Confini: Poems of Refugees in Sicily, Michelle Reale, Červená Barva Press, 2021, pp. 50, $13.00
Reviewed by Christina Marrocco
Michelle Reale’s new book of poetry, Confini: Poems of Refugees in Sicily, is nothing short of bone-changing, a visceral collection that will stay with the reader far beyond the reading. It works on the mind, of course, but far beyond that, it remains in the body and the soul as well. Reale achieves this through expert craft: precise and evocative imagery, storytelling, and compelling form.
A prolific poet, Reale has published seven books of poetry in the last eight years––twelve in total. Much of her work explores human complexities––who we are, what we long for, how we understand what is lost and how loss, time, and generations change us. In Confini, she responds to the refugee crisis in Sicily. Reale does this, not from a transatlantic distance, but from the words she has heard and the people she has encountered in her work in Sicilian refugee camps from 2011-2016, where she worked with people fleeing war, famine, and other classes of violence, mainly on the African and Asian continents. In distilling her research and notes into poetry, she brings those who are often diminished by others into an indeterminate mass, individuality and distinct humanity.
Reale is a meticulous poet; her work is precise, often surprising, and always both unflinching and humane. These poems draw readers back again and again because as the best literature does, they transport. The collection comprises prose poems and free verse poems that read effortlessly because Reale has constructed language that is simultaneously natural and perfected. The lines lift like leaves from a branch, through intonation, pure dialogue, and sublime beat.
In the first poem, “Civics Class for Refugees, Sicily,” the space with its “azzurro walls,” “ironed shirts,” and its “shards of glass on the pavement” feels close enough for the reader to reach out and touch. Yet, Reale’s gorgeous use of white space and superb cadence ensures everyone, those within the poem and those reading it, feel the unmooring from home and the ambivalent welcome underneath it all.
Reale weaves both Italian and Sicilian language into the fabric of the book in a particularly thoughtful application. This not only acknowledges the place of the camps in Sicily but also leads the reader to feel the boundaries of the new language in this place which is new to the refugees. It also leads the reader to acknowledge the impetus and skill of the refugees who integrate the language of their new place into themselves––and into their new history.
“Suleman,” “Shereef,” and “Hussain” are the first three poems that bring us to an individual speaker, and they are grouped directly after the first poem. Here, Reale plays poet to each of the speakers, drawing out their innate individuality as well as their personal experience, and yet, she cunningly brings the reader to hold both that individuality and an echoing universality at the same time. In this way, she increases both. The reader is led to not just the three speakers themselves but also to years and years of the crisis––to all refugees, those who have put their feet in Sicily, and those who arrive as refugees beyond Sicily as well. Yet, the specificity of each man’s experience is not simply undiluted but brought into sharper focus. With each consecutive poem that focus becomes both sharper and more complicated––as the reader has gained more friends and more aspects in their bones. The poems that follow are equally compelling and hold up the stories of women and men from many countries now having found themselves on the island.
Each poem is exceedingly unique, and yet the poet’s style and tone are constant and accompany the reader so fully that a comparison to Virgil accompanying Dante would not be out of order. In “Their Heads Upon Stones” and many subsequent poems, the poet’s voice comes in as a direct speaker with that of the character––and what is not on the page becomes part of the poem. Here we see into the gaps that bridge the divide as Reale’s concern and the character’s condition signal something almost opposite of a call and response: a call and witness, perhaps. These moments blend poetic genius and human crucible.
There is a heart-breaking aspect to these poems, to what we experience as readers, and yet, it is the breaking of that heart that assures the reader one does, indeed, exist. And that heart yearns for––and will have––a measure of joy and hope not simply later when things get better, but now, now even in the moment of great difficulty. Reale’s collection deals in complexities as well as simple truths––because they exist in tandem, and she has the reader tasting both in the same mouth, at the same moment. Confini:Poems of Refugees in Sicily is an essential book of poetry, beautifully crafted and researched, resonant, historical, and encompassing.
Revolutionary Letters, 50th Anniversary Edition, Diane Di Prima, Published by City Lights Books, 2021, Pocket Poets Series, pp. 201, $18.95
Reviewed by Mark Spano
not western civilization, but civilization itself
is the disease which is eating us
From “Revolutionary Letter #32” by Diane di Prima
To commemorate its fiftieth anniversary, City Lights Books recently re-issued Revolutionary Letters by Diane di Prima in The Pocket Poet Series, with newer pieces written before her death; di Prima lived from 1934 to 2020. She is categorized as a feminist writer coming out of the American Beat movement. However, both “feminist writer” and “Beat writer” might be limited categories based on her whole-world observations.
Di Prima was a second-generation American of Italian descent. Her father, Francis, was a lawyer, and her mother, a teacher. Her maternal grandfather, Domenico Mallozzi, was an activist and associated with anarchists Carlo Tresca and Emma Goldman. This was a unique upbringing in an Italian-American immigrant community. Di Prima grew up surrounded by committed and intelligent reformers. She started writing at age seven and dedicated herself to a life as a poet at age fourteen.
There is no separating the literary merit from the historical context of the writings in this collection. In “Revolutionary Letter #77,” di Prima instructs us, “This is a prose poem and it is didactic,” making certain we do not overlook her particular brand of poetics. These one hundred and fourteen poems chronicle a response to a life and a history in America, which remains relevant today.
Some of us have persevered through this particular stretch of fifty years since the publication of this book. Through those years, so much was not right with the world, and so much remains still not right with this world, making these poems a challenge to read and digest. The letters are remarkably liturgical in tone, reading like prayers, chants, or litanies forsaking a fallen world. These are without doubt “revolutionary” poems, that is to say, they advocate the overthrow or eradication of nearly everything. For di Prima, there is no laying it between the lines. In “Revolutionary Letter #32,” she writes:
not killing all the white men, but killing
the white man in each of us
For some, these poems could function as touchstones to the past; it can be challenging to look back from one bad time to another with any sense of value in what’s remembered. The relatedness of events, past and present, begs the question, “What have we done these fifty years?”In “Revolutionary Letter #68,” the poet chants to us:
may it continue
may it continue
without hospitals, death medicine: flu & flu vaccine
may it continue
without madhouses, marriage, high schools that are prisons
may it continue…
may the land grow green, may it swallow our mistakes
The land has not swallowed our mistakes. Here we are still with them. Di Prima entreats in “Revolutionary Letter #45”:
to take hold of the magic any way we can
and use it in total faith
to seek help in realms we have been taught to think of
Have we taken hold of anything? Di Prima knew which battles to choose. From “Revolutionary Letter #75,” calls us to battle:
the war that matters is the war against the imagination
all other wars are subsumed in it.
the ultimate famine is the starvation
of the imagination
Did we hear this latter-day Jeremiah, our prophet of doom? Do we need anything more than these lines from “Revolutionary Letter #87”:
our hearts are
& stupid we go down
pitted against our own
In “Revolutionary Letter #65,” di Prima calls out the devil:
We have enough of secrecy, paid assassins, radio
controlled robots, mysterious disappearances, planted
evidence, men’s doubles arrested in their stead in
funky rooming houses whose landladies disappear
thinly-veiled race war, fake shortages, inflation, night raids,
For the last fifty years, the Beats have held a certain kind of hip prestige similar to having attended Woodstock. Looking back, what do the Beats represent? Are we entitled to recall Diane di Prima and her work with some amount of pride? Can we say, “I was there,” given how much has remained unchanged?
In “Revolutionary Letter #78,” di Prima warns us:
halfway around the world the bombs are falling
Do not think to correct this by refusing to read.
It happens as you put down the paper, head for the door.
The ozone reaches the point of no-return
the butterflies bellyflop, the firefly, etc.
Do not think to correct this by reading.
Given our world today, these lines do not just serve as artifacts from a “transformative” era but also a call to action in our present-day America. We must heed her instructions and act.
The Queen of Queens, Jennifer Martelli, Bordighera Press, 2022, pp. 88, $18.00
Review by Janine Certo
In the poem “In the Year of Ferraro,” the epigraph by Marie Wilson, “To not see your personage reflected in politics is a pain,” functions as a kind of summation of Jennifer Martelli’s marvelous collection, The Queen of Queens. I knew this poet’s oeuvre quite well, most recently having read “My Tarantella” then the chapbook “In the Year of Ferraro.” I’d been anticipating this full-length as I followed, while largely quarantined, Martelli’s individual poems strung across literary journals and magazines.
The Queen of Queens explores the history and struggle with and resistance against gender oppression as well as a range of socio-political women’s issues. Queens reign mostly from the 80s and include Geraldine Ferraro, Madonna, Molly Ringwald, Nancy Pelosi, and perhaps even women in the speaker’s family and social circle. The focus on Ferraro is apparent as Martelli playfully appropriates quotes from the trailblazer’s interviews, debates, and speeches, recontextualizing them in her poems’ titles, epigraphs, and lines. Doubtless, the book is an homage to the first female vice-presidential nominee representing a major American political party, to the former school teacher who joined the Queens County District Attorney’s Office, to the woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives to work on legislation in the areas of sexual assault and violence against women, reproductive rights, and women’s wages and pensions—topics Martelli boldly explores in The Queen of Queens.
I adored this collection, one adorned with silky smooth pearls taking their nacreous places around necks and fingers, but Martelli’s pearls stand for so much more, so much strangely more: a snake’s pink eyes, Pearl Tampax, the delicate parts of a hanging succulent, tiny moons, a strega’s drops of green olive oil, beads of mortadella fat, bits of old-country dough, and even the speaker’s parents:
Yesterday, in my half-lucid dream, this: two pearls
just outside the bedroom window. I know they were
The unique luster of pearls depends upon the reflection of light from the translucent layers. The thinner and more numerous the layers, the finer the luster. Similarly, Martelli’s self-reflexive nature offers layers of meaning that teach the reader about women’s lives and the duty we have to care for each other and question historically-held societal or individual beliefs.
A scan of the table of contents shows Martelli’s concern with questioning with titles such as “Questions to the Electorate,” “When Was My Anger Conceived?” and “I Don’t Have It, Do You?” Praise be, Martelli has an interrogating and wildly associative mind, perhaps most exemplified in concept and form with the poem, “He is My Man. He is My Tomato,” the title a reporter’s misquote of Ferraro, a title becoming fodder for Martelli to juxtapose questions about husbands opposite questions about the ubiquitous fruit. This poem operates with multiple instances of questioning, including the initial question-as-statement (“Why haven’t you taken your husband’s name?”), stereotypical tropes surrounding Italian American men (“Has your husband ever killed a man?), and relationships between men and women (“What is a love apple?”). What makes this poem particularly successful is the language play of feminism against the speaker’s knowledge of multiple varieties of tomato: “What is an Early Girl, a Tigerella, / Three Sisters?”
Martelli’s free verse and form poems showcase what she does imaginatively, creatively, with language. In the American Sonnet, “My Father Was an Italian Man. So Are My Husband and Son,” the images don’t shy away from the history and violence of patriarchal power.
A poet told me the first tambourine was formed in Italian groves
where women danced while cleaning rice and later, where women
I was ashamed to tell them I swapped my father’s name for my husband’s:
the vowels so round at the end, they slipped into my smooth white
No matter how far back I searched, the names were fathers’ names—
thick as guns.
Yes, these poems are political, but the center of gravity, much like the pearl, remains small due in great part to Martelli’s ability to balance the political with the speaker’s interiority, both at the level of the poem and the collection. The opening poem, “16 Reasons I became a gray pearl,” flings us gloriously from one speaker state to the next:
- I grew tired of being a grain of irritation in the world’s soft
- Thought I’d be a moon floating in a cloudy afternoon sky.
- Being asexual, I craved bondage.
- Craved four gold prongs to hold me in place on a band for
the left ring finger.
- Needed to backhand someone right on the mouth.
- Felt silky, felt smooth.
- Felt unsure so I committed to pescetarianism.
- Bounced like an idea and got lost.
- Was pried from my hinged jewel casket with a flat
- Wanted to be shucked. Wanted to be shucked so bad.
Whether sonnet or speech excerpt, list poem or prose poem; triptych or erasure, Martelli offers up powerful lines and images, frequently elevating irony over beauty, contrast over control. The collection also showcases Martelli’s skill with new forms. In “Toxic Shock Duplex,” a form developed by Jericho Brown, Martelli uses slant rhyme to couplets to explore, at one level, menstruation and identity.
Last night my ghost period came to visit.
She dragged the white string from the sky’s cervix.
What I hold onto will drag me for certain.
My fearful life was knotted like a pearly helix.
The poem serves as the speaker’s meditation of girlhood fears and values. How, in puberty, to disappear? How to be known? And how shocked the adult speaker is “when people leave or when they walk back. / The ghost meant only to last a night. Period.”
Of all the poems in this stunning collection, I was most drawn to “Succulent,” a poem which disturbingly and masterfully threads themes of feminism, misogyny and survival. Martelli uses strangeness to pull the reader out of expectation, unfurling one intense line, then the subsequent lines keep building, exploring:
I want to fill a bay window with sixteen jade plants
in terra cotta pots until they grow thick and knotted as snakes
tangling in the hair of a woman raped by a god
and punished by a woman.
I want to tease rubbery pearl beads of asterids into a rosary string,
finger them, pray on them, try not to let the toxin seep onto my skin.
The same age as Martelli, I was catapulted back to my own Italian American experience with rosaries and Reagan, Madonna and 80s movies. Like the speaker, “I sat cross-legged and too close to the black and white TV, the one / with tin-foiled rabbit ears.” In calling up images from the 1983 film, “Risky Business,” starring Ray-Ban donning Tom Cruise, Martelli writes:
Remember how he broke his mother’s crystal egg and she
saw the crack when she turned it this way to the light?
Think of how information travels. So much enters through the eye.
The dark pupil dilates and constricts, pulls tight and shut:
nothing that goes in can leave or ever go back.
Again, that reflection. I marvel at the descriptive-meditative structure of many of Martelli’s poems, which seems to be working out a problem in real-time, then makes a turn to say something about what it is to be human, the final image never sanguine and often ending on a descendent gesture. In the penultimate, searing poem, “The Challenger,” I’d argue the descendent gesture is brilliant with both horror and elegiac haunt:
…The rocket carrying the teacher climbed.
smoke billowing white clouds, the only clouds on the east-
ern seaboard it seemed and then:
the intestines of a white
The poem continues:
they were alive in that ship alive for the slow arcing high
in the blue sky alive for the long descent
to the ocean rushing
up to meet them.
Poems in The Queen of Queens don’t feel forced or “sound poetic,” and they avoid dogma and certainty, which is why I trust Jennifer Martelli’s logic when she writes lines like, “My mother also died from Alzheimer’s and so there is no God.” In the poem, from Jezebel: “Map: Six Decades of the Most Popular Name for Girls, State by State,” Martelli writes:
thought I was the only Jennifer.
I was the only Jennifer I knew, which is why I fell off the round and
If images strike at the heart of who we are, then Martelli’s collection has dropped with a view of our world, gifting us pearls—both vital and unforgettable.
INTERVIEW WITH ALEX REALE , CHILDREN’S BOOK AUTHOR
By Michaela Coll, OVUNQUE SIAMO Intern
When I was a kid, nobody ever talked about children struggling with mental health. It was a taboo subject that families talked about behind closed doors. But that was in the late 1990s. A lot of recent studies on mental health were done in 2019, showing that approximately 4.4 million children ages 3-17 have anxiety and 1.9 million children in that age range have diagnosed depression (CDC). These are not the only mental health struggles children face but are ones that afflict many kids.
Despite the growing numbers of children struggling with mental health, we don’t see a lot of representation for kids to identify or express their own struggles. Some representation exists, with children’s books like Don’t Feed the Worry Bug by Andi Green, I Can’t Sit Still by Pam Pollack and Meg Belviso, and Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes, to name a few.
When I found out about Alex Reale, a children’s book author who writes kids stories related to mental health, I was astounded and very excited to meet him. We met over Zoom and spoke about his children’s books and the topic of mental health. Despite writing about such heavy topics, Reale is incredibly warm, inviting, and open about his experiences and the importance of helping kids who are struggling with mental health issues. Reale’s work has gone a long way in breaking down the unfortunate stigma surrounding mental health in general and children’s mental health in particular, by providing children with examples of what struggling with anxiety, depression, and struggles to fit in can look like. Two of Alex’s stories that distinctly address mental health issues with children are Anxious Alex and the Worry Monster and Emily and the Storm Cloud.
In Anxious Alex and the Worry Monster, Alex, a little boy, has this “worry monster” named Taxiney who follows him around, always saying anxious things and thinking anxious thoughts.
MC: I realized after reading “Anxious Alex and the Worry Monster,” your name is Alex. Was this book in particular inspired by your own experience with anxiety?
AR: 100% yeah. I started experiencing anxiety when I was around 10 years old and I always thought I was a strange, one-off case. I didn’t think kids at that age could have anxiety. But then people started saying, ‘No, kids definitely experience it that young, especially now-a-days.’ So I wrote the book to help others and as a form of self-therapy. I put myself in it and told the illustrator to design the character based off how I looked at that age. ‘Anxious Alex’ was definitely inspired by my own experience and I think that’s one of the reasons why it’s been one of my most popular books because maybe people kind of sense that personal touch to it. All my books are based off lessons I really had to understand growing up but ‘Anxious Alex’ definitely has the most special place in my heart.
MC: What inspired the name Taxiney?
AR: In all honesty, it’s nothing crazy special. I just rearranged the letters of anxiety. It’s just an anagram of anxiety.
Taxiney is a physical representation of the worries that follow Alex around inside his head. There’s this beautiful moment and turning point for Alex, when he questions why Taxiney is so worried so that he can locate the cause of it and find a solution. This story isn’t so much about curing or getting over anxiety, as Taxiney never really leaves Alex, but about dealing with anxiety by rationalizing through the emotions. Taxiney’s thoughts and words are in purple text, and when Alex begins to combat those anxious thoughts, those moments are in blue text, which is a really nice way of separating those types of thought.
Emma’s story is about a little girl who struggles with depression, and depression is metaphorically depicted in the pictures as a storm cloud that hangs over Emma’s head. Readers follow Emma as she lives a normal life, though becomes more and more disinterested in things. She talks to her parents who eventually take her to a therapist, recommending that she make modifications to her life–like eating healthy, talking to a therapist once a week, and going on walks. All of these things help to make the storm cloud shrink. Although the storm cloud never goes away completely, the way Emma chooses to deal with it makes it smaller, and therefore bearable, so that she can still enjoy life.
MC: In Emily and the Storm Cloud, the therapist Emily sees plays an interesting role in her life because we typically don’t see therapists in children’s books. Could you talk about your choice to include a therapist in that book and why it was important for Emily to see one?
AR: This is a lot about destigmatizing it and making kids and their parents realize it. Seeing therapists now-a-days–and it’s always been like this–people consider seeing a therapist as a sign of weakness or something’s wrong with them so I wanted to definitely normalize it. Especially since I started going back to my therapist back in September. I just realized that you can do as much as possible on your own to really combat depression or anxiety but a therapist, I think, is a great resource that not enough people take advantage of because they’re either ashamed by it or just that stigma around it. I wanted to really normalize it and I actually had my therapist look over the draft and she gave it her full approval. She thought the message came across loud and clear.
These stories are not about curing those with mental illness or who struggle with their mental health, but about identifying what might be causing these feelings and then finding a way to live with them.
In Only One Samantha, Reale writes about the struggles of fitting in. Samantha is a girl who loves to dress up in crazy, mismatched, colorful, and creative outfits. All the other students at her school dress like one another, in more conventional ways. The students begin to ostracize her, until one day a teacher at the school, Ms. Patty dresses up in a creative way, too. After that, all the students want to be like Samantha, so she offers them each a piece of her clothing. In the end, she ends up looking more like the others, but it made her happy to share her individuality with others. This story is all about celebrating our differences.
Reale really tackles the different struggles that can be plaguing young kids today and provides alternative ways for children to view the situation, while acknowledging that what they are feeling is real and valid. He plans to continue to do so in his future children’s books.
MC: Are you working on anything right now?
AR: I actually finished writing two books within the past couple months. I finished another Young Adult book that’s part of my fantasy series. And I finished a children’s book. This one is going to teach–the lesson is kind of complicated but it’s going to revolve around a little girl who has cancer. So right now I’m working with my illustrator to get her my outline of what the illustrations are going to look like. But we’re hoping to have that book at least finished before winter so I have it ready for the Christmas season.
MC: What inspired you to write children’s books and not YA books or marketing towards an older audience?
AR: My first two books I published were young adult fantasy novels. The children’s books came along as a way to challenge myself. I wanted to see if I could do it. I always wanted to be able to create a story for kids so that I could create those stories I needed when I was a kid. Taking that leap and doing the children’s book, I thought that would be the biggest challenge yet more so than writing a novel that’s 60 or 70 thousand words. I think being able to communicate properly and bestow a lesson to kids is one of the biggest challenges of all. I wanted to take that challenge and luckily I succeeded. That’s not to say that I won’t continue doing Young Adult stuff, too, or maybe something for an older audience. But that’s down the road. For now I’m focusing on the younger crowd since that seems to be my most successful genre and also I just feel like now more than ever kids need it the most.