The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 557

Roland Flint’s twenty-stanza poem “Sicily” tells the story of the poet’s visit to the town of Nicosia, Sicily, an island off the southern coast of Italy. Far from the life of suburban America, the poet meets people who trigger memories of his late mother and son. The Sicilians the narrator meets believe in their futures, but because they live in the shadow of the largest active volcano in Europe, they realize that life is subject to sudden catastrophe. In this foreign locale, the poet discovers he can behave as the Sicilians; he finally grieves for the losses he has suffered and comes to terms with his life.

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The poem begins with a reference to the narrator having reread novelist and short-story writer “John Cheever for months” before accepting an invitation to visit Sicily. The “quick decision” to travel to remote Sicily and the “changes” in his environment have left the narrator “bewildered,” but by the close of the poem, bewilderment gives way to understanding.

In the poem’s first stanza the narrator writes that author John Cheever sees life as “confusing” yet “absorbing and dull, pained and sweet,/ Addictive and merciless—vexed, like laughter in grief.” The following stanzas describe the landscape of Nicosia, the hotel where the poet narrator stays, and a dinner given by his Sicilian hosts. The narrator comments on the atmosphere of Sicily, with its “invisible hints of the shot-gun/ and a prohibition of women.” After hearing breaking glass (“crystal splintering”), the narrator likens the subsequent “furious male shouting” to “Bandy Polyphemo,” the most famous of the Cyclops who, in the ancient Greek poet Homer’s Odyssey (c. 800 b.c.e.; Eng. trans., 1616), lived in a cave not far from Nicosia.

Next, the poet participates in a multilingual poetry reading where he notices a “girl of seven or so” who “understood more in her way” than the poet did. The poet narrator moves on to reflect on the nearby volcano, Etna, which has remained active since the time of the ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus and the ancient Greek poet Pindar, both of whom wrote about it. The narrator notices that he can see the volcano from everywhere he is. Antonio, a bus driver, explains some of Etna’s history and sings the part of the doomed lover from the Italian opera Cavalleria Rusticana. The narrator meets Grazia Martinez, a young woman translator who, because “Etna has been out her window forever,” also knows her future is not “separate from molten grime and catastrophe.” The translator reminds the poet of his late mother.

In the succeeding stanzas, the narrator recalls the sudden death of his mother, who was buried on the anniversary of the death of his child. Only now, in Sicily, does the narrator realize that the coincidence of the date of his child’s death with that of his mother’s burial, which had seemed “the worst season’s worst addition,” has become a “symmetry of dates. . . ./. . . to salve or line/ The permanent crack” in his heart. In the last stanzas of the poem, the poet is perplexed yet thankful to grieve again, having learned through his travel and his encounters with Grazia and Antonio that life lived in the shadow of catastrophe is not at all unusual, and that the “after-life” of the dead may be “in our remembering.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 501

“Sicily” is not written in formal meter; it is a free-verse poem. The poem is in open form, with stanzas varying in length from four to thirteen lines. The lines are generally end-stopped; that is, the poet’s thought is completed in each line, causing the reader to pause, or punctuation marks require the reader to pause at the end of the line. End-stopped lines slow down the movement of a poem, and Flint’s use of them contributes to the meditative sense of “Sicily.” While the poem’s lines are fairly uniform, the poet uses one hemistich, or half line, in the third-to-last stanza, when he writes “‘and left her there,’” quoting what his sister said about their buried mother.

The poet’s language is not formal but rather conversational. However, while Flint uses casual speech, he is writing for a sophisticated audience, one familiar with the work of John Cheever and Cheever’s tendency to place his characters in rainy environments where they are washed clean of their sense of isolation and confinement. Further, the poet alludes to Homer and is specific in his mention of the Sicilian writers Massimo Ganci, Franco Grasso, and Luigi Pirandello, as well as the classical writers Aeschylus and Pindar and the well-known opera Cavalleria Rusticana, which is set in Sicily. In addition, Flint makes a direct allusion to Robert Hayden’s tribute poem “Those Winter Sundays” by recalling Hayden’s description of his father’s service to his family (“love’s austere and lonely offices”). Flint writes that his mother “taught love’s offices as gifts.”

The most unusual aspect of Flint’s use of language is his consistent use of the second-person singular tense throughout his narrative. By using the word “you,” Flint includes his reader in his very personal return to his grief. The impact of Flint’s word choice is doubled when the poet identifies the reader as himself: “You consider,” “you are in a hotel,” “You are in a small party of writers,” for example. Flint repeats words crucial to the idea of his personal redemption, including different forms of the verb “bewilder” and the nouns “rain” and “belief.” The poet’s repetition and variations of words in “Sicily” deepens the reader’s emotional involvement in the narrative.

“Sicily” has one overarching symbol, Etna, the volcano surrounded by the towns of Nicosia, Catania, Acireale, and Nicolosi, all mentioned in the poem. Not only do the people who live in the towns beneath Etna know that they live “in the permanent radius of risk,” but also do Flint’s readers understand that they are “not separate from molten grime and catastrophe.” The volcano, active at least since the beginning of Western literature, symbolizes the capricious natural forces that Sicilians have always accepted as a part of their daily lives, but that the poet-narrator has lost touch with. Only by journeying to the land of the volcano does the poet realize that loss and hope are “the tangled core” of life.

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Themes