Stanley H. Barkan, RAISINS WITH ALMONDS/PÀSSULI CU MÈNNULI, translated into Sicilian by Marco Scalabrino. Mineola, NY: Legas Publishing, 2013.
For four decades, Stanley Barkan has been writing poetry and publishing that of others from around the world in his Cross-Cultural Communications publishing house, run, literally, from his house on Long Island. Almost single-handedly, but with the assistance of his talented artist wife Bebe Barkan, CCC has published in more than 50 different linguistic, ethnic, and cultural idioms. For this herculean cultural production, Barkan has been granted numerous awards and honors, with CCC being recognized with the Poor Richard’s Award (in honor of Benjamin Franklin), for a quarter century of high quality publishing. Stanley Barkan’s unceasing championing of foreign writers has meant that his own work has sometimes had to be put on the back burner, so to speak. But now, after thirteen years in the making, readers have the opportunity to read a remarkable collection of poetry that embraces Barkan’s two great loves: Jewish culture and Sicily.
Raisins with Almonds has a dual character both in content and form. It is divided into two parts: Under the Apple Tree (Sutta l’aruvulu di pumu) and Sicilian Light (Luci di Sicilia). Under the Apple Tree begins with an imaginative re-thinking of the original Hebrew creation stories, from the Creation of Adam and Eve (“it was man / who wrote the myth”) to the naming of animals (“It took a woman / to properly name / the birds of Paradise”), to the rays of light (rather than horns), that appeared on the head of Moses (Michelangelo and his Mosè in San Pietro in Vincoli were victims of a bad translation). There is a moving poem “Father and Son” that shifts across emotions and generations with grace; “Immortality,” a sardonic short piece; and “The Cats and Dogs of Tel Aviv” who come to a mutually understood form of tolerance; a lesson to Jews and Muslims in the Middle East. There is the heartache of a child lost to war (“Still Waiting for the Phone to Ring”) and the curse of muteness (the worst for a poet) for “Forgetting Jerusalem.”
Then: what appears at first to be an abrupt break or switch in register to Sicily. But in re-reading these poems together, the reader will notice a common genetic code or heritage. The light, the cadences of language and history, the sacredness of the stranger and guest: Barkan ties Israel and Sicily together not by geographic proximity but by a shared cultural outlook. Wracked by sacred and secular history, by Eros and Thanatos, by Old Testament severity and Greek mythology, Israel and Sicily are palimpsests upon which the history of humanity is writ large and small.
“Nèspuli” are “wetting my open / fingers / tangled with / garlands / of leaves and flowers”; “Babbaluci” are from a time “when a simple people / climbed out of the valleys / to find the wind / to touch the source.” “Lemons” are “so numerous they fall unpicked / upon the mythic earth.” In “Antimanifesto” the poet “descended down the trail / through vineyards where shepherds / in secret groves listened to tales / of Trinacrian messengers from the new world.” Some poems are a melancholy reflection on the ruins left by the 1968 earthquake that ravaged Gibellina and parts of Sicily. As ever, Sicily invites meditation and contemplation: “Tranquilità” fosters a sense that “I am in between / in the center of my being. / The present is present, / the past does not intrude. / Mind & body are one. / No more where I am, I am not.”
With the English originals on the verso pages, Scalabrino’s Sicilian renderings on the recto pages and photos by Giuseppe Mineo of Barkan in Sicily, Raisins with Almonds is a charming, melodic and musical tribute to two extraordinary cultures.
—Stanislao G. Pugliese
Queensboro Unico Distinguished Professor of Italian and Italian American Studies