Joseph Maviglia: Moving Across Boundaries: A God Hangs Upside Down

Review by MARINO TUZI

 

The complexities of ethnicity, characterized by the interaction of assorted cultural and social factors, which modify and contest each other and which at times achieve a kind of coexistence, underline Joseph Maviglia's poetic exploration of the multi- facetedness of Italian-Canadian experience in his first full-length collection of poems, entitled A God Hangs Upside Down. The text's stylistic diversity generates a multi-layered reading of Italianness and Canadianness and places at its centre issues about social class, the treatment of immigrant labour, the process of cultural adjustment and intergenerational conflict, and the reconstruction of an ethnic identity in the new world. However, in its discursive sophistication, A God Hangs Upside Down refuses to point to one overriding issue and instead implies that Italian- Canadianness constitutes itself as a result of and in response to numerous and constantly shifting social forces. Powering this discourse on ethnicity is the voice of the poet figure, who is an active participant in the world that is presented to the reader. Tossing aside the sense of dislocation and victimization which at times typified the immigrant generation's experience in Canada, the poet figure sees in the struggles of the past the basis for organizing an identity and a view of the world which resists marginality and self-abnegation.

 

A God Hangs Upside Down is not simply a documenting of the daily life of a specific cultural group but the working out of a particular idea that emphasizes the importance of ethnicity as a constituent part of Canadian society. The text also suggests that social class is a silent feature of Italian-Canadian experience. In doing so, it creates a link among all labourers regardless of cultural background. This attempt to make poetry out of the materials of working class immigrant history tilts against established notions about what comprises meaningful experience and what kinds of literary forms should be privileged. Joseph Maviglia's enterprise moves us to think of a different way of looking at the world that we live in and of reconsidering the nature of established poetic aesthetics, which reinforce bourgeois values and sensibilities. While the local context, in this case the Italian-Canadian community in Toronto's College Street Grace Street area, is permeated with a sort of mythic quality, the text suggests that this quality comes out of the culture itself, which continues to evolve and redefine itself in relation to the old and new societies. The rawness, vitality, and difficulties of immigrant life are interwoven with images of redemption, of maintaining one's dignity and purpose in the face of oppressive conditions in the old and new world. This representation of Calabrian Italian culture is saturated with ambiguity, with the irresolution of conflicting viewpoints, whether it is among members of the same family or among Italian-Canadians and others in the larger com- munity. The poet figure celebrates Southern Italian-Canadian culture, mainly through images of working men and allusions to Italian folklore, without romanticizing the cultural group that he is an intimate part of but from which he has been able to develop a unique sense of self. The stylistic techniques employed in A God Hangs Upside Down carries with it ideas which are associated with particular aspects of working class immigrant culture, especially evident in the recurrent descriptions of the construction site. Details of the hardship and physicalness of manual labour are conveyed through images of men with hammers, shovels, and other tools which become extensions of their bodies. This motif of immigrant men at work is combined with the disparateness of agrarian and village life in Calabria. Also there are references made to the social lives of the members of the community, epitomized, for instance, in the images of activities on College Street: "And at the Gatto Nero one old man 1 came in during the last World Cup / cursing us all for sitting around a T.V." (102) In addition there are passages that describe intense family relations among the poet figure's family members, characterized by intermittent violence - "a man slaps his daughter" (76) - and incessant quarreling: "Arguing with Carlo day and night, Franco 1 finds himself behind halfway through first semester." (20) This unadorned, direct style of writing, which verges on prose narration, is supplemented by the use of everyday speech, reinforced by the presence of Calabrian dialect.

 

Poetic passages converge with the prosaic, the symbolic and the spiritual. For instance, the images of the hardship of physical labour, captured in the lines, "It is not unlike / the bleeding of a palm too young / to stand with aging men" (83), resonates in the passage about the poet figure's forced indoctrination into Catholicism: "Held in a room of crucifixes / I was anointed without choice". (87) The cohabitation of the ordinary with the symbolic at times is overtaken by passages or entire poems which are given over to allegorical and almost surrealistic expressions of the dis- locating effects of immigration and of an underlying sense of disillusionment towards the new world. In the poem, "Columbus", the new world is presented as paradise lost in which "The natural dream has ended". (96) This sense of desolation is buttressed at the end of the poem, which is overwhelmed by a cryptic image of human regression: "Paradise / holds an ape that in turn holds a flower / as a tail of light 1 rises in the corner of its eye." (99) Even the description of the Italian construction worker is invested with allegorical meaning: "My shovel raged and the jewels of labour / housed and comforted against the cold" (88). The protagonist, as every worker, is engaged in a titanic battle against a malevolent cosmos, composed of the natural environment and industrial capitalism. This existential moment in which alienation is merged with a kind of heroism adumbrates a post- apocalyptic vision of contemporary capitalist society: "And this time / after the death of Sun and Moon / great cities grew / and shadows found the hands of light while tongues and muscles blood and song / danced outside of memory / feet weightless on a pagan shore." (89) Ethnicity is redeemed as exemplified by the protagonist in the poem, entitled "The Fields of Winter", who has helped put his imprint on the new social order. This achievement, however, is problematic since it has come at a cost both physically and psychologically. The imagery, symbolism, and poetic language of the text, do not undermine the use of documentation. At the same time that the poet figure discards Catholicism and the working class ethic because he sees them as ideological justifications for oppression, in Southern Italian agrarian culture and in Canadian industrial capitalist society, he reclaims them symbolically as constituent parts of Calabrian-Canadian identity.

 

The literariness of A God Hangs Upside Down is reinforced by the use of the intertext, in which the poet figure makes conscious allusions to Pietro di Donato's Christ in Concrete, a novel about working class Italian-Americans which continually adjoins social realism with the poetic and the symbolic that are enclosed within a Catholic Mediterranean ethos. This is evident, for ex- ample, in the poem, entitled "Paving in Fort Saint John, B.C.", in which we learn that because of his physical characteristics and darker complexion he is perceived to be a native Indian by the other workers, whose views on race and ethnicity are based on the suppositions of their own cultural group. A God Hangs Upside Down suggests that through the writing of poems the poet figure can continue to reinscribe and reinvent his ethnicity from a host of possible cultural options and texts which are made available to him in ethnic and mainstream culture. The turning of a poetic text into autobiography as part of a conscious reconstruction of identity is also flagged when the actual author of the text we are reading inscribes himself as a character person in a poem: "In the studio later / promoting the show I'm to give 1 the interviewer says, "Okay, so, Joseph Maviglia. Hm, you've worked eighteen years in construction / and write songs." (105) This crossing of boundaries in which the real and the literary are folded together is mirrored in the constant shifting of narrative poetic voices wherein the poet figure speaks to us in the first- person or through the second-person voice of an omniscient narrator, who is also the implied author of the text. The use of social realism and the vernacular and the poetic rendering of the emotional and psychological states of the characters demonstrate that A God Hangs Upside Down also is linked to a particular school of poetry in Canada, which focused on working class life and tried to establish a new cultural ethos and poetic sensibility and in its own fashion became a forum for advocating social changes - a school which loosely included such poets as Milton Acorn, Alden Nowlan, and Tom Wayman. The connection to di Donato, a canon of Italian North-American writing and the above school of poets confirms the legitimacy of A God Hangs Upside Down as literary text, as a part of a tradition of particular types of poetic writing.

 

The references to the oral tradition, to oral poetry and to singing, also serve to proclaim the text's ethnicity. Southern Italian peasants relied on orality in its many forms in order to transmit their customs and practices and to construct an understanding of the world. By including in A God Hangs Upside Down the lyrics of a song, entitled "The Fields of Winter", which is part of his musical repertoire, Joseph Maviglia emphasizes the interconnectedness between poem and song and underlines the influence of the oral tradition on his literary work. The highlighting of orality reinforces the presence of the vernacular in the text and insinuates that an affinity exists among working class communities, be they Italian, Portuguese, or English-Canadian. The stress on orality indicates an overall strategy to locate the text in various cultural traditions in Canada, chief among which is folk music with its own thematic concerns and aesthetic. Speaking about his work as a poet and a singer, Joseph Maviglia, in the only directly autobiographical poem in the text, called "Canadian Broadcasting Corporation", sets himself in a larger cultural context, in which he sees himself in the company of other Canadian folk singers, such as Stan Rogers, Gordon Lightfoot, and Rita MacNeil. If one listens to Joseph Maviglia's most recent CD, Memories To Steel, one will note that his work moves across a diversity of populist musical genres, from rock 'n roll to blues, to Calabrian folk music, to Gaelic folk music, to country music, and so on. Like Memories To Steel, A God Hangs Upside Down continually traverses different poetic and literary boundaries, refusing to commit itself to a singular form of expression. This aesthetic bent is itself an enactment of the ways that ethnicity constantly incorporates numerous cultural influences and modes of seeing the world while maintaining a connection to its origins.

 

 

MARINO TUZI, Seneca College

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