Sunday, October 09, 2005

Death by Renaissance

Death by Renaissance : Poems (Working Lives Series)
The people who love Tarentum speak with many different voices. Paola Corso is one of those voices and her collection of poetry in Death by Renaissance : Poems (Working Lives Series) tells of the love she has for Pittsburgh and Tarentum and other river towns of the region.

For example in "The doctor makes his diagnosis" she uses portions of Johannes Hofer's 1688 dissertation on nostalgia to describe her own sense of nostalgia.

I have two cities but only one home

that is my mother's womb
with one long umbilical cord
that reaches across thousands
of frequent flier miles.


I have "an abiding devotion" to my birthplace,

so when I go back to Pittsburgh,
I'm stupida for living in Brooklyn
and when I'm living in Brooklyn,
I'm mad with longing.

In the Author's Preface, Corso explains her questions about how to preserve what she most values about places like Tarentum:

I wonder how these blue-collar towns can be revived so that the community purpose on which they were founded and the history that once gave them life aren't laid to rest in the process.

This question illuminates the nostalgia that that pervades these poems and is a precis of her critique of the various contemporary proposals for how towns like Tarentum can be brought back to life. Her poems challenge me with questions about whether I have critiqued as boldly as I could have the solutions that do not ultimately address underlying issues of identity and purpose. (I realize I have fallen far short of those who have more boldly stated that the emperor's new clothes are not all they claim to be.)

In "21st Century Architects" she describes the (real or imagined) gutting of a familiar childhood eatery in order to create nearby an illusion of the past:

Isaly's, once
(home of Klondike ice cream bars
thirty-two-cent "skyscraper" cones
waitresses in checkered uniforms & Keds)
will be the new 21st Century Architects office

as soon as they rip out
(counters where men wearing tent hats & dirty aprons
shoveled trays of rice pudding topped with cherries)


Instead they'll build
work cubicles, CAD stations and drafting tables,
a place they'll design a '50's-style diner opening
in a new mall to bring back old times.

Johnny Rockets in the Galleria at Pittsburgh Mills, TarentumI appreciate Corso's questions about what is lost and what is gained in these various transformations. My own experience of eating in the "'50's-style diner" was that it was very entertaining, but closer to Hollywood's idealization of a '50's diner than to the reality. The Gatto Cycle Diner in downtown Tarentum comes a lot closer to the actual experience of a '50's diner.

Site Signatures, the architectural firm located in the building that once upon a time housed the Isaly's on Corbet Street are certainly not villains in the story of what is happening in Tarentum's renaissance. Bill Herman of that firm is another of the important voices expressing a love for Tarentum, and he has demonstrated it by his own investment in restoring historic buildings in and around Tarentum.

I've found Corso's poetry very helpful in understanding the sense of bereavement I hear from people who have lived all their lives in Tarentum. These poems also speak to me about the double-edged nature of anything I might try to do to preserve the past that I value. Death By Renaissance asks whether the steps taken to bring about rebirth might actually be destroying something of value.

On the other hand, the Gospel that guides me in coming to terms with my own mortal limitations and potential is one that reminds me daily that unless a seed falls to the ground and dies it remains just a single grain, but if it dies it bears much fruit. (John 12:24) So while some might see death as an unintended consequence of an attempt to bring rebirth, for me death is ultimately and fundamentally necessary in order for full potential for life to come to fruition.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I was born and raised in Glen Dale, West Virginia and the only place my family ever went for a summer vaction was Tarentum, PA. (Don't ask why because it's a long story.)

I have such fond memories of the Isalys there. A couple of years ago when I was home visiting in West Virgina (I now live in Delaware)we drove up to Tarentum just to see the old Isalys. I was so happy to see the old Isalys sign still on the front.

My other memories include speed boat races and a regatta one year on the river at the park, Mr. Arnold's grocery store, buying baseball cards at Schwarz's Drug Store, going to Saturday matinees at the Manass Theater and buying comic books at Murphy's.

Those were the days. Thank you Lord. What a gift.

Russell Osmianski