The Short List of Certainties by Lois Roma-Deeley
Franciscan University Press, 2017. 104 pages. $14.00
Review by Jennifer Martelli
In her poem, “The Dark Night Speaks to the Soul,” Lois Roma-Deeley writes, “Your prayers begin and end unanswered/as echoes in a whirlwind. You’re shattered.” The poems in The Short List of Certainties, Roma-Deeley’s award-winning collection, speak to and from that “shattered” place which requires a straddling of two realities, despair and faith. Quoting St. Augustine of Hippo, Roma-Deeley begins her collection with the daughters of Hope: anger and courage. Even the gorgeous cover photo of an ancient Greek sculpture of two symmetrical acrobats speaks to an agility and a duality that are present throughout the collection which “describes the map/of a woman’s body and its bruises.”
The specter of another world, of a sister-experience, lies like a scrim over the landscapes. In “Mountain Echoes for the Boko Haram Girls,” Rome-Deeley writes
She slides through the gate,
(and this) holding both sides of the jerrycan poised
on the crown of her head in the elegant balance
of blood and bone. This old can (my sister whispers)
will hold a gallon or two of dirty water . . . .
hurrying faster now to the spring were (we all know)
behind a strand of trees, men wait and wait—
This sense of two realities occurring, or the possibility of two realities, is ever-present. The pending moment—the balance just before the next move—can ben exhilarating and terrifying, almost acrobatic. In “Angel of a Better Nature,” the speaker describes, “. . . . a wild leap from between to among;//step by forgiving step,/on a dusty highway that stretches between two great cities . . . .”
Roma-Deeley’s poems constantly define and redefine time and events, encompassing not just memory, but regret and re-birth. I thought of a poem by Marie Howe, “For three Days,” where she uses the idea of Schroedenger’s Cat “. . . .that would be dead if you looked//and might live if you didn’t,” to describe these simultaneous possibilities. The heart-breaking poem, “Phoenix, July 2011,” speaks to these parallel words as the poet fears seeing Christina-Taylor Green—the nine-year-old victim of a gun massacre—in those hours before her death:
Don’t let me see how
when the words finally get spoken
Christina-Taylor Green will nod yes yes yes
And before they go into town,
keep me from fully understanding
how they will feel
when, in this precise and unending moment
each will come to believe
the human heart is plain but it is not simple.
Seeing and re-visioning are the power and the hope in this collection. Roma-Deeley infuses the despair with a boldness. In “Materializing in Another Life,” she writes,
We won’t be poor.
I’ll be smart enough. Sister, you’ll be thin enough.
My heart won’t grind against itself, and
the landscape won’t erupt every time
we tremble with desire.
Images of rising and looking up recall prayer, “like a tornado sucking up trees, trucks, telephone poles, pigs/whole towns—you name it—/to be taken with certainty, not pity . . . .” The sun in the desert rich with “ocotillo/and cholla, jackrabbits and screech owls” stares down at the poet “like the unblinking eyes of God.”
For all the brokenness in life, Roma-Deeley exalts the every day, “Salt on the tongue. The way snakes moves through the open reaches of Iron Mountain.” The poems in this collection speak to our fear, and from our fear, the duality of hope and courage. As Lois Roma-Deeley writes, “In another time, I might have been/a goddess . . . . but now, I cower in the moonlight.” The power is found in the voice, “the purifying mouths.” The Short List of Certainties is a necessary book for our troubled and troubling times; it is a book that speaks to us with honesty and sorely-needed humanit
Via Incanto, Poems from the Darkroom, by Marisa Frasca, Bordighera Press, 2014
Review by Jennifer Martelli
In her poem, “Photo of Hunchback Woman on the Battlefield, “ Marisa Frasca writes:
Crossing Piazza Kalsa where Cala Bay once formed Palermo’s port,
the hunchback woman with cane hears the old joke: First thing
when you get home from work in the evening, give your wife a good
beating, you may not know why you’re hitting her, but she certainly does!
Violence against women, women transforming and assimilating, and the lush landscape of Sicily are captured by the lethal gaze of the “photographer God’s daughter.” In Via Incanto, Poems from the Darkroom, Marisa Frasca’s poems develop like photographs, displaying images with visceral heft. Listen and feel the description in “Sicilian Blood Oranges,” as the poet experiences color, emotion, and physical pain:
Every time I bled
I saw oranges
ripe Sicilian blood oranges
hit the ground
I kicked their teeth
until the blood
The father’s photographic genius—“fixing the deformed”—was passed down to the speaker who learned how to “erase/hand calluses, facial warts, aging lines—.” Photography is a means of capturing the tactile and emotional layers of the immigrant, the blended woman.
In her heart-breaking poem (with an Italian translation on the facing page), “When It Rained Red and Orange Petals,” Frasca writes
This is the last photograph of us in father’s studio:
Mother, Father, Aldo, me in angora sweater with Lurex thread.
Before the camera flashed I grabbed their hands,
hers close to my chest, his nearer my face. I would need that moment
before New York City, when I longed to climb skyscrapers . . . .
Part of me remained behind on that island of olives and plums running. . . .
. . . . where we were still one, and I belonged somewhere
Just as the speaker’s assimilation into America is captured in the photo, so is her transformation into a sexual, sensual woman. In “The Viewer’s Eyes,” Frasca describes a portrait in her father’s studio:
A lotus brooch in the middle of an artichoke hairdo, full lips
slightly parted; languid almost eyes said I’m a woman . . . .
I found my little
button as I stared at Vanda one afternoon while the family napped.
I knew not where Vanda ended and I began . . . .
As I read Via Incanto, I thought of the trinicria, Sicily’s symbol, formed by three bare legs bent, running, representing the three points of the island. Some say these are women’s legs, so beautiful, they take away one’s breath. Frasca’s feminine voice becomes this island nation, with its colors and fertility, its war and violence. The hub of the trinicria is the head of Medusa, the snake-haired Gorgon, a victim of rape, transformed into a monster. But, she is a monster with great power, strengthened by this violent transformation. The speaker, too, becomes Sicily, or is transformed by Sicily. In “Amore Muto,” Frasca writes
I’m Etna, pizza, mozzarella, mother’s heart.
Suck pain like your mother sucked marrow
from osso bucco . . . . stop
resisting the spent flame—tarantella,
mandolins, the pu ti pu
and Cavalleria Rusticana’s blood-feud.
Frasca’s use of Italian—side-by-side translations of the poems or a peppering of phrases within the poems—changes the depth and flavor. The poems sound different, more musical, exotic. This also illustrates the “hyphenated-woman,” the Italian-American. “She practices hard to lose her accent,” Frasca writes in “Yearning for the Lips of Others.” In “Transforming the I,” Frasca responds to both the sexuality and the shame of the Italian-American, or the Italian in America.
Guinea shame had passed. I was chic; I thickened
my accent, got drunk on men who followed my ass.
before retracing my steps to a crumbling Brooklyn tenement
lowering my head, hand over my mouth I entered
the old dark and narrow hallway of the immigrant.
Images of female sexuality and the ensuing violence are as integral to Via Incanto as Medusa’s rape was to her transformation. Frasca stares down the violence, petrifying it, turning it still as stone. In the horrific poem, “More Sicilian Sickness,” a snapshot-size poem depicting a forced clitoridectomy, the speaker
. . . . became gorgon Medusa
whose head of snakes aimed to turn the grand-bitch
to stone. She became an elder holding
my legs open for clitoral mutiliation, tossing
holy hood and labia to Dog God . . . .
The poems in Via Incanto are created in a darkroom, but develop within the gut, in the womb, and transform. Yes, “our culture wages an imbecile’s war on women,” but Frasca has captured that war within the boundaries of photographs rich with the colors, tastes, and sounds of Sicily on the tongue. Marisa Frasca, in her poem, “Aurora,” invokes this different goddess of sunrise when she asks:
And otherness comes down hard:
where have you been hiding
Dark feminine of the moon?
who is this I? Who is this you?
The poems of Via Incanto are radiant in their femininity, gathering strength by encompassing a deep, rich, plum-dark story as their own.
Paterson Light and Shadow, Maria Mazziotti Gillan and Mark Hillringhouse.
Reviewed by Jennifer Martelli
Black and white photography is a choreography of nuanced tone: the eye is drawn to the reflection of light, how it dances against the dark. Mark Hillringhouse’s photo, “Winter Falls,” depicts a cold, partially frozen river, barely mirroring the sky. The bare tree branches could be shadows. The falls, white-braided with deep gray, seem frozen in motion. The city–Paterson, New Jersey–is blurred in the background. It must be overcast or near nighttime: two white spots glow far away–headlights. I could be watching a movie frame at “Big Joey’s house . . . . on his father’s 16 mm projector” in Maria Mazziotti Gillan’s accompanying poem, “In the City of Dreams: Paterson, NJ.” Paterson Light and Shadow, a collaborative homage to a city rendered in Mazziotti Gillan’s honest, unflinching poems and Hillringhouse’s stark yet gentle black and white photography, never shies away from the shadows of an aging, working-class city populated by generations of immigrants. The artists contrast the shadowy shame of an old-country heritage with light that exalts the ordinary.
In Mazziotti Gillan’s poem, “17th Street: Paterson, New Jersey,” the speaker’s parents–who embody the Italian immigrant experience and all of its nobility and anachronism–become part of the photographic landscape. Mazziotti Gillan writes:
. . . . the open look on my father’s face, sparks flying from him in pleasure, my mother’s hand, delicate, the charm of those moments where I rested in the luminous circle of love.
Facing this prose poem is Hillringhouse’s “Passaic River Winter Tree Branches.” We are drawn to the center of the photograph–the center of the river–by a misty light. This is the deepest point of the river, where the light falls. Delicate and bare branches reach across the river, like arms.
Hillringhouse’s capturing of reflecting light–and of light reflecting–is probably best seen in his photographs “Bendix Diner,” which depicts the inside of a vintage diner: stainless steel appliances, spotless counter top, glass bricks. The sunlight shines on surfaces, walls, those strips of metal around the faux-leather counter stools. Through the frosted windows we can see bare tree branches. Mazziotti Gillan’s poem, “Jersey Diners,” speaks of this light, “ . . . . Looking back, I see our young faces/lit by the harsh diner lights.” This is a poem mourning the inevitable passage of time, employing similar light and shadow techniques:
the diners glowing only in memory, in all their tacky
glory, and we, our faces still untouched by grief and loss,
caught and framed in the diner’s windows.
The speaker’s parents embody the conflict of the first or second generation of immigrants: a love for this “protected/and safe” community and a deep shame. In her heart-breaking poem, “Daddy, We Called You,” Mazziotti Gillan addresses the contrast of both cultures. At home her father was “Papa//but outside again, you became Daddy.” Mazziotti Gillan’s poem, like a Hillringhouse photograph, uses light and shadow to convey an emotional depth, “Papa, how you glowed in company light,/when the other immigrants/came to you for health. . . .” The father remains illuminated, even as the daughter, embarrassed, denies him:
You were waiting for the bus, the streetlight illuminating your face. I pretended I did not see you, let my boyfriend pull away, leaving you . . . .I was ashamed to have my boyfriend see you, find out about your second shift work, your broken English.
The glowing circle the father creates in the home enables the poet the opportunity to find her voice. My favorite photograph is “Spruce Street Factory Warehouse with Figure.” Like an Escher drawing it demands study with its geometry and depth. A seemingly simple, flat face of an old building with dark paned windows, the drama plays out with the fire-escape zig-zagging up and down the facade. Or, is it the shadow of the fire escape? Which way do the stairs go? This factory, like the factories “Papa” and the millions of immigrants worked their second or third job, allowed the next generation a way out, an escape. The father’s stoic toil allowed the poet to bloom, “to go to college. . . .to absorb the feel of the city. . . .to carry the voice of the people, my people, in my head, to hear their stories, and save them to tell.”
Both artists display Paterson’s rich and reflective life, its voice. The frozen river in Hillringhouse’s opening photograph is thawed in the closing photo, “Passaic River from Lincoln Avenue Bridge.” The poet’s voice is like the water that surrounds Paterson Light and Shadow. “I hear these people who are so much a part of my life, their voices caught like music in my mind,” Mazziotti Gillan writes. The poems and photographs are constantly moving from light to dark, from stasis to movement, ice to water: “I had to cry a long time before I could learn to sing their songs, as my own.”
The Things a Body Might Become by Emari DiGiorgio
Reviewed by Jennifer Martelli
In her poem, “Too Small to Be an Amazonian,” Emari DiGiorgio writes
Oh, to be the busty, gun-slung
broad with enough mascara to match her ammo cache. Instead, a brow
creased with loss. A root system in the palm of my hand. My eyes: the
only rosary I carry.
Images of violence and trauma—suicide bombings, mass shooting—transform not only the geography of the world, but the landscape of the soul and the female body in DiGiorgio’s debut poetry collection, The Things a Body Might Become. The reader is confronted with global horror that demands, in return, violence, bravery, and finally, a sense of unity and home. We, along with the speaker, are changed by these experiences.
Women transform themselves as they vie for control and power in an unsafe world. The women wear their protection, become the weapon. In “Electric Lingerie” the speaker claims
Because studies show a rapist will grab
the bosom first. Here is a bra with enough juice
to jumpstart a Greyhound bus, a woman
who can stride the streets of Chennai with confidence.
This attempt at control is mirrored by the woman in “Close to the Edge” who “straps the bomb-purse beneath her Salwar/might believe her life a sacrifice, this death honorable.” Much like Jamie Sommers in the classic television series “The Bionic Woman,” the women in The Things a Body Might Become are hybrids: part female, part weapon or stone or hardened shell. All have been made stronger after trauma, which is the transformative agent. The voice of the mother of a Sandy Hook victim in “Firing Point” who wishes “to hold a gun in my hand . . . . until I empty the chamber between the eyes,” is echoed in the poem “Bullets,” by the woman who digests weapons and laments, “there are so many ways to eat ammunition./Hot bullets in honey.”
The speaker, too, is a hybrid: part modern-day American, part old-country Italian, “a woman in a man’s word, a mother // in a dangerous world.” The women in the speaker’s own family are presented as goddesses. Listen to the beauty of genetics in “Heirloom,” when the speaker describes her flinty lineage:
but the stone has slipped
beneath my skin. Here, above
the heart. The women in my family
must’ve inherited some magnet
in our mother’s wombs, the stones
shaping pyramids in our breasts.
An ancient aegis protects the speaker, her own heart “carved in relief, a cameo of Athena– / onyx chest-plate, narrowed eyes.” This protection will be passed down to the next generation, the speaker’s daughter:
the most painful kind of fearless, an ant who carries
a hundred times her weight in heft and grief.
She’ll want to be a princess even if she denies it
because she’s royalty, as all children are . . . .
As I was reading The Things a Body Might Become, I thought of Jorie Graham’s poem, “Hybrid of Plants and of Ghosts,” where she writes, “I understand that it is grafting, / this partnership of lost wills, common flowers.” DiGiorgio creates a magnificent “other” from the wounded, the powerless, and the women searching for healing and completeness.
By arranging the poems so they speak first to global tragedies, and then inexorably threading repeated images throughout the book, DiGiorgio distills the focus down into the home and creates a closed form: a circle. The roundness of oil heating in a pan in the opening poem, “Close to the Edge,” where the speaker ponders “Is it selfless or selfish to kamikaze, to hijack a 755,” re-appears in the last section of the book where the speaker prepares eggplant to “fry with olive oil.” The cameo is resurrected in the poem “When Emari DiGiori Vaccuums,” when the speaker remembers her grandmother’s cooking, “When Angela Ferrucci died,/the family parceled out the last sauce stacked under the basement // steps. These were her cameo brooches.” The egg the speaker rolls “close/to the edge” and who will “cradle it between my feet,” finds safety in one of the last poems, “Understanding Dear Alice’s Dilemma,” when the speaker states, “A bird in me has hatched.”
The Things a Body Might Become is a powerful collection: unrelenting in its imagery, lethal in its language. Emari DiGiorgio asks us, “When does a girl make a fist?” The voice in this collection is a fusion of experience, heart-breaking attempts at faith and power in a world that can break us all. DiGiorgio has written an important, timely book that exults the wounded. “Some are born/with God’s thumbnail in their wrist.” We feel that pulse pushing against the scarred, healed skin.