“The Old Italians Dying” by Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Yesterday I heard the news about Lawrence Ferlinghetti. “The Old Italians Dying” is one of my favorite poems, and one of the reasons I came back to reading and writing poetry. It’s the first poem I remember liking as an adult (besides Milton’s Nativity Ode.)

There’s a pedantic debate among some Italian American writers and scholars as to whether Ferlinghetti counts as an Italian American. I would never say that’s the only way to think of him, but I don’t understand the need some have to excise him from the tradition. I understand it rhetorically, but I fail to see what it accomplishes. Here’s what I know: yesterday, I found out he passed. Last night I dreamt about my late grandfather, zizis, great uncle. We were trying to put names to the ancestors buried in Campania. I have a poem out on submission right now called “Though My Nonno and Zizis are Dead” and another about my great-grandmother’s uncle dying for Garibaldi (“Briganti”).

We all loving claiming bright lights. I get it. I hedge so much, all the time. It’s exhausting. So here’s a poem that will never not matter to me.

The Old Italians Dying

For years the old Italians have been dying
all over America
For years the old Italians in faded felt hats
have been sunning themselves and dying
You have seen them on the benches
in the park in Washington Square
the old Italians in their black high button shoes
the old men in their old felt fedoras
                        with stained hatbands
have been dying and dying
                       day by day
You have seen them
every day in Washington Square San Francisco
the slow bell
tolls in the morning
in the Church of Peter & Paul
in the marzipan church on the plaza
toward ten in the morning the slow bell tolls
in the towers of Peter & Paul
and the old men who are still alive
sit sunning themselves in a row
on the wood benches in the park
and watch the processions in and out
funerals in the morning
weddings in the afternoon
slow bell in the morning Fast bell at noon
In one door out the other
the old men sit there in their hats
and watch the coming & going
You have seen them
the ones who feed the pigeons
                        cutting the stale bread                       
 with their thumbs & penknives
the ones with old  pocketwatches
the old ones with gnarled hands
                        and wild eyebrows
the ones with the baggy pants       
                       with both belt & suspenders
the grappa drinkers with teeth like corn
the Piemontesi the Genovesi the Siciliani
                        smelling of garlic & pepperoni
the ones who loved Mussolini
the old fascists
the ones who loved Garibaldi
the old anarchists reading L’Umanita Nova
the ones who loved Sacco & Vanzetti
They are almost all gone now
They are sitting and waiting their turn
and sunning themselves in front of the church
over the doors of which is inscribed
a phrase which would seem to be unfinished
from Dante’s Paradiso
about the glory of the One
                        who moves everything…
The old men are waiting
for it to be finished
for their glorious sentence on earth
                        to be finished
the slow bell tolls & tolls
the pigeons strut about
not even thinking of flying
the air too heavy with heavy tolling
The black hired hearses draw up
the black limousines with black windowshades
shielding the widows
the widows with the black long veils
who will outlive them all
You have seen them
madre de terra, madre di mare
The widows climb out of the limousines
The family mourners step out in stiff suits
The widows walk so slowly
up the steps of  the cathedral
fishnet veils drawn down
leaning hard on darkcloth arms
Their faces do not fall apart
They are merely drawn apart
They are still the matriarchs
outliving everyone
in Little Italys all over America
the old dead dagos
hauled out in the morning sun
that does not mourn for anyone
One by one Year by year
they are carried out
The bell
never stops tolling
The old Italians with lapstrake faces
are hauled out of the hearses
by the paid pallbearer
in mafioso mourning coats & dark glasses
The old dead men are hauled out
in their black coffins like small skiffs
They enter the true church
for the first time in many years
in these carved black boats
The priests scurry about
                        as if to cast off the lines
The other old men
                        still alive on the benches
watch it all with their hats on
You have seen them sitting there
waiting for the bocce ball to stop rolling
waiting for the bell
for the slow bell
                              to be finished tolling
telling the unfinished Paradiso story
as seen in an unfinished phrase
            on the face of a church
in a black boat without sails
making his final haul

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