Negotiating the Liminal Divide: Some Italian-Australian Diasporic Poets

By | 1 September 2013

Paolo Totaro, born in Naples in 1933, has been living in Australia since 1963 as a result of the diaspora of corporate executives (for FIAT tractors in Oceania, in his case) who promoted Italian industry abroad in the wake of Italy’s economic miracle. His considerable managerial skills and his wide cultural interests – he has university degrees in law and music – led him to accept an offer to create the Community Arts Board of the Australia Council in 1975. From 1977 to 1989, he was foundation chair of the Ethnic Affairs Commission of New South Wales, and in that role pioneered many fundamental multicultural initiatives. A busy schedule that also includes journalism, television appearances and an interest in science has not prevented him from practicing chamber music and writing. His short story ‘Storia patria’ [‘Homeland Story’] won the Premio Letterario 2 Giugno literary prize in 1993.

Totaro is a fine prose writer, however, his forte in the field of creative writing is poetry. He writes both in Italian and English, and was the first writer (and is still one of the very few) to depict the soundtrack of Australia’s multicultural work environment, rich in linguistic dislocations. His corpus of poetry remained largely unpublished until his volume Collected Poems appeared in 2012, although some of his poems had appeared in magazines and anthologies, as well as in the volume Paolo poesie (Totaro 1981).

The themes enunciated in Totaro’s poetry range from the unforgettable childhood traumas of war, to the dilemma of whether to follow music or other vocations, to the expressive tension between Catholic and Marxist, humanistic and scientific, Italian and Australian cultures and a search for possible equilibriums between them. His early poetry expressed the rebellion of a young intellectual towards the elitist culture of his place of origin. His later Australian poems focused on the awareness that participation in the culture of his adopted country contributed to its transformation. There are explicit references to the diaspora, although they are by and large veiled by the need not to indulge in nostalgia. The migration experience is thus perceived as the courageous translocation from one society to another, representing constant dynamic change, a linguistic mixture. The challenge of not overlooking the reciprocal recognition of the continuity and dignity of each individual person and the validity of their cultural and linguistic base is at the fore. In this context, Totaro’s plurilinguistic lyric experimentation – more unique than rare in Italian-Australian poetry – is particularly interesting, and displays a sensitivity towards the human condition of the migrant. Many of these poems written in a mix of languages relate to salient aspects of the presence of CALD first-generation migrants in Australia, who account for about 12 per cent of its population. Poems like ‘Port Kembla’ (Totaro 2012, 196), composed in 1977, express the theme of the ‘nonmeaning’ of life in the punishing environment of the blast furnaces at the steelworks, and present interesting parallels with the poems of Pietro Tedeschi (1997).

Port Kembla

coke havens
altiforni hornos
de fundicion
aqui la vita è breve
non ha significado
hermanos o calor
blanco fierro
c’è ancora l’hope
y l’esperanza
da l’Estremadura
tu veinist you came
frade meu
español ancora
and yet
el pianto mio
my cry
si confounds se mixa
col tuo

In ‘6 p.m. Cleaners’ (Cincotta 1989, 132) plurilingualism becomes the symbol of the brotherhood among workers from Italy, Spain and Latin America, a brotherhood that in ‘Homer: fish shops’ (Totaro 2012, 194) is extended also to Greeks.

Homer: fish shops

Con Karanges
fish and more fish shops
antica ecclesia orthodoxa
di Wollongong
colle pitture y madonne
negras ebony
la mia coscienza
si confounds
tell me Jimmy Joyce
qual’è quis est
il greco?

Further references to Australian pluriculturalism are found in the exquisitely transformational ‘L’English Ghetto: Gardeners’ (Totaro 2012, 195), while ‘Chester Hill: Refugee School’ (Totaro 2012, 197) provides an incisive and sensitive early perspective on a theme – the trauma suffered by refugee children – that is now even more poignant that it was in the 1970s.

Chester Hill: Refugee School

Vietnam est fini
et tu almond-eyed
est ici
among strangers?
hardly so si tu veux
love avoir qui t’enseigne-teach
la langue English
with les dessins from Peanuts
et tu? de Beirut
la guerre est fini
pour tous parents
poor orphans
of us all
pauvre infelicitè
de notre

Paolo Totaro’s existential plurilingualism, however, also marks crossings with pre-migratory experiences. ‘Conversazioni mute’ [Mute Conversations] (Totaro 2012, 64), four poems written in 1985, were inspired by Totaro’s sudden return to Naples because of the imminent death of his father, and they articulate memories of past and present relationships with him. Relationships with his environment and the people that are important in his life – his Jesuit teachers, his parents, his wife, his children – constitute a major theme in his poetry. In ‘Linee diritte: Straight lines’ (Totaro 2012, 110), Pittwater (on the coast north of Sydney and surrounded by an immense national park, on whose shores Totaro lives) is portrayed as an idealised oasis of peace that exists in sharp contrast with the hectic and alienating environment of the New South Wales political arena.

Linee diritte: Straight lines

Scure bande di terra
sottolineate dal brulichio bianco
di barche minutamente ancorate.
In alto, larghe onde di eucalipti
intrecciano dita di rosa in riccioli
di nuvole.
“O rododactyylos eos”
precede d’estate qui in Australia
il vento di nordovest
che fra un’ora
scompiglierà il mare
e le linee ora dritte
saranno, per il resto del giorno,
incertamente increspate.

Linee diritte: Straight Lines Dark strips of earth underlined by a white shimmering of closely anchored boats. Up high, wide waves of eucalyptus trees interlace rosy fingers into curls of clouds. “The Rosy fingered dawn” precedes in Australia during summer the northwest wind that within an hour will stir up the sea and the lines now straight will be uncertainly rough for the rest of the day.

Pittwater, where the calm dawn sea is later disturbed by the midday trade winds, represents a serenity that perhaps mirrors a conscience disturbed by the tension between a wistful aspiration to interior peace and the reality of social conflict. This is distinctly expressed in ‘Volontà di sorridere’ [Wanting to Smile] (Totaro 2012, 156). The difficulty of saying things that really count in ‘Volontà di parlare’ [Wanting to Speak] (Totaro 2012, 150) expresses that active participation in the culture of the adopted country is a no less wistful aspiration than past participation in the culture of the country of origin.

The old, the new, the exotic, the familiar and the stress of constant travel are the themes of ‘A mio padre e mia madre’ [To My Mother and Father] (Totaro 2012, 58), written in the 1960s when Totaro travelled the world on behalf of Fiat. Addressing his faraway parents, he invites them to come to Sydney to see his new life. He recalls with yearning the sound of his mother’s footsteps when she would get up to make the coffee that would send her back to sleep, and the image of his father, and his abandoned land in Puglia with its wine, olives and wheat. The exotic totems brought from New Guinea become ‘two obscure Christs’ that share space on the walls of his Sydney home with two other familiar totems brought from Naples, the miniature portrait of a baroness aunt and the ‘mute’ square of a Sacred Heart.

A mio padre e mia madre

Sono passato anche per la Guinea
e son tornato con il cargo oscuro
di due cristi procedenti
senza schiavi nè usci
ed ornate di case e di molluschi.
Sono ora appesi al muro come la baronessa
minata e il sacro cuore muto.
Tu non li hai visti, e come i doni
che ti tresagisco, abiti di silenzio
questa casa. Il mio cuore sarebbe
quei passi quei tre pezzi di suono
alla mattina, alle sei, nella trasparenza
del cammino dalla camera da letto
alla cucina. “Il caffè fa dormire …”

To My Mother and Father I’ve been to New Guinea too and I’ve returned with the obscure cargo of two primitive Christs without slaves or entrances adorned with houses and molluscs. They are now hung on the wall like the miniature Baroness and the mute Sacred Heart. You haven’t seen them, and like the gifts that I hold for you, you live in this house in silence. My heart would be those steps those three pieces of sound in the morning, at six, in the transparency of walking from the bedroom to the kitchen. “Coffee makes you sleep …”

‘Comizio 1950’ [Meeting 1950] (Totaro 2012, 70) describes a passeggiata in the ancient historical centre of the city of Naples and a metaphor of the passage from Benedetto Croce’s neoidealistic philosophy, studied by many students in the Italian south at the time, towards Gramsci and Togliatti’s brand of Marxism. The poet –0 then twenty and a student at the Conservatorium – and his friends talk about the fact that Naples presents few opportunities, and that they would soon have to leave, perhaps for the most distant corner of the world, which perspicaciously is identified as Australia.

Characterised by an impressive variety of stylistic expression, Paolo Totaro’s writings mark a poetic ‘journey’ that, while not losing touch with his point of departure, has moved forward in the last decade. Unlike most first-generation Italian-Australian poets, Totaro has become concerned with English metric forms – so different from their Italian counterparts – and several of his more recent unpublished poems show a remarkable awareness of the English ‘line’.

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