BROKEN: Do Not Use by Sheree La Puma, Main Street Rag Publishing Company, 2021, 56 pp., $13.00
Reviewed by Amy Small-McKinney
Sheree La Puma’s first poem, “Ode To Mother,” contains a note at the end of the first page:
*note: mother is the beginning / & the end is mother
And indeed, her book of poems, Broken: Do Not Use, contains four sections—the first, It begins with Mother, and the last, Who am I if not—mother, and embedded in-between, Second Coming—Daughter and Father—Lost.
In the first heartbreaking poem, the lines between who and what is a mother become blurred, as they increasingly do throughout the book. Mother is “Eve and Mary” and “motherfucker.” The use of slashes, ampersands, and notes guide us toward understanding the impossibility of certainty and how losses disrupt clear definitions:
mother is birth / & after birth / the spoils & the blame / if a mother’s
job is to love her children / then I have failed / my baby born /
dead / DEAD / mother is what you do / before your heart leaves the
and later in the same poem, the forewarning of knife cuts and suicide and addiction and “the stranger / lurking in our DNA
mother is a book / not a story / a sonnet / not a haiku /
Eve & Mary / motherfucker / not some fairytale / the prick
of a needle / the point of a pen / a drug / a color, lurking /
in the shadows
A sense of disruption and disconnection and impossible loss continues in the poem, “Self-Portrait as A Mourning Dove,” written to a miscarried daughter. The poem’s negative space gives us wordlessness and emptiness, and leaves us waiting for any kind of closure:
I try to hold on to the baby / passing / through me, soft
as a blurred / landscape. Listen for a coo
after a long season of silence
has me / pleading for rescue.
and then the juxtaposition of sound, of nature and paper, of shredded and song and bird and bandage:
Ugly bird with your drawn-out song of lament,
what do you keep in the years since she left,
a blank page, shredded, seeds and grit?
A bandage of shrubs?
Throughout this book, the shock of La Puma’s lush language rubbing against hard imagery lands us in the omphalos of poignant beauty and defeat. From her poem, “Daughter: the sin that lives on my tongue,” these lines:
Here is how you navigate pain. Dive
deep into emptiness, there is silence
there like a Great Blue Hole. Mother
is a negotiation of waves. An ocean
lives on my tongue, water morphing into sin.
There can be no expectation that this book will be neatly wrapped up when the author tells us, in “The Transitory Nature of Happiness,”
I demonstrate the kind
of unreliability of a woman looking for
an ending to fall into.
The only closure possible is “I am Mother” with all the contradictions that contains.
But how does the author not become her mother, who is in her “2nd week in / rehab. It’s like plugging a dam / with a tissue.” How does she protect her own children “who are poisoned” and still “show no symptoms?” By building “an ark built of silver-fir/coffee & oranges on the deck, calm / seas/ midnight blues” though eventually her children will “stage mutiny.”
Yes, there is unremitting loss in this book—loss of addicted mother, grandmother who commits suicide, miscarried daughter, ex-husband who dies, children who struggle with loss, and the speaker who is searching for some kind of definition of self and mother, something holy and god-like in the writing on a “scared wrist” or “in search of a new church. // My Body. Your Body, until her poems become a lament, a litany of mother mother mother, until this reader loses all sense of what that word means or how to redefine it. La Puma cuts into this reader’s psyche until finally, in “I Let Go,” she tells us:
Until then, a body stitches itself tighter. Grief, is a
balm/a holy river/blue transplanted & worn like skin.
Until in “There Are Many Ways to Say I Miss You,” whether talking to the natural world, the sea, the feathers, or God, she tells us:
Give me a reason to walk among the living. I know how the shoreline
feels to give back what’s been given, that generous voice
that brings more than sound.
Never exactly closure. Never the sea or sky reaching down to hold her, but yes, La Puma offers us a “generous” honest loving hurt voice that brings to us more than sound. It carries in its mouth the body of slow and hard healing. This is a breathtaking and beautiful book inviting us into the body and mind of a woman finding her way.
Shade of Blue Trees by Kelly Cressio-Moeller, Two Sylvias Press, 2021, pp. 99, $17.00
Reviewed by Elline Lipkin
It’s rare that I want to mark every poem, underline so many phrases and words in a book, but as I read Kelly Cressio-Moeller’s debut poetry book, Shade of Blue Trees, so rich in lyricism, it needed to be ingested slowly, with a pen to steady me. And, like a feast, digested over days ahead.
Many of the poems in Shade swirl around medical issues or death and the ghosts that accompany these subjects—fear, worry, and projection into both what is ahead and what is past. Part of Cressio-Moeller’s gift is the way she halos light around dark subjects so there is a sheen set over despair—a trick of light that makes grief take on a golden glint.
The natural world is deeply present from the opening lines: “For a long time I wanted / to drink a cup of winter, / to become tipsy on early / dark & longer starshine.” The book tracks light, the season’s mood and its effects, and always glides back to the physical world, often near the ocean, as in the couplets of “Pelagic”: “Giant kelp coppers teal water, long garlands wreathe into laurel / crowns as if all Olympus is surfacing.” Later, in “Letter to the Low Tide,” the lines sway and pace themselves as a speaker unburdens herself with the lines, “I, too, want // to unhook myself from the shore.”
Cressio-Moeller’s adeptness with line lengths and form bring the reader into the page as if into a painting. Poems unfurl in wavy, staggered, or waterfall spacing down the page. Her use of monostitch is particularly adept, such as the poem “A Night of One’s Own”: “Dark chocolate. Pinot noir. More please. / I could drink a case of Joni.” Or the poem “Ithaka,” which renders the tale through evenly paced one-line missives.
In contrast to this, there are several dense prose poems in the book (all titled with “Panels…”), such as in the early “Panels from a Deepening Winter,” which relays a story about a blacksmith and wife, full of the richness that seems so deeply part of this poet’s gift: “He opens his box of mountains, / takes her ivory comb, wraps it in the small dreams / of winter wrens then lines his waistcoat with her / ashes.” Later, there is a long sequence of linked prose poems, “Panels from a Celestial Autumn,” that gorgeously reference various myths, underlaid, at the end, with a narrative about the speaker’s mother.
Cressio-Moeller’s poems seem like a series of deft feints into other realms. The veil is thin in these poems as she seamlessly moves between death and life, the known and what is unknown, but deeply felt, with such lyric grace and precision it is impossible to not be pulled along. The poem “Conscious Sedation” seems to embody this—literally—the body and mind traversing two states of being: “another gone before it is taken, / another taken before I am gone.” This chimes with the later “Waiting for Charon in the ER” and the sense, again, that a speaker, grappling with pain or disease, is hovering between states and knows one day she will (again near water) be ferried to another side.
Those who are gone from the Earth come back to visit in this book, as Cressio-Moeller writes in the deeply poignant poem, “Visitation”: “I understood those deer / were my parents, / checking in to say, Your life / is not invisible to us. / And the love we always had / for you, continues —.” The powerful and brief poem “Irony” is entirely about trying to bridge that distance: “When your mother dies / the first person / you want to call / is her.” Spacing and visual elements serve the elongated stretch of lines in “Diminuendo” as each word sinks lower on the page in enactment of leaning down to the speaker’s parents’ graves: “I / must / kneel, / place / my / ear / to / the / ground,” she writes, as focus shifts to that drop.
The book does not shy away from violence—there is a searing portrait of a family in the poem “Inheritance” as a texture of woes is conveyed: “a shattered girl / who grew into a mosaic of glass shards — / all angles and hard jawline framed / by quartz hair and a cutting gaze.” At various points in the text, sexual abuse and harassment are also part of the speaker’s stories. These add to the sense of chiaroscuro that shadows the book—light and dark interplay so that the natural beauty the speaker writes about so well glints against what other menace the world has to offer.
Cressio-Moeller shows such high lyric range in this book. Rich metaphor is streaked through with sorrow and grief is brindled with luminescence so that a raw beauty sparks. The poems often locate in the liminal—a space near illness and death, or trying to find beauty while so aware of near threat.
In the final poem “Something to Remember,” Cressio-Moeller writes of darkness, “It doesn’t care about your tongue / of honey and stars; your breath / of apples and wine. It’s busy / quilting corners of indifference / and will return again and again.” The flat beauty in the words contrast with a chilling portrait. Yet there is both balm and the invocation of solace in the poem’s final lines: “if you are patient,/ your eyes will adjust to the dark.”
Elixir by Janine Purtureri Certo
Bordighera Press / New American Press, 2021, 100 pp., $18.00
Reviewed by Theodora D. Patrona
Elixir: “A sovereign remedy for illness; a strong extract or tincture; the quintessence or soul of a thing; its home kernel or secret principle” (Oxford English Dictionary). The epigraph that initiates the reader into the universe of Janine Purtureri Certo’s poetry succinctly says it all. Certo’s latest poetic collection covers all three previous definitions of elixir: it is a remedy for nostalgia of times and spaces lost, an extract of the poet’s emotional world, the quintessence of her thoughts and principles.
A creative writing scholar and a teacher, the talented Certo has received numerous awards and distinctions for her two previous collections and overall work on literary production. Elixir, dedicated to her deceased father, besides her close family, consists of five sections: “Intimate Immensity,” “House and Universe,” “From Cellar to Table,” “Corners and Miniature,” “The Dialectic of Inside/Outside.” Starting with “Drag Heavy Pot to Shed (Ars Poetica I),” an overwhelming poem, Certo reveals through it the diverse thematic threads that weave together her poetic expression: childhood shards, the grandmother presence, family hurt and trouble, the confining power of fears, lovelessness and resilience in the contemporary world. The two overarching themes, the paternal figure and ethnic culture, not accidentally the father and the fatherland, seep through numerous poems with fragile and colorful imagery underlining their omnipresence in Certo’s emotional world.
Numerous gems adorn the collection: the intense pantoum “Elixir For my Father”, the dark “Visiting My Mother the First Time after My Father Died (Broken Sestina),” the tender “Robins Outside the Eat’n Park.” Migration and the ancestral homeland are wonderfully depicted in “My Happy Place” and “Limoncello,” female grief and mourning are dominant in the heartbreaking “Visiting My Mother the First Time after My Father Died (Broken Sestina).” What lingers in the air is the poet’s embrace of both the personal pain and the communal in “Home Altar in the Year of a Pandemic.” Capturing the despair and loss of our times, the speaker exclaims: “What have you lost? Who / among us does not need a comfort, magic? Bring on the / cocoon, pile on the kitsch and avalanche, you merciless, / bountiful harvest, let us drown in your song.” On the whole, Certo’s voice, though fresh and personal, has somewhat of the classic aroma of poets like Marge Piercy and Billy Collins, revealing intimate depths to be boldly explored and expressed in future works that the reader awaits.
Fan Mail by Joey Nicoletti, Broadstone Books, 2021, pp. 102, $18.50
Reviewed by Nicole Greaves
Joey Nicoletti’s new collection transports readers to 1970s America and the analog and physical world viewed through the lens of a boy coming of age when baseball players gleamed like Olympians on the turf and in the singularity of a child’s mind. Aptly titled Fan Mail, this epistolary collection is a series of letters directed to different baseball players from the nostalgic speaker as he recalls pride and aspiration in these looming champions. The speaker, however, also grapples with their imperfections, not unlike those of the men in his own family.
Page after page, Nicoletti’s characterizing prowess is his watchman’s eye that stitches together this “horsehide vernacular” narrative laden with statistics, joyous nights, and loyalties as he deftly weaves in the Italian-American experience over generations of hard work, family schisms and loyalties, and assimilation. In “To Peter Rose,” Nicoletti, in juxtaposition to Rose’s record-breaking hits, recognizes his mother’s accomplishment
and her parents
how to speak, read
and write English
as a first generation
Male bodies––through which this growing boy measures his own––are interchangable: “twitching muscles,” “luminous legs,” a “thick” or “sweaty neck.” Their fragility, too, overlaps: his father’s broken back and Al Rosen’s “Back and leg injuries” that “hasten retirement,” just as his “father couldn’t work” because of his own maladies. Hope is immortalized in baseball cards that are coveted like opening advent calendar windows, where the speaker contemplates a “new baseball crush,” ruminating on identity. In “To David Kingman,” the speaker asks:
do I feel so connected
I never met?
Maybe it’s because I was raised
with tough love:
to hide my feelings
so that no one would use them
to hurt me, like the press did to you
Nicoletti mirrors this rhetoric in other poems. In the poignant “To Razor Shines,” the speaker asks:
do I have to live
a life others want
for me, just because
they’ve chosen it
When he looks at Shines’s baseball card, it transports him back to his childhood home and how he committed players’ names to memory, stopping the world on its axis to steady the self in the reverie. Through Shines’s example ––a “career in The Show,” “time as a Montreal Expo,” the younger self finds his “hope” for a “different reality,” one where he could be “present / in a moment // hear / some chickadees, perched / on a closeline.”
At times, the speaker nearly touches the Gods. In “To Paul Blair,” the speaker recounts Blair’s delight to connect with his fans that are “‘like family.’” The memory so sustaining that he cannot help but want
to be viewed
with the baseball you signed
in my cold, stiff hands, before
I become smoldering ash.
Here, the umbilicus line between who we were once and are in our last breath is most palpable. The way we order life becomes a relic of our time on Earth, and Nicoletti’s book itself becomes such an artifact. While accessible, Nicoletti’s work should be read with the same precision as crafted. As the speaker notes, crediting Frost, “pitchers are like poets”; they are adept, poised, versatile, making the arc appear seamless. Whether a baseball fan or not, a reader will find its magic and metaphor through Nicoletti’s parlance and rally as the speaker finds courage to shape a distinct kind of life.
The Archaeology of a Good Ragù: Discovering Naples, My Father & Myself, by John Domini, Guernica World Editions, 2021, pp. 273 $17.95
Reviewed by George Guida
John Domini’s The Archaeology of a Good Ragù: Discovering Naples, My Father & Myself joins the ranks of other recent books that distill the city’s essence, including Pellegrino D’Acierno and Stanislao Pugliese’s Delirious Naples and Elena Ferrante’s quartet of novels beginning with My Brilliant Friend. The author’s fourth book about Naples—after the novels Earthquake I. D., A Tomb on the Periphery, and The Color Inside a Melon—is both memoir and travelogue aimed at “seeing how” The City of the Sun “illuminates the self.” Digging at ancestral sites, Domini unearths the truth that family stories and the lessons we seek from them are most often, for fear and shame, passed down in fragments and then only fully understood through reflection on one’s own life.
The author pursues the mysteries of Naples and his father’s experience in two periods of the city’s social history: the 1990s to the last few years, which covers most of his middle age; and 1943 to the 1970s, which covers his father Enzo Vicedomini’s wartime trials, his immigration to America, his adjustment to American life, and his son’s introduction to Neapolitan society. As he describes the forces that impelled the elder man to emigrate, Domini draws one parallel after another between his own American Odyssey and return to the motherland and his father’s epic journey from wartime Naples to post-War America. “To know young Enzo’s war,” he claims, “came to seem the catalytic agent in knowing myself.”
A central theme of his father’s epic is the nature of Neapolitan masculinity. His father is a perceptive and ambitious man, something of a cad, but also a devoted and doting husband. “My father modeled the right behavior,” he insists, “serious but never scary, thorough but never lascivious.” A man who, like his son, ends up building a fulfilling life around an American woman. His father’s bildungsroman is a tale of persistence, a quality common among Neapolitans who face the ill effects of constant and multifarious poverty, bigotry, crime, and loss. When he considers the Camorra’s practice of hijacking capital projects to employ their own people, Domini poses a question he could ask about the entirety of a Neapolitan existence and one that bears on his choice not to take up permanent residence in Naples: “What can you live with?
In another passage, he tells the story of the popular Neapolitan blog, “Se Steve Jobs fosse nato a Napoli” (“If Steve Jobs Had Been Born in Naples”), which imagines the criminal and bureaucratic obstacles to establishing Apple in the land of lemons. No one struggles with such obstacles more mightily than the city’s recent immigrants. Fusing his migrant experience with theirs, Domini tells the story of a past lover and her subsequent Moroccan partner, to illustrate how, for a darker foreigner, only a favor for the powerful or a bed with a Neapolitan in it can open certain of society’s doors. In doing so, he connects the world of “endless diaspora” resulting from economic dislocation to his need, maybe everyone’s need, to “find out about the lost tribal homeland.”
“Caro John,” as his former lover calls him, is our and his own fragile Virgil. As cicerone, he guides us through his family’s life in the city’s “outer boroughs” and suburbs. At a relative’s beach house near Paestum, while conducting interviews, he begins to feel himself a bit of a “freeloader,” but even as such can find solace and interest (for all) at the seaside. “With the waves might reverberate the din of my youngsters, the children with their floats and the teens at their mating, but to a father half a world away from his daughter” (a condition that continually triggers Domini’s remorse) “that clamor too seemed a comfort, a role reversal: the kids sang a lullaby. They sang reassurance: I wasn’t a freeloader, or a bad father.”
Our guide also takes us to the hilltop fraction of Soccavo, where his uncle, his father’s brother, once lived in an apartment that “afforded delicious cross-ventilation. From the balcony the sea fluttered, a far-off ribbon, while the kitchen’s utility porch (the fire escape) afforded a view of the inland hills. No sooner had the sun set over the hills, most mornings, than my aunt had the laundry out on a rack.” This aunt’s “essential gifts” included “laundry and pasta, si sicuro, but what I appreciate most was her care and handling of my roughed-up, risk-taking heart.” The warm hospitality and comfort of this home contrast with the decrepitude of Soccavo’s abandoned industrial sites and its general decline. Naples and environs are balm, looking glass, and caveat. The author finds himself both attracted and repelled, the way he tells us, “At the end of the 1950s Fellini turned a cold eye on the era’s excesses, in La Dolce Vita.” Which is why his Naples is as much a cultural production as a metropolis.
Domini knows a lot about the city, and as much about Italian, American, and Italian-American culture, and about the intersections of the three. He is a scholar of Neapolitan social history, of the city’s literary and popular culture, and of its language. His allusions to literary touchstones echo his personal concerns: Ferrante plumbs Neapolitan gender relations; Norman Lewis and Curzio Malaparte recreate the city’s life during wartime. Films like Hands Over the City and Excellent Cadavers reflect the city’s troubles. And the local language, both familiar and strange, reveals the Neapolitan mindset. He begins the book with a consideration of the contraction “Mo’,” a grunt, a moo brought up from the middle of the chest with a thrust of the bottom lip…Mo’, they say, whatever the moment.” The word captures what Neapolitans know and what Domini learns to accept: the contingency of life and the life of contingency.
Domini’s energy and insight into Neapolitan society and into his own relationships within it play well in an era of growing social isolation punctuated by a pandemic. And he knows it. “Doesn’t Naples itself stand as a dusty and redolent proof of the deep human need for community?” It is a proof requiring the kind of interrogation it receives in Archaeology, a book whose narrative persona may appeal to readers as both guides through an exotic, and, for us descendants, ancestral land, and self-help exemplar. As much Lafcadio Hearn as Augustine of Hippo, Domini is an occasional pilgrim to a spirit city that, happily for us, he can never abandon.
Things Downriver by Denise Calvetti Michaels. Cave Moon Press, 2020 98 pp. 12.95
Reviewed by Isabella Perii
Denise Calvetti Michaels’s The Things Downriver begins with a quote by Fanny Howe from The Winter Sun: Notes on a Vocation, “The prose notebook is something else entirely, without repetition or revision included. It is anti-memoir.” This quote prepares the reader for an account of Calvetti Michaels’s life that goes beyond our expectations of what a memoir should be. The Things Downriver proves to be that and more.
As I was reading, I realized that Calvetti Michaels does what she has called in an interview I had with her “mapping memories.” Instead of going from one event to the next in chronological order, The Things Downriver demonstrates how one’s memories of their childhood bubble to the surface: in fragmented bits and pieces, in sudden flashes, and in recurrences. What Calvetti Michaels does in her poetic memoir is deny that a memoir must be a neat, tidy culmination of memories all sorted out to be presented as a plotted story. She delivers what one expects from a memoir—that is, a telling of one’s life story—but does so in a way that is authentic to how memories take form in our minds and affect us emotionally.
Just as The Things Downriver goes against the grain of what a memoir “should be,” Calvetti Michaels’s telling of her childhood memories on her grandparents’ farm in Salinas, California also goes against the grain of what we typically seen in many Italian American narratives. By delivering such an unusual yet authentic Italian American story, this poetic anti-memoir provides a much-needed addition to the quilt of Italian American literature. Calvetti Michaels’s childhood memories confirm that while Italian Americans have many commonalities as a culture, we are not a monolithic culture.
Something that struck me while reading this story was that Calvetti Michaels’s mother was not mentioned nearly as often as one would expect upon reading a story about an Italian American’s upbringing. The memories in this book center around Denise, her brother Dennis, their father, and their grandparents. The mother’s seeming absence is due to Calvetti Michaels choosing to write specifically the memories of her summers on her grandparents’ farm, a time when her mother would go back to Italy to be with her family. In our interview, when I asked Calvetti Michaels why she chose to only include these certain memories, she said that being on the farm gave her the “freedom to explore” and thus a lot of key memories had formed. She added that during any other time of the year, she lived with her parents and brother in the “contrived and controlled” suburbs, where there were much more restrictions.
While I was surprised that the mother was not present in much of these memories, I realized that I came to this story assuming that since it’s Italian American, it would have to be more about the mother. This assumption I made stems from what I’ve conventionally seen and understood about Italian American stories and upbringings. I’ve learned from reading The Things Downriver that our Italian American stories do not have to conform to what is expected of them. Just because we may expect Italian American stories to focus around the mother, that does not mean that our stories aren’t “Italian enough” if they do not involve the mother as much as we might expect. Italian American experiences and stories do not always fit neatly into the same box, and that’s okay. That’s wonderful, even. To be clear, this does not mean Calvetti Michaels avoids writing about her mother. In fact, Calvetti Michaels is currently working on a piece titled Lamentations on the Technologies of Loss which is about her mother’s hearing loss.
I was also pleasantly surprised to read and hear about Calvetti Michaels’s experiences as a northern Italian. Her family hails from the Piedmont region. Calvetti Michaels and I had an interesting discussion about her northern roots. Something that struck me the most is when she explained to me that her family did not eat things like spaghetti. As silly as it may sound, upon hearing this from Calvetti Michaels, I was taken aback. While many of us—myself included—may assume that the pinnacle of Italian food culture is spaghetti, I learned from this conversation that spaghetti is not a staple dish for many northerners. Instead, Calvetti Michaels told me that her family more often ate foods like ravioli and polenta. Calvetti Michaels even shares a memory in the book about when her grandmother taught her to roll out ravioli with a three-foot long rolling pin. She then provides one of my favorite lines in the entire work, “food is made within the fold of generations.”
Calvetti Michaels even mentioned to me that many others have been taken aback by her admitting that her family doesn’t normally eat spaghetti. To think of Calvetti Michaels and her family as “not Italian enough” or not “real Italians” because of something as menial as what the people of their region eat is absurd. A Piedmontese family is no less Italian because their regional culture looks a bit different than that of the southern regions. If you want to read more about food culture in Calvetti Michael’s family, she has written an essay titled “Polenta” about Thanksgiving dinner in her family, which can be found in The Milk of Almonds, Italian American Women on Food and Culture.
Calvetti Michaels also revealed to me that her Piedmontese family migrated to the United States because they were poor. She confirmed that the notion of northern Italians are rich and southern Italians are poor is not always true. Yet again, I had to reckon with my initial expectations of what it means to be Italian. Just as our stories may not always fit neatly into a box, our culture does not either. The ideas that all Italians should be eating spaghetti and that all northern Italians are richer than southern Italians are based in stereotypes, not reality. If there is anything I’ve learned with reading The Things Downriver and speaking with Calvetti Michaels, it’s that being Italian American does not always look the same for all of us nor do our stories need to neatly follow the expected formula of what a conventionally Italian American story should be.
Like all the best Italian American stories, The Things Downriver is about so much more than being Italian American. Michaels’s memories involve an array of life’s themes including family relationships, gender roles, religion, language barriers, and the desire for freedom. Of course, it is clear how Calvetti Michaels’s Italian American identity often colors all that she details in this narrative of her mapping her childhood memories together, making it a rich account of how one’s identities are interwoven and inextricably linked to one’s experiences.
A recurring theme in these memories that moved me the most involves the different expectations placed on Calvetti Michaels and her brother Dennis, which make obvious how their genders affected how they were expected to behave. Calvetti Michaels reveals a very traumatic memory in which her brother, who had been playing with a gun, almost shot her by mistake. When this occurred, Calvetti Michaels writes, “It was my fault. I should have known not to climb into the back of the truck.” Why Calvetti Michaels felt like she was to be blamed for her brother’s actions proves how the “boys will be boys” mentality seeps its way into Italian American upbringings. This is especially true as sons are often favored and treated better since they carry the family’s name. Calvetti Michaels also admitted to me in our interview that she often felt like she was “trespassing” when she would ask “too many questions” as a girl. Going to her grandparents’ farm was a way for her to feel freer as a girl to explore. Nonetheless, even on the farm when her brother almost accidentally shot her, she was faced with the reminder that as a girl, she must behave a certain way while the brother can practically get away with anything.
Another one of the themes I found noteworthy was religion, specifically how the Catholic institution affected Calvetti Michael’s understanding of her identity as Italian American. She shares a memory where her father wanted her to give a nun a vial of water he collected from the grotto of Saint Bernadette. The nun refused the vial perhaps because she did not believe the water was truly from the grotto. This suspicion most certainly must have come from the fact that Calvetti Michaels’s father was an Italian immigrant, and thus not to be trusted. Calvetti Michaels had to grapple with the fact that her culture was being, as she has described to me, “rejected by the mainstream.”
This memory serves as a humbling remind that Italian Americans did not always have it as easily as we do today. While a lot has changed in that we are not treated nearly as often as untrustworthy, inferiors anymore, The Things Downriver reminds us that the mistreatment many Italian Americans faced was not that long ago and should never be forgotten. We should be grateful that our community has been vastly accepted now by the mainstream, but we should be utilizing this acceptance we’ve received to help ensure that everyone else is accepted too.
The Things Downriver overall is a riveting account of Denise Calvetti Michaels’s childhood memories that contains much nuance as an Italian American narrative. This poetic anti-memoir can help us see Italian American culture in a less monolithic way and can encourage us to think more deeply about Italian American experiences that exist in our memories, in our stories, and in our present lives.