The Daily Spectacle: Gil Fagiani — The Poet Laureate Of The Streets

By THOMAS MOODY

Missing Madonnas (Bordighera Press, 2018)

On April 12 of this year, the Queens-based poet, essayist and activist Gil Fagiani tragically passed away at the age of 72. He had led an extraordinary life. Born into an Italian immigrant family just after the end of World War II, he was a military college graduate, a political radical and a community organizer. He had worked in a psychiatric hospital in the Bronx and was, for a portion of his life, a junkie.

A 2014 profile of Fagiani in The New York Times titled “A Poet Mines Memories of Drug Addiction” opens with an anecdote about the then–68-year-old pulling out a copy of White Lightning, “a tabloid from 1972, whose yellowed, brittle pages declared revolution. Inside, he pointed to a polemic he wrote headlined ‘Racism and Dope.’ It described how he — a heroin addict with white, middle-class roots — was let off by the police with a warning inside an East Harlem tenement while his would-be connection, a Puerto Rican ex-con, was stripped, arrested and clubbed.”

Poetry came late to Fagiani — he was in his 40s when he discovered his vocation — but he became the archetype of the late-blooming talent. During his life, he published five collections of verse. His sixth collection, Missing Madonnas, is his first posthumously released work, published earlier this year by Bordighera Press. It is an astonishing compendium of the poet’s life and talent, stretching from mapping his Italian ancestry through his turbulent days on the street all the way to his reformation in later life, finally settling in Queens. In “Chianti in the Catskills,” one of the last poems in the collection, the speaker, haunted by sleep, seeks relief by “walking the streets of Astoria. / At 28th Street, I run into the glittering profile of the Empire / State Building, where my father worked in an executive suite / in the 1960s.”

Fittingly, the book opens at the beginning, that is, the day of Fagiani’s birth. Here is “Lunar Arrival” in full:

Mom’s belly, swollen

as the full moon above.

An earthquake rumbles,

her neighbor, the wife beater,

rushes her to the hospital

in the battered pickup truck.

The sheet music

to a melancholy tune

that found a name

— my birth certificate.

The poem encapsulates much of what is to be revered in Fagiani’s work: the economy and preciseness of his lyricism; the uncomplicated but powerful use of simile; the uncompromising depiction of its subjects, irony included. (Note how the “wife beater” drives a “battered pickup truck.”)

The opening half of the book relates to Fagiani’s early life, growing up in an immigrant family in New York. He expends great time and effort on detailing this world, the minutiae of routine and subtle but unmistakable differences between cultures. We can smell the alleyways of the West Village “reeking / of fruit and fish / and guinea stinker cigars,” as we can the horse barn across the street “that reeked of manure.” We see the tomatoes drying on the fire escape, and hear the wise grandmother argue in Italian with the butcher about the cut of veal: “Non c’e nessuna fessa qui — There are no idiots here — she’d say.” We are in the classroom with Fagiani when “The teachers mangled / my name, called me Fag-ee-annie, no matter how / many times I corrected them,” and in the front seat with him when he drives the biggest embarrassment of his adolescence, his parents’ “snub-nosed Nash Rambler.” Unlike his friends, who drive their parents’ Pontiacs and Chevys, the speaker of “Greaser: A Nightmare” is sentenced to “sputtering around with a blue-beaked, six cylinder shit-box.”

If these poems at times seem sluggish in their approach, weighed down by their preciseness of detail, it is not by accident but by masterful design. Fagiani meticulously creates a world in order to break it apart. The more full and visceral that world is, the more devastating its collapse.

Missing Madonnas, therefore, is a rarity among poetry collections: It deserves to be read from cover to cover, sequentially. It is a powerful undertaking. As you read further into the book, what comes before moves into sharper relief — the small personal cracks of the people who populate the poems are slowly, but most assuredly, jimmied open, until their shortcomings are chasmic. Pried open wider than Sixth Avenue, Fagiani’s subjects wear their failings with something akin to pride, their addictions, dishonesty and duplicity a defense against the threat of ever-worse failings.

In “Face Lift,” a dealer takes his “peroxide blonde girlfriend, Judy — who swears she’s stopped using” to a dinner at Patsy’s restaurant with the speaker, who has also sworn to his girl Nilsa that he’s quit using, “but before I pick her up I dust my nose holes with a light powdering of pure to keep down the sickness. I’ve seen Judy trick under the Park Avenue El and she’s caught me at all the hottest copping spots. But, around Pat and Nilsa, we keep the doper’s code and dummy up.” The scene appears far removed from the comparatively innocent streets of Fagiani’s childhood. However, all of the poems in Missing Madonnas deal with people who are, in their own particular way, stunned by life, stalled in their skins, trying to cope in whatever way they can in order to make it through to the next day.

Gil Fagiani with his wife, Queens’ Poet Laureate Maria Lisella

There is no nostalgia in Fagiani’s remembrances about his childhood, as there is no glorification or moralizing about his years as a junkie. What all of his poetry has in common is a sublime honesty, which tries to wrestle reality onto the page and transform it into something more beautiful, more sufferable than what we know it originally to be.

Missing Madonnas is a fitting testament to Fagiani’s skill as a poet and compassion as a man. It is a book whose every smell, sight, sound, meal and gunshot is to be experienced and cherished.