This morning, while out for a errand-laden walk–visiting the pediatrician’s office, shopping, and getting an influenza vaccine shot–in this bizarrely gorgeous East Coast January weather, I ran into my friend and Brooklyn College colleague, the poet Robert Viscusi, with whom I work at the Wolfe Institute for the Humanities. I admire Bob for his erudition, wit, and writing, have learned a great deal from him over the years, and consider my meeting-time jousts with him among my most enjoyable and intellectually rewarding campus experiences ever, so it is to his work that I devote this brief note.
I own two of Viscusi’s books: the difficult, yet rewarding, quasi-autobiographical novel Astoria, which introduced me to, among other things, the Stendhal Syndrome, and provided an acute, poetic glimpse of the Italian-American experience that seemed to speak directly to me, also an immigrant to the US; and the short collection of poems titled A New Geography of Time. The inscriptions on the latter reads, ‘To Samir Chopra, From the land of the sphinxes, Bob Viscusi, 10/17/12, Brooklyn.’ But it is to the former that I am paying attention today.
When I began reading Astoria, I found immediate resonances: it is a tale of loss and discovery, of parental connections and sunderings, of new beginnings, and pasts left behind. It is about mothers and sons, and families, transplanted. It is not an easy book; when I first reported this to Bob, his response was to suggest reading it aloud. I complied; it worked. When a poet turns his hand to a novel you must not follow him all the way; continue reading him as you did before. For as Viscusi describes Astoria in the prologue:
It’s sort of a novel in the form of a poem in the form of three essays about the meaning of history.
I mentioned the Stendhal Syndrome above. What role does it play in Astoria? Quite simply this: the narrator of the story suffers from it. He was first afflicted at the tomb of Napoleon in Paris, two years after the death of his mother. He discovers she is, to him, Napoleon. As he moves through this world, he finds that his journeys, no matter how far-flung, never take him beyond Astoria, her home, a Napoleonic empire. He carries her, the strongest and most distinctive imprint on his persona, a ghost in the corpora, with him, wherever he goes. But she is Astoria, so he takes Astoria everywhere. Some of us want to go home but are told we can never do so; yet others, it seems can only go home again and again. As Buckaroo Banzai might have said, ‘No matter where you go, there it is.’
Home, of course, is our most familiar resting place, where we seek to return, for comfort and succor in times of adversity, when confronted with the world’s strangeness. It sticks to us like a skin. The immigrant’s journey’s are often termed a sloughing off of this cover, but as Viscusi notes, it persists, screening, vetting and transforming, quite uniquely, everything that seeks entrance into our bodies and minds. Astoria shows us among (many!) other things, how we take our homes and histories with us, wherever we go.