Translator's notes

The violets are children with bare feet

By Rocco Scotellaro

Rocco Scotellaro never saw his poems published. In 1954, the year after his cruelly premature death from a heart attack at the age of thirty, E Fatto Giorno (Day Break), edited by his friend Carlo Levi, was published by Mondadori, and was awarded the Viareggio prize. He was the gifted son of a very poor family from Lucania, a mountainous and impoverished region of the Italian mezzogiorno. His parents made great sacrifices so that he could enrol at Rome University to study law, but the war and then the death of his father forced him to leave without completing his degree. He was of that young generation which saw the post-war years as a real opportunity to establish a just and egalitarian society, and to improve the material lives of the poor. At 23, he was elected as socialist mayor of his home town, Tricarico, and became actively engaged in the struggle for land reform. Inevitably, this brought him into conflict with the landowners, many of whom had welcomed his election believing that this son of a shoemaker could be easily manipulated. Victim of a political vendetta, he was imprisoned in Matera. The charges of corruption were spurious and he was acquitted after two months. He resigned as mayor and left for Portici, near Naples, where for some three years he studied at a research centre in agrarian economics. It was in Portici that he died.

One hears in these poems a voice, or rather, voices that had scarcely reached the ears of any public, let alone one given to reading poems. They narrate an archaic rural way of life dominated by the seasons, the harshness of place and weather, the need to feed one’s family, but the sense of timelessness is sometimes disrupted by poems which relate contemporary events, such as the political defeat of 18 April 1948, the discovery that the agrarian reform plan had handed the peasants largely uncultivable strips of rocky ground, the death of his brother-in-law in the Greek expedition, the retreat of campaigning field-hands from the bosses’ bully boys. Scotellaro, political activist that he was, is no populist poet. He lets us share his ambivalence towards a moment in history when the past and the possible future are in contention. He was never able to commit himself utterly to an intellectual environment where reform and political change were debated; emotional ties to an ancestral past, whose limitations and inertia so frustrated him, frequently brought him back from the city. The muleteer’s daughter was ultimately more difficult to leave than the city girlfriend. His poetry is encamped in that border country where Raymond Williams also lived: pitched between attraction and repulsion, affection and irritation. The quarrel with others would have inspired, as Yeats claimed, a discourse of rhetoric, something Scotellaro no doubt kept for the hustings and public meetings. It was out of the quarrel with himself that he wrote many of the most telling poems in E Fatto Giorno.

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