Matthew Cariello

Matthew Cariello

Illustration by Pat Messina Singer


The Window

(Union City, NJ, 1961)


Then I knew one word,

birthright’s rudiment


uttered in hunger’s warm room.

The sense of me without sense


in total dark, alone.

I would have finished life then,


perfectly happy, but

the room collapsed


and by morning I saw

I lay among the trees


beyond the open frame —

before that


there was no window.

And my word was gone.


Something came creeping

through the burnished leaves —


not me, not hunger, not milk,

not sleep, not warmth.


And I named the thing

the name it gave itself,


the sound it made

just being there,


heard it first time

clear as another’s word.


Deep in the branches of morning,

the memory of birds calling.



When she found me clinging

to the screen two stories up,


my mother would swallow her panic,

hold my shoulders tight,


and ask me to say what I saw.

If I knew no names, she pointed


and named for me. And so articulation

was folded in words my mother


first spoke near my face.

Hedge ivy bricks chestnut


alleyway gate trees bucket.

That was them that was the word.


The word was that that was them.

Yet an invisible counterlife


chattered in my ear as she spoke.

Car yes, but car running,


clothesline’s cry, dog’s cough,

sparrows dancing in the ivy.


I heard in rain the downspout’s talk,

traffic lights were trading colors,


birds held up the shining wires,

the hedge was a broken green wall,


cats crept down the alley singing . . .



Late afternoons

when the backyard cement


was half in shadow, half

in sun, and broken puddles


of water below were etched

with contradictory houses,


when there were more bricks in a wall

than were possible to count,


when the iron gate’s squeal spoke,

and the sky hid between buildings,


when an airplane’s drone far above

wanted to be something inside me,


I’d sit in the window and sob

until the resonance ebbed,


cradled by my mother

as the large world surged past.


Clutter in the vestibule

where steps buckled

and mortar cracked.

I watched my father

crawl into the dark

beneath the stoop

to prop up a failure

in the foundation

with a moment of faith

across the gap —

steel pipe, chicken

wire and cement.

I peered within the space

between holding-up and

breakthrough, learned

the way he’d brace

himself to the tasks

at hand. A muttered

phrase or sigh or

whistle, the tapping

foot, crossed arms,

the sharp echo

and flash and smoke

of a match struck

before his face to meet

the cigarette’s judgment.

At times his patience

cracked, for this work

wasn’t his job of life.

The reluctant hammer slipped,

the trowel gouged when

it should have smoothed,

underpinnings he’d

constructed slipped

and tore. I watched

and learned to watch,

and wait, and rebuild

what had been razed

and razed again.

After three days among

the dust and chiseling,

coughs and scuffs and scrapes

of wet cement,

he emerged white as ash.

Beating dust from

his body, shielding his

eyes against the light,

my father laughed

as he left the dark.




At times my mother’s tongue

would fix itself.

Away from family,

she’d lose the glottal stop


she’d gotten from the street,

dropped Rs began to rise,

syllables drawn

in sharp spoken clicks.


As if diction marked


she’d make the impression,

and by that fiction shield herself


from other people’s opinion.

It just happened. It wasn’t subtle.

Among half-strangers

or those for whom the language


of protocol is essential,

she’d speak correctly, clearly,

carefully. Sometimes,

she’d surprise herself


with what she said

under such pretensions.

“I think I have to disagree.”

“The sky is certainly


inspirational tonight,

isn’t it?” “What a lovely table.”

This might seem funny.

But when her speech was clipped,


cut-up by antagonists,

those close-cropped consonants

broke new ground. Listeners stopped,

cocked their heads, attention caught.

Illustration by Pat Messina Singer


I was just out of the city,

not yet in school, the kind of boy

whose knees were always muddy,

who disappeared for hours just

at dusk, who brought home

small things: acorns, stones,

seedpods, feathers, the odd

amphibian. The patch of woods

near the school was my home,

and the meadow beside it too,

filled with high grass that toppled

in autumn like yellow hair

that had been parted by wind.

Once, beside the black-bottomed

drainage ditch that circled

the field, I found a birch.

It was late in the year.

First frost had mown the grass.

No leaf clung to the branch-tips,

or a few that gripped with

desperate yellow devotion.

It was nothing I had ever seen before,

an inadvertent fullness, a moment

of certainty — I wanted to be

that slip of birch at the ditch’s

edge. I knew I could live there near

the lip of flat water that took

leaves back down. I climbed the tree

and as I climbed it bent and kept

bending down the water’s scaffold.

Broken with ripples, my own face

shone in blackish water.

It seemed like rising,

but everything to root must go.

How long I spent on that bent

trunk, I don’t know. But even

now in every birch I see

my initials hacked, the gnarled

stretch of bark that droops

along the cusp of a C,

the heavy bend that caught

my weight and held it

above the deep black ditch

sown with dead leaves.



Matthew Cariello’s book of poems, A Boat That Can Carry Two/Una barca per due, won the 2010 Bordighera Poetry Prize and was published in a bilingual edition in 2011. His stories, poems and reviews have appeared in the following journals (among others): Voices in Italian Americana (VIA), Poet Lore, Artful Dodge, The Evening Street Review, Modern Haiku, The Long Story, The Indiana Review, Iron Horse Literary Review, and The Journal. Matthew is currently a senior lecturer in the English department at The Ohio State University in Columbus.