Caroline Maldonado on Rocco Scotellaro

 

Ticket for Turin

 

Turin, big of heart

you’re a young girl, you take my hand.

I set off on my journey:

they sent me away

here, where people dream of you

as I do, in the Fiat’s stream of wind.

They fondled me on their knees,

my hard Saracen fathers,

would laugh at the rhymes that I made up;

just like a puppet they would make me jump,

the dark beautiful women.

 

One day I saw them weep,

dark thunder rumbled in the air,

and they did not know how to weep

with those hard faces of theirs,

and on their knees I sang another song.

So they put me on the ground and said:

Go on, you can walk on your own.

How keen I was when I came to touch

the working men’s blue overalls:

I want to tell them that, those Saracens.

 

 

Rocco Scotellaro (1923-53) was born in Tricarico, a small town in Basilicata (previously known as Lucania) in the poor South of Italy, an area brought to the attention of the world by Carlo Levi in his book, Christ stopped at Eboli, written from his experience of political exile and describing the deplorable conditions in the region. Lucania was then comparable to much of the developing world today: pollution and malaria were rife, peasants struggled to make a living and children sat by the roadside, skin running with sores, flies on their vacant eyes. Scotellaro’s father had migrated to the US as a young man and Scotellaro himself left the South, first to study in Rome and then in search of work and to widen his experience of the world. He engaged with the contemporary literary scene, major writers such as Calvino, Montale and Pavese, and encountered the work of foreign writers, all of which contributed to his own development as a poet. Despite starting to find literary success, he chose to return to Lucania and at the still young age of twenty-three became a Socialist mayor of Tricarico, where he established a much-needed hospital. Sadly, he died of a stroke at the age of thirty. His dear friend Levi edited a first collection of his poems posthumously and it was awarded the Pellegrino and Viareggio prizes in 1954.

 

Scotellaro’s lyrical and compassionate poems express his love for his land and its people, his anger and sorrow at their exploitation and at the destruction of their cultural identity and history. The ‘Saracen fathers’ in this poem refers to the period when the Arabs ruled the area and their presence is still visible in the architecture and place-names in Tricarico.

 

An ambiguity exists in this poem as in much of his work: the tension between the pull of family, friends and birthplace and the desire to travel and discover new experiences outside a small, in many ways conservative and restrictive community.  The title refers to the journey to Turin but most of the poem speaks of what he’s leaving behind and that is where some of the strongest emotion lies.  With a profound understanding and without sentimentality he writes of a misery beyond tears:

 

and they did not know how to weep

with those hard faces of theirs

 

His commitment to his people and place led Scotellaro ‘to sing another song’ and to the final line in this poem expressing his poetic intent.  His writing gave back to the Lucanians their sense of identity, their dignity and humanity.  It expressed what they felt about their lives, and today, more than sixty years after his death, his words are still quoted and his life mourned and celebrated in Tricarico where the town’s inhabitants see him as one of their own, and a centre, il Centro di Documentazione Rocco Scotellaro e la Basilicata del second Dopoguerra, continues to promote his work and to convene events about his life and writings with national and international speakers.

 

‘Ticket for Turin’ was written in the post-war period when Fiat and other manufacturers in the North of Italy needed and welcomed labour. They regarded impoverished regions south of Rome as ‘Africa’, a foreign country.  That economic relationship is mirrored globally between rich and poor nations and Italy has now become one of the main southern European countries providing an entry point to lands of relative prosperity for the hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants escaping from war and poverty in the countries of Africa and from Syria and Afghanistan.  They live in reception centres, on the streets and on beaches, many of them forced to stay in Italy as, increasingly, the adjacent countries, such as France and Switzerland, close their borders, blocking access to the rest of Europe. Now there is little evidence of a big heart and the young girl’s open hand in the countries of the North. Generosity is replaced by fear, borders are tight shut against the ‘outsider’, and concepts of nationalism and a misinformed idea of sovereignty challenge that of collaboration as a response to a global human catastrophe.

 

Reading this poem again, I wonder how Scotellaro would have developed as a poet, as a political activist, as a human being, had he not had the opportunity to broaden his horizons and participate in the exchange not only of labour but also of culture and ideas.  The young poet was keen to touch the blue overalls of working men, but blue is also the colour of sea and sky, like the imagination free of physical borders.

 

 

‘Your call keeps us awake’: Selected Poems by Rocco Scotellaro, translated by Caroline Maldonado and Allen Prowle (Smokestack Books 2013).