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When the first star shone

The 18 compositions for Christmas contained in All’accendersi della prima stella [when the first star shone] (Scheiwiller, 1988) and the 23 sequences of the poem Myriam di Nazareth [Myriam of Nazareth] (Ares, 1992) by the Roman poet Elio Fiore (1935-2002) overturn the oleographic and pious image of so much devotional Marian poetry which still today constitutes one of the summits of poetry centred on the figure of the Mother of God.

Elena Buia Rutt

As Fiore himself states in a note at the end of Myriam di Nazareth, readingRainer Maria Rilke’s Life of Mary, with a preface by David Maria Turoldo, urged him to try his hand at a subject, the figure of the Virgin, which had ever been dear to him for intellectual reasons but also and above all because of an incident in his own life. At the age of eight, on 19 July 1943 during the bombing of Rome by the Allies, Fiore, together with his mother, was buried for 10 hours under the rubble of their house: one of his most beautiful poems was subsequently born from this tragedy, Madre oggi ricorre una memoria dura, in which the moments of the house’s collapse are recalled as seen through a child’s eyes. In this poem, among “wails and cries”, the salvific figure of the mother stands out; she endeavours to protect her little son with her own body, in the darkness controlling her breathing, now almost reduced to a wheeze, and praying to Our Lady as in a litany to save him (“Mother of God save my son”). In that extreme experience the child Elio Fiore, who had traumatically come into contact with the horror of history, thus found in the embrace of his mother and in her invocation to Mary that saving response to which he was to remain faithful throughout his life: a response rooted in unconditional love and in the faith to which his mother had entrusted not her own salvation but that of her son.

Elio Fiore’s poetry inhabits religiously a history described as “horrendous”, “implacable”, “inhuman” and “absurd”, yet this does not succeed in stifling hope, the sense of possibilities or the aspiration to good, incarnated by the image of the Mother of God. Myriam di Nazareth revisits the life of Mary (or Myriam in the ancient Hebrew usage), which is told placing elements of daily life side by side with the intuition of her salvific journey, as in the composition Canto della ninna nanna di Hannah [song of Anne’s lullaby] in which the little Myriam is cradled in her mother’s arms. In her song Anne combines with the typical soothing words of every lullaby “fai la ninna, nanna ooh, / lalla, lalla, lalla, lalla ooh!” her premonition of the future that awaits her little baby girl, “Sleep, dream of an angel / who in time will bring you joy / and will call you Daughter of God”: the things of heaven and those of earth are mingled, moving on a route sub specie aeternitatis.

Myriam humbly accepts the investiture of the angel and celebrates the Lord as the One who is changing her existence even though she does not yet glimpse the outcome. The Son whom she is carrying in her womb will render her at the same time unattainable and close: unattainable because of the mystery that will dwell within her, and close because she will also become Mother of the human beings who turn to her.

Pablo Picasso “Guernica” (detail of the “pietà”, 1937)

In some of the loveliest lines of the poem, entitled I tre anni [the three years] Myriam, beginning to foresee the Cross, discerns God’s will for the days to come: “I am here, next to the loom / And I am preparing for the days of gloom / when we shall be abandoned by all. / I have faith in you, Father, for I always / see again the angel and the grotto / where I laid the Lord”. At this very moment Myriam realizes that love is pain: in accepting to be the womb of the Word she is wounded, lacerated, because the Son’s Passion lies before her eyes. And yet her motherly and supreme defence of her Son, once she has foreseen his imminent torture, consists even more of total entrustment to the will of the Lord: thus Myriam remembers his annunciation to her, his promise, her assent to accepting the Word in her womb and the new beginning; Myriam remembers the miraculous birth of her Child in a grotto.

Elio Fiore’s profound Marian devotion reveals his originality in the poem entitled Stabat Mater: “Mother of God, I have seen you beyond / A network, in Baghdad, with other mothers / You were screaming your pain for the bodies / torn apart and crucified for ever”; the horror, the threats and the cries constitute the sharp sword which today pierces the breasts of mothers just as it pierced Myriam’s. It is in this dichotomy played out between brutality and hope, horror and trust, shadow and light, that the poet’s visionary voice is redeployed which among the horrors of history sings of the closeness of the Mother of us all, for she is the Mother of the One who took on the flesh of us all. Myriam is the mirror in which God reflects his image, a living God of mercy: she is invoked with intense and anguished tones and at the moment when we become aware of human wretchedness and of sin, she becomes the way to return to God.

In All’accendersi della prima stella, Elio Fiore’s faith and artistic talent recognize Mary’s modern and contemporary features in the face of a homeless woman with her child who is asking for alms on the street amidst the general indifference, ironically enough precisely during the Christmas season. The poem is entitled La nostra stella è sepolta nella polvere, [our star is buried in dust], a title taken from a work by Nelly Sachs, a German Jewish poet awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature: “Mary was clothed completely in black / seated on the ground, calm and collected, / clasping Jesus in her arms. // Down the crowded street passers-bye / moved distractedly, without looking, / without giving a penny of alms. // Mary’s eyes were closed / but two tears slid down / her face. Jesus was smiling at me, // while the lights were being turned on / in the luxury market, sparkling / with presents, stars and angels. // Jesus gripped my hand tightly / and in that innocent smile / I felt the whole world’s pain”. A beggar’s Nativity painted by a poem in which human dereliction does not overcome hope. 

Elena Buia Rutt




St. Peter’s Square

Jan. 21, 2020