Eppure l’Italia è una parola aperta, piena d’aria.
Erri de Luca, Solo andata (Nota di geografia)
Map after map, we’re accustomed to seeing the Italian peninsula as a boot, perhaps for the catwalk, perhaps for the football pitch, or simply for hiking, even whilst staying put. Now and again the leg bends slightly at the knee, a natural reflex with each earthquake large or small, only to then freeze back into position. The threat to dig her heel into Albania, or to kick the Sicilian she-goat in the forehead, thankfully never materialises. Yet Italy hasn’t always been so still. Glance a little further south, below Malta, and you’ll notice that Sicily would snuggle in almost perfectly between Gabès and Tripoli, after which the Italian peninsula would click in nicely between Sfax and Benghazi, her sole straddling the bulging curve that overlooks the Gulf of Sidra. Just as India detached herself from eastern Africa and floated her way into the underbelly of Asia, forcing up the Himalayas, Italy broke off the Maghreb, crossed the Mediterranean and created the Alps with a crash. Much like jigsaw pieces, continuing their slow-motion blast out of Pangaea. And there is Italy, dangling from Europe like a rope tapering at the edge.
Now rotate the map 90° to the right, to see Italy from the east. Sicily turns into a small bird, perched on a forked branch, looking north. Or maybe a desert nomad, stepping onto the toe of Europe, ready to begin the steep climb toward the metropolis. Above and below the crust of the earth, migrations continue to shape the land. In contemporary Italian consciousness, migration is a complex myriad of realities, much closer to home yet less literally black-and-white than it has become in Malta, where the word ‘(im)migrant’ is fast becoming equivalent to a racist insult, the adjectives no longer needed. The difference may partly be due to a simple fact of geographic expanse: Malta is an overcrowded sea bream, whereas the dangling Italian rope she stares at from below is long and rugged enough to host its own ‘internal’ diasporas, appearing and disappearing. Close to the sole of the boot, 20 km east of Taranto at the beginning of the Salento peninsula, the village of San Marzano or Shën Marcani hosts a handful of families who speak Arbëreshë, a variant of southern Albanian present in Italy since the 15th century. Further down the heel, a cluster of twelve villages collectively known as La Grecìa Salentina are home to around 10,000 people who still speak, to some degree, their own language of Griko – which can be described, very broadly, as a latinised form of ancient Greek. The numbers are inevitably dwindling, with Griko set to become fossilised and idealised in EU-funded text books reproducing traditional proverbs and songs. One type of Griko song is the miroloj, a form of elegy performed only at funerals. The terrorising question for the grecanici is, when the last speaker of Griko passes away, who will be there to sing the final miroloj ?
Last September, the village of Carosino, nestled between Shën Marcani and the deep ravines of Grottaglie, hosted the second edition of its literary festival Parlate di luce: Rassegna di poesia abitata. The event is the brainchild of poet Biagio Lieti, one of a large section of the young Carosino population who found themselves pushed into pursuing their careers up north, . Organised with the sterling and unconditional help of cousins, friends and old primary school classmates, the festival spreads over two long weekends, attracting spectators from surrounding towns and villages thirsty for local cultural events. The south-north imbalance in Italy is still very much felt, as much on the part of the emigrated as inside the homes left behind. The festival’s suggestive subtitle of ‘inhabited poetry’, partly a wink to the literature of paesologia promoted by Franco Arminio (a much-needed initiative, taking psychogeography out of the city and into the villages and countryside), invites authors to express their take on the relationships between poetry and place. Accidentally yet perhaps unavoidably, migration turned out to be the main theme of the second weekend of readings; or to be more exact, migration and the (im)possibility of return. On Saturday 21st, Gioia Perrone teamed up with local retired teacher Angela Monteleone, to improvise short poems inspired by Angela’s old family photographs, featuring two of her children, musicians who went on to find their luck in London. The final lines of Perrone’s poem March: Variable Sky capture well the bitter-sweet tension between those who sail away toward new opportunities – or toward a ‘looser’ and more romantic form of captivity – and those who stay on, waiting for the waiting to begin:
The following morning I am on the verge of leaving
everything appears to be pure
the emerald masts, the galleys full
the ships I see are anchored to my pupils
ships of mine for galley slaves of all eras
and for you, if you wish to flee.
Yet I always remain, with the music of the names I despise,
my hand raised in the air to salute you.
The veins of Italy’s leg are thicker than its arteries, with travel northward still a great deal more frequent (and logistically easier) than the return south. What pushes the active population of Puglia ‘up’ towards cities such as Rome, Milan and Turin is, of course, a desire for a more stable form of precarietà, that increasingly blasphemous word that translates into something a little more gut-wrenching than ‘precariousness’ or ‘insecurity’. As young writer Marco Inguscio explained in his recital on Sunday 22nd, underlying the pain of forced emigration is what he calls la precarietà dell’emozione. Inguscio himself hails from the town of Gallipoli – close to the tip of the Salento heel -, yet like Biagio Lieti, he now lives and works in Rome. Away from home, how long does it take before the return home is no longer possible, as home changes and therefore ceases to exist? Italy is also the shape of a tree trunk, its roots thinning out into the Ionian Sea. This is perhaps the other side of migration, less often considered than the emotional uncertainties of those still migrating or arrived: the map becomes obsolete as soon as it is printed, and the familiar soon becomes heart-rendingly exotic. Visual artist Azzurra Cecchini illustrated this dichotomy well as she accompanied our poems with her felt pens on stage, her drawings projected live on the wall behind us. The Passport poem I recited with Inguscio speaks, at one point, of the possibility of returning to forbidden homes, yet it remains a lot more concerned with the possibilities of moving on, away, beyond. A number of Inguscio’s short yet excitingly dense poetic prose pieces shed a frightening light on the deep personal tension between distance in space and distance in time; in his metri 37, the precariousness of emotion that comes with self-imposed exile from a past love finds a very physical, macabre expression: “These nights, on the other hand, are spiders, eating away at your head one morsel at a time“. In his piece Clandestini, even the train stations left behind have morphed into stray animals:
At times I feel alone, like polar bears beached in winters not their own, in cold climates different to their own. Like the Tunisians and Eritreans that disembarked the other day – two hundred of them at first, now forty -, who will now discover the south-eastern train stations, strays older than themselves. I think about losing myself in space, becoming an infinite nothing, a spent nothing. I think of ultraviolet, the colour of your eyes on a night of dissolved crystals.
Spaces left behind are of course soon re-occupied by others, and naturally so. Strolling around Biagio Lieti’s childhood landscapes – the thyme and rucola-coated ravines of Grottaglie, the farms bordered by giuggiole or jujube (a sweet fruit known in Maltese as ġuġù), a wild mandorleto or almond grove peppered with bits of ancient ceramics -, we come across a palummaru, a dovecote or pigeon farm long abandoned by its owner. The birds long gone – eaten or released -, the tower has been re-colonised by a fig tree, its branches sprouting freely out of the window and above the crown. The image is at once promising and desolate. Parlate di luce was a festival close to home, perhaps the smallest I’ve been to, with its warm family atmosphere, its heartbeat that of a young poet named after the patron saint of his village, San Biagio, but also the heartbeat of those close to him, even if he now lives a long train ride away. It’s a special and generous festival which I hope will continue to grow and take wing on an international scale. I left with a melancholic taste in my mouth, that of the salty breeze more than vaguely reminiscent of my own village on the belly of the sea bream further south, a village whose physical and emotional maps have inevitably transformed as I while my time in the mists of the north. The following week, Carosino would be host to many more ‘northern southerners’, with its Sagra del Vino, a long weekend in which the fountain at the centre of Piazza Vittorio Emanuele III spurts out red wine all day and all night, filling the village air with the happier fragrance of alcohol and must.
Now turn the map of Italy ‘south-up’. Sicily pounces like a jaguar; Puglia and Calabria become the hump and head of a camel, stuck in a drainpipe. The camel metaphor may seem surreal, but it was famously sung by Franco Battiato in his song Come un cammello in una grondaia, taken in its turn from the writings of 11th-century mystic Abu Rayhan al-Biruni, the founding father of anthropology and of geodesy, the measurement and representation of the Earth. Al-Biruni’s mother tongue was Khwarezmian, a language close to Persian, once spoken on the southern banks of the Aral Sea (modern-day Uzbekistan). Expressing the need to ‘migrate’ into the Arabic language in order to be able to study science, he wrote that “it would be as strange to encounter a scientific concept in Persian as it would be to see a camel in a gutter (mīzāb)“. Battiato, of course, has taken the metaphor of absurdity out of context, to a relevant emotional conclusion. And this, I believe, is what many emigrants feel when returning home without returning: unable to comprehend the fragment of the Earth that used to be familiar to them, neither in their newly adopted languages, nor in their own, which have also continued to evolve without them.