Caravaggio at Woolworths I, 2008
In Australian literature, the influence of local poets whose first language is not English is still to be assessed. Against a few published poets, there is a large amount of unpublished immigrant poetry both in other languages and in English, perhaps forever hidden. The poets may not have felt they had enough skill to expose their work to public perusal, or may have not learned the art of navigating the labyrintine channels to publication. Of those who have published in print, most have done so at their own expense, with circulation limited to a small circle of family and friends, and their books have not found their way into public libraries. Most of this material belongs to that vast body of works by man-the-artist, that is forever lost. Fortunately, the rise of second generation Australian writers and poets whose roots are in other languages is evident, and happening. Just look at the names in new poetry online sites, of winners of poetry prizes, or at the many, often brilliant, young singers and rappers who claim through poetry their ethnic identities, often with effective political messages. The future is theirs and Australian literature will be enriched by novel uses of both English and metre.
But the early efforts of immigrant poets who wrote in two languages deserves to be better known, for historic and for aesthetic reasons, and this is one of the reasons for this collection. Collected Poems 1950-2011 spans all of my adult life. The poems are presented by some affinity of subject, not chronologically. While I have written in both languages since the time my family and I first arrived in Australia in the 60s, I increasingly do so in English first, as I go on absorbing the intriguing technique of the English poetic line, versus that -equally compelling- of the Italian verso, an art I started learning as a small child from my mother, in illustrated poesiole for family occasions. If I have left out of this collection what truly dissatisfies me, I have included some works I am still doubtful about, as evidence of evolution over a long life. The Jesuit fathers of Il Pontano, in Naples, had me from five to seventeen and their classicist grip is reflected in the references to Homer, Dante, Shakespeare and to Joyce – and in the presence of that elusive entity: God.
I wrote as a child and as a young man, in war-time Naples under the bombings, as well as during the American occupation, and during the intellectually over-excited times of post-war Italy. But, of course, the great majority of the works included in this book were written where I spent the whole of my adult life, in Australia, and especially on Pittwater. They are about that magic place, its earliest inhabitants, its diverse community of industrious, seaborne people and, also, the not-always-friendly fauna.
Is there a constant theme in the book? If there is one, then it is how our identity changes while it stays the same, during the vertiginous transformations we undergo as individual members of a species in accelerating evolution. Another theme underlying the poems is, of course, the impossibility of rationally understanding the why of life.
As always, Irony may be the poetic way out of pessimism and dullness. This may be why several poems, at the end, escape my grasp, developing a twist contrary to the seriousness of the subject. Parody is of course all-pervasive in these poems, as in all art I know. After all, isn’t art at the crossroads of creation and re-creation: nil sub sole novum? Thus preached Ecclesiastes about the repetition of all events, to stress that nothing is new under the sun. And, I am sure, to provide a defense for all future poets.
But, in the end, these poems are for me about one thing: overflowing, if constrained, love. My loved ones may recognize this. I apologize to them for my life mistakes, seek forgiveness and say grazie dal profondo del cuore for being in my life – for being my life.
Apart from them, I owe debts of gratitude to poet Mark O’Connor, for constant encouragement, and for including me in his brilliant anthology, Two Centuries of Australian Poetry (Oxford University Press, 1988, 1996); to Professor Gaetano Rando, for his ongoing recognition of my work in his research and for his unique efforts to make Italo-Australian poets better known; to Professor Vincent Cincotta, for writing about my work in early essays; to Peppe Irace, editor of Melting Pot, in Naples for his publication of Storia Patria; to Claudio Paroli, for his generous SBS-TV documentary on my life; to the writer, John Bryson, for his encouragement to publish, and to several other writers. I owe a lot to many others that have been omitted here, but a particular thank-you goes to Dr Madeleine Strong Cincotta, literary translator, whose English versions appear in this book, and who has been unfailingly generous in advice and encouragement over many years. Dr Theodor Ell, a budding and brilliant young poet, translated Gente di Balmain. Professor Giovanni Carsaniga translated the two Ballads after Cavalcanti. Jane Morgan, the finest of editors and Italophiles, has been invaluable in the preparation of this book, as has Bruno Buttini of Padana Press, who is the finest of publisher-printers as well as the most reliable and patient. xiii Several of the poems were written originally in English and I have translated many in Italian. Other poems, written originally in Italian were translated and include an abbreviated acknowledgment of the translator at the end of the poem. Some poems, a bit too hermetic even for the author, have not been translated, and remain here only in English or Italian: it’s like writing in cypher, putting the page in a bottle and sending it to the waves.
Hope lives eternal. And all deficiencies and mistakes are, sadly, mine.
Paolo Totaro AM
Pittwater, NSW. Australia
1 December 2011.