*Book Reviews

Things That Go Trump in the Night: Poems of Treason and Resistance

By Paul Fericano (Poems for All Press / Little City Press, 2019)

89 pp.

Review by George Guida

Things that go trump in the night

Paul Fericano is unwriting history, undoing it in different voices, the loudest of which belongs to Donald J. Trump. The others belong to Scotland, Cole Sear (the Haley Joel Osment character in The Sixth Sense), Frank Sinatra, Saint Paul, Army counsel Joseph Welch, Sir Walter Scott, the NRA, William Carlos Williams, the faux registrar at Trump University, Jared Kushner, Ezra Pound, Hamlet, the Stage Manager from Our Town, Bing Crosby, Huckleberry Finn, Henry Kissinger, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Fred Trump, and Dalton “Trumpo.” This cast of characters are the cultural memory behind Things That Go Trump in the Night, a bravura performance of various personae the poet possesses with the incubus of Forty-Five.

Fericano is known primarily as a humorist. Fringier than, say, Calvin Trillin, with sharper edges and fewer deadlines. One of twelve siblings, the native San Franciscan became in his teen years a Franciscan seminarian. His sexual abuse at the hands of a priest was part of the impetus for his career as a satirist, poet, and advocate for survivors of clergy sexual abuse.  The 1977 publication of Loading the Revolver with Real Bullets established him as a satirical poet to be reckoned with. In 1980 he founded the Yossarian Universal News Service, one of the first parody journalism outlets and still a going online concern. Two years later he staged a major literary hoax by awarding his own poem “Sinatra, Sinatra” the non-existent Howitzer Prize, an event announced in Poets & Writers. The poem appeared in Fericano’s second full collection,Commercial Break (1982), a broad-muzzled blast at the big target of American culture. After years of pursuing other projects, Fericano published his third and more focused collection, The Hollywood Catechism (2015). In many of its fifty-plus poems, he employs a thorough knowledge of Catholic ritual and American comedy, to poke at the bloated corpus of the American film and entertainment industry. While the collection contains at least two dozen well-wrought and acerbically funny poems, including the aforementioned “Sinatra, Sinatra,” along with “The Actor’s Creed,” “Stoogism,” and “Joe DiMaggio Explains Where He Has Gone,” its centerpiece is the wildly inventive parody, “Howl of Lon Chaney, Jr, which opens,

I heard the best lines of my creation butchered by pretenders,  

                       slap-dashed mangled stepped-on,

           screeching themselves through the tortured takes at night

                       looking for an absent cue,

           improvised words with phony accents in forgotten films

                       chewing scenery cold print on unfinished scripts

                       scribbled on distressed pages

           defamed by rank producers, third-rate moguls, two-bit hams

                       with unfiltered burns on yak-hair fingers waiting for

                       that quick take sound stage opening night premiere

The poem’s bounty of snark-tinged humor and pathos surpasses, for example, Amy Newman’s “Howl” parody, published the same year inPoetry. The Hollywood Catechism rightly received generous critical attention, and laid the foundation, in its diversity of voices and relentless satire, for this latest collection of “poems of treason and resistance.”

Things That Go Trump in the Night features several poems reminiscent of the classic “Sinatra, Sinatra,” including “The Rules of Play” and “The NRA Reminds You to Defend the Second Amendment.” Both poems transform the Presidential Brand’s name into either a series of meaningless principles and practices or into a deadly weapon. The first poem is a lengthy explanation of a game that is no game at all, in which

a player who can’t follow trump

must trump even when they have no trump

except when trump becomes the lead

and in which, finally,

           a winner is declared after a non-trump lead

           has already been trumped,

           or when a non-trump can’t beat the trump

           that is currently stealing the trick

           or signing the executive order

In the second poem, the speaker reminds us to

  1. Treat every loaded Trump as if it were empty.
  2. Always point your Trump at anyone

               you plan to intimidate.

  1. Keep your Trump cocked and ready

               for any crisis you create.

  1. Sleep with your Trump at all times.
  2. Trumps don’t kill. People do.

In seven well-measured lines, Fericano exposes both the hypocritical NRA language of safety regulation and the actual dangers of the President who has mined their extremism for political gain.

Brevity belies the Chief’s witless, rambling soul in “Characteristics and Examples of a Trump Haiku.” Among its seven vanity-driven rules are “a three-line format with 11 syllables / arranged in a 9-1-1 pattern” and “a focus on some aspect of self-importance, / ignorance or television.” One can imagine literally thousands of haiku hewing to this prescription, but here’s just one:

           Wow! The sky is raining rockets! Made

           you

           look!

Both “Trump Haiku” and “NRA” are of course literally formulaic, but other poems are more discursive and impressive in how they infuse Trump’s consciousness into the voices of religious figures, entertainment icons, literary characters, politicos, writers, and Trump as Robert Kennedy.

           “Saint Paul Stumps for Trump Before Being Stoned by the Corinthians,” refocuses the apostle’s First Epistle to the Corinthians from Christ to Trump; from love, hope, and faith to ego, vice, and deceit. In the new fifth verse, the speaker asks,

What if he could reinvent his words

and reshape all reality?

What if he could do these things

while his people are encouraged

to gaze elsewhere?

Look at the grouse! Look at the grouse!

Here Fericano makes Trump an avatar of one of his poetic obsessions, the Three Stooges, particularly Curly, offering two implied metaphors (buffoonery and baldness) for the price of one allusion.

But Fericano’s Trump is as comically tragic as he is tragically comic, as in “The Tragedy of MacTrump.” The aging Executive Ladykiller laments:

           Too few, and too few, and too few,

           Beauties on runways from teen to twenty,

           To the first groping of unabashed sin,

           And all my offenses have darkened dolts

           The path to stormy depth. Up, up, limp pecker!

Trump’s depravity haunts Shakespeare’s anti-hero as Hitler’s legacy haunts Fericano’s Huckleberry Trump, who insists, “You don’t know about me unless you’ve read a book by the name of Mein Kampf.

           The spirit of America’s Führer stalks these pages and deranges characters the way that the real Man Who Cried Fake News has deranged American consciousness, an alteration captured in Fericano’s “Trump of Allegiance”–which he can’t help but translate into fake German (“Dummkoff Von Allegiancestein”) and Russian (“Durak Iz Allegianceki”).

                       I trump allegiance to the swag

                       of the Norman Bates of America,

                       and to the Republicans who wear armbands,

                       one witch hunt utter fraud, inadmissible,

                       with collusion and pussy for all.

A certain brand of conservative will find neither Fericano’s satire nor this review especially amusing or useful, though he may still find himself agreeing with the Leader of the Free World’s perpetual stump speech and this poet’s tour-de-force of mockery, “The Secret Plot to Kill Trump.” It’s there that the President’s persona reminds us, “if things go poorly / you can blame the Democrats for that. / They don’t want a wall.” This is the Trump of Hart Seeley’s The Bard of the Deal, a 2015 collection of assemblage poems culled from the Master Propagandist’s own language. He knows that “one drug dealer will kill millions of people / and we don’t even try to kill them back.” He knows, too, that

                       i can shoot myself in the head

                       and i wouldn’t die

                       i wouldn’t die because

                       i can’t be killed okay?

                       i can’t kill me and you can’t kill me

                       it’s incredible

                       it’s incredible

                       it’s like really incredible

                       and everyone knows it’s true

Here and elsewhere in this collection lies Fericano’s overwhelming question about the Current Occupant: Does this all sound funny to you?

***

Santa Lucia by Michelle Damiani (Charlottesville: Rialto Press, 2017)

254 pp.

Review by Theodora D. Patrona  

Santa lucia book cover

On her personal site, Michelle Damiani, clinical psychologist and author of three books, describes her 354-page-novel Santa Lucia as “the literary love-child of espresso and a telenovela—full of romance, suspense, mystery, betrayal, and seduction, told in dialogue-filled narration.” Confirming the author’s dexterity with words, this contemporary novel on life in an Italian village on the border of Umbria and Le Marche is exactly that: strong like espresso and intriguing and fast like a telenovela.

Following the author, the book is based on the year she and her family spent in Italy, living among the locals in a traditional village, an experience she records in her memoir Il Bel Centro. The setting of the hillside village, the olive groves and the castle, the picturesque narrow streets, the fading summer, all compose an idealistic image of the Italian countryside, a place any reader would love to be. It is, indeed, a place Damiani easily places them in with the power of her writing. What is more, the author weaves together diverse stories of drama, suspense and, even, trauma that keep her readership on its toes, just like watching a telenovela: there is the coffee shop owner who has a sympathetic ear for everyone, but whose husband is in prison, and there is also her gay nephew who suppresses his sexuality within the confines of the small community; there is the Mayor and his neglected wife who is cheating on him, and the school teacher whose daughter’s mysterious drowning in the Adriatic Sea while she was pregnant with her second child traumatizes him to the point of becoming an alcoholic; there is the girl with learning disabilities who is bullied at school and befriends a smart immigrant girl from Morocco whom most people regard with suspicion. And the list goes on and on.

With a wide range of heroes and heroines of diverse ages as well as a complicated web of stories, Damiani’s tales of life in Santa Lucia is fresh and catchy. Unfortunately, this is a narrative that is left inconclusive, since as the author reveals at the end this is the first of a series of novels. Damiani’s themes of multiculturalism with references to immigrants from Africa, the racism they face by some of the residents, and terrorist attacks, as well as the inclusion of numerous topics of interest, like accepting one’s sexuality, adoption, domestic abuse, bullying and learning difficulties bring out an aroma of contemporary life in Italy. However, if one has to use two metaphors, and successful ones too, between one’s writing and something you drink or watch would those two be espresso and a telenovela?

In other words, time and patience are two elements that seem to be missing from the ingredients of this first attempt. Damiani’s background and life experience, as well as her obvious writing skills — admittedly, this is a book you do not want to put down — could have been exploited differently. To begin with, the fact that the story is open-ended, promising a sequel, is indeed a disappointment, to say the least. Opting for a psychological film, and not a telenovela, the author could focus on fewer themes and work on complexity with persistence and patience. Less characters created by a clinical psychologist with a flair for words would provide more depth; the protagonists’ strengths and weaknesses could trigger the readers’ critical abilities as to the chiaroscuro of the former’s thoughts, feelings and motives of their actions. And this is definitely something that calls for an old Italian wine to mull things over and not a quick cup of espresso.

***

Images of America: Italians of Brooklyn by Marianna Biazzo Randazzo (Charleston: Arcadia Publishing, 2018)

128 pp.

Review by Stephanie Longo

Brooklyn Italians

For this reviewer, the name “Brooklyn” conjures up images of the stunning bridge that connects it to Manhattan, as well as the oh-so-macho Tony Manero strutting his stuff through the borough’s streets during the opening scenes of “Saturday Night Fever.” In “Images of America: Italians of Brooklyn,” author Marianna Biazzo Randazzo takes the Brooklyn of popular mythology and brings it back to the populace.

In this brief glimpse into Italian life in the borough, Ms. Randazzo takes readers on a journey through its streets as if they were witnessing first-hand a typical day for any borough resident of Italian origin. We see church life, civic life, and everything in-between. We learn the heartbreaking stories of those who were lost due to war, as well as the triumphant stories of those who rose up from the depths of adversity to open– or save– a family business. We discover how so many Italian-American organizations have had origins in Brooklyn and we see how, even though the book is about the Italians of Brooklyn, that if you take ethnicity out of the question, these stories could be applicable to anyone at any time.

This book is particularly useful as a keepsake gift for someone originally from Brooklyn who lived during the time (1940s-1960s) when many of the photos included were taken. In fact, this reviewer plans on surprising a friend who often speaks of his Italian-American upbringing in Brooklyn with a copy.

In a time when history is often lost to the annals of time, this book helps places and faces who would have otherwise been forgotten come alive again– the smiles of the people pictured in its pages shine of life, a life fully lived and a live deserving of remembrance. This book ensures that the Italians of Brooklyn, although their population may be dwindling, will be fully remembered as an ethnic group that injected life and soul into the life of the borough.

***

Dead Reckoning: Transatlantic Passages on Europe & America

By Andrei Guruianu and Anthony Di Renzo (Excelsior Editions, 2016)

232 pp.

Review by Christina Marrocco

Dead Reckoning

“Consider it a log from two immigrant writers, a poet and an essayist, marooned in the doldrums between the Old and the New Worlds,” is what Guruianu and Di Renzo instruct the reader opening the first pages of Dead Reckoning. Indeed, the unusual format that follows can best be understood as a log, but it is so much more than that—layered with past, present, future, mind, body, emotion.  

In their highly creative work dedicated to Milan Kundera, “who made beauty and laughter out of exile,” the essayist and the poet weave together their common and individual understandings, concepts, and languages in such a way as to create what feels like a sea of whitecaps in the doldrums they describe.

The book is divided into ten sections with great care, each of which includes clusters by one writer followed by a single piece by the next and bookended by another cluster. This format repeats and yet shifts slightly throughout—never becoming static—again wavelike.  Within the sections, the writers move among topics seen through the telescopic (and microscopic) lens of transatlantic passages—the traumas that push emigrants from their homes and countries, the strong-men often at the root of crises, the loss of home, the powers and weaknesses of language, attempts at return, the character of the cities, the group and individual mythologies, and the way everything must and will break—and yet partly remain. The voice and work of each writer is highly individual, containing unexpected and delightful turns and observations, and yet it always keeps a strain of dual harmony and of the universal. Similarly, it manages to be academic and accessible at the same time—speaking to, for, and with every level of status and experience.

Guruianu and Di Renzo’s arrangement and content exemplify duality (the very nature of straddling cultures) and so the reader will not only engage with poetry and prose simultaneously, but also with Romania and Italy, intellect and emotion, myth and history, here and there—all at once—and yet clearly met, explored, and kept cohesive. The poetry is both concrete and free moving; the essays tied complexly to time and time out of time as well as places of possibility. DiRenzo’s essays that engage with the mythologies and realities of Berlusconi, Mussolini, Nero, Nietzsche are particularly emblematic of the intricate work this collection does, as are the body-felt images and knowing Guruianu lifts up like gifts for readers to live.

In creating connection to massive arenas of thought, the work set with the voices, theories, and worries of philosophers and writers as a path might be strewn with precious gems—if one were lucky. The persons, the thoughts— and the existential and corporeal pain— of the likes of Nietzsche, Heidegger, Pirandello, and Rilke and others appear naturally, with clear and revitalized meaning, but always in service of the exploration of the spaces between the new and old worlds.

This is a collection readers will savor on first read and a collection they will return to many times after. When they do, they will find new spaces, new contexts, new realizations. It’s a log of the realities and the post-memory of immigration and human migration written with true craft, intelligence, and sensitivity. Dead Reckoning is living writing of great importance and great beauty.

  ***

 

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