When We Were the “Other”
For my Italian American friends wearing MAGA hats. This is the voice
of your forefather, my forefather. He was a young man then.
We carried pots and pans on our backs like circus tents
Our hunger could be seen in the other’s jawbones
We boarded boats that broke paths in a vast ocean
I was excited to watch the ocean foam
Then one day, land appeared
On deck we clapped and smiled
Shared what remained unspoken
And some of us made it to a sun-kissed bayou
We smelled salty marsh air in the morning
Caught jumping catfish with our bare hands
The girls ground Sassafras with mortar and pestle
The girls smelled like orange peel back home
One beauty lay lolling in the sun
It all happened at once — that first deep joy between us
She drew her mouth towards mine. I knew her pulse
Under a cypress we were brokenness made unbroken
Unbroken my girl said when she kissed my fingertips
Then we went back to looking the way we did
Back to our shanties in a row
We’d named “Little Palermo,” as a way of belonging
My mother bending over a coal stove
My mother smelling of Spicebush and Blue Eyed Grass
She foraged and dried those wild plants to make tea
That woman could heal any sickness, except hate
When we were front-page news in The Daily States:
“Like the Negro only filthier in habit”
“A villainous looking set” terrorizing the nation
We were fruit peddlers, street sweepers, loading dockhands
We were juice for the Confederate President’s speeches
Fuel for angry citizens preparing for action
We were Southern Italian too dark to be honest
Accused of killing Hennessy, Chief of Police
We were hundreds loaded into mule-drawn carriages
My girl shouted reggiti, reggiti, hold on, hold on
I held on to one strong shoulder
He asked me: ma unni iammu? where we going?
We went down past Tulane We held on
Whittled down to nineteen, then eleven
We were Rocco, Pietro, Antonio, Emmanuele,
Tony, Loretto, Bastian, Joseph, James, Frank, Charles
— Tried in court and acquitted
Returned to Parish Prison on other charges
And the bloodthirsty stormed in
And the warden turned a blind eye
And they all jeered and harangued: “Who Killa Da Chief?”
One of us shouted: “Not Guilty”
One of us proudly announced: “I was born in Louisiana”
One of us stammered and cried: “I liva hia sixa yias”
We were nine “Dagoes” clubbed and shot
Lay weltering in blood and brains
We were two hanged on the lamppost off Treme St.
We were one riddled with 42 bullets after the dangling
We were others whose names disappeared from the record
One fled to Vicksburg and one to Tallulah
One clung to life when a tree branch snapped
And if it’s true that our true selves emerge closest to death
Then my father took in the cottonwood’s tiny red blooms
Caught a glimpse of the mighty Mississippi
Had his memory of his woman in the sun
While the crowd found a sturdier branch
And the determined hurled him up a final time
And a dozen bullets put an end to his writhing
As his grieving young son ripped out his own eyes
March 14, 1891—New Orleans
The Great Northeast Blackout, 1965
The deep crease & contour of her eyelids,
the large oval birthmark
color of milk & coffee bordering her mouth
carried mysterious qualities.
Tommasa was the first friend I made in America.
We would know an abysmal night
—The Great Northeast Blackout, November of ’65.
Traffic lights & streetlights extinguished,
police sirens rose & fell in ghastly wails.
We had learned enough English
to ask a neighbor about the lights.
Where are your mothers? Snapped the neighbor.
- & I locked hands.
Sewing at the coat factory, one of us replied.
This further twisted our neighbor’s nerves
& she explained about the lights gone out:
don’t you know
your Guinea uncles cut the electric wires.
They’re dumping bodies in the Gowanus Canal.
I took a step back
T ’s jaw hung in awe-of-combat.
Her hairy facial spot stretched larger,
the fury of it strangely beautiful
like a tiger ready to strike.
Then it was over.
Even fear and rage were rendered obsolete.
We watched a door slam shut,
climbed a darkened stairwell
in absolute silence
lost our breaths, looked for keys,
locked ourselves inside T’s apartment,
lit two candles
we were among the dying things.
Poem of Exile
We took turns laying our heads on each other’s laps.
Did we smell so much like waste?
All around us an infected spirit screamed:
detestable & unworthy
your country is sinful. Mine is full of God.
What shall I say about my friend’s quivering chin,
her far-off-gaze, low-tone whisper?
Neither of us could do without feeling we’d been exiled.
After pinning hours of pity on our chests
we rose from the couch,
looked out the window to find the moon.
Even she was trapped in her black cage,
& our mothers
where were they on this darkest of nights?
Theme of Tommasa
Once was the grace of an immigrant girl.
In this song her name stands in for images
—her arms swinging,
her whole body swinging
a heavy mop on Saturday mornings
to spare the old Super with arthritic joints
from linoleum hallways of mosaic dirt
on Wyckoff & Myrtle.
The girl was born hungry to diminish despair
& the girl was born of poor musicians making do.
With eyes half-closed she blew across tops of empty bottles
to play flute,
wrapped tissue paper around her mother’s comb of bone
Let the long soft melodies
Let the sound of woodwinds also tell of her.
I hold in my hands a slice of watermelon.
I hold within me entire summers,
orchards, seas & continents,
red juicy jubilance running down my chin.
Under the shade of a fig tree
I carry not the shade but the sun.
I carry the old street vendor by the roadside
pulp for eating, rind to polish your shoes.
Let me translate how some days
we live with a dual purpose
& in two worlds at once.
Some days loss is nowhere in sight.
On the Road to Camerina
In the morning hours of a fertile spring that verged on summer the fields were a riot of red poppies, yellow sorrel, dusty-blue borage on the road to Camerina. It was easy to pick a bouquet of 50 different wildflowers. A Sunday ride on the Vespa with my father—speeding by remnants of walls made of irregular stones bound with mortar, a slight drizzle falling, warm wind in my hair. We stopped at a café for a glass of almond milk, took a stroll along the shore and found a bronze coin the sea had once concealed. I wouldn’t know the origin of that coin, wouldn’t know enough Sicilian history. I did what a child does—toss the coin back to the sea, make it skip like a rock, see how far it goes.
2,500 years of crossroads—warriors sailing with mighty armies acclaimed themselves Kings of Sicily only to be butchered by the next tyrant with a mightier army. Sicily and her people nicely damned and left in ruins. Such a rich and bloody legacy, a kid could find the coin of her ancestor still damp and wrapped in seaweed—the people’s sufferings, pity and pathos, as well as ageless rites, colors and celebrations. The coin I found, you understand, was before the excavations in the area of Punta Secca and Casuzze began in earnest, before the remains of a temple dedicated to Athena were revealed—now housed in The Archeological Museum of Camerina, or Camarina, or Kamarina or Kaukauna. The locals still can’t agree on what to call their village that changed names according to the language of the colonizer, never mind the Museum.
Mountain Air and Honey Fingers
Ragusa’s hilly countryside was dotted with cows, farmhouses and trees laden with fruit. We were leaving the hills and what my father called mountain air. He claimed that mountain air “opened” the appetite and might lesson the sickly pallor localized on my face. I breathed more mountain air than the goats but was still anemic. Today I know that condition as Thalassemia Minor, an inherited blood disorder. The ancient disease has everything to do with geographic location, history of malaria, wars, invasions, mass migrations, Greeks, Carthaginians, Vandals, Goths, Pisans, Moors, Normans and Spaniards. I’ll never need Ancestry.com, and the good news is my DNA has a survival advantage—flooded with so much malaria-laden-semen I’m immune to malaria.
Marisu`, my father calls me through the waves of time, Marisu`, we’re late but almost home. When we get around the corner from the house, we’ll walk. D’accordo? Don’t tell your mother our little secret. I went along with his lie. We ran out of fuel and had to walk the Vespa home. Sorry, Lina. The Benzinaio was closed. I nodded, for this was certainly true. No gas stations, pharmacies, grocery stores were ever open during the sanctity of lunch hour followed by the necessary nap.
Lina, is lunch ready? We’re starving after being out so long in that fresh mountain air, isn’t that right, Marisu`? How persuasive my cunning father could be with his subliminal messages. I would eat a fair portion of whatever was being served, but never an animal’s liver. What other than liver could build iron rich blood? I saw the gravity, the deep lines furrowed on my parents’ foreheads. After our meal his voice would go down to a whisper: Lina, did you prepare the oil and the syringe? The oil and the syringe was the torture I had to endure twice a week—B-12 injections and cod liver oil to drink for the anemia. My mother chased me around the house for what seemed like hours or until I was exhausted and surrendered to the long needle in her hand. She pulled down my underpants. My father tenderly held my face between his hands. In a soft voice he asked if I remembered the white caper flowers we’d seen crawling along a wall that morning. Before I could picture caper flowers she had rubbed alcohol on my butt cheek and the syringe had done its job. As for the oil: he pinched my nose to lessen the smell. I swallowed a glassful and didn’t cry. I waited to suck on my mother’s fingers dipped in honey. Her honey fingers replaced the taste of liquid sardines. I have almost forgotten the nauseating fish burps and the burning, throbbing pain in the ass. But a woman like that, and a man like that, how could I live without them.
Marisa Frasca, has a BA from The New School’s Riggio Honors Program. In Jan. 2013, She received an MFA in poetry from Drew University. She serves on the Board of The Italian American Studies Association, and on the Board of The Italian American Writers Association. Her poems have appeared in 5AM, Adanna Journal, Philadelphia Poets, Feile Festa. VIA, Sweet Lemons 11, Arba Sicula, and other venues.