My speaker protests too much in the title, proclaiming that he is not Italian, while it is clear from the poem that his wish is to be just that. Of course, this American tourist would rather look at paintings than sweep streets or be confined to an office, but here at a coffee bar he finds himself participating in an everyday, very Italian ritual. That he is imbibing an espresso along with actual Italians is enough for him to imagine a solidarity. He has become Italian, if only for a self-deluded moment. And as if to prove it, he ends with an existential flourish about life and death. Or was that me?
I AM NOT ITALIAN
I am not Italian, technically speaking,
yet here I am leaning on a zinc bar in Perugia
on a sunny weekday morning,
my foot up on the worn iron railing
just like the other men who,
it must be said, are officially and fully Italian.
It’s 8:40 and they are off to work,
some in offices, others sweeping the streets
while I am off to a museum or a church
to see paintings, maybe light a candle in an alcove.
Yet here we all are in our suits and overalls
joined in the brotherhood of espresso,
or how is it said? la fratellanza dell’espresso,
draining our little white cups
with an artful rotation of the wrist,
each of us tasting the same sweetness of life,
if you take a little sugar, and the bitterness
of its brevity, whether you choose to take sugar or not.
Billy Collins is a former two-term U.S. Poet Laureate (2002-03) and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. “I Am Not Italian,” ©2020 by Billy Collins, originally appeared in Whale Day and Other Poems (Random House) and is reprinted with permission.