reviewed by Ed Bennett
At a recent dinner party a friend of mine gave flight to her whimsy and spoke of how she would love to spend the rest of her days in Florence, Italy. The words came from the heart and there was much made over this cradle of art and poetry, the birthplace of Dante and Michelangelo and so many others. From the perspective of five hundred years later and six thousand miles distance, her words were bathed in the warm sunlight of the Campania.
The children of immigrants know a different story. Each Botticelli triumph was overshadowed by Savonarola being burned publicly for criticizing papal behavior. Every piece of great literature was written in the shadow of monarchs killing neighboring populations for food or money or where they prayed. For all of the glory of Europe or Asia or wherever, the average person lived a life harsh enough to cause them to emigrate to a radically different culture that was frequently hostile to them.
Emanuel Di Pasquale’s “Harvest” is a collection of poetry that observes the landscape, both physical and psychological, of the New York/New Jersey region. Prof. Di Pasquale immigrated to the United States as a teenager and has devoted a career to the literature of his adopted nation as well as his maternal country. The work is quintessentially American, whether he describes a landscape in suburban New Jersey or a poetry reading at the foot of New York City’s Public Library. And yet, there is the hint of memory of the old country, a phrase, no doubt spoken with a sigh that brings Southern Europe to Monmouth Beach.
The collection opens with the eponymous poem “Harvest” set in the warm summer days of the Jersey Shore. The narrator offers some wild blackberries freshly picked to some passers - by. There is modest curiosity from the first one, and a reluctant acceptance from the second one after being warned by his wife that they might be unsafe. The only character in this poem actually enjoying the fruit is the narrator who ends with:
“At dawn I’ll harvest the next batch
This is a thematic foreshadowing of the rest of the poetry found here. While the rest of the action may involve characters making good or bad choices, there is the voice of the narrator in the background suggesting but never judging. There is a confidence in this collection that rises from the poet’s voice like a sunflower bathing in a sunny, verdant field.
The poem “In Long Branch, This August 10th” contained images that brought me back several years. The opening lines
“The trees on South Beach and Ocean Boulevard
begin what seems to be a nature poem but the comparison of leaves being blown in the wind with the tossing of a lovers braids is masterful. As this line of imagery is developed the poem is brought to a soft ending with
“All overwhelms today
If he is anything, Emanuel Di Pasquale is a master of understating the obvious. The poem leaves one with the tranquility of being with a lover by the mere mention of water and wind. On a personal note, I will say that when I walked on Ocean Boulevard and South Beach my vision was not as deep. A poet whose imagery enhances the sight of a reader who is familiar with the scene gives that reader an insight to the real beauty of the surroundings. This is a rare thing.
Wind and sea are common images in this collection. What makes them unique is that one sees the roll of the wave or feels the sea wind from two aspects. Aside from references to the Jersey Shore there are references to Sicily, also a place
Swim in the mother waters of lower
We are a nation of immigrants,though some of us have forgotten the journey. In this poem there is an invitation to remember the “mother waters” of our origin that some of us carry in their heart through every season. That memory is still very much alive in Prof. Di Pasquale’s soul.
There is much to praise in this collection. Aside from the crisp imagery and wide brush strokes in his descriptions there is the occasional bit of humor or mention of real people. I smiled at the mention of Marilyn Hacker reading poetry in New York City. Ms. Hackers work has been reviewed in Quill and Parchment a few months ago. He also tells us that Quasimodo has “the mask of Sicily on his face”. I was intrigued by this because one usually associates Charles Laughton in this role. In the ‘60s, however, Anthony Quinn appeared in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”, climbing the belfry with his olive skin and brown eyes – a definite mask of Sicily.
“Harvest” was published by Bordighera Press, an imprint dedicated to publishing books by Italian Americans. “Harvest” is an excellent example of the kind of work that the press is noted for. Ethnic literature sometimes falls into the trap of “victim lit”, enumerating the sins of others against their group. There is none of this in “Harvest”. If it does anything it reminds me of the way my grandfather praised the many virtues of his adopted country in his broken English.
“Harvest” by Emanuele Di Pasquale is a work of superb poetry with imagery so crisp it could be used in a text book. More importantly, it is a testament of what was brought to this country over the last 150 years that resonates in our culture from the plaque on the Statue of Liberty to the slap of the waves on the California coast.