Fr. Pier Giorgio di Cicco. Photo by Michael Swan.

Pier Giorgio di Cicco and the story of a life

By  Philippa Sheppard, Catholic Register Special
  • January 30, 2016

Fr. Pier Giorgio Di Cicco immediately seizes the reader’s attention with his strong personal voice, the connecting feature of his new poetry collection Mystic Playground.

He divides the poems into three sections: “Time Signatures,” in which the poems mainly treat memories, particularly of his lonely childhood against an industrial background in Baltimore, Maryland; “Spirit of Utterance,” in which the poet wonders about the mystery of language and the creation of poetry; and, finally, “A Priest to You,” in my opinion the strongest set of poems. Here his topics range from friendships (secular, pastoral and mystical) to the atmosphere of places where he has lived.

Poems about friendship, while mainly collected in the third section, are scattered throughout. They are characterized by a poignant sense of love, forgiveness and grief, as the friends always leave at the end of the poem — departing for Malta, a sanatorium, a new girlfriend or the next world. Some of the friends brought to life in these poems seem to be parishioners, and reminded me a little of The Beatles’ song “Eleanor Rigby.” But di Cicco sees much more in the old, lonely members of his flock than The Beatles were able to perceive. The random details he shares about them always add up to a surprising whole.

For instance, while John was miserly, he was also a “helluva dancer” who will be greatly missed by his tap partner, Rosie. While Brenda prided herself on her good health, her final prayers place her with the stars. The voice in the poems clearly cherishes his fellow human beings for all that they are.

The strongest aspect of these poems are the astute observations on the human condition, rather than any musicality in the free verse, or even arresting images, which are somewhat rare. In “Sparrow Mills,” di Cicco writes: “What ruined you stays the same/And you get nostalgic for what you/could not forgive,/ mainly because what hurt you is/ as good as anything to tell you who you are.” The style is typically forthright and unadorned, but his perception about the usefulness of pain is profound.

Similarly, in the prose poem “Americans,” he admits, “I belong to the discarded; of all that was loved, left like steel pipe by the side of the road. We end our careers as commodities, suddenly or slowly; abandoned roads, empty stores, old barns, industrial sites never used, old barns yelling history, broken dolls” — an insightful comment on contemporary society’s dismissal of the aged.

A lament for “ethnos” is another strong theme in the collection — the inevitable watering down of cultural distinctions as a consequence of globalization. Di Cicco mourns the lack of colour in some contemporary human interactions. At the same time, he also sagely notes in several poems the contrast between the brazen confessional style of American strangers and the circumspection of Canadians.

My favourite poems in the volume are “Elegy for Saro” and “Katya,” both vivid descriptions of friendships. The first conjures up a 1970s apartment in Corso Italia, shared with Saro, furnished with rattan chairs and photographs of Greece, and suffused with the soundtrack from Amarcord. The second touchingly depicts the poet’s new friendship with the little daughter of an old friend, with whom he shares his cake, his neon cacti, and his vision of Heaven.

Di Cicco wears his faith lightly. This collection of poems could be enjoyed just as much by unbelievers as by those who share the priest’s religion. Throughout, readers will receive a strong, consistent impression of the gentle, loving, humourous man behind the poems and feel affection for him.

Examples of his sometimes mordant humour pepper the volume. In “Today there is death all around me,” he writes: “It was good to be alive. Just to write this/poem, I said./I should like to stay alive just to see/if anyone more attractive than death will/ walk in.”

Death is another prevalent theme in the collection, regarded from the perspective of classical mythology as well as Catholic doctrine. As a jazz trumpeter, the poet is drawn to the myth of Orpheus, on which he composes two poems. Theseus and Ariadne also make an appearance in “White Light”: “She left a red wire heart on the rope lighting; /she left traces, she left string, clues, shoes, words./Does the minotaur have tears, does he want to be found?” These lines are fairly typical in his bold use of repetition to create emotion — particularly the feeling of abandonment.

As a whole, the collection is not melancholy. It rather etches a portrait of a man who has achieved fullness of life. The voice that emanates from these poems is alive to his surroundings, passionate about his friends, his music and his God. While a few of the poems express a distrust in narrative, that is exactly what the volume creates: the story of a life.

(Sheppard teaches in the Department of English at the University of Toronto.)

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