A Major Voice, an Epic Poem

Cultural critic, poet, novelist and performance artist Robert Viscusi shares an excerpt from his latest work.

Viscusi photo

Robert Viscusi has become a major voice in contemporary Italian American arts and letters. Born in Brooklyn, NY, his education was strongly formed by the Jesuits at Regis High School and Fordham College. He went on to graduate school at Cornell and graduated with a doctorate in English at New York University, and became a professor of English at Brooklyn College where he is a Broeklundian Professor of English and executive officer of the Ethyle R. Wolfe Institute for the Humanities. Among his books are a collection of poems entitled A New Geography of Time (Guernica Editions 2004), and a critical history entitled Buried Caesars, and Other Secrets of Italian American Writing (State University of New York, 2006). In 1996, his novel, Astoria, won an American Book Award. His latest work Ellis Island is an epic poem composed of 624 sonnets.

This book-length poem challenges us to revisit Italian immigration to the United States and to rethink what it means to be Italian American. In this epic the heroes are are not warriors (though sometimes Viscusi’s heroes are certainly at war with the cultural forces that shape their identities). The heroes here are everyman and everywoman, in the guise of Italian immigrants to the U.S., who along with their children and grandchildren. Like the heroes of epics past, they experience adventures and through it all achieve an awareness of the human condition worthy of passing on to new generations.

With the wit of Martial, the rhetorical strength of Cicero, and the poetic dexterity of few others, the author captures levels of experience ranging from the personal to the public, the historical to the fantastical, reminding us that most people live epic lives that can only be recognized in art…

Ellis Island, Publisher: Bordighera Press (2013)

Paperback: 328 pages, $28  ISBN: 978-1-59954-033-7

Ellis Island cover

The following is an excerpt from the poem:

1. the stories disintegrate you like waves


certain things do not make for good poetry

you write them because you hope to open your heart

which you have closed too many times


people who hurt you for years

now complain that you have hurt them

how do you decide what to do about these wounds


you have decided to expect nothing precisely

so that your own imperfections will not astonish you

nor will the imperfections of others drive you to fury


the music flows through the room where you are dancing

you have decided to feel something while no one is looking

or simply to allow the breeze to touch you


you have perfected a poetry of attitudes and remarks

totally useless at a picnic on the water




in the boat on the way to ellis island

the people group themselves according to nationality

the taiwanese guide leads his group with a triangular blue flag


the humiliation of a greek mystery cult assails you

climbing into the roman bath where you sit in rows

the goddess liberty announces the completion of the ocean outside

the lovers row past the red buoys in the harbor

the speedboats skirt close to the green buoys

the ferries churn in straight lines like dreams of a schedule


in the great hall the brilliance of the new world blinds you

you only see its grandeur as if you were a caesar

the children pass through the bronze doors to the future


on the esplanade you dissolve in light

becoming a mist




i was reading the story of stories of stories

they tell on the walls of ellis island

the stories disintegrate you like waves


they break you into a thousand thousand faces

looking out at the skyline from the ships

which of them do you become


you flutter across the stories like a wave

you are the change of shadow on the stories of stories

and the soft backwash of tiny waves on the narrow beach


you are not a story but an aspect of a story’s story

and though you had expected a more substantial career

you appreciate the lightning swiftness of your influence


you are the eyes that transform the city

giving it the softness of napoli




you were from barbados you were from jamaica

you were from the caymans you were from puerto rico

you were from guyana you were from harlem


you were from trinidad you were from india

you were from argentina you were from france

you were from england you were from mexico


you were from russia you were from west africa

you were from north africa you were from east africa

you were from north carolina your grandfather went to utah


her mother had a serious operation and died

the snow fell for three weeks without stopping in toronto

the wind covered the bodies under drifts that froze solid


the mountains melted and the rivers filled

and you continued flowing in from the ocean




we ourselves came across high north ridges

that afterwards sank into the ocean long before stories begin

we only remember these highlands as the names of birds


you only know us as a supposition

stranded in the high room where they check you for vermin

and you look out into the river that disappears into the mountains


steep cliffs on the mainland side behind which we fell back

we inhabit the continent as the blind spots of your imagination

so you look and you see everything except us


even though we are standing behind all the trees with tomahawks

we mean to drive you out as we can hide from your mind but it is not enough

we cannot seem to avoid the power of your blindness


it still beats against the atlantic from which we fell back

long swells of you mass in pyramids like beetles of the dawn




i have been thinking how they designed the place

as a ritual entrance into the imaginary universe

using the masonic formulae for a rite that would change you


did they mean it as a spectacle of purification

they wanted to quiet the fears of nativists

who feared infection as if it were as evil as cheap labor


or did they mean to work magic on all these calibans

the immigration police played prospero and used masonic spells

to tame and to tag the incoming flocks of workers


living organisms the immigration service saw as homer saw armies

generations of leaves flash brightest on the trees just before they die

important to ship efficiently off to farms and mining camps


this jeffersonian church could rename a parish priest a son of liberty

and a figment of the continent’s imaginings




you tella me what thing you wanta me to know

the mandolins are sounding in the background music

the couple stands on the quay kissing as if it were paris


it is paris

on ellis island begins the dark eternal paris

imaginary streets materialize before your eyes


just yesterday this place was tomorrow

whereas by this morning it had already become next week

and by that time it will be the next millennium in chicago


we are shooting there on light beams

which the women wear as dildoes

and the men display in parking lots across the sky


i have read these dreams in the notebooks of leon battista alberti

and the imaginary character of america is its most italian aspect




whatever you start it always ends up italian

she said that to me because she loves oldfashioned culture

which is to say italian men


who believe we indicate elegance arrogance intelligence

by patriarchal hand on hip and steady commanding gaze

which we inherit as parrots inherit green feathers


though i might rather be a black snake with diamonds on his teeth

or the purple of a field of wildflowers

i am only one of these human cockatoos


who designed the parthenon the pantheon palladium

and all the mausoleum gardens of the marble mountains

that we filled with domes and porticoes


you keep tasting italian culture you think is no good for you

but a rainforest needs its brilliant creatures




into the still haze the italians brought red food

where all the food used to be brown and yellow and white

even when it was supposed to have had seeds and visible buds


and the italians brought a green oil that made the food green

under the misty blur they wore black hair

and rode black horses into the dreams of white women


they wore white clothes and broke granite with hammers

so that their very eyelids thickened with powdered stone

as if michelangelo were conjuring a frieze of laborers


the italians brought fish frying in the streets

an aroma that drew people out of their houses at night

where they listened to mandolins by moonlight


americans who had lived in the frames of photographs

made the italians rich with their generous tips




they said to us since you are italian learn to sing

tell jokes dance and make beautiful clothes

unless you are willing to study latin


in which case we have a steady market for italian schoolteachers

italian lawyers italian priests and politicians

and now we have given them the police force to run in fifty cities


we considered ourselves a race of heroes

from julius caesar to garibaldi

we would have rather been bandits than busdrivers


but in this country they offered a pension

a beach house a restaurant if you were willing to work that hard

so we studied our little lessons


shrinking into comfortable wooden yodelers on clocks

we still do find huge broken italian heroes covered with graffiti




on ellis island the stories howl through me like storms

a noise with nothing to say except what meaning attaches itself

to your skin in the touch of someone that loves you


here we enter a vast space neither sky nor sea

digging the subways they brought dirt here in barges

and made this well positioned plot


we think of this as the isle of possibilities

we talk about the future as if we could touch it

and explore each other’s faces as if we were concave mirrors


the trees here inhabit a perpetual hallucination

they think themselves to be sea creatures

monumental crustaceans evolved when the sea still filled with lava


we were facing the water and thinking ten thousand nights

awaiting a single dawn




i fell past needles of silver skyscrapers and woke up damp

when the tall steamer foghorns blat out their arrival going by the bed vibrates

i wanted to stand in line outside the building for a hundred years


i don’t want to go through with it now

maybe later i want think it over

the policeman touched me and said do you want to come in the side door


he was making a scary joke to get me up and walking

i think he didn’t really mean it but it doesn’t matter

every window i look out of i see another wave full of dead bodies


white faces lie on the gleaming plate of the bay at night

bodies cluster under the docks

they remove them with hooks like logs


in the boat there was one woman who never stopped crying for her mother

i call her a woman because she had a baby in her arms but she was herself a child



To read more about Ellis Island, visit Robert Viscusi’s website here.  Or, to purchase the work in its entirety, click on the book cover below.


Ellis Island, Publisher: Bordighera Press (2013)

Paperback: 328 pages, $28  ISBN: 978-1-59954-033-7

Ellis Island cover




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