The Oldest Hands in the World
By Daniele Pantano
50 poems, 87 pages
Black Lawrence Press
Reviewed by Ed Bennett
American writing in the early 18th century was anglocentric. It was critiqued on both sides of the Atlantic as late as the 1800s with an eye toward its conformity to European forms. In fiction, the break came with James Fenimore Cooper’s uniquely American “Leatherstocking Tails” and poetry made a clean break in the mid 19th century with Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass”. Since that time there has been any number of movements in our literature that fell either toward the established European model or the search for a distinctly American voice. Contemporaries and friends like Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, though both receiving the same influences, went separate ways with Pound choosing the Classical route with his “Cantos” and Williams searching for “The American Foot”, a poetic rhythm to define our voice as distinctly as iambic pentameter defined Elizabethan England. The battle is not over and American poetry continues to receive the benefit of its own voices like Gwendolyn Brooks, Billy Collins and Joy Harjo while accepting the more international influences of Charles Simic and Joseph Brodsky.
Daniele Pantano’s new book of poems, “The Oldest hands in the World” is a definite addition to the European tradition in American poetry. The Swiss born Pantano has an international reputation as a translator and critic as well as for his poetry. The images of mainland Europe pervade this book of poem’s allusions both to classical as well as historic references.
The book is divided into five sections and each is pervaded with an “old world” voice and imagery from the Sicilian or Swiss country sides. There is also a deep haunting visions of the urban landscape that catches a reader’s attention with its darkness. Surprisingly, this old world voice seems to have an awareness of this newer, younger culture. We see this in his poem “Conversations Near san Pietro Patti, Sicily”:
“As for the farmer, he talks about American soldiers
With pedigreed hands who met him on the outskirts
To trade cigarettes for wine and tomatoes—the land
Scorched by poverty they had heard so much about
Back on Mulberry Street.”
For those of us with immigrant parents or grandparents these five lines have the true ring of a recollection from family stories told by an aged uncle now living in the United States.
The urban scenes in these poems seems almost pan-European, describing the streets of Paris, Berne, Palermo or London. His poem “Theatre du Grand Guignol” captures the shock of the theater production with the almost Poe like ending
“The stage conceives a stranger, a sage, matters of occultism,
In an attempt to stimulate man’s inner need
To move toward an addressable reality.
But the audience still believes in imitation, nothing more . . .
The applause raucous.”
Perhaps the most interesting poems found in Mr. Pantano’s book involve the interaction between the narrator and characters who can be ephemeral presences not seen in the poem or the well fleshed persona of a lover or family member. “Between Stations at the Metro” is a snapshot of a collection of people taken in by the discerning eye of a poet analyst.
“How wonderfully it all matches the black bough:
Her artificial leg she sways as flesh. Fingers forking
His beard and the thinning images he considers.”
Some of the descriptions of his characters are notably short, like a cameo or locket portrait. “The Stranger” is a two line poem that says with its brevity what would take pages in a prose work
“I saw her in the mirror of the burnt hall
Her black hair spreading across Europe”
This is not simply an imagist work with elevated descriptions of another continent. There is passion and an infused sexuality in these poems, especially those in the second half of the book. Juxtaposed with poems about his children and family, they set the gentler poems off in a relief that describes the complications of living in a ravenous world where unsettling events happen and the poet records them.
Daniele Pantano is a poet whose voice speaks across continents. He can speak with the soft light of a field in the Mezzogiorno as well as the glare of a city street. He does not shy away from the darker side of reality and focuses on the effects of an older world on the people who live in it. Despite the European scenery, this is a peculiarly American voice that emerges in this book. In his poem “Amerika”, a contemplation of Amadeo Modigliani, he writes:
“Parked by the ocean, I can still hear you
In the first syllables of my new language.
And I will drive,
Drive until I know your soul, until I can paint
Your eyes: two maps . . . one for each pocket.”
There is a density in Pantano’s imagery that demands second and third readings of these poems. His allusions are more 19th and 20th century Europe than classical. Daniele Pantano is a unique voice coming to us from the fields and streets of a far continent that echoes within the DNA of the American experience. He is not so much instructing us in our cultural ethos as much as he is drawing back the curtain to show us from whence it comes. This is a fascinating book of poetry, one made for the mind as well as the soul. One cannot help but meditate on the poems, draw back and extract the many meanings and ideas generated from each well crafted line. The reader becomes a participant in each scene, finding themselves doing what Mr. Pantano’s title poem suggests:
“To go on. Finish breakfast. Read the line
That ends in God’s breath. Again.”