Artist in Agony: My Step-Father, Stefano

POETRY FORMAT, 25 Feb 2019

Anthony J. Marsella, Ph.D. – TRANSCEND Media Service


He wanted desperately

To roar in laughter,

Hold his sides,

Gasp for breath,

Experience glee,

Know sheer hilarity!

But all manners of pleasure,

All moments of happiness,

Eluded him!

His mind was sealed by trauma!

He knew loss!

He lived pain!

He witnessed horror!

He experienced terror!

He suffered misery!

Lifetime imprints!


He wondered:

How could others abandon control?

Escape past, feel joy?

He looked at them: bewildered:

How? Why?


No answers but “destiny” came!

He recalled Verdi’s opera:

La forza del destino!

Aria: Morir! Tremenda cosa!

(“To die, a momentous thing!”)

He knew death: seen it, smelled it, touched it!




Exuberance . . . impossible!

He was confined to slight smiles,

An occasional toss of the head,

“Sniffs of the nose!”

No intentional mirth.


Laughter with cynicism!

“What do you know?”

Do you know what I have seen?                           


Momentary pleasures:

Painting with oils,

Carving wood,

Sculpting clay!

Crafting a delicate rosewood mandolin!

Making guitars with no training.

An artist absent agony,

Passing quickly!







Do they not know?

Have they not seen?


He forced a grin

For sake of others,


Unspoken acknowledgement!

Others tried to please him!

A good meal!

A good cigarette!

What do you need Stefano?”


Dark humor was worse!

A meeting place for pain and pleasure!

No Schadenfreud for him,

No satisfaction from someone’s pain.

Who benefits from suffering?


Empathy, sympathy, sorrow!

These he knew well,

He lived amidst them!

Images returning with ease,

Overwhelming him!

No satisfaction in revenge,

No consolation!


He tried to survive!

Sought refuge in a new land!

It was impossible!

Lived experience sealed his fate,

No changes with time or place.

Torment omnipresent!

Inscribed, carved, painted,

In body and mind!


His life caught in time:

Fixed in an artist’s fragile imagination,

Sensations crying for release,

Redemption from sorrow’s grip!

War, poverty, hunger,

Starvation, poverty, death,




        He walked:

From Torino to Messina — 1943:

1381 kilometers by air!

2000 kilometers on swollen feet!

Avoiding roads,

German troops!


        He pondered:

War over for Italian soldiers,

Partisans fighting!

Germans contemptuous!

Firing squads!

Sites before him engraved!

Life intaglios!


        He walked:

Rome spared,

Even Nazi Generals understood:

“Do not destroy eternity.”

Destroy only human lives!

They are expendable

For grand designs!


He walked:

Before him destruction, deprivation,

Disgrace, dishonor!

Open-mouth corpses,

Sagging buildings,

Dust in every breath

Children begging,

Women – young and old –

Offering emaciated bodies,

Lira! Lira!


He walked:

With each step,



King Victor Emmanuel’s Italian Army!

Spain, Libya, Italy!


         He walked:


Bear the unbearable!


Hell is life!

Life is hell!

Fire and brimstone!

No escape!

No sanctuary!


He walked:

Is this what Dante understood?

Where is Beatrice?

How prophetic: “Inferno!”

Poetic words from Petrarch,

Paintings from Leonardo!

Sculptures from Michelangelo!

Carvings from Cellini!


He Walked:


What matters beauty?

What matters heritage?

What matters time,

If time can be erased in moments.


Chest-thumping dictator in balconies,

Better one day as a lion,

Than a lifetime as a lamb!”

Ancient Rome restored.




He welcomed death!

Not for a glorious cause,

But to flee life!

His thoughts went beyond impulse:

He considered place, means, time!

Somber detachment essential!


He went to confession:

Begged for forgiveness,

From God,

From priests,

From self!

Why was he begging?



Agents of god . . .

Why does god need agents?

Whose side are priests on?


Priests share confessions with bishops,

Bishops share with Vatican,

Vatican stores secrets for posterity!

Know the truth!

Hide the truth!

Vows cast aside!



 Spanish Civil War:

Two years, 8 months, 1 day:

A lifetime of scars!

Barcelona, Madrid, Guernica:

An enduring legacy!


Prelude to WWII!

Cold-War harbinger!

Middle-East omen!

Ideologies, prophecies, grand designs!


Global military-industrial-banker complexes,

Vultures feasting on death and destruction!

New nations, faces, places,

Old wine in new bottles!

New wine in old bottles!



Republicans! Popular Front!

Stalinists! Communists! Unionists! Socialists!

Latvian, Polish, Czech, Garibaldi, Soviet brigades!

Most volunteers, Jewish idealists!

Lincoln Brigade!


Did he grasp for whom bells toll?


Nationalists! Monarchists! Dictators!

Franco! Carlists! Fascists! Falangists!

Catholicism at stake . . . in new ways!

Opus Dei!  A rebirth!

Godless communists!

Jews seeking revenge!


Germans! Italians! Spanish Armies!







No Land!



        Modern War:

Statistics! Maps! Reports!

Dead, wounded, MIA,

Symbols, songs, words:


 Stand up! All victims of oppression,

For tyrants fear your might,

Don’t cling to your possessions,

For you have nothing,

If you have no rights!




Deutschland, Deutschland, Uber Alles!

Sieg Heil!  Bloodlines protected!




Hail, People of heroes!

Hail, Immortal Fatherland,

Your sons were born again

With faith and ideals!

Warrior values!

Youth, youth!

In the hardship of life!


Realities. . .

Idealism in an age of want!

Nobility in failure!

Romanticized war posters!

Dying for country!

Blood sacrifices!



Vodka, wine,

Charge the hill!


Potatoes, cabbage, rats!

Minds, bodies, souls, driven by madness!

Causes forgotten!

Amid stupor!

Claw, crawl, hide!


Primitive survival!


Bandiera Roso!

Red! Blood Red!

Round Eastern-European faces,

Stop Fascism,

Stalin’s scourge!


Republican brigades in Red Bandanas!

Men . . . women . . . youth!

Standing nearby:

Staring, spitting,

Contempt-filled faces,

No tears!

Loyalists taking notes!


Spread the new Gospel of the Age . . . Communism!

How glorious to die for cause!

Do not hesitate!

Our cause is just!


(USA supported Franco silently:

“Fear of Communism!

No profit! No Investments!

Better dead than Red!”

It never ended!)


Bodies: Headless, limbless, blood-soaked!

Priests, nuns, altar boys . . . shot!

Churches filled with people praying!

Youth, women, old men!

Burned alive!

Statues shattered!

Myths broken!



You want freedom?

You want equality?

We give you equality,

But for a price!

Your life!


Stukas! Tanks! Blitzkrieg!

Cold, mechanical, precision metal!

Ordered ranks!

Goosesteps! Boots! Helmets!

Ideology no match!

Lives inconsequential!


The Artist in Agony:


Reality blurred! Unsure!

Confess for imagined sins!

Confess for sins of others!

Confess for being alive!

Unable to remember!

“Father, Forgive them . . . !”

Forgiveness . . . for what?


Confess . . . What?

For failing to shoot prisoners!

For refusing orders!

For witnessing firing squads!

For offering water to a dying woman,

Blood-saturated blouse,

Blue eyes, blonde hair,

Conscripted for cause!

“Gracias, Senor!”

Dying in your arms!


Confess . . . What?

Madness on all sides

Massacred nuns, priests in black,

Fascist soldiers in brown and grey!

Jewish zealots avenging history,

Still fighting Rome!

Religious fanatics, Loyalists,

Protecting God, Mary, Saints,

Statues, candles, incense, mea culpa!


         Confess . . . What?

For living!

For turning from torture,

For wanting to breathe air free of dust and blood,

For chewing stale bread,

When bread no longer mattered;

For quenching thirst,

With mud-slaked water!


Confess . . . What?

Once my Stepfather told me:

“Hunger does not know bad bread!

Fame no conosce pani malo.



“Finish your food!

Mama worked hard to cook it.

I worked hard to place it on the table.”

I nodded in agreement: “Si Padre!”

“He was right!

How could I know sources of his words?”


His mind began crumbling,

Years before,

An absence of hope!

Can tapestry be weaved

From broken strands, fibers . . . burned embers?


In his life:

Mother lost to war,

Sister to disease,

Father to work,

Home to bombs!


Brother, Prisoner-of-War:

Insults and humiliation,

Barbed-wire fences,

British guards pointing rifles,

Eager to shoot,

Taunting, mocking, insulting,

Daring prisoners to run,

For rifle practice!


       Post-War Italy:

Chaos! Confusion! Deceit! Betrayal!

Communists, Fascists, Socialists, Anarchy!

Fifty governments in ten years!


       And from America . . .  Operation Gladio!

American CIA, Italian elites, Vatican, bankers:

Communism must be stopped in Italy,

At any cost! Blood in the streets!

Assassinations, beatings, torture, prison!


Choose sides!                                                                                                              Choose corruption!

Choose cronyism!

Choose evil!


Escape to America!

He wrote to his brother;

He came to America!

His new land, not what he expected,

Not what he needed,

Not what he wanted,

No respite offered!


No opportunity!

America: Illusion!


His hopes failing!

Every word an offense!

Every day a burden!

His wife and son . . . kind and caring;

He needed more!


Escape from past,

Freedom from present!


Return to place!

Comfort in old habits, reflexes, routines?


I once saw him laugh . . . uninhibited,


Almost hysterical

Vino et veritas!

I welcomed his joy!

It never returned!


He was slightly inebriated,

Too much wine!

In our house

A dinner party, a small gathering,

My European friends!


He told a story of a night in Barcelona,

As a soldier in King Emanuel’s army,

Amid the horror of Civil War!

He was drunk – Spanish wine!

He was unable to walk!


To demonstrate,

He rose from his chair,

Got on hands and knees!

Mimicked crawling back to camp!

Saluting gate guards from a prone position!

He laughed hilariously!

All reserve gone.

How wonderful to see his laughter!


My guests laughed less!

They were from Eastern Europe,

Family members served

In Stalin’s Communist Brigades in Spain!

Relatives lived in Post-War Italy.


No word spoken!

Glances sufficient!

He did not notice!

I did!

Endless vengeance!


What does one do?

When suffering is daily fare?

Trauma sealed in mind, muscle, bone,

Images, sounds, smells!

Puncturing soul!

No respite!  Again and, again!

Freud knew: Repetition-compulsion!



       Distance, detachment, somberness!

Energy absent!

Frivolity foolish!

Happiness elusive!

Life questioned!

No escape!

An artist in agony!


Meditation . . .

In the years following WWII, the USA Government was obsessed with stopping the spread of communism Greece and Italy. The CIA invested billions of dollars in Operation Gladio, authorizing any method to halt  Communist and Socialist rise to power.

More than 50,000 Italians were assassinated, murdered, or killed in open protests. Many were arrested, imprisoned, and tortured. There was total social and political upheaval and chaos. Scores of governments were formed and collapsed.

As in years before WWII, Italians fought against Italians. A government, favoring ties to the USA was sought, imposed, required. CIA efforts won. Italy became a puppet state for USA military forces.

I do not know my step-father’s experiences during this post-war period. He spoke little of them. He also spoke little of the horrors of the Spanish Civil War. He was a soldier in King Victor Emanuel’s Italian Army, a different army from Mussolini’s Fascist Black Shirts. For many, however, there were no differences!

He painted scores of oil paintings, giving almost all of them away as gifts. He sculpted with clay and plaster; no one in America wanted statues of saints. He also carved wood, turning wood scaps on a lathe he made from an old motor, automobile engine belts, and rusted iron, sanded and oiled to look new. He was a creative genius, a mechanical whiz, and an artist across mediums.

My step-father, Stefano, died in my arms at home at age 66. In the days before his death, he said to me: “The great tragedy of life is so few people have an opportunity to develop their talents.”  He knew the agony!

Footnote 1:

This poem was originally written in 2014. It is published in Anthony J. Marsella (2016): Gatherings: A Collection of Writing Genre. Mountain View Press: Alpharetta, Georgia. ISBN: 978-163183-023-5 Amazon

Some changes have been made in the original, but no changes in the intent and purpose: to honor respect, courage, and endurance in my step-father’s life.


Anthony J. Marsella, Ph.D., a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment, is a past president of Psychologists for Social Responsibility, Emeritus Professor of psychology at the University of Hawaii’s Manoa Campus in Honolulu, Hawaii, and past director of the World Health Organization Psychiatric Research Center in Honolulu.  He is known internationally as a pioneer figure in the study of culture and psychopathology who challenged the ethnocentrism and racial biases of many assumptions, theories, and practices in psychology and psychiatry. In more recent years, he has been writing and lecturing on peace and social justice. He has published 21 books and more than 300 articles, tech reports, and popular commentaries. His TMS articles may be accessed HERE and he can be reached at


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 25 Feb 2019.

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2 Responses to “Artist in Agony: My Step-Father, Stefano”

  1. William L. Conwill says:

    A tragic poem of epic proportions, expansive in scope and awareness, bespeaking war, pain sadness and grief. Thak you for sharing this with us. W

  2. Gary Corseri says:

    Because of time constraints, I read this in two sittings. Because it’s a long poem, I wanted time for a measured consideration.

    The first “sitting”/reading called me back to a second–to read to the conclusion. I am glad I read it through, though, as Mr. Conwill notes, it’s a poem “bespeaking war, pain, sadness and grief.” Many poets might lapse into bathos with themes like that. You do not. You walk us through a tour of the battlefield–the incessant noise and horrors. We “walk” with Stefano, hear what he hears, see what he sees, are wounded physically, psychically and spiritually with him.

    I admire your staccato style. That, too, complements the “sounds of war,” the sense of being bombarded with too much to absorb.

    I’ll carp on one toss-off matter: Hemingway was not deluded by the wartime propaganda. He experienced the horrors of the First World War close up; was wounded grievously, recuperated in a hospital in Italy where he was nursed by a woman he loved–one who formed the character of the dying woman in “The Sun Also Rises.” As a volunteer ambulance-driver in the Spanish Civil War, Hem saw fanaticism and heroism, idealism and villainy, cruelty and kindness close-up and personal. “For Whom the Bell Tolls” answers John Donne’s poetic question the same way Donne did: “it tolls for thee.” (And for everyone of us.)

    You focus on the tragic story of your stepfather; but you deftly manage the trick of the best poetry: the focus becomes all-encompassing…and universal….