In May of 2007 our family moved to the town of Torano in Italy. Torano is a quarry town, the last one between Carrara and some of the oldest marble quarries in Italy. There were two bars, a bakery, and a small convenience store that sold milk, butter, and a few dusty bottles of wine. It was a town that was, for the most part, empty of all but retired people. A few younger couples lived down near the bus stop. The top of the hill was reserved for houses scrupulously tended by stoop-shouldered women and gardens planted and puttered over by silver-haired men.
For the first two months I was recovering from the birth of our daughter and so stayed in the house except for a few brief walks. Later I would push the baby in her stroller to make the loop of the town on the one road that circled through it. At the top of the hill on the sunniest spot there was a bench across from some houses where I would stop and look down the hill at our town and the others below. It was here that I first met Carlito. He was carrying a bag of leaves down from his garden to the dumpster by the side of the road and stopped on the way back to get a look at little Robin. Italians are crazy for babies and Tuscan people are in some sense the quintessential Italians, falling right between the extreme hospitality of people in the south and the blinkered, work-horse mentality of the north.
When I was talking to Carlito I was looking into the sun and noticed only that he had a deeply lined face and spoke haltingly…a Da Vinci drawing of a slightly grizzled old man. Several walks later I noticed that while others asked new questions, he always asked the same ones: “Is it a girl baby or a boy baby?”, “What’s her name?”, “You live in Torano?” After this brief exchange I would head of down the hill to the sound of the 4:30 p.m. detonation of explosives rumbling down from the quarries as regular as the church bells ringing vespers.
The fourth time I saw Carlito, Matthew was with me as we took the baby for her afternoon stroll. Matthew’s Italian is fluent and so he asked Carlito if he had worked in the quarries. Carlito told the story of how he got the dent in his head in a quarry accident when he was 25. Now I saw it, the concavity of the left side of his scull…I suppose that 40 years ago in a provincial Italian hospital there wouldn’t have been much they could do. There may not be much more that they can do now. How do doctors treat accidents that happen between men and 8 ton blocks of stone that make giant drag lines and front-end loaders look like bright yellow Tonka trucks?
Later, Matthew pointed out to me how dented and battered the men of the town were. One missing a leg, several limping, many wearing thick, smoke-tinted glasses to save their eyes damaged from squinting at the brilliant white stone for years on end…and above the town the quarries were stunning, beautiful. At sunset the flat white faces changed colours like a magic mirror: silver, blazing orange, downy pink as a baby’s cheek. Down from these mountains had come the marble from which some of the most famous monuments in Italy were made; The Colosseum, Michelangelo’s David. Now it goes to make, the tourist-trinket sculpture sold down in Carrara, floor tiles, and pedestal sinks; the gravel paves roads, the dust goes into toothpaste. What remains the same? Quarry men have been taking take their bite of the mountain for the last 3000 years; and the mountain…
To Carlito di Torano
‘Lizzatura’, impossibility of scale.
The slipping of the lizard ton, slow heave:
Skittering run of started stones, pale
As the knuckles above a dust-rimed sleeve.
What chemic system drives the reptilian mind
Of these men, of you, to scatter with wet
And laboured breath the dandelion seed
Of your life across this osteal range
Of unrelenting, unrepentant, white?
White, heavy enough to burn you blind;
Grind bone and work-hard skin to paste and lard.
As Atlas’ report rambles down the quarry hour;
You turn your head towards the hard, square place
That men dented, limping leave
At twenty-five to tend their flowers.
To see the poem published in the “Blood Orange Review” click HERE.