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The City and the Writer: In Rome with Peter Covino

By Nathalie Handal


If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.

                              —Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

 

Can you describe the mood of Rome as you feel/see it?

This past July was scorching hot for several weeks in Rome, as is often the case, with temperatures hovering at 100 degrees and a heat index close to 116 a couple of days. I was living in a fifth-floor walk-up without air conditioning. But I was in the heart of Baroque Rome on Via della Stelletta, near Piazza Navona, around the corner from Sant’Agostino and the famous Caravaggio painting of the Madonna dei Pellegrini and the equally marvelous Raphael fresco of the prophet Isaiah.

Each morning in the comfortable cool of a swirling standing fan, the smell of freshly baked cookies woke me from the Forno (bakery) downstairs that I somehow always fantasized about living next to since I first discovered it as a study-abroad student in the now long-ago 1980s. Ever since, I’ve been fortunate enough to get to Rome for extended summer visits every other year, and I never stay in the same neighborhood. I love exploring different parts of the historic center. As an Italian-born immigrant to the United States whose family escaped dire poverty, I realize this is an unspeakable luxury. Living even five blocks from where you previously resided puts you into a different neighborhood and a different mood. My mood always feels somewhat vagabond when I’m in Rome. I try to travel light, I don’t bring lots of changes of clothes, I wash my underwear and socks in the sink. I try consciously and unconsciously to recreate a mood that feels comfortable to me, stuck permanently between places and identities, always Italian American immigrant but vaguely Italian prodigal too.

 

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

I somehow always think of my uncle Ernesto, my dad’s eldest brother, an accountant and lover of poetry, who died a few years ago after a long and good life: a loving wife, two devoted sons who actually enjoyed visiting their parents. So different from the tortured and abusive father my sisters and I knew. I always remember zio Ernesto saying goodbye to me at the Colosseo metro station; this has become a recurring dream. I’m thirteen, maybe, and he leaves me outside the B line to return to his apartment in EUR, a modern section of Rome filled with fascist architecture. That combination of being young in an unknown place full of ancient ruins and expectations catches in my throat. Something about the juxtaposition of this fleeting moment of transit and the Basilica di Massenzio outside where I’ve seen so many literary events recently (sponsored by the Casa delle Letterature) and that loss of my uncle, his elegant language and kindness, is too much. I remember the maps of the Roman Empire outside the metro too, on the brick walls that are now stored somewhere as they continue to work on a new C metro line, which it seems will never be finished. That combination of dream-memory, my uncle’s death, and this repeated initiation in my mind to something new makes me feel like that kid again, somewhat scared but brave too, in ways I don’t feel now.   

 

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

There are so many details in Rome and so many vibrant people and cultures and hordes of tourists and culture mongers that I don’t believe there are any easy details people don’t notice. I guess I think Rome generally smells great. The incredible tomato sauce everywhere you go; the pizza and bread, distinct smells, that acrid scent of fresh fried fish, the coffee. I find myself sniffing everything. But the shops in the Via del Corso or Cola Di Rienzo area—everything smells freshly unwrapped. I sniff people’s perfume and cologne inadvertently. The wine and exotic botanical liqueurs. It’s quite sensual. The fruits and vegetables smell great, even the cured meats, and the dried-out grass of Villa Borghese, the dusty streets—you get my drift.

 

What writer(s) from here should we read? 

I’ve been involved in a long translation project of Dario Bellezza’s poetry. He lived from 1944 to 1996, when he died of AIDS-related complications. His poetry was famous in the 1970s (Viareggio Prize, 1976), and then he became a persona non grata because of his openly gay lifestyle and because of hysteria and fear, to the point where his books were all out of print, though widely collected by LGBTQ and poetry aficionados. Bellezza’s mother was from Puglia in southern Italy, not far from where I was born in a rural part of Avellino (Campania region), so his work speaks to me at a profound level of marginalization related to queer identity but also to this sense that southern Italians have often been postcolonial subjects too, exploited by the feudal systems, the Vatican, and the richer northern Italian industrialists.

To give you a sense of Bellezza’s work, the poem “Scaricato alla stazione di Martina Franca” (“Cast-off at the station in Martina Franca”), which I translated, is about outsider identity and alienation. It’s from the section called “Inquiete larve” (“Restless Larvae”) from the last book Bellezza published in his lifetime, L’avversario (The Adversary, 1994).  

 

Scaricato alla stazione di Martina Franca
fra trulli autunnali e polverosi fichi d’India
riversi sul suolo arso di mia Puglia materna –
abbandonato alle fredde rotaie di un treno per Bari
livido di una rabbia mattutina
ho pregato il Dio feroce degli esuli

L’esilio comincia dove finisce la terra
sacra degli amanti perpetui oltre la morte
dove il cuore impazzito sale le scale della sorte

Dio della velocità ferma dell’attimo fuggente
rapiscimi in una notte senza fondo
dove l’addio consumato fra pallide lenzuola
nasconda l’ulteriore figlio sconsacrato.


                  ______________
 

Cast-off at the station in Martina Franca
among autumnal trulli* and dusty prickly pear
heaped on the scorched ground of my maternal Puglia—
abandoned to the cold train tracks toward Bari
livid with a daily rage
I prayed to the ferocious God of exiles

Exile begins where the sacred land
of perpetual lovers ends beyond death
where the crazed heart climbs fate’s stairs

God of stopped time in a fleeting moment
ravage me in a night without end
where a farewell consumed among worn sheets
conceals the next desecrated son.

 

*Trulli are cone-shaped stone huts common in Puglia, once used as lodgings but also for farm storage.

 

One of my closest friends, Professor Caterina Romeo of the Sapienza University of Rome, writes extensively about postcolonial Italian writers. Thanks to her groundbreaking research, I’ve been exploring the work of Igiaba Scego, a Somali-Italian writer whose books Adua and Oltre Babilonia (Beyond Babylon) have been translated into English. There is a terrific presentation on YouTube by another excellent Somali-Italian writer, Ubax Cristina Ali Farah, hosted by New York University’s Italian Program in Florence. Ali Farah’s monologue “Rapdipunt” is clear-hearted and lyrical.  

Romeo’s recent critical book Riscrevere la nazione. La letteratura italiana postcoloniale. (Rewriting the Nation: Italian Postcolonial Literature, Le Monnier-Mondadori, 2018) will no doubt soon also find a home in English translation. The collection includes references to and close reading of work by more than one hundred Italian writers, fully exploring a second and third phase of postcolonial writing in Italy, with a special lens on writers who hail from former Italian colonies such as Somalia, Albania, and Ethiopia, alongside other migrant writers of mixed ancestry who are producing important literary texts and film in Italian. (See also the late scholar of Italian and Italian American literature Francesco Durante’s excellent essay on “Italy and the Literature of Immigration.”

Several emerging and increasingly established poets whose work I’ve also been following include Giovanna Cristina Vivinetto—whose book Dolore minimo (Minimal Pain, 2018), just won a prestigious Viareggio First Book Award—Eleonora Romolo, Andrea Galgano, Gabriele Sica, and Luca Baldoni, among others.

 

Is there a place here you return to often?

I’d say there are a least a half dozen places I return to regularly when I come back to Rome. I always feel a bit like an unidentified character in the famous Fellini movie Roma (1972), where at the end this phantom motorcycle rider cruises around the famous monuments at night, the Pantheon, Piazza Navona, the Spanish Steps, and Piazza del Popolo especially. In June and July, the city is often so hot that nighttime is the best time to visit these locales. This last visit, I lived so close to the main monuments that I felt guilty. I think I visited the Trevi Fountain at least a dozen times. Out of nostalgia for my study-abroad heyday, I always go to Giolitti’s ice cream parlor specifically for the cioccolato fondente (dark chocolate) with nocciola (hazelnut) and whipped cream, which I’m happy to report is still perfect and worth living for, forever. 

 

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

I think the Casa delle Letterature library in Piazza dell’Orologio is a must for all literary visitors. They have frequent exhibits on contemporary Italian books, and as I mentioned, they sponsor readings at the colossal Basilica di Massenzio, which is absolutely sublime. I was fortunate enough to visit with a wonderful American poet and editor friend a few years ago, in an outdoor space packed with more than five hundred spectators and several large video screens, and her palpable excitement amplified my own. This summer the Casa delle Letterature featured an original books exhibit from everyone who is included in Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories (2019).   


“Rome is a mythical and spiritual place that can easily become part of your emotional lifeblood.”


Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

Garbatella, the old town, which was once low-income housing for mostly southern Italian immigrants during the Fascist era, and has now become quite trendy yet still entirely Italian, unlike much of historic Rome. I love Roma 70 too, another suburb of interesting-looking ‘70s-inspired apartment buildings in areas surrounded by farms and parks. There’s always a breeze even in 100-degree weather, and people actually remember seeing you in their neighborhood from years before and say hello.

 

Where does passion live here? 

Rome is passionate at every corner. From the sun-drenched colors to the people shouting loudly on their cell phones in the markets and on trains. Somehow loudness matters less to me in Italian because it’s my mother tongue, ingrained and expressive. But mostly because as my family dies off, I feel the language escaping me more and more each minute, sometimes each second. My beloved twelve-year-old Portuguese Water Dog, Miss Bling, died recently, and my mom, who is also near the end of her life, loved this dog, whom she called Miss Blingitella. I swear Blingitella understood Italian better than I. So it’s these momentary cadences, these links to my own maternal language, that feel like a sort of paradisiacal passion, one I hope to reexperience someday in the next better place.

 

What is the title of one of your works about Rome and what inspired it exactly? 

I write a lot about Italy, and Rome specifically, but two poems come to mind right away. A long poem called “Roma Auto,” about how memory automatically shifts and roams, from my book The Right Place to Jump, which imagines my travels in Rome foregrounded by memories of the terrible 1980 earthquake in the Campania region, whose epicenter destroyed a lot of my birthplace town of Sturno, Avellino. The other, entitled “Cross Country,” from my book Cut Off the Ears of Winter, because it mentions my love for tortured Mannerist art—Daniele da Volterra’s Deposition, specifically, in one of the side chapels of Church of Trinità dei Monti, above the Spanish Steps. This is a painting I make a pilgrimage to as regularly as I can. But it’s also rather devastating and dizzying with its three geometrical ladders that have been accessed to take down the dead Christ. Earlier this year, I published a poem called “Departure; Flight” in the Cincinnati Review—it brings together images of Rome’s recent political machinations and a walk across one of the precipitous bridges that crosses the Tiber. (Think that famous scene from Pasolini’s 1961 film Accattone, where the young man dives off of the Ponte Sant’Angelo.)  

 

Inspired by Levi, “Outside Rome does an outside exist?” 

Rome is a mythical and spiritual place that can easily become part of your emotional lifeblood. Most folks talk about the shock of the first time they see the imposing structures of the Colosseum or St. Peter’s Basilica. Returning to Rome makes the blood rush in unpredictable ways, whether it’s the anxiety of asking for something you may not be sure you’re pronouncing correctly, or whether the everyday habits and pulse have not yet become second nature. For many, an outside of Rome definitely exists because we carry and access the vibrancy of memories long after a visit—the colors, the smells, the sounds (of bells and the plash of fountains especially), even the feel of cobblestones beneath your feet become permanently sensorial.

 

Peter Covino is the author of the poetry collections The Right Place to Jump (2012) and Cut Off the Ears of Winter (2005), both from W. Michigan University Press, New Issues. He was awarded the 2019 National Endowment for the Arts Translation Fellowship, the 2007 PEN/American Osterweil Award, the Paterson Poetry Prize for Literary Excellence, and the Frank O’Hara Prize for his chapbook Straight Boyfriend (2001). He has also received fellowship grants and residencies from the Richmond American International University of London, the Nida Translation Institute, and the American Academy in Rome, among others. Covino is the Poetry Editor of VIA: Voices in Italian Americana and one of the founding editors of Barrow Street Press Inc. (1998), which, under his direction and with the support of the URI English Department, has published forty-six poetry books, with six more under contract or in production.


Published Feb 10, 2020   Copyright 2020 Nathalie Handal

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