Before becoming a novelist, Stefano D’Arrigo was an accomplished poet. His first and only poetry collection was more than the acorn from which the giant oak tree of Horcynus Orca eventually grew. Reading Sicilian Code, I wondered what could have happened, if D’Arrigo had continued with poetry instead of investing all his time and energy into his magnum opus. Perhaps, the resultant poetic corpus would have been an even more important contribution to Italian literature than his white whale of a novel? We’ll never know. His literary debut certainly requires more critical attention than it has received so far, and its English translation has been long overdue.
There are two different versions of Sicilian Code. The original one was published by Vanni Scheiwiller in 1957 with a modest print run of 350 copies. A year later it obtained the prestigious Crotone Prize. The jury was made up of such famous literary figures as Giuseppe Ungaretti, Carlo Emilio Gadda, Giacomo Debenedetti, and Umberto Bosco. The collection was dedicated to the poet’s mother and consisted of 18 poems. The opening poem was titled Five Motifs for Youth (Cinque motivi per la giovinezza). The new edition came out in Mondadori in 1978 with a dedication to D’Arrigo’s wife Jutta, which recognised the significance of Sicilian Code in the making of Horcynus Orca published three years before the second version of the collection: “to Jutta, from that distant beginning of the horcynian nostos”. The new Sicilian Code comprised twenty poems. Five Motifs for Youth had been replaced with a new poem titled Pre-Greek (Pregreca). Another two poems had been added: When with the Mild (Quando con mite) and For a Boy Performing as an Angel in a Sacred Play in Sicily (Per un fanciullo ingaggiato come angelo durante una Sacra rappresentazione in Sicilia). This review will look at the second version of the collection reissued in 2015 by the Messinese publisher Mesogea.
The twenty poems, in which D’Arrigo deciphers the code of his homeland, confront the reader with an entanglement of the familiar and the enigmatic. There are the expected themes and images related to sea voyages, marine life, war, Christianity, Homer’s epics and Greek mythology, the relationship between the son and the mother. Besides those, the reader encounters more cryptic motifs associated with metaphysical and even mystical experiences like communication with the world of the dead or the possibility of living an alternative life. To carry out an in-depth analysis of this dense and varied work is clearly beyond the scope of this review. I have limited myself to a brief outline of several significant poems, providing where necessary my subjective interpretation.
The opening poem Pre-Greek is the longest one in the book, running for nine pages and consisting of fifteen stanzas of unequal length. Its major motif is emigration and the main recurring image is the burial amphora with the curled-up skeleton of an ancient dweller of pre-Greek Sicily (this type of interment came to be known as enchytrismos). The emigration of Sicilians, for D’Arrigo, has occurred in two ways. The first and the most familiar one is the mass exodus of the impoverished inhabitants of southern Italy at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. By 1915, around 1.4 million Sicilians had emigrated, mostly to the United States. In the poem, the sea voyages of the ships overcrowded with Sicilian emigrants are inextricably linked with the metaphysical travel of their bronze-age ancestors to the other world:
S’imbarcavano per quelle rive
in classe unica, ammucchiati
o clandestini nelle stive
di necropoli come navi olearie.
All’impiedi nelle giare, rannicchiati
sui talloni, masticando qualcosa
nella notte, forse tossico
(quali pensieri? quali memorie?)
nella tenace, paziente posa
dal cafone resa famosa
[On those shores they embarked
all in one class, huddled together
or as stowaways in the holds
of necropoli—oil-carrying ships.
Standing in the jars, crouched
on their heels, chewing something,
probably poisonous, in the night
(what thoughts? what memories?)
in the famed steadfast and patient
pose of a peasant]
The underground emigration of the ancient Sicilians that takes place in the clay, volcanic tuff, and deposits of pumice is contrasted with the migration of “the others”. The poem begins with the words “The others migrated” (Gli altri migravano). Migration here is an equally metaphorical notion, related to a more privileged and glamorous passage to other lands or other worlds. The more fortunate “others” migrate in solar ships across the sky into eternity, whereas the emigration of the Sicilians is limited to the land, the sea and the tomb. The drastic circumstances that have driven them away from their homeland are personified as sphinxes, pumas, and lions with human faces.
The sweeping vision of Pre-Greek is counterbalanced by the focus on an individual fate in the fourth poem of the collection titled You Who Still Have Speech in This World (Tu che nel mondo hai parola ancora). This tripartite piece can seem hermetic in its imagery and use of language. The hero of the poem is addressed in the second person. It appears that he has led an ordinary, if not insignificant, existence, slowly dissolving in its boredom, which has been trickling down along with the frozen grains of sand in “the sudden hourglasses” (le improvvise clessidre) of his pain. The man is described in a mock heroic manner as a “domestic paladin” who has to confront the dragon “among us” (fra di noi) armed with the spear of his voice. The dragon here can stand for the numerous pressures in society one has to overcome in order to realise his potential. There is a glimpse of somebody else, (un altro), who may be the more adventurous version of our hero. That other man, rather than getting embroiled in a futile fight with the dragon, proceeds beyond its “drum skin” (la pelle a tamburo) and wanders into the untrodden regions of infinite discovery, his voice no longer a weapon, but “the outline of the spire of screams” (profilo d’urli a guglia).
Another poem that deserves a closer examination is For a Boy Performing as an Angel in a Sacred Play in Sicily. The play in question is the Sacra rappresentazione, a religious drama reenacting scenes from the Bible which originated in the fourteenth-century Tuscany and is analogous to the mystery play. The language of the performance is Latin. This powerful poem consists of thirteen stanzas, each of which has it least one instance of the recurring phrase “who asks” (chi chiede). “Who asks” is the rhetorical question running through the poem, which focuses on the ambivalent situation of the seven-year-old boy who is obviously forced to play the angel Gabriel in the Annunciation scene. His role as a Biblical character is juxtaposed with his real, material self—someone with a body and with a lived experience who is supposed to be an ethereal creature against his will. The boy has to stand with one leg up and recite his lines in Latin without understanding a word of what he is saying. In order to inhabit this angelic identity, the boy is expected to “feed on the Rose of Winds” (cibarsi delle Rose dei Venti), to act as “the shuttle between the sky and earth” (la spola fra cielo e terra) and to turn into ash his budding sexuality. The boy is destined to live all his life and die in Sicily but is asked to pretend to be a traveller from the empyrean regions. The face of the woman playing the Virgin Mary is pockmarked, but the boy is expected to have it “inscribed in the adorable idea of the lily” (iscritto nell’idea adorabile del giglio). Ultimately, the meaning of the term “sacra rappresentazione” gets recontextualised, and this series of contrasts creates the sacred representation of the poor Sicilian boy the way he is: a child of seven with his own desires and mundane needs incompatible with the idealised image superimposed on him by the character he is playing.
The poem On Homer’s Meadows, Now Turned to Ashes (Sui prati, ora in cenere, d’Omero) is a lyrical precursor of Horcynus Orca. In this relatively short piece of seven stanzas D’Arrigo pays tribute to Homer’s Odyssey and the mythological aura surrounding Sicily and the waters around it. The poem starts and ends with the evocation of the speaker’s sea-faring friends who are conflated with the Homeric heroes, and thus travel not only in the high seas, but also in the immortal poetry of the ancient Greek author. But those who do not leave the island are travellers too, and every memorable event in their life is a milestone of their voyage through life, which crackles “like a gemstone in the mother’s eye” (comme gemma nell’occhio della madre). The island (isola) is compared to the consonant Elysium (Eliso), a fabulous place where a rooster brings light in its beak, the sun is the armour and sword of its dwellers and the dialect they speak is honey for their wounds. A woman who might be a siren or a mirage keeps weaving and unweaving her fabric while the old dog is waiting on the threshold for the return of its master to die at his feet. Like Odysseus and ‘Ndria Cambrìa in the yet-to-be-written Horcynus Orca, the speaker comes home from war. His homeland and the meadows are also alliteratively paired (patria and prati). Homer’s meadows turning into ashes could be a metaphorical reference to the depredations caused by the Second World War in Sicily or, perhaps, to the oblivion into which the mythical past of the island is inexorably sinking. Despite all that, the voyage of the speaker’s sailor friends, both alive and dead, continues. It will never end as long as there is poetry and the sea.
The souls of the dead that come haunting the world of the living are the subject of the poem Oh Dear, Oh Black Souls (Oh care, oh nere anime). D’Arrigo here depicts reality as an interregnum in which the mythical Purgatory and the ordinary world interpenetrate each other. The souls of the dead appear to the living as barking dogs with burning eyes. Their laments are heard throughout the night while “the new moon makes itself a nest in the tree, and broods misfortune” (mentre sull’albero la luna nuova/ si fa il nido, cova la malanova). Although coming from the dark otherworldly region, these dogs are carriers of light: they dispel the night shadows to reveal for the living the hiding quail. The significance of this bird is explored at length in another poem—Verses for the Mother and for the Quail (Versi per la madre e per la quaglia). The little migratory bird, which has been providing the Sicilians with meat for centuries, is the central image here. Quails usually fly back to Europe from North Africa in spring, invariably making a rest stop in Italy where they are hunted in great quantities. During the hardships of World War II, thanks to the quail meat many Sicilians had access to the nutrients which were difficult to obtain otherwise. Hence the equation of the birds with the biblical manna in the poem. For D’Arrigo, however, the quail is of more than a food source. It is a complex symbol that dominates the poet’s reminiscences about his childhood and is closely connected with the image of his mother; as the poem progresses, “quail” becomes synonymous with “son” for the poet begins associating himself with the bird:
Spatriato di là oltre lo Scilla – e il Nord
è nella tua pupilla dove un lupo
vagola in neve e sangue per le guerre –
ora son io la quaglia che pigola,
[…] ora son io la quaglia più ritrosa
che vola sotto le tue ciglia e muove
nel tuo sonno lisce le sue ali verso
la tua voce venata delle azzurre
rughe di gioventù […]
[I have migrated to the other side of Scylla –
the North is in your pupil, where a wolf
in snow and blood is roaming through wars –
now I am the quail that chirps,
[…] now I am the bashful quail
flying below your eye-lashes and moving
in your dream on my smooth wings towards
your voice striated with blue
wrinkles of youth […] ]
In his collection, D’Arrigo encapsulates the richness of Sicilian life and culture without resorting to the dialect. Although it is described as honey for the wounds of the Sicilians, it is hardly used in the poems themselves. It’s as if the author has decided to save the dialect for another occasion, for the next time when he will write about the homecoming from war, about the sea, the sun, the island and the dolphins that will no longer be called dolphins.
Gorgeous piece. Joy to read and re-read. “striated with blue” lingers long after I’ve finished reading. Properly stirred my interest in the book. Thank you very much for sharing! More please sir.
Thanks for the encouraging words!
Always nice to see some Italian literature make it to your blog. This site has really helped me track down some hidden gems from my country as well as encouraged me to tackle some untranslated or unfindable works in English, which so far is the only other language I am fluent in.
Obviously those don’t get any space at all on this blog, so I was wondering what are your favorite English works that fit the criteria for the literature you usually review here. Dunno if you are keen on giving recommendations but I thought I might as well ask
Keep up the great work
Thanks for reading my stuff! I do mention some of English-language works I like on Twitter, but here, of course, that would defeat the whole purpose of this blog. Anyway, the books I like have received enough coverage elsewhere. Off the cuff, my favourites would be Ulysses, Gravity’s Rainbow, Absalom, Absalom! Downriver by Iain Sincair, Moby-Dick, The Recognitions, Blood Meridian, Suttree, Magus.
I’m reading The Recognitions now (after owning it for decades) and enjoying it greatly. Keep up the good work!
Thanks! The Recognitions is the kind of book I would immediately review if was not written in English.
While “Horcynus Orca” is widely considered as a modern classic of Italian literature (to be honest, a mostly unread classic, more or less like “Finnegan’s Wake” in English literature) D’Arrigo’s poems are unsung in Italy as well.
Thanks for the (as usual) thorough and interesting review. Great job.