sun blazes above the streams,
the wood with its primroses and violets dazzles us
and now, as the wind rustles the leaves,
the shepherds play their reed-pipes again.
Oh today the redeemed men
(there’s a three-legged stool piled high
‘Legend of Love’ contains some wonderful otherworldly imagery: ‘Oh shame, it will be she who is grieving/ under the children’s cradle of wind!’ and ‘where the holes in the charcoal kilns,/ night’s enemy, glowed in the field’ –in many ways Scotellaro is mythologizing his rural and agricultural heritage. Scotellaro uses his ‘Particulars’, natural and rustic images, to great figurative effect:
There, on sands circling the world
blown by African winds,
it was for two fragile lives
broken apart and joined again like two grains,
loves killed because they were loves cursed,
it was for them that caravans, men and women, lovers,
piled up the rock of tears
overlooking the sea.
This allegorical quality, engorged with mythological imagery, is also evident in ‘They Sleep on the Wide Stones’:
a young girl in a soft veil,
adolescence written down in a school book,
a limbo, now hell.
Now in the cabinet
the women have found
a sleeping serpent.
And the reapers in their red coats
look for a bed on the wide stones.
‘Honey Rains on the Unmarried Women’ is playful in its ‘slight changes of shade’, while its imagery plays at trapping natural living things in artificial environments:
a trembling of butterflies’ wings
in the Cinema, you remember.
And still you wait at the charmed balcony
removed from the times;
there you lived and through sun and snow
you were a flame within your narrow confines.
‘Along the Seafront in the City’ meditates on the infinitesimal life of the human when compared to nature’s majesty:
What impression can your spittle make
on the satin dress of the sea
adorned with the violet and blue lights
of the legends of the city?
‘No Bathing at the Beaches for Us’ is a little more inconsequential, a kind of beach scene study in description:
No bathing at the beaches for us,
we’re off to harvest
and the sun will bake us like a crust of bread.
We have tough necks, faces
of earth and we have arms
of dry, brick-coloured wood.
Though it is still punctuated with aphorisms:
We sleep on threshing-floors
tied to the halters of our mules.
‘Montescaglioso’ is Scotellaro’s poetic depiction of the bloody confrontation between farm workers and police at the eponymous place, and features tribute to that day’s casualty:
All these leaves that once were green:
the sound of leaves being shed is carried by the wind
that drives the furrows in the churned-up earth again.
Each furrow has a name, and there’s a perennial leaf
which comes back on to the branch at night in spring
to make the day new.
Novello fell on the road at dawn,
at that point which overlooks the countryside,
at that hour when you rule the time to come.
From Chicago to here the world is near
on the scaly mountain that looks like the bow of a ship,
an old bow that has risen up
and for a long time smashed the waves.
The village walks through clouds, walks
along the road where a man has stood up at the helm,
at dawn when on the branch
the perennial leaf comes back in spring.
The reprising image of the ‘leaf’ that ‘comes back in spring’ at the close hints at resurrection, if not of a life, then of an idea, a cause. ‘The Cantata at Monticchio’ has a similarly retributive, rejuvenative quality, its take on nature infused with Roman Catholic iconography:
The white cloud has gone,
its horse shape dissolved,
the monks in their graves at the roots
and the trees singing matins,
the water returns, singing and rippling
for the fresh memories
that we will become and the beautiful stories.
The closing poem of this fascinating collection of Scotellaro’s poetical works, ‘It’s Light Now’, is also one of the longest poems in the book, and is divided into four numeralled sections. It’s clear that Scotellaro has no truck with Catholic ostentation of worship:
We all know your true glory
Lord of the Cross.
You have no more need of incense.
There’s a haunting, slightly sinister quality to this poem:
And you will hear again a new song:
the most ancient wail from a young boy,
a woman’s most demented scream.
This is Scotellaro’s dusky rustic lyricism at full tilt, hamlets littered with ‘smoky cottages’, but not without its more ethereal flourishes:
Wind, help the vagrant
who, touched by a thread of her sweet sleep,
chases the rose-coloured shawl of the sunset.
The final trope ends the book on a cool and thought-provoking note:
She promises against enthralling tedium
the lost legend
and a night no longer dark and silent.
We should be immensely grateful to Caroline Maldonado and Allen Prowle for translating these impressive poems and introducing us to the work of this more obscure of Italian poets. Rocco Scotellaro was certainly a force to be reckoned with poetically and politically, a poet who, like Garcia Lorca, was strongly rooted in his place and time but also inextricably to Arabic ancestors: both poets understood history as a timeless stream and their own place within it, mere moments of bare feet in rushing water.
While one shouldn’t romanticise the early deaths of poets, nor speculate superstitiously on comparisons, but it’s curious to note that Scotellaro died at the same green age as another political poet and activist of his time, Percy Bysshe Shelley, whose poem on Peterloo was in some sense, albeit much more briefly, echoed in Scotellaro’s on Montescaglioso.
It only remains to remark on the striking cover painting, a stunningly expressive portrait of Scotellaro by Carlo Levi, Ritratto di Rocco Scotellaro, 1961 (reproduction by Vito Sacco).
This book is highly recommended, especially for readers seeking out belatedly translated posthumous poets from the Continent.
Alan Morrison © 2017