Missing Madonnas by Gil Fagiani. New York: Bordighera Press, 2018. 129pp.
by MARC ALAN DI MARTINO
I long for a past
that never was
but will always be
in a state
of permanent bereavement.
These lines from “Mourning Man” are as good an introduction as any to Gil Fagiani’s posthumous collection Missing Madonnas. In the title poem Fagiani recounts the legend of the statuina of the Virgin Mary stolen by “sacrilegious hands” from a church in Capo d’Orlando, Sicily in 1925. It is the second poem in the book, and the first of the prose poems that form a scattershot sequence throughout, dwelling on vivid scenes from the author’s immigrant family history and autobiographical snapshots of his life on the street. With titles like “Veal Cutlets” and “Gold Teeth”, these pieces deliver punchy sketches of Italian-American life spanning much of the 20th century. Fagiani is an astute chronicler, and his prose is straightforward and unapologetic whether describing Aunt Lia’s broken dreams of becoming a pianist or indulging in jumpy descriptions, verging on the Selby-esque, of scoring dope in Spanish Harlem.
These tough prose poems alternate with more lyrical meditations, though the subject matter remains the same. In the book’s opener, “Lunar Arrival”, the author’s mother is rushed to the hospital by their wife-beater of a neighbor in a pick-up:
The sheet music
to a melancholy tune
that found a name
— my birth certificate.
In passages like this Fagiani is at his most bittersweet, perhaps recalling Heine’s famous line, “The best of all were never to be born.” (Both authors had struggled with drug addiction.) In one of the book’s strongest poems, “Natural History”, a group of schoolchildren in the 1950s are taken on a field trip to the Museum of Natural History in New York. As they pass through Harlem, they are told by their teacher that colored people are “dangerous”, and are instructed not even to look at them. The poem concludes:
Inside the museum, a bronze African woman’s bust, two
naked breasts, polished brightly by a thousand schoolboy hands.
It is this sort of juxtapositioning — without need of further illustration or comment — Fagiani does so well. He is able to bring to life complex and contradictory social relations of America’s “melting potty” without an ounce of sentimentality.
In “Peeling an Orange in Palermo” we witness the chilling scene of a mysterious man in a fancy hotel restaurant ordering up an orange. The obsequious waiter–who has surely seen things he cannot tell–goes through more trouble than a person should to perfectly peel a “blood-ripe” orange for his customer, and one has the uneasy feeling we shouldn’t be watching whatever scene may be playing itself out beneath the surface. It is a poem pounding with silence. Anyone who has spent time in Sicily has surely observed such oddly mundane moments and felt a chill run up their spine.
The theme of the ‘missing Madonna’ is revisited at the end of the book, this time in a terse lyric set in the Bronx in 1989. The annual feast and parade are things of the past. The Italians have died off or assimilated, and their children have moved on–presumably to become Americans. All that is left of the once-vibrant community is
an urban intersection
rank with exhaust fumes
and a field of weeds
capped with razor wire.
This seems a fitting place for Fagiani to end his tragicomic narrative of Italian-American experience. It is left for us–the readers and writers, the children and grandchildren–to pick up the pieces, learn the languages and stories of our ancestors, and write them back into existence before they are gone forever.
From Italian Americana Summer 2020