‘Nobody looks at her anymore.’ This line jumps from the page of Contemporary Sicilian Poetry, Italica Press’ new bilingual anthology of poetry from the island. It refers to the moon, that much used poetical metaphor, but it seems to stand for poetry as a whole, the genre and the concept. As such it’s a lament, even an entreaty to do precisely the opposite, to engage with poetry. The time when a new edition from a renowned poet could challenge the sales of a best-selling novel are long gone and perhaps it’s true, that nobody reads poetry anymore, but if this anthology is anything to go by, you should, you really should.
The volume is compiled from a wide variety of the island’s poets, some who write in Sicilian and some in Italian. If the original poem is in Sicilian, the poet has also rendered the Italian version. Ana Ilievska, one of the editors, has then provided an Anglophone audience with the English versions. In short, this volume will cater for a diverse readership and is the ideal entry point for anyone wanting to dip their toe in the lyrical waters of contemporary Sicilian poetical thought.
In the introduction, Antonio Sichera poses the question as to whether we can even categorise the island’s contemporary poets in this manner. To borrow from Gesualdo Bufalino, there are many Sicilys and it is the anthology’s strength that it reflects this diversity. Any literature worth its salt will indeed have this multiplicity – you can anthologise Irish poets or Scottish ones, but it would be unhelpful to suggest that they all sing from the same hymn sheet. Contemporary Sicilian Poetry has reflected this range magnificently and that is the key to the book’s success.
Some of the poets have drawn inspiration from the past and some have their gaze firmly set on the future. Sebastiano Burgaretta has looked to Ibn Hamdis, the Syracusan poet who sang of Muslim Sicily in the eleventh century.
‘Who would have told us,
mud of the world,
that this tormented land,
trampled and cursed by all,
would become again a bridge and paradise…’
By invoking Ibn Hamdis, he has contextualised the migrational crossroads of modern Sicily, casting a withering eye on anyone, ‘even from afar’, who ‘spits and spatters the gall of judgements.’
By contrast, Marilena Renda references the visits of Freud and Goethe, not to mention Raymond Roussel and the Hotel des Palmes. By way of an anti-moon, she knows ‘The problem of darkness remains open…’
‘I ask forgiveness for the darkness I brought to the world –
I imagine the poets saying to the fire that comes –
the night Raymond Roussel died everyone pretended
not to hear the ticking of his little darkness’
Hers is the world of Persephone as Sichera knows, the poetic abyss, the oblivion of words that can’t find their way to the light, destined to be consumed by the island’s fire.
Salvo Vecchio’s ‘Moon’ that nobody looks at anymore is conflicted, ‘a satellite of a reflected vanity’ – its vanity reflected on our world as we, in turn, cast our vanity on its pale surface. Have we all just become jaded, do we interact with the mere ‘habits of a seemingly eternal dance’? Have we gone deaf to the marvels of the world. The moon seems to be pleading for us to turn away from our smart phones and our screens, to engage with the society that surrounds us, to be active, a participant.
Roberto Minardi invokes ‘The Accountant’s Romanticism’ – the world’s obsession with profit and loss – ‘He creates a red sequence. Profit for purpose, / the sums as proof…’ If there is a skewed romanticism to the numbers, there is a longing for an escape: ‘He stretches out a facsimile… If only there were a window, / the mood of daylight would enter…’ The use of the subjunctive in Italian and English is significant, ‘If only…’ Is this world in thrall to money? It seems outmoded. The ‘lacquered frame’ in his office is ‘yellowed’ – he and we are stifled by this fixation with ledgers and spreadsheets, even in the dusty offices of a remote Sicilian town.
The anthology features 55 poets, too many to list in this review. The fact they haven’t been mentioned here is in no way detrimental to their merits. The volume is laden with beauty, pain, power and force. You will find a complex Sicily in these pages, a Sicily at war with itself, but also a Sicily that projects beauty and truth, concepts that, at times, are just out of reach. If only… if only.
Italica Press: Contemporary Sicilian Poetry