- Real Presence: The Numina in Italian American Poetry
In an influential essay, Dana Gioia asserts: “The full range and quality of Italian-American poetry . . . remains inadequately understood” in any critical environment (n. pag.). With few exceptions, environmental literary criticism has remained indifferent to white ethnic literature, in part, I suspect, because nature writing and the literature of environmental crisis is thoroughly Anglo-American; thus, when ecocritics enter multicultural discourse, “white” tends to mean “Anglo.” Italian American poetry has been lost at the margins of whiteness. This is not surprising because, as scholarship in Whiteness Studies has shown, many of the peoples now considered “white ethnics”—Ashkenazi Jews, southern Italians, the Irish—were not entirely white when they arrived in the United States during the great migrations that ended in 1924.1 The assimilation of these groups into middle-class whiteness after World War II—the creation of “dark white” ethnicities—has occluded the difference between immigrants and groups present during the continental phase of nation-building.2 For American Indians, African Americans, Chicanos, and Anglo-Americans, the creation of the American nation was a shared, if agonistic, experience. The dramas of Emancipation, the Indian Wars, and the annexation of the Southwest coincide with the creation of “nature’s nation” in the narrative of Manifest Destiny, the new multicultural history, and the environmentalist narratives of industrial devastation and conservationist repentance.3 For immigrants whose influx peaked in the early-twentieth century, however, the question of participation in these racialized histories of nature remains open. Can the narratives, plots, tropes, and aesthetic principles that drive the literature of these earlier groups account for the post-immigrant relationship to American environments? What new forms of cultural poiesis have been fashioned by the environment of diaspora, by the interchange between old and new immigrant worlds?
In this essay, I will begin to answer these questions relative to Italian American poetry by considering the work of John Ciardi and Diane di Prima. If, as Josephine Gattuso Hendin asserts, “[e]thnic heritage is history in action” and “it subjects the fact of immigration to a scrutiny of its [End Page 141] ongoing effects” (13), it makes sense to ask what difference that heritage has made to poets who encountered the United States as a diasporic environment. To put it another way, we can scrutinize the ongoing effects of Italian heritage on American poets in their encounter with the presence, or presences, of the nonhuman world. From such an angle, we discover a striking dynamic in Ciardi’s and di Prima’s poetry: an encounter with the numina—“divine powers”—the spirits of place, that founds a theophanic aesthetics quite distinct from the Emersonian transparent eyeball, in which the nature of the other is subsumed in the All; from the Dickinsonian microcosmos, in which Vesuvius is contained by the domus; and from T. S. Eliot’s adventures in Indic religion, in which rivers are, necessarily, brown gods. I call this poetic principle the aesthetic of real presence because the voice of the poet arises from an encounter with a creature whose role as an instance of the divine roots the diasporic speaker in place, despite any claim of Anglo-American dominion. Real presence is, of course, a reference to the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, a Christian idea of incarnation through liturgical action. I suggest, however, that the Catholic heritage of Italian American culture can be used to talk about religious experiences that are not strictly Christian. The incarnational imperative to encounter the divine in the world of the senses through the mediation of art radiates from the official sacraments, but is not confined to them. Aisthesis, the sensory experience of the divine in or as a creature, founds ethnesis, the production and renewal of culture. The idea of the Mediterranean peasant and her/his offspring as closer to nature is not so much displaced as revealed to be an alternate origin for civilization itself.
Like the three predators that block Dante’s progress at the beginning of the Inferno, there are three challenges to my project: the status of Italian American literature as ethnic literature; the expectation of the performance of...