Poems by Joseph Tusiani: Man of Letters
Joseph Tusiani: MAN OF LETTERS
THE RETURN | ETHNICITY | NEW YORK REVISITED
A writer between two worlds,
Joseph Tusiani is a widely cultured gentleman who speaks and writes in many
languages. More than any other poet translator, he has brought Italian
classics into American English.Tusiani writes in Italian, Latin, and English
and those who know have dubbed him the finest Neo-Latin poet living today.
Born in Italy, in San Marco in Lamis in the Gargano Mountains of Apulia, on
January 14, 1924, Tusiani earned his doctoral degree in Letters from the
University of Naples in July, 1947. In August of 1947, his mother left with
him for America, to join her husband after twenty-four years of separation.
Joseph had never met his father who feared sea travel after having come to
America over a quarter of a century earlier just before Joseph was born. The
intended brief journey of mother and son became a permanent emigration. The
Tusiani family was reunited in New York in Little Italy in the Bronx. Since
Joseph’s brother, Michael, was born on August 23, 1948, a return to Italy was
indefinitely postponed. Joseph, started his teaching career at the College of
Mount Saint Vincent, and later joined the faculty of other universities. He
lived within in Italian American cultural circles until he met the writer,
Francesca Vinciguerra, who had changed her name to Frances Winwar to publish
her books in America. She urged him to move out of the insular world of
Italian Americans to write in English. With Winwar, Joseph returned to Italy
for the first time in 1954, and in his native town composed a long poem in
English, titled “The Return.” He gave it to Mrs. Winwar and a few months
later, The New York Times published the news that the Poetry Society
of England had awarded Tusiani the Greenwood Prize. It was the first time it
had been given to an American, and the prestigious award greatly boosted the
young professor’s reputation as a poet. He continued to write and publish his
English poems in American and European magazines. He achieved the rank of
Full Professor at the City University of New York, Herbert H. Lehman College,
at Fordham University, and served as Director of the Catholic Poetry Society
of America as well as Vice President of the Poetry Society of America. In
1963, he was chosen to participate in “Poetry in Crystal” –the Steuben
Glass Co. project that invited thirty-one of its sculptors to visualize in
crystal the poems of the thirty-one accomplished American poets. Tusiani’s
poem “Standstill” was interpreted by George Thompson. In the same year,
President Kennedy invited Tusiani to tape his poetry for the audio archives
of the Library of Congress in Washington. He subsequently won the “Alice
Fay di Castagnola Award” for “If Gold Should Rust,” a play in verse.
Tusiani’s English poems are collected in a volume titled COLLECTED POEMS (1983-2004) along with his Italian ones. He has also published two novels, one in Italian and one in English. He authored seven volumes of poetry in his Puglese dialect. After his retirement from teaching, he wrote and published his autobiographical trilogy. A primary activity of Tusiani’s has been translation.The list of his translations is enormous. Among them are: THE COMPLETE POEMS OF MICHELANGELO, NY: Noonday Pr., 1960; LUST AND LIBERTY. THE POEMS OF MACHIAVELLI, NY: Obolensky: 1963; GIOVANNI BOCCACCIO, NYMPHS OF FIESOLE, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson U. Pr., 1971; ITALIAN POETS OF THE RENAISSANCE, NY: Baroque, 1971; THE AGE OF DANTE. AN ANTHOLOGY OF EARLY ITALIAN POETRY NY: Baroque Pr., 1974; FROM MARINO TO MARINETTI, AN ANTHOLOGY OF FORTY ITALIAN POETS, NY: Baroque, 1974; THE POETRY OF GIOVANNI BOCCACCIO: Thought No.50, 199,1975, pp. 339-50; GIACOMO LEOPARDI, I CANTI. ITALIAN QUARTERLY, No. 28, 109-110 Summer-Fall 1987, pp. 99-102; DANTE’S LYRIC POEMS; NY: Legas, 1992; LUIGI PULCI, MORGANTE, THE EPIC ADVENTURES OF ORLANDO AND HIS GIANT FRIEND MORGANTE, Bloomington & Indianapolis, Indiana U. Pr., 1998.
At the beginning of 1997, after fifty years in the Bronx, Joseph Tusiani moved to Manhattan, to be near his younger brother, Michael. His mother, so large a part of Joseph Tusiani’s life, died in 1998. Tusiani’s literary production has been the subject of many doctoral dissertations at several Italian Universities. Bordighera Pr. published ETHNICITY, Selected Poems, in 2000, and Paolo Giordano edited JOSEPH TUSIANI; POET TRANSLATOR HUMANIST: AN INTER- NATIONAL HOMAGE, for Bordighera Pr., 1994, with essays by Giose Rimanelli, Luigi Bonaffini, Paolo Giordano, and a poetic tribute by Luigi Fontanella, and many other essays of appreciation too numerous to list. The volume included his aforementioned prize-winning verse play. In 2007, he was presented with the Keys to the City of Florence for his work in bringing Italian literature to American readers. He has received many other honors too numerous to mention here. Tusiani’s contribution to Italian culture in America is indeed grand. THE RETURN
My cradle-land, who suffered? I did not,
Nor did I ever miss your wonderbreeze,
If my sad eyes can see you, lucent still,
And still maternal. Over savage seas
My fear alone has groped; through winds, and weird
Valleys, and moonless paths, only my thought
Has ventured; but the soul,
Blood through the veins, has passed through your roots wild
Eternally, and the man
Has not outgrown the child.
The child, my land, was here; then here am I,
Now that, virgin and vast, on you the sky
Bends its blue reachable, tangible and
Calls you alone its land;
And, back from its bright leaps of white, the wave
Sings at your shores in happiness of spume.
Here I remained, stretched on this grass in bloom,
My trepid ear intent
To capture, through the beat of my own blood,
The budding of the leaf and the impending
Avalanche of the thunder. Here I stood,
And when on stone and thicket the thick drops
Of the rain rushed, I saw your face all new
With humid wonder, in your sacred dens
Hiding my terror till the sun came out.
The sun, the sun is here, part of you, part
Of me, so low that we can almost touch
Its fulgence, tender and melodious.
Look, on that rock the goat
Is crunching purple grass it seems to us
It’s chewing sun-rays; and on this steep hill,
Listening to the fresh words of the sea,
A silent little shepherd near his flock
Is glad to balance on his open hand
A sky of gold. And all about are bells,
And soon is evening ah, this tranquil thing
That films our eyes with tears
And makes us gaze at you, my mountain land.
When night is gray, and the cricket and I
Are the only living spirits
Beneath a sky now ebbing then reflooding
To the sleepy and melancholy eye,
An old man sings a tale of life; nearby,
The little shepherd listens. The sea glistens,
As if attentive, too, till the song trembles,
And till on the same rock
A white head and a million curls are still
In the long night that is restless with stars
Now silence floods the deep abysses, and
The dark, the astonished heart that is waking.
And are you, land of love,
Still watching over my thought that is aching?
I know that, under your stone-rigid eyelid,
Yesterday’s tears are warm,
And in your heart of forest breathes the hope
That may your trees be safe from future storm,
And flights and pastures be
Still for your birds and sheep, and all your sons
Be spared another morning of despair.
Mother, I sing to you your praises still,
And you hearken, O hearken my night song
As once my hymn of May,
Gushing from heart to heart, to you from me.
I have come back from a faraway sea;
But who can now annul a past, and speed
Back to its ancient seed
A bud full-burgeoned? In my days, this plant
Was frail, so frail I could with my small hand
Caress it. shaking all its dew for me;
Now it is more than a tree,
And my strong grip can touch but its rough rind
And hurt its boughs no more. But in this trunk,
My land, is still the sap
Of your immaculate womb.
Immaculate I feel, though thoughts of the tomb
Have changed me. Different lands I have seen,
And different laws and lores,
And I have learned to sleep my nights without
Your skies, not to be late, the following dawn;
To trudge toward the same sunset, weak, alone.
But, swift and free, your winds were running here,
And in these furrows, in these golden spears,
The hare was leaping, and the violet
Was smiling at its frolics in the moon.
You do not know the world under the sun,
Land that I love. Now which
Of us knows more, or which is happier,
I cannot tell: I who have heard the cry
Of many peoples, seen despair and fright,
Or you who, past the thunder and the rain,
Still keep at dawn the innocence of night.
I do not know, for knowing evil is
Perhaps to shun a little what is good.
But certainly the bud
Can spring and live without us, though we all
Are sad with not one bud. Yours is all bliss,
And yours all happiness if, once returned
To your sweet breast, immune to change or hate,
One suffers not to be still a prond fragment
Of you, like this shoot sleeping blessedly,
Like those two shepherds clinging through one sleep
To the same moss and fate.
My land, do you still hear me? To this infinite
Silence to me it seems eternal, infinite
The cricket cries its ancient message, and
The snake glides out to the moonlight and, there,
The frog repeats its old lament to the fresh
Unbelief of the air,
While on the winding road the carter’s song
Sings of two tresses softer than the grass.
In such a tranquil world, in such sweet peace
That knows no wrong, am I
The only living thing whose breath is a sigh,
Whose word a language of distress, a moan?
I know you hear me still. The wind has gnawed
And wrecked your blocks into the sea, and seven
Winters have dried your fields,
Burying your wreaths under their snows, and seven
Aprils have wounded your heart with great joy,
For you have suffered, land
Of my father and mother, from the hand
Of man and hostile heaven.
Yet you are good, and all your silence sounds
More than song to the flower
That, sprung out of God’s Mind Eternal, here,
In a short while, will burgeon on this ground
Of wonder, and to me who, come through drear
Gestations and through thousand years of pain,
Am here reborn, and sing
To the air of the mountain and the plain:
“O mystery! O glory! I was born
Where to be born is beauty and is love”.
Of love the flower is born,
And each bud wants the morning, and each infant,
Life. Down there the sail, unfurled,
Longs for the wind, and the dew
Yearns for a ray to be
The most beautiful pearl in the world.
I feel the tree-tops thrilling to the dawn,
And I guess this new breath
Of wild roses is pollen, hymn on the tallest
Summit, on all the peaks. I know you well,
Shudder of a thousand trees, tremulous song
Of timid harp before the call of death,
Now when each dream is turning into gleam
Of color, and each color seems a heart
Of man. Come soon to the feast manifold
Of this hill, of this wood
Clothing itself in white and gold!
Ah, too late, it’s too late:
What was gold is now crocus, and the sheen
That was morning is life
To be felt, no more seen.
Into this sea
Of loveliness the night is lost and gained,
And all my cares are drowned. ETHNICITY O new awareness of my ancient light,
What’s then so new about this earth of mine?
Though everything you seem to redefine.
‘Tis but a tale of night excluding night
So I discover what in me was bright
Long before brightness was allowed to shine,
Able at last to trace and underline
Letter and spirit of my simple right.
Now, only now the truth I understand—
That, born as mortal as a bird or bat,
Man ever longs for some immortal land
Brother, you came from Erin, I from Rome,
And others started hence—but what of that?
Today migration and tomorrow home. NEW YORK REVISITED (From A Sequence of Sonnets)
Longer than half a century of days
have I meandered through these myriad mazes
of streets and avenues and tongues and races,
of most familiar and alien ways,
and only now I see how brightly new
everything is. Maybe I have just landed
and, like new immigrants confused and stranded,
am seeking where to go or what to do,
and in the meantime look in ecstasy
at the tall buildings towering around me.
Here in this crowd no relative has found me
yet, and I don’t believe the things I see—
a world that is sheer magic, an emotion
stronger than any creed or any notion.
Vertical labyrinths that seek the sun,
‘til now you were skyscrapers all of you,
planted on earth and blooming out of view
but still cement and steel, and glass and stone.
Not homes or domes to me you’re any more
but rays relaunched or else refracted high
back from this exile to their native sky,
back to the source that nourished them before.
Or has this earth become a sun in jest,
sending its own beams to the rival star,
acknowledging a message from afar
or subtly begging for some new request?
Vertical beauty, magic to the eyes,
are you the New World or a new surprise?