by Joseph J. Pivato
In Arezzo, at the railway station,
there is a café-restaurant that looks onto
the tracks. (Roman Candles, 34)
When I first read the poems of Pier Giorgio Di Cicco in 1977 I was shocked. Here was a writer who was speaking for us, a forgotten generation of Italian kids who had grown up in Canada and did not know who we were. We also did not know what we were. Were we Italians like our parents who happened to be living in Canada through the accident of immigration? Or were we Canadians of Italian backgrounds? We did not fit either of these troublesome identities. We were just trying to survive in a new, ever-changing society; we were working to learn the language and to fit in somehow. The sharp images in Di Cicco’s poetry brought back a little-known and almost forgotten history. Despite our initial reluctance to revisit our roots, Di Cicco’s powerful poetic voice made us listen and see some things for the first time.
Our parents had suffered through depression, dictatorship and war in Italy. Some of our fathers had been soldiers and then prisoners of war. They had known many deaths in their families and villages. They had survived all this to endure post-war poverty in Italy. Emigration was the only choice for thousands of Italian families. Their relatives in Italy were sad to see them go, but they were relieved as well. The family farm was saved from being split up yet again. With thousands of men and women leaving Italy there were less people competing for the few jobs that eventually became available. These young immigrants in the New World often sent back money to support aging parents or help a brother or cousin start a small business. But these exiles who benefited Italy directly and indirectly were soon forgotten as the European economic miracle of the late 1960s began to transform the old continent into a "New America." Not only were they forgotten, but relatives back in Italy who do not want to be reminded of the former poverty, were almost ashamed of these former immigrants who came back to visit their hometowns and villages. As the sons and daughters of these exiles we had lost the little Italian languages we knew, and only communicated with our parents in a regional dialect sprinkled with English words. So the generation that Di Cicco was writing about, although born in Italy and even schooled there in part, no longer belonged there in any way, not even as tourists.
Did we really feel we belonged in Canada? Not when we were growing up in the 1950s. We were often made to feel as if we were from another race, an inferior race that was not too bright but good for manual labour. We had strange non-Canadian sounding last names with long vowels at the end. And even when the English/Irish nuns translated our Christian first names into English they often came out sounding strange. We usually had one name at home and another one at school. We also had to learn a new language which meant that we were at a disadvantage academically. Many teachers encouraged us to go into technical trades; to work with our hands like our immigrant parents. Most of us did not even dream of going to university in the 1960’s even though university enrollments were exploding all over the North American continent. So the very few of us who did manage to complete a university degree were shocked to find a poet writing about us. Suddenly there was somebody writing about our experiences. Suddenly we were not alone, isolated and voiceless.
Pier Giorgio Di Cicco proved this when he edited an historic anthology for this lost generation in 1978. He called it Roman Candles which proved to be a fortuitous name since it went on to spark a whole library of books by Italian-Canadian writers, authors working in English, in French and in Italian. Giorgio was one of the first to sense that there was a number of writers scattered across the country who were speaking for this generation of young people forgotten both by Italy and Canada. He went on to encourage many of these writers—Mary di Michele, Filippo Salvatore, Mary Melfi—and began organizing meetings in the Toronto area. Eventually these meetings led to conferences and the founding of the Association of Italian-Canadian Writers in Vancouver in 1986.
This brief introduction is by way of background information for the poetry of Di Cicco which interests me here, his early poetry. The poems from the 1970s most often document incidents from his experiences of dislocation which speak to me and to many other people of this lost generation. They are poems which were initially stimulated by Giorgio’s first return trip to Italy in 1974. In the "Preface" to Roman Candles he articulated this awakening of his Italian roots with these words:
I went, biased against a legacy that had made growing up in North America a difficult but not impossible chore (or so I thought). I went out of curiosity, and came back to Canada conscious of the fact that I'd been a man without a country for most of my life. And I became bitter at the thought that most people carry on day after day deeply aware that they do so on the land upon which they were born. It became clear to me that they had something immediately and emotionally at stake with their environment. And that phenomenon was something I had had to construct at every effort to feel relevant in an English country. (9)
Di Cicco’s early poetry is a reiteration of these sentiments of loss and alienation. His lyrics are unashamedly autobiographical to an extent that was not acceptable to proponents of the New Criticism or European Formalism. In "The Man Without a Country," Di Cicco’s apostrophe to Italy is heart-felt, "Italia bella, I return to you." (Burning, 25). He often recalls his dead father and his dead brother. The war time events of his family are often alluded to, as is its dislocation to Canada and the United States. Di Cicco’s subject matter and themes emerge from the forgotten social history which I summarized above. It is as if he cannot help but write out of this experience and speak for his lost, voiceless generation. What is also striking about his early poems is that we hear the clear distinct voice and see a new perspective. The poems made us see who we were.
The overwhelming impulse to deal with this material from personal history is evident in Di Cicco’s first chapbook of verse, We Are the Light Turning (1975). The personal voice comes through in poems printed in The Grad Post and Dreadnaught 52 in 1976. In an early collection, The Circular Dark (1977), Di Cicco has a section devoted to his Italian trip and to members of his family. It begins with the idyllic poem, "Italy, 1974," which recalls a Tuscany of lovers in warm evenings and old men in the sun. It is a lament for a lost world and begins with the poet’s wish to be part of this landscape,
—nella campagna-couched between two hills
in the circular dark I lay in the summer cool (34)
For a brief moment there is the illusion that, "the kinship between the speaker and the earth is repeatedly marked, thus constructing a subject that can claim a certain territoriality…in the figurative repossession of the mother."(Blodgett, 629) The ultimate sense of loss is overwhelming, however, and is suggested by the use of the past tense. The happy return trip to Italy reminds the speaker, and us, of all that was lost, of all that was changed, forever.
In poem after poem old Italian men and women appear. Familiar scenes and places are haunted by the dead. These Italians have a sense of belonging "in their fields" where they are born, work and die. In contrast to this sense of peace is the next poem, "Impersonation," about the poet’s father dying of heart failure in a strange hospital, in a strange city. The disease has changed and aged his father so much that the poet no longer recognizes him. It is an impersonation of his father, or perhaps it is the speaker distancing himself from a dying man in order to lessen the sense of loss. The poem that follows, "In Memory of," is a private lament for this lost father.
This elegiac note continues in the other poems, "My Mother Has a Photograph," and "The House Where I was Born," which try to recall the fleeting happiness of former times before the war and when the poet was born. But the most moving poem is to his dead brother, "Giorgino Buon Anima," whose name he also bears. Killed at age 14 by a wayward shell his enlarged picture is above the kitchen table and his tragic death is retold by their grieving mother over and over again.
sleep well outside my mother’s skull:
i will leave you alone after her.
when i am gone
you will have your name back
despite me (42)
In many later poems from The Tough Romance Di Cicco retells these war time events from his family history. In "Grandfather" the old man is killed by Nazis; in "Donna Italiana" we have, "my brother’s corpse in the shelled house in Arezzo." These scars are always visible to this poet and to the post-war generation who responded to his verse. One of the most recurrent images in Di Cicco’s early verse is the remembrance of the dead in the family and in the community. "They are my grandfathers and my great-grandfathers / and the ancient men that kept my ribs burning at Monte Cassino…"(68) This poet has a profound mission to search for a sense of community among Italians in Canada and to unite them with their relatives in Italy. His own sense of alienation can only be alleviated if he fulfills his poetic quest. This search for a sense of community after the fragmentation of uprooting whole villages is a value he shares with several other Italian-Canadian writers: Dino Minni, Frank Paci, Caterina Edwards, Marco Micone and Pasquale Verdicchio.
In several series of poems Di Cicco has transformed personal history into works of literature which are moving and powerful. His individual voice is clear; his command of the English language is sure, so sure that he can insert Italian words.
We had all studied English poetry in school and had memorized stanza after stanza of Wordsworth or Tennyson. Shakespeare had given us a sense of speaking the English sentence. In the 1960s we began to read English Canadian poetry which often seemed like American poetry or an imitation of British verse. There were few non-English words, even French words, in Canadian poems. So we were shocked to find Di Cicco’s English poems sprinkled with foreign words. But these foreign words were not so foreign to us since they were Italian words from our other life. We first note these strange words in titles of poems in The Circular Dark, "La Gente," "il Professore," "Fotografia," and "Giorgino Buon Anima." Di Cicco is slowly changing our understanding of English Canadian poetry. It can no longer be only in pure English. In "Italy, 1974" the opening words, "nella campagna," make us stop and reread this poem. These Italian words are not in these poems for exoticism or for local colour. These are not tourist poems from the voyeuristic gaze of a visitor. These words are used in a very personal manner. In A Burning Patience and in Dancing in the House of Cards there are many Italian words in the titles and in the poems: "Primavera," "Basta," "Rabbia," "Ricordo," "Pietà," "Passato: Love," "I Poeti," "Peccato," and "Ritratto." The repeated and intermittent use of Italian titles gives these words a substance that makes them concrete objects in themselves. Mary di Michele observed that these Italian words act like stones on the smooth English road. (1986)
These Italian words have several functions which can add other levels of meaning to the poems. Sometimes they are used because there is no English equivalent. They reflect the limitations of the new language and of translation. In the case of Di Cicco we could try to apply the four levels of language described by Henri Gobard but it would not fit the model in the same way as other Italian-Canadian poets who grew up speaking a regional Italian dialect rather that the official language. Since Di Cicco is from Tuscany his regional language is also the national language. While growing up Di Cicco had only two languages to deal with: standard Italian and English. Many of his Italian peers also had one or two regional dialects to contend with which may have put them at a further disadvantage, a situation described by Antonio D'Alfonso in The Other Shore. Since Di Cicco escaped this linguistic fragmentation experienced by immigrants from other parts of Italy he was better able to exercise a leadership role in the development of Italian-Canadian writing.
For Di Cicco the use of Italian in titles and in poems has an aesthetic function necessary for his type of poetry and for his individual voice. The poet, the speaker, seem to naturally fall back into Italian when the English words fail to capture the full meaning intended. The associations around the word are best communicated in the original Italian term. For example, "Ricordo," a memory, has many associations: remembering a dead family member, having a physical reminder of someone absent, capturing an aspect of nostalgia, making a link to Italy, or as Di Cicco phrases it, "Memento d’Italia." It is a word often used in Italian songs and poetry and this intertexuality is also brought into the English verse. In the poem, "Immigrant Music," he articulates some of these cultural memories,
I play the tunes my father used to know, my father used to
sing in the attic of his loneliest thought,
thinking up a street in Italy, or carrying a daughter
into an autumn park; you knew these songs over and over
the songs of sun, all of them are songs of sun…. (Patience, 26)
While a few of the words are common concrete terms, "fotografia," most are abstract words which capture ideas associated with life in Italy, or in Italian culture. "Primavera," literally, first buds, translates as springtime, but it powerfully connotes the early spring of Italy and all the associations with Italian flowers and fruit, with poetry, paintings and music which use the title, "primavera." A numbers of dishes use the word primavera so we also have the aromas and taste of Italian food. Some words have double meanings. "Peccato," means sin, but is also an expression of regret as in "That is too bad." In the poem by that name the speaker expresses regret at the situation he finds himself in and wishes he could escape to a country reminiscent of Italy. "Pietà," meaning pity, is the title of a number of Renaissance paintings and sculptures and has also come to be used in love poetry. However it also has religious connotations and thus has associations with a mythic level of language. For the poem, "Pietà" it is used in a playful parody of these common places.(Dancing, 63) "Ritratto" means portrait, but the word comes from ritrarre, to turn away and the poem gives us a view of the speaker dejected, turned away from the world. It is a measure of Di Cicco’s sophistication with two languages that he can play with irony in both in the same work. In many later poems by Di Cicco the Italian words become more common and more complex, "Nostalgia," "Memento d’Italia," "Maledetto," and "Donna Italiana," all from The Tough Romance (1979).
These Italian words evoke the mythic sense of language because they point to a lost language, lost for a whole generation of immigrant children who grew up having to cast aside their regional dialects and learn English as quickly as possible. As a result a whole emotional level of language has not been open to these people from the time they finished grade school. Di Cicco, even while alluding to these school traumas, tries to recapture this lost language for a whole generation. By strategically placing the Italian word in the English context he reminds us of those emotional ties to our speech. In this style he has parallels in the poems of Mary di Michele and Antonio D'Alfonso.
To many readers the function of the Italian words is to remind us that each poem is the work of a writer with that background and is the product of the influence of that distinct culture on the English language poem, making it a poem unlike other Canadian poems. While there is artistic intention in the strategic placement of the Italian words, there is also a strong compulsion to use them. These Italian words may act as stones on the smooth English road but they also add to the pleasing sound of the poetry. The musicality of the Italian language becomes part of the English poem:
Italia bella; I return to you.
there is no question of lateness
for I was taken from you and cannot
remember the parting
There is a discernable difference between Di Cicco’s early poetry and his later verse in terms of style, especially in line length and complexity. The style of Di Cicco’s early poems is lyrical with a tendency to use the shorter line and smaller stanzas. This is very clear in his first chapbook, We are the Light Turning, which uses a simple, almost child-like, vocabulary and sentence structure:
The simple words, are they not beautiful?
The way you hold them up to the light,
what are they saying ?
Do you recognize it?
They say the word for light, not much more. (11)
The early poems of The Circular Dark tend to focus on concrete images, if not concrete objects: an old photograph, an old man, a garden, an old house, a beach, a street at night, a school yard. The language and images can often be impressionistic capturing a mood or passing emotion, a reaction to a place or event. The images are often metaphors, metonymy, for a life experience or memory. There is a certain power in this stark and minimalist verse. Many poems omit punctuation and focus on word and white space. Amprimoz and Viselli are correct in observing that "in the case of Italian-Canadian poetry, the experience of language is more important than the language experience."(108)
In contrast to this early verse, Di Cicco’s later poetry tends to use longer lines and much enjambment. There are longer poems with larger stanzas. They gradually acquire a more abstract vocabulary as the subject matter becomes more overtly philosophical and spiritual. It is now necessary to explain the ideas with more words, rather that just with an impressionistic image. This is epitomized in Virgin Science, Di Cicco’s last book, which includes long prose poems, much repetition, and a mechanistic word play to parody computer and scientific language. There is less use of Italian words, however many Latin words appear in keeping with the philosophical subject matter and argument.
In his last book Di Cicco is moving on to the intellectual mainstream of academic poetry after having worked through his earlier sense of displacement; a natural evolutionary process. The legacy that he has given Italian-Canadian writing is that he traced the transition between two worlds. He has tried to create a sense of community among a lost generation of immigrant children and their parents. The power and purity of Pier Giorgio Di Cicco’s early poems make us return to them over and over again. They deal with honest emotions which we can all appreciate, if not identify in our own experience. For me these qualities are captured in a poem first printed in Roman Candles:
"The Man Called Beppino"
The man who lost his barbershop during the war
loves great white roses at the back of a house beside
a highway. The roses dream with him,
of being understood in clear english, or of a large
Italian sun, or of walking forever on a
Sunday afternoon. (11)
Amprimoz, Alexandre & Sante Viselli (1985) "Death Between Two Cultures: Italian-Canadian Poetry," in Contrasts: Comparative Essays on Italian-Canadian Writing. Ed. J. Pivato. Montreal: Guernica Editions.
Blodgett, E.D. (1995) "Towards an Ethnic Style," Canadian Review of Comparative Literature 22, 3-4, 623-637.
D'Alfonso, Antonio (1985) The Other Shore. Montreal: Guernica Editions.
Di Cicco, Pier Giorgio (1975) We Are the Light Turning. Toronto: Missing Link Press.
_____ (1977) The Sad Facts. Fiddlehead.
_____ (1977) The Circular Dark. Ottawa: Borealis Press.
_____ (1977) Dancing in the House of Cards. Toronto: Three Tress Press.
_____ ( 1978) A Burning Patience. Ottawa: Borealis Press.
_____ Ed. (1978) Roman Candles: An Anthology of 17 Italo-Canadian Poets. Toronto: Hounslow Press.
_____ (1979) The Tough Romance. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart.
_____ (1986) Virgin Science: Hunting Holistic Paradigms. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart.
Di Michele, Mary (1986) Discussion Paper, First National Conference of Italian-Canadian Writers. Vancouver.
Dreadnaught 52, pickup 11 (1976).
Gobard, Henri (1976) L’Aliénation linguistique. Paris: Flammarion.
The Grad Post (1976), University of Toronto, 15 April, 1976.
Purdy, Al. Ed. (1976) Storm Warning II. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart.
Updated February 12 2015 by Student & Academic Services