When I look back at 2019… I see a tattooed arm, a confused Fiat Punto speeding through the night and a Kyuss song, Concetta’s furious red hair, and Armando’s garden philosophy, Giulio Di Dio’s sudden laughter like when you crack open a soda can, and Antonio’s infinite care. There’s Laura running towards the cats (mici she calls them) and Anka cooking and taking oranges to Berlin. And then in September I saw Erica Donzella, the poet of Eros and Thanatos and otherwise problematic gods:
E sempre avere la forza dei titani
per trascinare due gambe stanche
per dire sì
oltre questa battaglia
che svanirà con i suoi morti.
(Quando cadranno i rumori, ScatoleParlanti 2019: 13)
Physical acts don’t save your life. They just prevent you from dying. What saves your life is the way a phrase is put together.
And each generation is looking for that phrase, for an artistic medium that allows it to voice frustrations, deal with trauma, fight boredom, rebel grow reflect hope, and create a community to which to belong to or not. If for American kids in the 90s it was Seattle grunge, and for Balkan kids in the early 2000s it was American hip-hop, then for young people in Catania right now it is poetry. THE WORD, I said, the WORD reigns supreme. Pages full of words are pressed like vinyl albums, poems released like 7-inch singles; the poets around the Centro di Poesia Contemporanea di Catania have cute groupies who follow them around but also wives and kids who wait for them at home, and festivals and readings and book tours to attend, publishers’ rings to kiss. A synesthetic dolce vita or a destructive balancing act? Let posterity be the judge; our task is to read, burn, and rewrite. There are various online platforms like L’EstroVerso and its patron saint Grazia Calanna, ClanDestino and its infamous Rondoni, Le Parole e le Cose2 (shout out to Tommaso Di Dio), Leuké and the Pontiggia-Emmolo-Sichera triumvirate, or Critica Impura by badass brain Sonia Caporossi, that regularly publish and disseminate their works, creating a noisy conversation between Catania Bologna Milan and Rome that, if you’re into this kind of stuff, can make you feel HOT, like something’s really brewing in the land of Elena Ferrante.
The point is: Catania is a mother ship (built from backyard junk), a particle accelerator (when it’s not siesta time), a death star, a beautiful woman with a missing front tooth, a three-legged dog, a bigot with an open fly. And each year around Christmas, her boys and girls flood back into Fontanarossa to heal wounds and pick off some scabs, to confess and eat arancini, and visit grandmothers smoothing out checkered kitchen tablecloths with wrinkled hands under the eyes of dozens of little madonnas. Like Adriano Meis, the anarchist, who came up to see me from South Bend: long hair, hawaiian shirt and a yellow piece of jewelry dangling from an ear as if to replace that crooked eye he once had. He’d been gambling down in Indiana, dancing reggaeton with catholic PhDs, and thinking about going back home. Between beers and Afro beats, we reminisce about hot Sicilian nights at Gammazita and his vintage motorbike racing down the Porto di Catania, so he gets all excited and more handsome than ever as he jumps into an Uber, destination O’Hare, on his way to love in layover Rome, leaving behind whiffs of oranges and tobacco smoke and the yellow earring next to my bed. Earlier he had seen Antonio Lanza’s Suite Etnapolis on the coffee table, “I have to read it,” he smiles at the handwritten dedication, “you said it was good.” Good is the sister of interesting and interesting the twin of crap. The Foo Fighters are good. The Queens of the Stone Age are an orgasm. The Joker is good. Parasite a game changer. And that’s exactly what Suite Etnapolis is, like those events in science that Thomas Kuhn had called “paradigm shifts.” For with that book Antonio Lanza launched Sicilian poetry into the 21st century.
That’s a helluva statement to make, friends, so let me throw some verses in your face on today’s episode of prejudiced writing, Kyuss’s “Gardenia” playing in the back. We’re hitching a ride on our way to Lanza’s
Etnapolis di etnapolis, tutto
Babilonia… Balena spiaggiata, Etnapolis,
colonia penale, Etnapolis,
pista di decollo, navicella spaziale, Ecclesia—
Maschio e femmina, Etnapolis, cazzo
e buca Etnapolis, bussola e catena.
Mestruo della domenica operosa
Etnapolis, mela e serpe dei Mcdrive
a sera, spine e cardi la spesa
nei carrelli, polvere Etnapolis
….Più arredammo il vuoto,
e più il vuoto ci scappò
Etnapolis di tutte
le etnapolis di tutte
le province del mondo.
Suite Etnapolis (Interlinea, 2019). Suite Etnapolis. Is the work of a poet belonging to a slightly older, perhaps more disillusioned, perhaps more sober, woke and secular generation. If with Fùrnari we saw the curvature of the earth from 30,000 ft, and with La Biunda we galloped with angels, with Lanza we are riding a shopping cart in the land of H.G. Wells’s Eloi and Morlocks. It has none of Cagni’s gaunt lyricism and its Girl, Interrupted feel, or Russo’s vertiginous geometries of fatherhood; its “Etnapolis di etnapolis” ritornello (chorus) is unlike Fùrnari’s light-bathed generational chant, and its rendering of voices is bleak when compared to La Biunda’s mystical hearkening. This is the kind of book you start reading and immediately words like marx, class struggle, foucault, economic crises, consumerism, capitalism, workers, immigrants, wages etc begin to float in your mind. It’s the kind of writing that needs Fredric Jameson or György Lukács or George Steiner to read and make sense of, to insert Sicily into the grand scheme of things. Pietro Russo sure did.
But what about the three Stooges chords: words—flesh—melody? Actually, actually… to read Antonio Lanza’s complex epic poem, it has to get even simpler than that. I’ll have to strip the musical accompaniment down to a one-chord instrument called gusla (or gusle in Serbian). For Lanza’s poetic voice is universal enough to strike close to home, to the Greek epos, to blind Homer’s Iliad, but even more so to the still living guslari (plural of guslar, Balkan epic singer):
Look at his contorted mouth, hear his yowl, look at those fingers strumming together a melody on the stubborn chord of time. The guslar is the closest thing we have to Homer, a singular living example of the amalgamation between poet and singer, a receptacle of oral tradition that narrates events in a monotonous voice dancing around the eerie quarter-tones of the single-stringed instrument. The guslar deals in reč or the “word,” but to him the word is not a single unit separable from the rest of a verse. It is a speech act, to put it in a nerdy way. More simply phrased: a “word” can be an entire verse, a sentence or a paragraph. Which is how Lanza’s Suite Etnapolis functions: in chunks. Its one-string accompaniment are the mechanical loudspeaker voices of the extravagant mall (centro commerciale) ETNAPOLIS—“one of the biggest in Italy and Europe,” its website says, designed in 2003 by Massimiliano Fuksas, a disciple of Giorgio De Chirico, and set against the backdrop of Mt. Etna in Belpasso, Catania:
INVITIAMO TUTTO IL PERSONALE
AD ULTIMARE LE OPERAZIONI
DI APERTURA, GRAZIE
Above this quarter-toned electronic counterpoint, the voices of employees, employers, customers, lovers, and even mannequins (and their “teste metafisiche—“ 41) join in to form a Bakhtinian polyphony made out of bits of human jealousies, obsessions, sexuality, and work routines, gossip, interviews, dialogues, and internal monologues, eventually interrupted by the mysterious appearance of a stag (cervo) at the mall’s premises, enveloped in a cloud of Palestrinian harmonies (Russo fittingly calls it the “deus ex machina” moment). The moment when the wheel of consumerism stops turning for a bit. And under the quarter-toned melody of the Sicilian guslar, there’s the heartbeat of the mall: the silence of women accumulates, pulsating like when you go to a hardcore show and it is so loud, you can’t even hear the music, but you can feel the bass throbbing in your gut…the silences of women like my mother, like so many mothers,
istruite ma piene di forza, puledre
resistenti alle fatiche, indurite
madonne. I forti guasti del vivere
tracciati su visi ormai corazzati,
aver fatto di se stesse una collezione
a imbuto di sbagli: da ragazze, giovanotti
e buona sorte si alternarono in ginocchio,
i gradini delle scuole sembrando
un trampolino di tre metri da cui
staccarsi fiduciose per il tuffo; e poi,
come fu che poi l’aria a tradimento
si assottigliò, come fu che al salto
mancò velocità e rotazione, che l’atteso
ingresso in acqua avvenne di pancia,
con incresciosi schizzi dappertutto.
I see before me the prematurely aged hands of Yugoslav factory workers, dozens of women in pastel-colored work mantles gathered around light-bulb assembly lines like prehistoric hunters around Prometheus’s fire. The disillusionment of an entire generation of women born in the 1950s and 60s who landed flat-bellied on shiny mall pavements, a child in one hand, a broom in the other. How their children have grown, oh muse, to become bards, lovers, and travelers of the world. Or shopping mall consumers. And it must have been a rave to write this book, Antonio, you must have felt like Elsa Morante in Menzogna e Sortilegio when she was pestered by the voices of the past, when she wrote “riconosco infatti, nell’insistente bisbiglio che ascolto, le loro molteplici voci, e questo libro m’è dettato, in realtà, da essi. Son essi che, in cerchio attorno a me, bisbigliano.” To capture the insistente bisbiglio, to record all those voices, compress them down to the comestible size of an almond and NOT cast judgment, not emigrate or despair, now that takes a lot of soul, the stamina of a sumo wrestler. “Così riconduco a casa / stanchi provati felici / i miei nervi” (120). The bard goes home not disgusted, but ecstatic, not condescending but wise, overwhelmed but happy. He’s seen and heard and now it’s time to sing his cruel poem, an honest poem, an ugly poem, a divine poem, where a most beautifully articulated sex scene takes place between two Sicilian women in a Rome hotel room (warming up the island for an LGBTQ homecoming game):
Per il bene d’aria delle dita
per lo stremo della caviglia per tutte
le minime terminazioni
che si diramano sul materasso
e lo inzuppano e colano
dalle fiancate per tutte le invase
fessure tra mattonelle e il sudore
a schizzi il sudore giallo
negli occhi l’impasto
molle tra le gambe
visitate e tutto il piacere
che imbratta muri e specchio a schizzi
vagito a scale e la finestra
adattata alla saliva
della bocca per ogni verde
vagito di cane in cortile
il bene d’osso che intero
fa stringere infine l’orgasmo.
tutta fino a scoppiare
la camera, ora a passetti ritorno
torno a piccoli passi
—nido caldo di foglie—
nel corpo di prima
a posarmi. E ancora muto. Germogli
i capelli. Metto
la coda. Mi allungo. Ma mi trema una corda
di basso nel cuore. L’acqua scorre
nel bagno. Un quarto
di ora non basta. Sospetto,
non so, non ti chiamo. Poi esci
nutrita negli occhi anche tu.
Sul letto poggi incupita
un ginocchio. Mi tiri su.
“Ascolta” dici e vibra, lo sento, alla schiena
la scure del giorno—
domani la stanza occupata
altre intimità da annodare.
“Mi trema una corda / di basso nel cuore,” the gusla vibrates through the pages. Now the question is: Can we allow Lanza to speak for all of these people, to record their voices and speculate on their thoughts? Can we allow a cis-male to articulate same-sex love? Can we tolerate an intellectual who is denouncing poor working conditions and minimum-wage jobs at mall restrooms? Sure we can. Of course we can. We have to. For these voices in a place as conservative as Sicily is, are rare, almost nonexistent among current generations. Lanza is a dignified medium and himself a meridionale who breaks away from the rhetorical constructions of the old scuola siciliana about abstract women, petty arguments, and unhappy bourgeois marriages. You’d say, well, a lot changed between the scuola siciliana and now. NO IT HASN’T. Haven’t you been paying attention? everything has to change so that everything can remain the same. Those who had the courage to challenge things, formed punk bands, got frustrated, emigrated or died of drug overdose. Those who stayed are still in punk bands, teach high-school, and write frustrated facebook posts about domestic violence against women, homo- xeno- and other reactionary phobias that plague the island. The rest votes Lega and/or believes in god. Lanza’s ancestors, if any, are Verga and Goliarda Sapienza, but I dare say there is more of a spontaneous reaction to crude reality at play than any conscious genealogical or intertextual aspirations. This is why Suite Etnapolis is a game changer, a paradigm shift. But let me be clear: it does not obviate the need for other kinds of poetry, it is not ungenerous or preachy; yet it sticks a knife in poetry’s side, especially in a place like this island where no good has ever come from reading Dante and Leopardi. It seizes young intellectuals by the collar and thrusts their faces into the “pavimento di pietra lavica / lievigata” 81), into the feline excrements that litter all sidewalks in Catania: Look! it says, how do you like them apples? Suite Etnapolis wants the chickens to come home to roost, it wants not just Poetry, but Sicilian poetry to turn the gaze inwards—that gaze that I’ve seen so many times directed in pleading admiration towards Big Brother Bologna.
“Ho Bologna addosso,” a verse by Cagni goes, who had thrown fists at Jesus in South Bend, Indiana; Daniele Giustolisi lives and works in Bologna, writes about London; Russo dreams of Woody Allen’s New York and Wim Wenders’s Berlin, and Cateno Tempio recounts drunken nights in Milan where La Biunda currently resides. “What Bologna did… in Bologna they…” is on the lips of Catania, cursed by the second city syndrome. But Bologna is no three-legged canine mongrel in search of a master: it’s a pure-blooded pedigreed labrador retriever that’s winning all the dog pageants. It’s where adulthood goes to die. It’s Brooklyn, the vortex of alternative cultural and human capital that has no depopulation problems. It can do without. For it has nothing to prove, just a reputation to maintain. Etnapolis has a speech act, and it says: forget Bologna! and turn your eyes inwards and to one another, to the “indurite / madonne” 39), to Etna “una tonalità di blu / più scura del cielo alle spalle” (32), to San Berillo, San Cristoforo, Librino, Corso Sicilia, Paternò (che “imputridisce, diventa respiro franoso, sfoca tutto ciò che non si trova al centro del campo visivo…” 97), not to forget your life-vest-covered shores like catwalks of death. There are many Suite Etnapolis just waiting to be written on the island of oranges and prickly pears that lacks neither material nor eloquent mouths. But then again, what do I know? I’m just a passenger, a bocca di rosa, the Visitor from Teorema, they say, the cervo at Etnapolis escaped just in time before the tranquilizer dart hits my butt… but the way that Lanza put Suite Etnapolis together, the way he wrote “la gente agli ingressi appende la morte / sugli appositi attaccapanni” (24), the way he says that you cannot decorate emptiness (74), now that’s worth, if not living for, then at least staying alive for a while.
Happy New Year!
P.S. Stay tuned for the next (and last) episode of prejudiced writing that will (seriously) include readings of poetry by Cateno Tempio, Erica Donzella, Daniele Giustolisi, and Giulio Di Dio.
 Yeah, I said it. Elena Ferrante, whether Italians like it or not, put Italy back on the world literary map. Get on the Red Line in Chicago at Chinatown, and someone’s reading Ferrante; take a bus from Lisbon to Porto, and someone’s reading Ferrante; order Turkish coffee in Skopje and the bartender’s reading Ferrante; enter a bookstore in any given German town, and the front shelf is bursting under the weight of paperback and hardcover editions of L’amica geniale. Just over the past year, more people have contacted me on facebook or in person asking about ‘that Italian woman writer’ and whether I recommend her books, than inquired about the whole of Italian literature during my entire academic existence. Again, let posterity be the judge.