Sicilian poet Senzio Mazza was born in 1934 in Linguaglossa, Sicily.
Throughout his long, successful career, he has won many prizes, including most recently the 2010 Città di Giarre. Though he has published eight previous collections of poetry in his native Sicilian, Pizzini d’amuri / Love Notes is the first English translation of his verse. Legas must be complimented for bringing such an accomplished and important Sicilian poet to English language readers.
Mazza’s poetry is challenging, but not for the conventional reasons that readers often find contemporary poetry difficult. Rather, his poetry is transparent, never obscure or abstract. The difficulty in his poetry is trying to comprehend Mazza’s overriding sense of frustration and disappointment that he expresses in his poetry. As Cipolla explains in his informative introduction, Mazza’s complaint over life’s injustices must be historicized and viewed in the context of Sicilian history and society. Only then can we begin to reconcile his sense of pain and frustration with the possibility of hope, however remote it may seem in his poems.
For centuries Sicily has been a land exploited by countless colonizing tribes and empires. In addition, after unification in 1870, Rome did little to alleviate the historical condition of the long-suffering Sicilian people. The only option left to them in the twentieth century was to emigrate, which they did in massive numbers, to all parts of the world, America included. When Mazza’s poetry is read in the context of Sicilian history, it becomes less the plaintive cry of a single soul, than the historical voice of an entire people, whose fate today still rests in the hands of the north. Even today, the Northern League would prefer to divide Italy in half, leaving the hapless, underdeveloped South, Sicily included, to its own economic fate. As a result, not much has changed in Sicily. During our recent trip there in June 2012, my wife, Carole, and I spoke at length with a young man who was profoundly frustrated with his life. He was running a failing restaurant. He felt that his only option is that one day he would be able to leave Sicily and find work elsewhere.
I am particularly interested in Mazza’s poetry because my paternal grandparents came from Sicily before World War I. No doubt, both my grandfather (Bivona) and grandmother (Poggioreale) held something of the same views that Mazza expresses in his poetry. Like that young man we spoke to in June, what future did my grandparents have in a land that had essentially been forgotten by the newly established government in Rome? They left Sicily and never returned. As my grandfather struggled over the years as a tenant farmer in Texas and later as a farm laborer in California, he was not a particularly happy man. Unlike so many other Italian immigrants of his generation, he never found that American Dream he sought in America. Fate was not very kind to him.
Though Sicily is an incomparably beautiful land that continues to beckon me to return, little seems to have changed since my grandparents’ immigrated to America. The young man Carole and I spoke to is not an anomaly. Today, the per capita income of Sicilians still ranks among the lowest in Western Europe. For those of us whose grandparents made that journey to America, we can hear their voices in Mazza’s lines, which are filled with pain, frustration, and confusion. He speaks, as well, for all the generations that have followed. But if we read more carefully, we can also hear a certain resilience, his courage and determination in the face of impossible odds.
Mazza is puzzled at times over the hand that fate has dealt him. In “Delirious Speech,” he writes of “waiting endlessly / before a bush / that does not speak or burn.” In frustration at the silence, in “Without Answers,” Mazza writes, “Angrily I shouted . . . at Him / From the top of Mt. Etna, / from St. Peter’s colonnade, / from Milan’s highest pinnacles, / and from Florence’s red dome. / But I did not get an answer.” His choice of images is revealing: God fails to hear the Sicilian even when he shouts from Italy’s most sacred and spiritual sites. In “Under A Burning Sun,” “Palermo weeps. / It is alone,” neglected by Italy’s urban cultural centers to the north. He concludes the poem, “Palermo is alone. Forever.” History has abandoned Sicilians to their fate.
But however dark his poems may appear, a careful reader will find that, though fate and its handmaiden, history, have not been kind to the Sicilian, the Sicilians have a resilience that does not allow them to be defeated. It was a sense of hope that drove so many to emigrate and still does. That same sense of hope has allowed millions others who remained in Sicily to endure. As he writes in “Yearn for Love,” the Sicilian may well be “stranded in the street / where the storms of life / tear down the signs / and, if you have the courage, / all you can do is / yearn for love.” Ultimately, courage and love are the bases of the voice that speaks in the poem. It is a voice that has the courage to face reality, the historical reality of life in Sicily, but never to give up. In “Advice,” he offers to the reader, “Wait for what happens / without thinking / for reason does not help / in pushing woes away.” Even if reason fails, the Sicilian must have the courage to face reality.
What Mazza says here is endemic to Sicilian culture. Sicilian writer Giovanni Verga (1840-1922) was the pre-eminent realistic novelist of his day. He had the courage not only to write in Sicilian, but to write about the lives and hardships of the Sicilian peasantry at a time when writing realistic stories about subaltern people was not considered appropriate subject matter for literature. At the time, Verga influenced an entire generation of writers, not only in Italy, but throughout Europe and America where his work became well known during his lifetime. Verga’s innovative and equally revolutionary photographs of Sicilian life further reinforced his widespread influence as a seminal realistic writer and artist.
In that realistic tradition, Mazza says that the Sicilians must face reality rather than hide behind illusions. He writes in “Weary Song” that people “are swindled by false prophets” and by confounding “parables and fables.” They pray in vain, but we must realize that “no one from below or from high up / consoles us in our journey / where often unexpected fate / as an imposter meddles in.” Reality is the only guide, no matter how stressful and confusing. For the poet, it makes no difference if the universe appears silent. The poet resists all that is bogus and counterfeit in life with the one genuine tool that he has: “Lost / I continue through strange idioms / between fake Italian and poor English / dazing me so / I lock the drawers with a key / and jealously / conserve my mother tongue.”
With the love of his culture, represented by his Sicilian idiom, he fills the silence before him. Like Verga, with his Sicilian, he resists the historical erasure of Sicilian culture. That is victory enough for Mazza.
Ken Scambray’s most recent works are The North American Italian Renaissance: Italian Writing in America and Canada, Surface Roots: Stories, and Queen Calafia’s Paradise: California and the Italian American Novel. His essay on the Watts Towers and the Underground Gardens appeared in Italian Folk, ed. by Joseph Sciorra. His poem “Piece Work” won The Paterson Literary Review’s Editor’s Choice Prize for the Allen Ginsberg Poetry Prize, 2007. Since 2000, he has taken students annually to Italy for a two-week cultural tour. He teaches in the English Dept. at the University of La Verne.