Silence and the Word
Anyone engaged in media today forms an opinion. In recent years, the shouting has increased for center-ring attention and has morphed into the popular term ‘tribalism.’ In searching for strategies or answers, many explore art, literature, history, especially when political leadership loses its way. Although delving into “presentism” may not always offer solutions, we can be guided by a remix of historical, literary, artistic ideas adapted for our times. Silence and the Word is one of fifty Italian poems translated for the first time in English from the 1946 chapbook, Rosario di Prigionia (Rosary of Imprisonment) by Mario Oliveri (1900-1963).
Captain Oliveri served in Mussolini’s army during World War II. After the Cassabile Armistice of September 8, 1943, Italy grew in civil conflict. At surrender, Mussolini’s troops were given the choice to continue fighting for his fascist vision. More than 620,000 soldiers refused and “just said no.” Some were killed at the refusal, others were designated as Italian Military Internees by joint agreement between Hitler and Mussolini, therefore denying them Prisoner of War protections under the 1929 Geneva Convention accords. They were sent to camps for the next nineteen months. Their refusal changed the dynamics of World War II and its outcome at a price not widely known. An analysis of Silence and the Word brings us to compare the imposed isolation, then and now, with some striking similarities. Like the colors in a beam of refracted light, the poem conveys a disguised gift of time to find our own answers by close listening to the mandatory, accompanying silence.
In these past few months, our world has been infiltrated with a viral pandemic, senseless reactionary killings, and the consequential rising of emotions and tensions which destroy people, hearts, souls, lives, legacies. Television and radio waves carry the thousands and millions of voices each amplified with their own notion on current and historical events. Amid the two pronounced sides, deviations bridge the two poles, each seeing their own faction as righteous. It reflects the eternal battle of emotion, passion gone so far into an abyss that it begins in uncharted newness.
Lack of control and reason magnifies in the divisions that make up our world, and the noise only grows louder, the anger more violent. When poison reaches its maximum toxicity level, it destroys, as is its function. The hatred and righteousness from two opposites for the “other” almost guarantee mutual destruction.
The viral pandemic may have been sent to halt, or at least to slow, the calculus of forces that believes winning is everything. Covid-19 has forced an extended pause in daily life among tolls of unexpected death, unrecognized, and for which no one, not even the most expert mind, has been prepared.
My soul, don’t talk! I like you this way, mute, with your smile
light without joy and without pain
Essentially, when the world begins to crumble around us, and familiar ways of life erode naturally and purposefully, we are left to feel the existence of something undefined. That loss surrounding us, the existence felt through this silence must come from within to give some degree of depth, of strength for which we search in last, lost moments. It is the final resolve of life as it is manifest—the light smile of the present, weak yet existent, void of positive or negative emotion struggling in an enforced void and our resigned acceptance. The virus-imposed choice displays as multileveled when we pause to connect beliefs to actions. Do I continue as if it’s a stunt, a miscalculation, or a bound-to-happen? Do I take precautionary measures, err on the side of caution? Decisions in such a situation involve an almost surreal quality of uncompromising transformation regardless of our emotion or will. That which will be just is—without joy, without pain.
May your silence be my sweet brother:
for so long I’ve searched
and here I find it, in the camp,
among the barbs, only now that my search is over.
In the camp where the imprisoned crowd tires of starving,
they love nothing but its words.
The accompanying months in quarantine clash with explosive emotion when isolated lives see the past and the present with renewed clarity. So often, silence must be imposed, during a pandemic, during imprisonment, even during protest. Popular perception gives it little value in busy lives. But a bond with silence is our concealed birthright—our common share. Listening to the messages of the soul during imposed silence challenges all breaches of promise. Now, as then, the unmentioned words of silence assure the search for meaning in senseless circumstances. Whether it be in a labor camp in 1944, the Covid-19 unit with shared ventilators, or abandoned rooms of a home in expectation of a phone call that may be late, crowds of people are starved for the words of their unfamiliar silence.
And it speaks, of everything it speaks with sorrowful arrogance:
and it knows the great
marvels of heaven and earth,
in the homeland, it cultivates wide expanses
of wheat and its machine flies like an arrow on its lucid
asphalt roads, and who a castle boasts, richer
than a palace,
and who the most beautiful woman!
Silence speaks. It does not confess all that it knows, but holds the soul in suspense—almost breathless, without mercy. As eternal, silence bears witness to all of history without prejudice. Its presence cautions, tempers, encourages one to reflect, to choose. It conveys a common home, throughout time, full of amber waves of grain and battles of wheat from those whose words disguise its intent. For crowds in protest, or prisoners in line, the effects of starvation feel the same, even as silent truth threatens, questions the veracity of messages contrived. Louder and more vulgar stream the words to confuse, to distract, to provoke those who struggle to understand—bankrolling weakness and desire for imperial gain.
And we are poor people, my soul! they told us one day
is golden: I didn’t believe, I loved the word too much,
and it wasn’t even silver!
Shackles of poverty and deprivation slash deep into doubt. The unscrupulous scheme and reward the needy with promises unintended to be fulfilled. Well-crafted words deceive the poor into believing, trusting. Increase numbers for armies, for supporters, for workers to build glory. Make us great. It was unfinished. Battles for births, but just the right kind. Suspicion seethes with time until violations stir against hidden, dormant voices who now realize. Do not lose breath or hope in the awareness of good vs. evil. Each soul hears its answer and on this must each life matter, each soldier stand. Listen. Within these whispers linger blessings of true gold.
Oh how many times the word misled me and, on the street,
it shoved me where pain is met!
Through lies pledging to assist or to payroll potential adversaries, allegiance to truth compromises honor, entombs transparency. Consult the soul’s silence—To thine own self, be true.
If someone speaks to you, don’t listen to his voice,
and if you listen to it, soul, leave without echo
Best not to heed the words, each run-on speech of little worth. It rises throughout history to deceive. But, if you listen, abandon it as definitively as it arrives, and do not permit it to seize your soul.
Let’s be alone, let’s stay as ours,
let’s sit next to each other on the moss-green stone
and let’s look far away,
beyond the camp of barbs, to the horizon:
and let’s await that one day the clouds may write for us
in the sky the first and the last word.
Silence, whether in the singular or collective, embraces all with meaning and truth throughout history. Stand without word before armed riot police, camp commandants, or an unwitting emperor, accompanied by love in its still strength. Together, by trusting and embracing its power, we reconcile our alpha and omega.
Jacqueline Jill Rito has penned essays in a monthly column for The Bethpage Tribune from 2007 – 2013, guest authored for the Sonoma Valley Sun’s “Just Joan” column. In 2007, she was first prize winner in poetry in the Quasimodo International Poetry and Prose Competition in Messina Sicily and their 2018 first prize winner in essay. She contributes articles on examining human rights, peace, justice, spirituality for the international online news bureau, Pressenza. In recent months, more awareness intensifies her service for others, connections with nature, and expression through art.
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