Reilluminations 6 - Lucio Piccolo
[ poetry - march 11 ]
Lucio Piccolo, whose self-imposed exile from the literary circles of his day has left him with a place in the history of Italian poetry as quixotic and flexible as the work he produced, is seen by some as Italy's Mallarmé and as one of Sicily's greatest ever poets. To others, however, Piccolo, who published only 37 poems in three slim volumes during his life, is an obscure and onanistic adjunct in a golden period of Italian writing. But if we are mindful of Piccolo's own lack of interest in the reception of his work and his legacy as a whole, it is apparent that his principal desire to be learned, and the consequent isolation he cultivated from the critical community that might have ensured his legend, is necessary to the nature of his poetry in general.
Born in Palermo into a noble landowning family, Piccolo's life was spent almost entirely in Sicily. Happily landlocked, his was a life of private plenty and study. Inevitably, his isolated and idiosyncratic poetic activity claimed allegiance to no movement, generation or school. He was cousin to the novelist Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, who, in 1954, forwarded Piccolo's unpublished poems to an appreciative Eugenio Montale. But for this, he would most likely never have been heard of. Perhaps, in light of his ensuing fame, he might have preferred it. The reception for his slim volume of poems inspired his cousin Lampedusa to write The Leopard, posthumously discovered by Giorgio Bassini, leaving the literary legacy of the extended Piccolo family all the more considerable.
Whether it was his aristocratic upbringing, his self-imposed isolation or the autodidactic obsession that lasted his entire life, Piccolo's poetry, scant and slight as it is, presents us with numerous striking features. Piccolo is often lazily called a baroque poet and compared even to the likes of Góngora. It is true that his poetry is pervaded by a sense of place and a Husserlian interpretation of time to the point of seeming nostalgic, perhaps even mawkish. He referred to himself as a "savage spirit" and refused to bargain with the tone of his work. However, vitally, Piccolo's nostalgia is one of fundamental disappointment. He does not hark back to a better age or paint pictures of his childhood; rather, Piccolo begins from a post-historical perspective and in this way he is considerably ahead of his time. What is evoked as past has been forever in the past, and whether what takes place in his work ever took place is irrelevant. The poems are written with the lamentation that the poet fails when he tries to distil time and happening, that the ungraspable has passed in the moment it was remembered or conceived and thus, while others would stop themselves into silence, the poet is left raising a false note, a broken utterance, an attempt that exists because of its own failure. Piccolo's understanding of this failure is suitably grand.
Challenging the notion of time directly, he forces his poems to embody static states; time held and re-evoked in resonances and retouches, figures of temporality stuck indefinitely in the consciousness of the poems' I, the poet himself. Melancholic, improbable, sometimes surreal, the themes of time, of light and dark, of seasons resonate with what has been referred to as a specifically Sicilian understanding of the world. But while his critical reception consistently stresses that Piccolo's poetry carries the "seedy magnificence which is Sicily", it is precisely because Piccolo rarely left the island and never left Italy that his work is built on universal, philosophical foundations. He does not express an aversion to the world beyond what he knows; rather, he refuses to turn away from himself and his life of study which requires his station to be still. There is a pivotal difference between the two, and it shows in his work. Again, his is a post-historical consciousness: he refers to Sicily as a land that has already disappeared. All that is left is shadow and folklore. While this notion alone might be taken as nostalgic or specifically Sicilian, such geographical insistences should not be overstressed. His admitted, even cultivated, naivety is a sophisticated rendering of what he deems the personal journey of philosophy. The obsession with which he pursued his reading of phenomenology and poets like Yeats, with whom he corresponded as a young man, is replicated in his poems. They contain the alleviated language and buoyancy of a new understanding only to round on themselves and again express, at their core, a profound sense of disappointment. Piccolo is baroque only in the way a writer like Borges or Paz is baroque. His flourish and intricacy mask a deep sense of responsibility, like Mallarmé too; the stylistic nature of the poetry should not distract from its attempt to offer what the poet conceives of as realism deep within his extreme subjectivity. Piccolo is not difficult for the sake of it; his conception of the purpose of his poetry, rarified as it was, is complex and massive. His achievement, as he saw it, was to have offered a picture of this reality in the most crystalline fragments he could fashion, and to him, the poet's task is one of elegant simplification.