*Book Reviews

The Psyche Trials, Stephanie Laterza, (Finishing Line Press, 2019)

Review by Jennifer Colella

In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the union of the soul (“breath of life”) and love is depicted in the story of Psyche and Eros (Cupid). This is a story of overcoming obstacles in love, but even more, of the friction between the amorphous/interior and the erotic/physical. Stephanie Laterza’s The Psyche Trials is a celebration of this friction, written in the voice of a woman in love, both disparate and hungry. The speaker—Psyche—tells us in “The Day Before Valentine’s Day,” that

 

I once loved a man

born on Valentine’s Day.

He was the only one.

 

This voice, at times mythical, at times grounded in a contemporary world of restaurants and “red” comforters, is a voice that yearns to the point of being erased or disintegrated by this hunger. The speaker is often contrasted with the physicality of the other. In “Eros,” the Psyche claims 

 

I fold myself like a flattened rose

between your palms

 

because now

words don’t come as often

because you have

found me as I have become, without history

it seems you have always been

feeding me water from your mouth . . . .

 

This disappearing or coming apart is often described as the residue of burning. In the wake of the lover’s infidelity, she states

 

My solace

is the good chance she’ll disintegrate too

like diesel clouds before

the cold bone moon.

 

The body—the physical—falls “to ashes” in The Psyche Trials. Laterzaa returns to these images of smoke, whether in form of cigarette ash, or as in “In the Room,” a burning candle which

 

He promised nothing 

more than black smoke scented with vanilla

as an afterthought.

 

Embers sit on the windowsill,

filled with enough love to burn

another time. 

 

Psyche, while existing as an abstraction, manifests her love as hunger. Laterza superbly describes the physical tension inherent in the joining of the soul and love in physical terms. Food—the most primal satisfaction—is used sensually. In “Walking Around Cambridge,” Psyche reminisces

 

I walk to the window

of the Ethiopian restaurant

where we once loved

to feed each other

inside, our fingers warm with injera,

tender sheets to gather sweet

spiced meat . . . .

 

I loved how the poet underscored this uneasy communion of physical and soulful in her food poems with lineation. Look at the line “where we once loved.” This works on two levels, with duple meanings: where we once were in love, or with the enjambment “to feed each other.” Laterza does this again in “Cherimoya Heart,” using the hyphen at the line break to play with meaning.

When it’s time to eat my heart-

shaped cherimoya, custard apple,

like Eve, like Musetta . . . .

 

The twining of meanings reflects the twining of the lovers, Psyche and Eros. “I mistook your arm for my thigh,” Psyche claims, “The way we were crossed.” This tangling, though, is charged and bloody—violent at times. 

 

From the full and hollow inside

of the mind I watch electric veins

stretch to make red skies,

connecting my lips to your eyes. 

 

Stephanie Laterza has taken the voice of an ancient myth, and like Marie Howe’s Magdalene, brought her into our world. Psyche’s experience becomes a contemporary, a universal experience. In the myth, Psyche—the soul—is made immortal. In her poetry collection, Laterza allows Psyche development—a metamorphoses—into a knowing voice. “I read the static better now,” Psyche tells us. The Psyche Trials is a physical collection as well as a soulful one, at times painful as only love can be, “having scraped too close to the skin.” Stephanie Laterza deciphers the story, like an oracle, divining 

the purple and orange dust 

particles for where I think lovers go

when they go.

 

The Routledge History of Italian Americans, ed. William J. Connell and Stanislao G. Pugliese

(Routledge, 2018)

Review by Michelle Messina Reale

If you want to read the history of a people , it is best that that history is written by those very people, themselves..  The Routledge History of Italian Americans is a thick volume of that covers all of the expected aspects of Italian-American history  and then some.

Edited by William J. Connell and Stanislao G. Pugliese, the contributor’s are , in most cases, Italian and Italian-American and are predominantly academics, but also include independent scholars, a journalist and a crime expert, as well. William J. Connell provides the Introduction with “The Triumphant 1980’s” , which he proclaims as a time that Italian Americans finally “made it,” and works his way, after a fashion,  backwards, touching on many different aspects of Italian American culture. He urges the reader to look for aspects within the chapters that follow “the contours of an underlying Italianità.”  The introduction is a hefty segue into even heftier and meatier chapters that virtually leave no stone unturned. 

The book is divided into three parts: Explorations and Foundations,  The Great Migration and Creating Little Italies and Becoming American and Contesting America.  One of the great strengths of this volume (and there are many) is that the history is written not as  hagiography or nostalgia as so much writing about Italian Americans tends to be, but is an honest , unflinching and critical look at the life, the lives’, realities and controversies of Italian Americans, right from the very beginning.   While it took me quite some time to get through the entire book (this is a volume to be savored over time), a final and complete picture, a new sort of reality emerges at the end. While there are proud moments of struggle and innovation, there are, too, the realities of prejudice, racism, violence, and other vagaries of being aliens in a new land that Italians who became Italian Americans perpetrated among others.   This is a 360 view of the life of a people, without distortion, without misguided sentimentality, without grease over the lens. There , too, is the documentation of the many contributions to music, sports, and film, too, that provide a richer and more gratifying view of Italian Americans, long the victim of  being perceived as anti-intellectual and clannish. Organized crime is treated in one chapter, exemplifying the fact  that it  is a mere aspect of our culture, not the umbrella under which every other sits. 

The writing is strong ,  well documented and sourced and the topics germane, interesting and relevant.   There are color plates included and , as well, a poignant and gut-wrenching photo essay that shows Italian American life through history , will all of its attendant triumph and pain.   To say that this volume is a contribution to Italian American studies is severe understatement. I would go as far to say that any self-respecting Italian American should have this in their home to share and discuss with their family. Italian Studies programs across the country and abroad would not be complete without this contribution.  Stanislao Pugliese, Professor of Modern European History and the Queensboro UNICO Distinguished Professor of Italian and Italian American Studies at Hofstra University provides the conclusion titled “The Future of Our Past,” which, helpfully, provides a conceptual and philosophical way forward. The quote he uses at the beginning of the conclusion is by Lawrence DiStasi: “We didn’t know what we didn’t know.”  It is so  apt. But after perusing this volume and spending time with it, you will begin to know and understand what you didn’t before.

 

Ill Angels by Dante Di Stefano (Etruscan Press, 2019)

Review by Brian Fanelli

Since 2016, it’s been impossible to tune out the news. Ill Angels, Dante Di Stefano’s second full-length collection of poems, is a post-2016 book, but one that never mentions Donald Trump by name. There is a poem titled “The 45th” and poems written shortly before and after the election, but Di Stefano was wise to keep Trump’s name from the pages. By doing so, he ensured that the poems do not become dated long after this period in history is over. Furthermore, while some of the poems may be a reaction to the current tumultuous historical moment, the collection’s broader themes, especially its praise of American poets and musicians, and its fundamental belief in love, will resonate long after this chapter in our history concludes.

At its core, Ill Angels offers a premise that the best anecdote to our current upheaval is faith in art, love, and family. Several of the poems are praise songs to American musicians, including John Coltrane and Bob Dylan; American poets, such as Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks; and the poet’s family, especially his wife and, at the time, his unborn daughter. These elements merge throughout the collection to create an America of art, love, and diversity, a song that is a contrast to political divisions and tumult. As a high school English teacher, Di Stefano also places hope in his students, as illustrated in “National Poetry Month, 2017.” The speaker admits in the second and third stanzas, “We teachers are supposed to say / keep climbing, rocket higher, clamber up, / knock loose the shade of your misconceptions, / but some days it’s hard not to dwell in / the knuckles’ ache of whatever bad news / unfolds and flits and flits from screen to screen,” but in the concluding stanzas, the speaker envisions a better world that he’d like to build with his students.

Some days, children, I want to build with you

 

a world less rickety, spinning slower,

jagged and pinkish at the horizon,

ricocheted with uncompromised shining,

an orchard inside a seed the wind clips out

 

into the heart of the heart of a field,

which is the endless golden field inside

your own wild, shrewd, dubious, strange, greening

teenage hearts and lungs exhaling amen,

 

and blessing me now in my middle age.

As gorgeously unseen as the new moon,

we’ll sing from the apple’s interior;

together, children, we’ll choir these bones.

Other poems share a similar type of optimism and faith in younger generations. In the short narrative poem, “My Goddaughter Chews Happiness,” the speaker recounts watching his Goddaughter chew a corner of the book Happiness by Thich Nhat Hahn. This memory is distilled into a moment of beauty and promise, as the speaker says that his goddaughter is “happiness, her face a petal of good / birdsong and sunlight,” before concluding, “Dear Mae, I hope that you / forever hold happiness in this way, / effortlessly on the tip of your tongue.” Like in “National Poetry Month, 2017,” Di Stefano constructs an imagery of nature/new life when talking about children and younger generations, comparing the teenage hearts of high school students to a type of green and comparing Mae to a birdsong and sunlight. This is a contrast to the rampant consumerism that Di Stefano depicts in some of his other poems.

For instance, in “Preamble,” which is dated Nov. 9, 2016, the day after the 2016 election, the speaker presents a broad criticism of American culture, namely rampant consumerism and hot-button political issues.

We transubstantiate Starbucks dark roast.

We praise tailgate, waterboard, and pigskin.

We verdict ourselves with our silences.

Soon we extreme vet. We build border walls.

We speak in the language of cash receipts.

Our mothers keep busy voting tyrant;

they apple organic and threaten

a riot of unity and flowers.

We conceal carry. We temporary

permit below the bright November stars.

We open container on clear evenings.

We unborn and overregulated. 

We late term abort our own liberties.

The poem, written in the style and rhythm of Brooks’ “We Real Cool,” especially the enjambment, presents a general overview the darker underbelly of America, and like Brooks’ poem, which ends with the line, “We / die soon,” Di Stefano’s “Preamble” contains the type of pessimism that reflects the date the poem was written. However, the book’s three concluding poems all reference important figures in American literature and music, including Langston Hughes, John Coltrane, and David Ignatow, and all are poems addressed to the speaker’s unborn daughter, expressing love to her and sharing with her some of the best aspects of American culture and history. In “Reading Langston Hughes to Our Unborn Child,” Di Stefano adopts some of the imagery of one of Hughes’ most famous poems, “The Negro Speakers of Rivers,” and in doing so, he again praises family, writing in the opening lines,

There is a Tigris in you, little one,

and an infinite Euphrates running

through your mother. We are rowing now

in ancient dark, in big boats, toward

each other. The thought of you already

baptizes me again. I am upheld

in you. You are floating in an ocean

of cells you will soon constellate for us.

Ill Angels is a collection that finds inspiration in domestic, everyday moments, including a wife listening to Nina Simone or walking the family dog and appreciating an animal’s ability to enjoy an hour outside. Di Stefano’s poems are a love letter to American culture and history, including jazz, hip-hop, and poetry. The poet reminds us that this rich history, coupled with faith and love in each other, just may uplift us during these divisive times. 

 

Wild Fennel, Poems and Other Stories by Marisa Frasca (Bordighera Press, 2019)

Review by Jennifer Martelli

 

         In her poem “Beneath the Castle’s Vault,” Marisa Frasca writes 

 

         We lived & breathed Greek myths

         our barely literate mothers recited at bedtime

         & we learned the anguish of the human world.

Frasca’s latest collection, Wild Fennel, is a blending of worlds and of words. Using poetry and prose—memoir, creative nonfiction, and epistle to her childhood friend, Anna — Frasca weaves the story of ancient gods and goddesses with Italian singers and poets; the Sicilian landscape with the American; and the speaker’s own story of migration and displacement with our political humanitarian crisis. “Where is home for the immigrant?” Frasca asks in her prose piece, “In My Hometown,” where she re-enters “Italy as a tourist & will enter America as an alien with papers.” In a collection where the political becomes the personal, we are shown the heart of the immigrant, whose language and instincts are in a state of flux, never “done with your transformations.”

The old gods of Italy are conjured in all their enormity. In the opening hybrid piece, “Gather Round the Brass Brazier, Frasca recounts

When I felt a belt tightening around the chest for a hundred reasons I remember a woman who offered relief when Etna made the earth quake beneath my feet & I carried shocks & aftershocks like a second skin ….

         There’s a god trapped underneath the mountain. His seed

         of anger rises to destroy.

Mythological figures lace this collection, underscoring the struggle between worlds — divine and profane, ancient and modern, godless and Godly, male and female. A homeless man sleeps between the statues of Patience and Virtue; the speaker is infantilized by “the god of wine.” Frasca claims poetry as “Poesia” — a feminine world. Frasca elevates the women of Italy — the poets and the singers, deifying sound and emotion. In her homage to Rosa Balistreri, “Of Rose I Sing,” Frasca writes

 

         In savage voice, mourner’s wail

         sing Sicily’s mystery & misfortune

         Her magnificence & courage

         So full yet frayed so thin

         Rose, you all these things

         Iconic tunes of gloom & rapture

 

         After 20 years in exile

         Rose you’re home to rest your bones

 

         Of rose I sing across time & ocean 

In these poems of worship, Frasca acknowledges the danger of their female body, but also claims it, empowering the women, weaponizing them. In a short creative nonfiction piece, “Catarina Sagurana,” she recounts how the washerwoman, to frighten solders, “…. squatted — did her thing — wiped, & flung the soiled flag in their direction. This so repulsed the men’s sense of decency, they fled.” In her letter to Anna — a best friend left behind to die in Sicily — Frasca writes, “The western world, but not exclusively, has always been at war with its women.” The migration to America is a story of an uneasy assimilation. The speaker carries a burlap sack full of seeds from Italy, “red clover & white clover/& yellow chicory flowers & mock olive” to plant along The Mall, “far as the Lincoln Memorial.” I pictured the goddess Ceres walking through Washington, D.C., tall as the Washington Monument!  

Frasca eschews nuance in her poems that deal directly with her flight from Italy and the crimes against migrants committed today. I am in awe of her poem, “When We Were the Other,” which includes the dedication, “For my Italian American friends wearing MAGA hats. This is the voice of your forefather, my forefather. He was a young man then.” The poem recounts the 1891 lunching of Italian men, “a villainous looking set,” in New Orleans. The horrific and iconic image of Alan Kurdî, the little Syrian boy drowned and washed up on the beach, is a reminder—and a recrimination — of the desperation of those fleeing, climbing into “the boat of hope.” In the speaker’s nightmares about ICE, in her dreams of Anna who says, “We’re all here because — nowhere else to go,” Frasca displays a justified dismay with this country and with her own Italian-American community. In “Ode to Wild Fennel,” Frasca admits that she does “struggle like hell to be merciful,” and that

         I could speak a well of anger

         about new wars, border walls, & how

         the clock is moving

         between one breath & another for all of us.

As I was reading Wild Fennel, I listened to versions of the Italian anti-Fascist song, “Bella Ciao.” I was reminded of it by the poem “Le Mondine,” and those “Angels of bitter rice . . . . mothers of labor laws & human rights.” Marisa Frasca’s collection is massive in its reach from Italy to America; in its emotional confrontation of the cruelty of our practices here; and in its voice, both that of a woman and of the immigrant. Recollecting sculptures of Apollo and his Muse by her school in Sicily, Frasca laments, “. . . . I dwell in ambiguity, as the heart hungers for beauty. . . .” This is a book of our time, an American book, with all its ugly truths, with all its languages. Marisa Frasca has written an account of our world: fraught, heart-breaking, breath-taking. In the end, she asks us, the readers and witnesses, to

 

         Let me translate how some days

         we live with a dual purpose

         & in two words at once.

         Some days loss is nowhere in sight. 

 

Talk by Matthew M. Cariello

(Bordighera Press, Winner of the Lauria/Frasca Poetry Prize, Bordighera Press, 2019)

 

Review by Jennifer Martelli

John 1:1 of the King James Bible opens with “In the beginning was the word.” The chapter continues, “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.” As I read Matthew M. Cariello’s collection, Talk, winner of the Bordighera Press Laura/Frasca Poetry Prize, I was struck by the worshipful space the poet creates for “the word.”  From the opening poem, “The Window,” Cariello encompasses all the aspects of talk, sound, and silence.

         Then I knew one word,

         birthright’s rudiment

 

         uttered in hunger’s warm room.

 

//

 

         beyond that open frame—

         before that

 

         there was no window.

         And my word was gone.

In Talk, sound and hunger reflect both their physical and spiritual aspects; the speaker needs both to live in a world defined, at times, by unbearable loss. These definitions limn an existence, but they are malleable boundaries, porous. Both sound and hunger become a type of longing. In “Stone Man,” the speaker meditates on “an Inuit figure,” claiming 

         My unbroken form

         is a solid longing

         for your love.

         I am the echo

         of your mortality,

         while you live,

         I will flourish.

         When you die,

         I will grow silent.

         Cariello uses food and the mechanics of eating throughout Talk as a way to define existence, a life. In “The Fig Tree in my Grandfather’s Voice,” the voice states, “I know who I am./I sit and drink wine.” In “A Bulb of Garlic,” the act of peeling cloves of garlic as a way to an inner self is described almost as a meditation,

         Patient and self-satisfied

         (a rudiment of appetite),

         it talks in the mouth:

         Clove by clove you take me

         down to my green pith.

         I settle in your heart’s blood.

Cariello blurs the boundaries — the definitions — of things by giving them voices as well as poetry. The child in “First Job” tears into books; he actually eats words the way he eats plums:

         The first I’d eat walking

         bitter snapping skin sticking

 

         on my palate. At the warehouse,

         I’d peel covers from books,

         half tear them through. 

The poem “Delicatessen” is an intricate layering (dare I say, a lasagna) of both sounds and food. The delicacies speak, and the son can listen “to their syntax, broke-in my tongue.” Cariello’s stacking of the Italian meats — their flowery sounds — serves as a prayer; the father emerges following the incantatory

         Cappicola, mortadella, provolone. . .

         I saw the names, and saw them as if,

         figured from hunger, they met

         the teeth and told them what to do:

         prosciutto, pastrami, Kalamata, calamari.

There is a weariness, but also a love, for the things that define us in Talk. Cariello is constantly questioning — redefining, describing — existence through sound and articulation, but also through silence. In his five-part poem, “The Birds at Nesequagh,” the speakers are birds, each claiming their space around words, “They coo and croon/outside the library window,” and around life, “I don’t believe I will die./I don’t believe I will die.” The speaker, too, as a child, clung to the window and to description when the mother would “ask me to say what I saw.” But, there is the specter of silence. In “The Boy and the Tree,” the boy is sorry “… for all his leaving/things unsaid, losing things, his sleeping.” This dissolution of “talk” is a type of death, literal and emotional. In the heart-breaking poem, “Orientation,” which describes the death of a daughter — the cruelest disorientation — the speaker observes 

         They weren’t my hands that traced

         the curves of her quiet body,

 

         just a little sign of life left

         around the bend of her lips….

In Cariello’s poem, “My Mother at the Edge of Trees,” the mother sits in “the season/called silence,” while “she watches for her father/who lost his voice, his sense….” The pall of silence in these poems is powerful; they are stark contrasts to all the voices woven throughout Talk. As a reader, I felt the dissonance when the poet implores, “Don’t disappear,” but still remains “in chilly silence/until only the moon remains.”

I heard Biblical echoes again — Matthew 16:26 (“What will it profit a man. . .”) as well as 1 Corinthians 13:1 (“I am but a. . .resounding cymbal, a clanging gong) — when Cariello asks,

         If I speak in the bell’s mouth,

                     break remaining sound,

                                 what’s left to hold?

Talk is a masterful collection celebrating — honoring — the “small stories we invent.” Matthew M. Cariello’s world is a rich one, a loud one filled with stories, food, books, love, and grief. But it’s a world filled with a holy silence that is stunning. A book well-grounded in this world, and in the world of the heart, I will return again and again to Talk, where the word is made flesh. This is a collection that honors the sounds of a life, anticipates its own voice, telling us:

         the human aroma

         to rise in the kitchen.

         And then you sing. 

 

An Ocean, An Airplane, and Two Countries Full of Kisses by Maria A. Novajosky (Lulu Press, 2018)An Ocean, an Airplane, and Two Countries Full of Kisses

Review by Stephanie Longo

It’s in their infinite wisdom that our elders live on. Maria A. Noajosky’s An Ocean, An Airplane, and Two Countries Full of Kisses introduces us to an Italian grandmother, the book’s “Nonna,” in all of her glory.

This slim volume is Novajosky’s love letter to her late grandmother, told through various vignettes. Nonna is a loving, kind woman, who finds it hard to be separated from her family by an ocean and an airplane, but who never hesitates to send her love across the miles through letters and presents.

As readers are taken on a trip back through Novajosky’s life as a child in Verona through her family’s move to the United States and her own marriage and motherhood, they see how Nonna’s wisdom has followed her. She writes about what it is like to be a new girl in a new school and how her ability to draw on her grandmother’s example helped her create an identity all her own– not quite Italian, not quite American, but all Maria.

Novajosky also invites readers into Nonna’s world through snippets from actual letters from the woman herself– whether she’s admonishing her family to take care of themselves so they don’t get sick or dispensing epistolary advice, Nonna is always present, always keeping watch over those she loves.

I did not know my maternal (Italian) grandparents, as both passed away before I was born. The closest relative I had to an Italian Nonna was my late Aunt Jennie– like the Nonna in this book, she was always ready to laugh with you or offer you her shoulder to cry on– or teach you how to make pasta or pizzelle. It is this commonality that is the most striking aspect of this book– almost everyone has a beloved family elder that has since passed on who could be represented by Nonna’s example, demonstrating just how important family is in Italian American life.An Ocean, An Airplane, and Two Countries Full of Kisses serves as a reminder to love and respect our elders while they are still with us and, when the sad day of separation comes, to honor their lives by holding their lessons close to our hearts.

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