Maria Lisella


Maria Lisella

Named for Royalty

My mother named me Mafalda Yolanda Margherita

the names of all the King’s daughters. I just hated it.

There I was sewing buttons on cardboard squares,

40 cents for 144 named for royalty.

I remember the shop I went to for my first job.

It was down some steps on South St., like a dungeon.

All the girls at the machines were wearing

their underwear and skimpy blouses. I was so proud

of my diploma how smart I was and all the floor

man wanted was to see me in my underwear.


Nome di un re

Mia madre mi ha chiamato Mafalda Yolanda Margherita

i nomi di tutte le figlie del re. Lo odiavo.

Ero lì a cucire bottoni su quadratini di cartone

40 centesimi per 144 dal nome regale.

Ricordo il negozio dove sono andata per il mio primo lavoro.

Si scendevano alcuni gradini giù da South Street, come una segreta.

Tutte le ragazze sedute alle macchine indossavano

la loro biancheria intima e bluse striminzite.

Ero così orgogliosa del mio diploma

e di quanto fossi intelligente e tutto quello

che gli uomini del piano volevano

era vedermi in mutande.

Minefield of Memories                  Kalsa District, Palermo

In the cold, dry space of winter,

ancestors’ songs haunt the family home.

Two flights of stairs, sepia photos,

torn chairs, couches stripped down

since the WWII bombing raid.

From the street below yellowing wallpaper,

three bared walls visible to all.

Tracing the family tree to this spot

no one wants to talk about, remember.

In the heart of Palermo’s Kalsa district

stands a 12th century fortress crowned

by turrets like giants’ teeth,

cats and dogs roam

the bitter dust

feral and free.

C’era una volta – Once Upon a Time

Snow White travels

with Seven Dwarves in tow.

Could it mean that women get

seven little men to serve them? Or,

did they stand for the seven deadly sins?

Cinderella or Cenerella, the abused bastard

of a houseful of spiteful hens,

came close behind, followed

by Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel,

pale blondes who tossed

their hair out windows or wore

braids wrapped like little crowns.

I knew them for what they were,

“paper dollies,” no one would want

to resemble for more than a minute

because they’d blow away.

Instead, I sat unnoticed among

the vecchietti, the elders on Saturday mornings

to watch Continental Miniatures’

black and white edgy heroines

like the wild-eyed Anna Magnani,

sweaty, bloody, hair as black as crows

and opera as common as the tar on streets.

Unlike my friends’ American parents,

Italian nonni never sheltered me

from impassioned tales of fallen women.

Mamma Roma’s midriff rolled

through cheap black satin

as Magnani fended off tricks

on her pilgrimage

to right her life, sell fresh fruit,

win her son back, fly

into the snare of madness,

in a dialect I always understood.                   


Leonor Fini 1907-1996

Anna Magnani 1908-1973

The best of friends, they posed

together, looking more alike each year:

vivacious, dark, controversial,

women with pasts that followed them.

When Anna Magnani died, Leonor Fini locked

herself in the room with the corpse.

For four days, she studied her

knowing they were together

for the last time on earth.

She observed, drew her in repose.

After all the men — Picasso, Ernst, Genet —

her heart belonged to Magnani

whom she painted with no apologies.

Fini lived with 23 cats,

if one fell ill, she would fall ill,

swirl in a pool of depression.

Yet, the stilled Magnani inspired her

to do what she did best, sketch, paint,

document Magnani for herself.


Did she stray into Magani’s closet,

slip into her clothes to hold her closer?

Did she drink or eat? Was she dazzled by death?

Did anyone dare disturb her?

Did her cats gather at her feet?

I picture her cross-legged, lotus position sharing

the bed with Anna during those days,

picture her running her finger

along Magnani’s profile, brushing clouds

of black hair over the pillow, for the best effect, for the

last good-bye, for the series of portraits.


Maria Lisella is the sixth Queens Poet Laureate 2015-2018. Her work has been twice nominated for a Pushcart Poetry Prize, her collections include Thieves in the Family(NYQ Books),  and two chapbooks: Amore on Hope Street, and Two Naked Feet. Her work has been published widely. She co-curates the Italian American Writers Association readings, contributes to USA TODAY, and the online bilingual publications, La Voce di New York and BridgePugliaUSA.