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Joseph Tusiani

IF, SOME YEARS AGO, A FORTUNE TELLER HAD TOLD me that one day I would be in America and that I would even write in English, I would have answered: "Non capisco." I did not know English then, or rather, I knew only enough of it to make me bold enough to write my doctoral dissertation on Wordsworth at the University of Naples in 1947.

My roots are Italian, and, I would even say, Latin, for my very name means "Incense of Janus." Janus was the god of my Gargano mountain in the Apulian region of Italy. There, in a little town called San Marco in Lamis, I was born on January (Janus again!) 14, 1924. The day was Monday and the hour was early dawn. That is why my mother tells me that I arrived into this world just in time to start my week's work. And work I did at a very early age. I remember that, as a child, I had a rather good singing voice (today it is as deep and cavernous as the corridors of Hades); and that silvery voice enabled me to earn a few lire at every funeral in town.

As I have said, I was born in the Apulian region of southern Italy. If you recall that even Horace called it "thirsty," you will remember that water is to us Apulians one of the greatest gifts of God. Imagine hundreds and hundreds of people standing in line under a scorching sun for hours and hours waiting for their turn to fill a bucket at the well. And when we children spilled some water, the spanking was quite resounding.

But, in spite of the drought and the poverty, my childhood was a happy one. Mamma Lucia (as I called my grandma) was illiterate, but she was a wonderful woman who usually expressed herself in proverbs and adages. Had I known at the time what poetry was, I would have called her a poet. Almost everything I did, she preceded or followed with a luminous phrase encompassing all the wisdom of our mountain shepherds. With my pen moving over this paper, I am reminded of her words: "With one stroke of the pen a certain Pilate condemned an innocent Man." It was she who introduced me to Padre Pio, the stigmatic. His monastery is only five miles from our town; I served his Mass many times and he even called me by my first name.

The years passed and the Second World War came. I am tempted to write of a nineteen-year-old lad who was buried alive in one of those horrible bombardments which killed thousands of civilians, but who was rescued after seven long hours of agony. But why afflict you with details of sorrow? Besides, after such an experience, any lad becomes an adult. I was still only nineteen when the Fascist censor of San Severo, Foggia, had me brought before him. I had no idea what it was all about, but I rushed to his office from the Classical Lyceum I was attending, happy to escape an hour of trigonometry. A little old man in a black shirt sat yawning over a huge desk. He pointed to a pamphlet entitled Amedeo di Savoia, and demanded "Did you write this poem?" I was delighted to see it for I did not know that it had been printed. "Yes, yes!" I answered. "And what do you mean right here?" he questioned, pointing to a rather lyrical passage in which I had referred to the King of Italy, and not to Mussolini. But he must have realized that I was too young and too innocent to be capable of political "malice," so he let me go home. That was my first encounter with dictatorship, or rather, with censorship in my native land.

When I came to the United States on September 6, 1957, I met my father for the first time. He had left Italy five months before I was born. After nearly twenty-four years, full of the vicissitudes that so often make immigration a tragic story, our little family was united. Some day I may write an account of just how hard it is for a twenty-three-year-old son to utter the word "father" for the first time.

I felt that I could never master the English language. Although I could read it fairly well (remember I had written my thesis on Wordsworth), I could speak scarcely a word of it and had great difficulty grasping the spoken word. Was it the speed with which it was spoken, or the slang with which it was interspersed, or an inferiority complex on my part? I do not know. But I did know that mastering the words of a language is not enough. One must arrive at the point where mastery becomes creative atmosphere. I comforted myself with the thought that poetry had no linguistic barriers and that a poet (I was not thinking of myself) could write in any idiom he has mastered, for language is but a goblet bearing the wine, the ineffable essence which gives universality to his thought and feeling.

It was a question of patience, faith, and constant hard work. In the meantime, I wrote a novel in Italian as well as works of literary criticism, and, so as to keep up with my classics, a booklet of poetry in Latin. This last, of course, found but a handful of readers.

Then in 1956, something happened which definitely influenced my career. A good friend of mine, the distinguished biographer, Miss Frances Winwar, persuaded me to submit one of my poems in English to the Poetry Society of England's most important poetry contest. Having nothing to lose, I agreed. So, almost in camera caritatis, I sent with timid best wishes my two-hundred line poem, "The Return." Six months later I was informed that I was the winner of the Greenwood Prize. My poem was printed in The Poetry Review, London. The award restored my self-confidence and gave me to understand that under God I should go ahead without fear or hesitation.

It was not true with me, as it seems to be with most writers, that I always wanted to write. As a child I wanted to paint, and if my first teacher were alive he could testify that I was somewhat talented in sketching. Then, in my fifteenth year, despite the fact that I had never studied music, I wanted to be a composer. I did, in fact, write some Tantum Ergos and several songs. I played the songs on a mandolin, for in our little mountain town the romantic tradition of the nocturnal serenade is still alive. And it is still made up of a guitar, a mandolin, a song and a window in the moonlight. But, to return to my writing. You could say that I passed through all the forms of creative restlessness before I found out that it was literature I was seeking.

The year of my literary debut in English coincided with that of my American citizenship. Proud of becoming an American, I wanted to give my new country something no one had ever given her before. And so, my volume, The Complete Poems of Michelangelo, made me very happy. Through my humble efforts, America now has at last after four centuries more than a hundred great poems, hitherto untranslated and unenjoyed.

Since 1948 I have been teaching Italian at the College of Mount St. Vincent. I also lecture at New York University and Hunter College. I am a director of the Catholic Poetry Society of America and have just been nominated for the office of Vice President of the Poetry Society of America. Can you picture me, a "five-yearold" American writer, among so many outstanding literary Nestors? But I have wonderful friends who even call "charming" that bit of accent which, after all, reminds them that poetry, as I have said, knows no linguistic boundaries.


EDITORS NOTE: Mr. Tusiani's works include Amedeo di Savoia, a narrative poem (Tip, Sacro Cuore, 1943), Flora (1945), Amore e Morte (Tip. Caputo, 1946), Petali Sull'Onda (Vlnetlan Press, 1949), Peccato e Luce (Id., 1950), La Poesia Amorosa di Emily Dickinson (Id., 1951), 'Two Critical Essays on Emily Dickinson (Id., 1952), Wordsworthiana (Id., 1953), Melos Cordis (Id., 1955), Dante in Licensa (NIgrlzla, 1952), Poesia Missionaria in Inghilterra ed Americana (Id., 1953), Sonnetisti Americani (Clemente, 1954), Lo Speco Celeste (Ed. Ciratma, 1957), Odi Sacre (Id., 1958), and The Complete Poems of Michelangelo (Noonday Press, 1960); as well as poems in Spirit, The Sign, The Catholic World, Audience, The New York Herald Tribune, The Literary Review, The Poetry Review (London), etc., and in several anthologies.

Originally published in The Book of Catholic Authors, Walter Romig, Sixth Series, 1960.


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