Negotiating the Liminal Divide: Some Italian-Australian Diasporic Poets

By | 1 September 2013

Among the poets who published in the Italian-Australian press during the 1930s was Lino Grassuti (also spelled Grasuti) – a pen-name then used by Luigi Strano, who was born at Castellace di Oppido Mamertina in southern Italy in 1913 and emigrated to Sydney in 1929 (where he passed away in 2009). Although he quickly achieved a secure and respected socioeconomic position, Strano did not aspire to live by bread alone. Shortly after his arrival, he learned English, Latin, Greek and German, and began to publish poetry in Italian-Australian newspapers. His texts (sonnets, canzoni, and ballads) were initially written in literary Italian and modeled closely on the Italian classical literary canon. Throughout the 1930s, stylistic and thematic changes led him to progressively adopt a more ‘modern’ approach, and to write not only in Italian but also in English, the Calabrian dialect and Latin. Over the years, Strano published twenty volumes of poetry and two volumes of memoirs. His literary activities earned him recognition as one of the leading first-generation Italian-Australian poets, and in 1985 he received an honorary Master of Arts degree from the University of Wollongong for his literary and cultural achievements.

Luigi Strano developed as a poet without regrets or nostalgia; he was able to assimilate and adapt not only traditional and modern Italian poetry, but also English and Anglo-Australian poetry, achieving his own brand of free and profound literary communication. His poetry explores a wide range of themes expressed with rare unembellished sincerity. These themes include everyday realities as well as the existential aspects of the diaspora, the poet’s relationship with his native land and his adopted country, nature, Australian society, and Italian migrants’ reactions and attitudes towards Australians. But Strano’s poetry also embraces more ‘universal’ themes relating to life, love and philosophy. Life is seen as a rocky road that leads to a succession of painful and joyous experiences, but which still needs to be lived to the full and at the highest level of one’s humanity, since ‘è tutto ciò che abbiamo’ (it’s the only thing we have) (‘La vita non è ombra’ [‘Life is Not a Shadow’], Rando 1983, 126). Feelings and attitudes towards his native land expressed in poems such as ‘Castellace’ (Strano 1959, 8) and ‘La mia terra’ [My Land] (Rando 1983, 127) are complex and not without contradiction. They range from the denunciation of the hate and violence endemic in his home town to the realisation that the place and its meaning can never be forgotten, even though returning there can be a mixed experience of sadness and of joy.

La mia terra

Il paese natio non si scorda,
anche quando non c’è alcuna 
ragione d’amarlo …
ma io porto con me,
la gioia e il dolore
della mia terra [ … ]
Amo il paese che m’ospita,
ma chi può sopprimere
le visioni del dormi-veglia?

My Land You cannot forget your native land even when there is no reason to love it … but I carry within me the joy and the pain of my country [ … ] I love the country that has taken me in but who can suppress the visions of dreaming?

Equally complex are feelings and attitudes towards Strano’s adopted country. The Australian wilderness can present cruel and tragic aspects (‘Bush Fire’, Rando and Andreoni 1973, 350-1) but the wide open spaces, the landscape, the untainted sky and the primordial bush often provide a setting for serene contemplation, a sense of peace and stability, a place for thought and philosophy. By contrast, the landscape of Strano’s native Calabria, although rich in history and natural beauty, is considered in retrospect to be more disturbing because of its endemic problems caused by the presence of humanity. Less inviting or encouraging is Australia’s social landscape, characterised by a degrading materialism that leaves little scope for the expression of difference, and relegates to the fringe those (CALD migrants, Aboriginal people) who cannot or do not wish to assimilate. ‘U Pappu a l’Australia’ [‘Grand-dad in Australia’] (Strano 1964, 9), written in the Calabrian dialect, is a strikingly realistic and emblematic depiction of the existential anguish of elderly parents brought to Australia by their children for the sake of family reunion.

‘U Pappu a l’Australia

’Mmavissi ’rrumputu l’anchi
quandu partia di jani!
lu ’mmorzu d’ortu
e lu pertusu i casa l’avia,
chi mi mancava u pani?
’cca simu comu
non si canusci nenti,
non sai mancu chi ’ttinnu,
lu patri non è patri,
non c’è ’chiu religioni;
ti manca di rispettu
chiddu chi s’avi e fari …
simu comu i nimali,
parlandu cu crianza,
peju di li maiali;
si campa pe la panza! …

Grand-dad in Australia Would that I had broken my hip before leaving my place. A piece of land I had and a roof over my head, nor was I short of bread. Here we’re as if nobody knows nothing not even how things are, a father’s not a father, there’s no more religion, and even an as yet unborn child has no respect for me … We’re like animals, worse than swine, speaking with respect; we live only for our bellies! …

Personal relationships constitute another dominant and constant theme in Strano’s work, with poems like ‘A Phyllis H.’ (Strano 1981, 6), ‘A fortunato la rosa’ (Strano 1984, 11) and ‘Linda’ (Strano 1959, 23). This theme predominates in the volume Elvira (Strano 2002), published after the death of his sister, which expresses the memories, the reflections and the good and the bad places of a long life spent together.

A fortunato La Rosa – buonanima

nome quasi d’ironia.
Quanto hai lottato
e perseverato
contro le avversità [ … ]
Nella vita tutto
t’è giunto tardi;
la professione
la famiglia
il ritorno in patria,
tardi, molto tardi e fatale! [ … ]
ed or mi morde il rimpianto
di non averti abbracciato
per l’ultima volta,
d’aver sempre
preso da te tanto
e dato così poco!

To Lucky La Rosa – rest his soul Lucky! An almost ironic name. How you struggled and persevered against adversity [ … ] In your life all came late to you; your profession your family and the return to your native land, late, very late and fatal! [ … ] and now I deeply regret not to have embraced you for the last time, to have always taken so much from you and given so little!
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