Saturday, October 6, 2012

"Io Sono Li" and "Terra Firma;" Oceans, Rivers, Hope and Despair

It seems I have lived most of my life on islands, though my beginnings were on the terra firma of the 1940s Bronx, shaky in its own way but not because of the ever presence of shifting water ways--the Grotton Reservoir was disappointingly staid--and then for many years on the isle of Manhattan; every time I accompanied international visitors on the Circle Line Ferry trip and saw the wilderness at the tip of the northern reaches of the island, saw the bridges, the soaring workers' paths of connection, to New Jersey, to Brooklyn, to the Bronx, to Queens, with the belly of the bay swelling out at the Southern end, I lived again in Whitman's Manhatta, a project of the imagination, what humans do with water.

For the last twelve years I have lived on an island continent, where the oceans, Indian, Southern, Pacific, form a blue endless horizon, in one sense a country without a border if one believes that seas, like the air we breath, belong to no one but the history of this earth. At first I was frightened of this disconnection, and the coziness of Europe called to me, so many cultural moments touching, like turning over in bed and feeling the warmth of all those bodies, but now it is the call of the waters that interest me, the journeys that so many must make to reach the terra firma of their dreams, the waters of enforced destinies. I think of the "tragic riddle in the waters" as the Cuban-African poet Nicholas Guillen called the Middle Passage, the final journey of so many enslaved Africans who were forced to leave their histories in the depth of the Atlantic, a number too large to count, like stars in the sky, the holocaust before all others. Racism and oceans have a long history.  

For the past two weeks I have been taking the Monee Ponds--Westgarth number 506 bus, so different from the 86th street crosstown of my old world, through working class neighborhoods of wooden homes and small front gardens, crossing over the environs of Merri Creek until the bus, filled mostly with pensioners like myself and at the right times, school children, until we pull into the last stop, a short walk from the Westgarth Palace Cinema where I meet my old friend Pattie, and we settle into the deep red seats of the 1950s cinema
to take in the offerings of the Italian Film Fesitval which here is like a family affair. In the back rows sit the Italian speaking matrons who have lived in the neighbohood for decades, most emigrating from Southern Italy in the 50s and 60s, so their husbands could help to build the Snowy River Dam and they themselves often worked as seamtresses in the rag trade, as it is callled here. In chosing which films I wanted to see, I looked for the other Italian stories, not the romantic comedies, but the attempts of independent Italian film makers to explore the issues tearing at Italy's heart, immigration and the economic crises.

Along with this cinematic journey, I have been pursuing my own Italian studies program, with books leading to books--"The Pursuit of Italy" by David Gilmour, Penguin, 2012 for history,"Venice: The Pure City" by Peter Ackroyd, Vintage, 2010; "Elements of Italy," edited by Lisa St Aubin De Teran, Virago Press, 2001; following leads in these books and from a new friend who lives in Italy for a part of ever year, the Henry James Italian-based or influenced writings, "The Aspern Papers," and the "Wings of the Dove," and now on top of the pile, Stendahl's "The Charter House of Parma," (1839) dictated in the dying days of the author, a book I had carried all the way from NewYork those 12 years ago and only when I saw a reference to its author in the Gilmour book, did I think to check my shelves to see if by any chance I had a copy and there it was. Finally, I am deep in the language, translating in my own slow and dictionary and grammar- bound way, Giuseppe Berto's "Le Opere di Dio," a portrait of life in a Sicilian town written by the author during his interment in an American prsioner of war camp, in Texas, from 1943-46.

Both "Terra Firma" and "Io Sono Li" are stories of water and the human dreams so often drowning in the sea--African workers trying desperately to survive their boat journeys to the coast of Southern islands that barely sustain themselves except in the height of summer when tourists rush with shouts of joy into those same seas from which exhausted Africans haul themselves out of. The scene of the rescued Sudanese mother standing with her new born child in her hands facing the Southern island Italian woman who helped deliver the baby, in the flickering light of the garage in which both families are living so Northern tourists can live in the house, has thousands of years of history in its lens. I read in Gilmour's book, in his chapter, "The Making of Italy,"--the year is 1860 and the unification, the Risorgimento is well under way--"Ten days after his arrival in October, he [Luigi Carlo Farini] concluded,'that the south was 'not Italy but Africa,'" a place from which nothing good was to be expected. The concluding image of the film is an unforgettable portrait of human compassion afloat on the immensity of the seas, of the frail absolute connection of our need for each other and our histories. "Io Sono Li," [I am Li], opens with a scene of Li, a Chinese contracted worker, floating a lit candle on the canal in a town outside of Venice in honor of her favorite Chinese poet who believed that in the waters and their continuous flow lay the pulse of our lives. Her friendship with an aging fisherman amateur poet as well as the love of her room mate, another indentured Chinese woman worker, and the waters that bound their time in Italy, the ancient connection of the fishermen both in China and in Venetian Italy to the sea, to the lagoons which refresh and entrap at the same time, are at the heart of the story. Water, oceans, rivers, the need to reach terra firma but the impossibility of living without the poetry of the sea, the flow of possibilities to destroy and carry life. And in both films, our living responsibility to act with care when faced with the rising waters of need. 

I know I have written much this morning which is now afternoon, but I needed to talk, to tell you of things. La Professoressa left for Cambodia yesterday morning, to be part of a Human Rights group listening to the testimonies of women victims of sexual violence in wartime in the region and to come up with plans of action. The house, my island home, always feels a little more empty when she gets into that taxi that so often draws up in front of our house, leaving Cello and me standing on the veranday, waving our hearts out.

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