On the Obsolescence of Caphone
Carmine Starnino. With English Subtitles. Kentville, Nova Scotia: Gaspereau Press, 2004.
1Last heard—with a lovely hiss on the "ph"—
2August 1982 during an afternoon game of scopa
3turned nasty. And now, missing alongside it,
4are hundreds of slogans, shibboleths, small
5depth charges of phrasing. Like an island-colony
6of sea-birds screeching our own special cry,
7I recall words all backwater squawk, recall
8the curmudgeonly clunk and jump of their song,
9a language dying out but always, someplace,
10going on, surfacing in a shoe salesman's patter
11or a grocer's chitchat, anywhere conversation's
12an inventory of old expressions marked down
13to near-nothing and preserved past all value,
14spoken but never found on a page. Yesterday I listened
15to some Italian roofers at work. Their hoots,
16guffaws and barkings-down to the truck. It was
17buckaroo stuff, their dialect. Barisi, I think.
18Eruptive, roguish, and hard-edged—a vigour
19any poem would pestle to powder. But in the way
20English can, by trumping up a term, pay out
21something more interesting than you intended
22—turn a smile into a smirk, make geese clack
23overhead, or declare a birch's bole drubbed bare
24by a storm—immigrant jabber can flush into
25the open a new word that shivers in the surprise
26and rush of its arrival, like that spurt of wine
27my uncle, with a single suck on a plastic hose
28threaded into a vat, would draw out, splashing,
29into my glass. You capish? I say "immigrant"
30but, really, what the hell do I know? A bunch
31of banked-up bales I was never born to. Hey stronzo,
32my uncle Louie would ring me early Saturday,
33think you can take a little break from slapping
34your dick around and help me? He dubbed it
35'na giobba, said it'd be 'nu minuto, but I knew
36he'd be exasperated at my speed and call me
37moosho-moosh and send me back to my book
38—reading was making me too stonato for chores
39he'd tell my father. Now I harvest my sounds
40from men like these, key my jargon to the spontaneous,
41try-it-on effects of their speech, diction gutsy
42with curses, urge my poems to unschool themselves,
43to roughen their step as they tramp and turn
44to hoist and stack. No word too proud of its station.
45No word dipped in oak-gall and soot. I want
46a homemade vocabulary, tough-vowelled and fierce
47for the sheetrock they shoveled, and the steel
48they bolted with a ratatatatatat, and the bricks
49they troweled with a one-on-two-bend-scoop-
50spread-tap-settle, and the sledges they whanged! on iron.
51For the meals they couldn't cook, but the rabbits
52they'd gut after knocking their heads with a cut of wood.
53For the plush boat-sized Chryslers they drove,
54the two packs-a-day they puffed, and the grapes they grew
55in gardens pegged-out with plums and pears,
56apple trees grafted with five varieties of apple
57and cherry trees spraying the ground with shade.
58A word for their conviction that all you needed
59was a wrench, a handshake, a little money down.
60A word for the ends they never failed to meet
61or the way they knew to drive a nail between
62the haft's wood and head to rescue a hammer,
63or the afternoons when, over espresso, they'd crack
64that women need a slap or two, to feel wanted,
65or the way they spoke, with mouths awakened,
66mouths quickened by the volatile, unprissy,
67impurifying syllables of gabbadosta, or scimunito
68or futtiti—itself a good word for the situation
69(No speak. Stai zitto. But me I was too much
70of a chacciaron' to stop and thus scostumato
71is what I was called when I was rude enough
72to talk back. Le parole son femmine, e i fatti
73son maschi—words are female and actions male,
74and they thought me femminiello, a bit faggoty
75in my careful, English talk. So what's what?
76My cousins ask when cornering me at weddings.
77Well, you got gots is what you got. Go zappa—
78go work in the fields. But I do, my friends, I do,
79and I fear that when the Italian in me is done
80scything his last square of grass he'll pick up
81and go, and the speech I heard and, at times, spoke
82will be the silence surrounding all my poems)
83that might one day leave my poems illiterate.
84I once dreamt of an eloquence like St. Ambrose's,
85unblemished and discreet, lapidary and fluent,
86augered by a swarm of bees hovering above
87his infant mouth. Today, instead, I want my language
88bashed to flinders and I will rummage among
89its bits and scraps, its dwindlings and debris,
90toting up the reusable versus the gone-for-good.
91(And futtiti? It means ef-you-see-kay-e-dee)
92I want to answer noise with noise, to hit upon
93subtitles that fit the gist of what I hear. I always
94thought of myself as an airborne assumption,
95spored here from some other place, now I realize
96I'm whatever comes across in the translation.
RPO poem Editors:
Poem used with permission of the author.