"He will be unshaven, wear a battered borsalino, and nod a greeting to me, smiling slyly."
This is how poet John Bradley describes his character, Roberto Zingarello, a fictional poet writing about his native Italy under the dictatorship of Benito Mussolini.
Bradley says he created Zingarello as a way to understand this period of Italian history. "We know a lot about the Nazi fascism," he says, "but not a lot about this particular brand of fascism. And in many ways, Hitler learned from Mussolini."
Bradley's latest book, Love-In-Idleness: The Poetry of Roberto Zingarello, is a 2015 Summer Book Series selection.
If you're familiar with Mussolini and Italian fascism, skip to the next paragraph. If you need a quick history lesson: Benito Mussolini ruled Italy from 1922 to 1943 as Il Duce, or "Leader," turning the country into a police state that used propaganda and paramilitary troops to suppress opposition. Mussolini also used an aggressive foreign policy to rally public opinion, which led to wars that turned disastrous for Italy -- and for Mussolini. In 1945, the ousted leader fled north, seeking refuge among German troops, but was captured and executed by partisans. By this time, much of Italy was devastated and occupied by the U.S. military and allied forces.
In each of "his" poems, the character Zingarello tries to capture fleeting moments before, during and after World War II -- moments of attraction and revulsion, violence and indifference in the streets, homes and bars of his native Milan. In "Revenge," Zingarello swears he'll get even with the Arditi, elite troops whose preferred method of humiliation is the forced ingestion of castor oil.
In "Why Does Everything Have to Be So Beautiful," Il Duce's favorite mistress begs Zingarello to whip her for shaming Italy.
Bradley was introduced to Fascist Italy through films like Amarcord, and literature by opponents of fascism. For Bradley, poetry provided another tool for understanding.
"Poetry provides a different kind of witness than history can," he says. "It allows for the imagination, emotion, imagery." To go deeper, Bradley made his protagonist a poet. "To be in someone's shoes, someone who's in a country watching it be violated -- first through local politics, then from other countries -- I wanted to know what it would feel like to live in a regime you did not believe in."
Bradley's father, a World War II veteran, was also an influence, although he rarely talked about his service. "My father fought in Italy as a paratrooper," Bradley says. "What he saw as a soldier is yet another perspective, and that had to be subconsciously driving me."
One of the first poems in the book, "A Few Things You Should Know About Roberto," introduces us to Zingarello. It also features a real poet, Federico Garcia Lorca, who was executed by Nationalist forces during the Spanish Civil War:
Roberto means, Hey you!
And, Everybody, shut up.
And, THIS DOOR IS A PUBLIC EXIT.
And, Poverty is the smell of the death of six o'clock.
And, In your cranium's darkness, the coconut
white of a cactus flower.
Down the basement, doors lean about
like men in a bread line.
This is where Federico came to hide, in '36.
I rip a page from my pocket Bible,
But Jesus said unto him, Follow me,
and let the dead bury their own dead,
and roll a cigarette with it.
Federico necks with his red guitar
while he plays his "Song While Hiding From Fascists."
Steer me in the direction of the moon, any color
Plant in my hand a knife, hard steel, hard wood.
Who is it, my friend, who is my enemy?
Blindfold me so I may see him.
Tie it to my hand, the knife, so as to gore him.
Are you, my friend, my enemy?
The basement goes dark.
Some black dog flops down against the basement
window, stealing our light.
Tell me, amigo, Federico asks, like a voice
from a Spanish ballad, of your beloved.
Tell me, I reply, of Andalusia.
Roberto means, The milkweed down by the pumphouse.
And, I don't know, comrades.
I just don't know.
And, sometimes, Scram.
Roberto means, My mother slept with a crucifix
beneath her pillow, when she was pregnant,
so her son would be strong.
And, Love is not enough.
Nothing is ever enough.
Roberto means, I'm sick to death
of so much Roberto.
And, I want to be hemlock
so you can, finally, sleep.
But mostly it means, My mother
had one good thing happen to her
during this life, and it had to be
me, it had to be me.
The first edition of Love-In-Idleness won the Washington Prize in 1989. This year, publisher The Word Works issued a new edition with cover art by Erica Daborn. In the interview below, Bradley discusses some of the changes to this new edition.
John Bradley is an English faculty member at Northern Illinois University. He was featured in the 2013 Summer Book Series.
Next week, our 2015 series concludes with Beyond The Ties of Blood, Florencia Mallon's novel about love and loss during Chile's military coup and dictatorship. Listen during Morning Edition, Friday, June 26.