IF I WERE A POET; NICOLA SACCO’S HIDDEN MUSE
A double homicide in the course of a payroll heist in Braintree, Massachusetts on the 15th of April in 1920 resulted in the arrest, conviction and eventual execution of two men who most probably were innocent.The victims and the convicted are linked by an astonishing event that was dogged by sensation, intrigue,duplicity, and conspiracy, and which culminated in a complete lack of justice for both the prosecuted and the victims. The defendants were put to death in the Electric Chair after languishing in prison for close to a decade while numerous appeals, petitions and requests for clemency failed. The victims, Alessandro Beradelli and Frederick Parmenter, have yet to have justice served regarding the conclusive identity of their assailants and most likely never will. The event in question, of course, was the infamous trial of Sacco and Vanzetti. A trial noted, even at the time, for glaring errors in both procedure and fact. So much so that multiple reviews of the case resulted in substantial reforms of the criminal justice system in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
This brief account may satisfy the known history but falls short of bringing any life to the dead 100 years after the fact. Innocent men died, and I feel haunted. Two men murdered; two more executed; too many years gone by and still no justice. Plaques and memorials have been cast and erected, testimonials have been recorded, songs, plays and poems have been written, movies have been made. Yet the voices of Sacco and Vanzetti are silent unless one reads their own words as revealed in their many letters written while imprisoned over a seven year period. These letters were written to confidants and supporters, family members, lawyers, artists and activists. Sacco and Vanzetti wrote in English, a second language for both, and reveal a consistent and passionate proclamation of innocence. Their halting command of the language could neither disguise nor suppress their sincerity. It is that, more than any evidence in the historical record, that compels me to believe in their innocence.
It is to one of many letters by Nicola Sacco to Mrs. Cerise Jack, of Sharon, Mass. a strong supporter of both Sacco and Vanzetti and English tutor to Nicola that I now turn. It was written on Feb. 26th of 1924 from the Dedham Jail. In it Sacco recalls his life in Italy before emigrating to the United States. It is a tender memory, pastoral, familial, alive with sensations of sight, color, and the very air of his native Italia. Sacco denies any poetic sensibility but his writing is innocently poetic. Left intact is the grammar and syntax as it appears in the original.
If I Were a Poet – Derived from a letter to Mrs. Jack from N. Sacco 02/26/1924 -excerpt below:
If I were a poet I probably could describe the red rays of the loving sun shining and the bright blue sky and the perfume of my garden and flowers, the smell of the violet that comes from the vast verdant prairie and the singing of birds that was almost the joy of deleriany. So after all this enjoyment I used to come back to my work singing I used full basket of fruits and vegetables and bunch of flowers that I used make a lovely bouquet and in the middle of the longest flowers I used always put one lovely red rose and I used walk one mile a way from our place to get one of them red rose that always hunting and love to find, the good red rose for the bouquet that I used make for my mother. (1)
I was captivated by Sacco’s recollection of his idyllic past. His sense of the moment, its rich sensuality, devotion to his mother, and the quintessentially Italian aspect of being. His is a clothonic poetic emergence. One that I struggled to do justice to in my own rendering:
If I Were a Poet- Poetic Reiteration and Formatting
If I were a poet I would tell you of the
Red rays of the sun shining in the
Bright blue sky and of the sweet perfume
Of my garden and the scent of violets
That dot the vast verdant surrounding plain
If I were a poet I would tell you of the bird song
And of my joy bordering on delirium and of my
Own burst of song as I gathered bunches of flowers
From which I would make a lovely bouquet
If I were a poet I would tell you how I would
Walk a mile hunting for the red rose that I would
Place at the center of the bouquet amongst the
Longest of the flowers, the red rose that I always
Searched for and loved to find, the good red rose
For the bouquet that I would make for my mother.
I felt strongly, however, that justice was not served in my attempt to capture what Nicola felt and expressed in his clumsy but authentic English. I wondered what he may have written, as a self conscious poet, in Italian. My effort is as follows:
Se Fossi un Poeta- Italian Translation
Se fossi un poeta, ti racconterei
Dei raggi rossi del sole amorevole
Che splende nel cielo blu brillante
E del dolce profumo del mio giardino
E del fragranza delle violette
Che punteggiano la vasta pianura
Se fossi un poeta,ti racconterei
Della canzone degli uccelli
E della mia gioia al confine con il
Delirio, e il mio stesso scoppio
Di canzoni mentre raccoglievo
Mazzi di fiori dai quali avrei creato
Una bella bouquet
Se fossi un poeta, ti direi come
Avrei camminato per un miglio
A caccia di una rosa rossa che
Avrei messo al centro del bouquet
Tra i fiori più lunghi la rosa rossa
Che ho sempre cercato e amato
Trovare, la buona rosa rossa
Per il bouquet che farei per mia madre
I am not a native speaker of Italian, nor am I schooled in the language. I labored over the translation and called upon the spirit of my Italian ancestors to invoke and sustain the mood of Sacco’s moment, his sincerity and authenticity, his aspect of being, his Italianness as it manifested itself nearly a century ago. For Italy has a sumptuous past that is often ignored or denigrated. I speak not only of the continued influence in my life of the entire pantheon of Italian culture in every human endeavor: of science, art, literature, philosophy, law and religion, but also of the good old women in black, the cobblers and bricklayers, the pious, the superstitious, the all inclusive stoicism of a people who know how to endure. I speak also of Mazzei, the friend of Jefferson, Franklin and our fledgling Republic. I speak of Garibaldi and his countless redshirts who fought for liberty in South America, Italy and of the immigrant Garibaldi Guard, the 39th Regiment that mustered out of New York City during our own Civil War.
May Sacco and Vanzetti speak to us now. In this moment of bigotry and oppression when new immigrants are seeking refuge from poverty and persecution from around the world and are met with animosity and internment in our America. This moment with children in cages torn from their parents. This moment of the gig economy and homelessness, the surveillance state and the corporate induced epidemic of opioid addiction.This moment of fascist trolls and their political apologists all the way up the line. This moment, not unlike a century ago, of pandemic and war, migration and reaction, corporate abuse and political complicity. A moment not unlike theirs of radical opposition and racial profiling, of extra-judicial raids, disappearances, and murder. This moment, in our America, where we may not have the Triangle Shirt Factory Fire, gun battles between strikers and company goons or bomb throwing anarchists, but what we have instead is a planet on fire, police violence, and nazi gunman shooting up our churches, mosques, and synagogues.
For this is the background, foreground, and context of Sacco and Vanzetti. They were “just a couple of wops in a jam” (2) when arrested for armed robbery and murder. They were anarchists both, socialist and communist sympathizers, draft dodgers and revolutionaries. Those were their “crimes”. As the presiding Judge proclaimed shortly after they were sentenced; “You see what I did to those anarchist bastards.”(3) It betrays the cynicism of the court that its priority was to convict and condemn to death Sacco and Vanzetti at the expense of justice for Alessandro Beradelli and Frederick Parmenter.
For someone like me, growing up in the shadow of World War Two, in an Italian American family in New York City, they were familiar names. On the street I had fist fights with nazi brats, the sons of Wermach veterans who somehow weaseled their way to our shores. They would taunt me saying “Your people are the reason why we lost the war.” Their people, I knew, were the reason why my father earned a Purple Heart at Anzio.
Sacco and Vanzetti are a cautionary tale. One told in history books and case law. It is a tale also told in their own words, in their letters and proclamations and it is one of poetic majesty. It is a tale of passion, commitment, honor, and sacrifice. It speaks to the best and worst of America, at that time and to our own. It speaks as well to Italians everywhere of every generation.
My thanks to Diana R.Lynch, Writing Instructor/ESL Instructor, Boston University for her help with the Italian translation.
1.The Letters of Sacco and Vanzetti: Written During the Seven Years of their Imprisonment
Citadel Press, Secaucus,1956 (out of print), p. 14
- Massachusetts Executed Two Italian Immigrants 90 years ago-Why Does it Still Matter?, Moshik Temkin, Observer, 8/31/1917
- Howard Zinn Speaks: Collected Speeches,1963 – 2009,Haymarket Books,Chicago, 2012,p.128
Joseph Bocchicchio’s work has been previously published in Ovunque Siamo, as well as several other publications. He was born in NYC to an Italian American family where English was a second language for his parents. Both sets of his grandparents were born in Italy or Sicily. He is a proud second generation Italian- American, currently living in Boston and working at Revolutionary Spaces: Old South Meeting House, Museum and Historic Site.