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Contemporary Italian American Writing

Felix Stefanile: sample poems from
THE COUNTRY OF ABSENCE

TAKING SIDES WITH JOHN CIARDI | THE DANCE AT ST. GABRIEL'S | CARMEN | HOW I CHANGED MY NAME, FELICE | THE AMERICANIZATION OF THE IMMIGRANT

The Country of AbsenceFelix Stefanile was bom in 1920 in Long Island City, New York. He was educated in the public schools and at CCNY. A World War 11 veteran, he found employment after the war in a series of clerical jobs until 1950, when he began his eleven-year stint in the New York State Department of Labor. There he eventually became a middle functionary in worker's claims and entitlements. In 1954 he and his wife Selma started the poetry magazine Sparrow, which is now one of the oldest poetry journals in the United States. His essay, "The Imagination of the Amateur," which expresses his ideas on independent literary publishing in American history was published in 1966. The essay gained him a National Endowment for the Arts Prize in 1967, and has been anthologized. In 1961, Felix Stefanile was invited by Purdue University to serve as Visiting Poet and Lecturer for one year. At the end of his tenure, the university asked him to stay on as a member of the English faculty. He taught freshman composition, survey courses, and a Poetry Writing class that drew campus-wide attention. In 1969 he was appointed to a Full Professorship, and in 1973 was awarded the Standard OH of Indiana Prize for Best Teacher. His poetry awards include the Emily Clark Balch Prize of theVirginia Quarterly Review , 1972. In 1997 he was the first recipient of the recently established John Ciardi Award for life-long achievement in Italian American poetry.Books by Stefanile include: Poetry: The Dance at St. Gabriel's; In That Far Country; East River Nocturne; A Fig Tree in America; T'he Patience that Befell; River Full of Craft. Translations:I Were Fire: 34 Sonnets of Cecco Angiolieri; The Blue Moustache: Some Italian Futurist Poets; Umberta Saba: 31 Poems.

TAKING SIDES WITH JOHN CIARDI

--some words on minus-American poetry

 

When Robert Lowell hyphenated you--

Italian, hyphen sign, American--

to praise your poetry, your answer ran

in rough-house expletives. Your passion flew,

and subsequently in an interview

you squelched his harmless seeming little hyphen

as not the way to write out citizen.

How culture-vultures smiled at the to-do.

 

If this is poetry, as may be true,

it's also punctuation, not too thin

a point or line for morals that you drew.

We all know grammar can stick like a pin,

and those who think my point is overdrawn,

they are no friends of yours, nor of mine, John.

THE DANCE AT ST. GABRIEL'S

for Louis Otto

 

We were the smart kids of the neighborhood

where, after high school, no one went to school,

you NYU and I CCNY.

We eyed each other at St. Gabriel's

on Friday nights, and eyed each other's girls.

You were the cute, proverbial good catch

-- just think of it, nineteen -- and so was I,

but all we had was moonlight on our minds.

This made us cagey; we would meet outside

to figure how to dump our dates, go cruising.

In those hag-ridden and race-conscious times

we wanted to be known as anti-fascists,

and thus get over our Italian names.

When the war came, you volunteered, while I

backed in by not applying for deferment,

for which my loving family named me Fool.

Once, furloughs overlapping, we met up,

the Flight Lieutenant and the PFC;

we joked about the pair we made, and sauntered.

That Father Murray took one look at us,

and said our Air Force wings were the only wings

we'd ever earn. We lofted up our beers.

Ah, Louis, what good times we two have missed.

Your first time up and out the Germans had you,

and for your golden wings they blew you down.

CARMEN

(for, Daniela Gioseffl)

 

Carmen, you were seven. You sought me after school,

just came alongside as I marched away,

and fcll in stride. I caught your side-long glances.

Beneath your bangs and spit-curls you were pale,

your dark eyes shimmered, you were all eyes.

You talked a blue streak for a stranger,

and I hardly answered. I was shy of words.

You said you were afraid of our old streets,

men shouting at trucks backing in and out

of those huge factory gates, the eerie ring

of cobblestones, as in a spooky movie.

Day after day we walked each other home

to that last corner, where you turned away.

You said you'd cross the street, but I must watch.

I never looked for you except the day

you didn't show up, and I walked home alone.

I wondered if you'd found another friend.

Days later then I heard, while in a store,

holding the bread for mother, you were dead.

There were those women at the spice-laden counter,

saying your name in passing, as at an altar.

I listened in a daze, and looked for mother.

She said that we would stop to light a candle

on the way home at St. Mary-of-the sea.

There at the railing I picked out my candle,

and we said the ten Hail Marys, the Glory Be.

As we walked home my heart raced far ahead,

light-years ahead, I know, to this bright moment,

for now like a godess, stronger than Diptheria,

that godess of dead children, Carmen, you light my mind.

HOW I CHANGED MY NAME, FELICE

 

In Italy a man's name, here a woman's,

transliterated so I went to school

for seven years, and no one told me different.

The teachers hardly cared, and in the class

Italian boys who knew me said Felice,

although outside they called me feh-LEE-tchay.

 

I might have lived, my noun so neutralized,

another seven years, except one day

I broke a window like nobody's girl,

and the old lady called a cop, whose sass

was wonderfiil when all the neighbors smiled

and said that there was no boy named Felice.

And then it was it came on me, my shame,

and I stepped up, and told him, and he grinned.

 

My father paid a quarter for my sin,

called me inside to look up in a book

that Felix was American for me.

A Roman name, I read. And what he said

was that no Roman broke a widow's glass,

and fanned my little neapolitan ass.

THE AMERICANIZATION OF THE IMMIGRANT

 

Your words, Genoveffa,

through the open window,

telling me once again what to buy at the store--

don't forget, don't forget--

aroma of fresh bread almost a halo.

 

That was a long time ago.

I never forgot.

Like Dante

I have pondered and pondered

the speech I was born to,

lost now, mother gone,

the whole neighborhood bull-dozed,

and no one to say it on the TV,

that words are dreams.

These poems Copyright © 2000 by Felix Stefanile, from his books, THE CROSSING OF ABSENCE, and THE DANCE AT ST. GABRIEL'S. All rights reserved.

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