ITALIAN LESSONS AT THE EAR, NOSE
AND THROAT DOCTOR
We still carry them forward, somehow,
each language gesture a self-contained universe,
a wormhole into the lives of others as we are.
In the waiting room, I watch a child open
quadrants of sandpaper, running fingers
on it like Braille. On the TV, a squirrel
with its range of vocals, on its hind legs,
head in the bowels of pumpkin, a bear in honey.
I open my phrasebook and think I could lick
this language off my fingers: the chug of the C, trill
of the R, the staccato I, the penultimate syllabication:
Mi piacerEbbe un biCCHIiere di vino. (I’d like a glass
of wine); Il sole non si sente bene? (Doesn’t the sun
feel good?) What do people lose when they lose
a language? My grandparents stopped speaking
Italian to their children. I wonder if anyone heard
it in the river’s frolic or in the deep rumble
of boiling water? Years later, I spot translations
on a platter of stories and songs, out of reach,
at the other end of the table. I want to describe
for you in Italian that recipe my father made,
passed down from his parents, passed down
from their parents—the last of the garden:
carrots, celery, onion, peppers, tomatoes,
preserved in vinegar and salt, pressed in a pot
with a rock and canned. Or maybe it’s enough
to say: Per Favore. Qui. Averlo. (Please. Here. Have it.)
The child in the waiting room now stands,
asks me: Did you know the laughing
owl is extinct? In a film, I thought I saw a hand
paint the letters suffer on a cave wall. No—
they were figures drowning. I often wake
panicked, feeling I might let go of a hand,
a faceless someone hanging off a cliff.
Then the dove’s cry outside: Don’t, don’t.
THE MEDIA TELLS ME HOW TO BE ITALIAN AMERICAN
Break off a cheese so brittle
it flakes like paint from a fresco,
then rattle your Campari on ice.
Dip bread in anything that flows
like water, glistens like oil, gels
and coagulates like stew. Be loyal
as the length of a hound’s back,
generous as lemons gifting
from a tree. Hide behind your humor
as beef nestles in cabbage. Go big
as a sandwich or hair or a full
mouth. Get the sordid details
of a death, then drag out
the biscotti jar like an urn. Stand
by a pot cooking sauce. Sit, stand,
sit, kneel, sit. At restaurants, bitch
about the tough calamud. Don’t
come in the door unless you got
the sopressat. You’ll have to answer
for it if the provolone’s soft. You’re dead
if it’s too salty. Check on the tomatoes
in the garden every hour. Turn
everything gold like batter
in a pizzelle iron. Create, create,
procreate, but don’t let newborns
in public until they’re baptized, lest
they become victim to the evil eye.
And when you die, a gondolier
bellowing Pavarotti will row you to
Aunt Maria, Uncle Tony,
& the blessed Virgin mother taking you
into her bosom and holding tongs
that twirl you a third nest of pasta.
But you won’t see your cousin Vic,
that motherfucker, who gave a lousy
five bucks at the wedding of your daughter.
Be as blue as the blue in a Bernini
fountain, as anxious as a coastline road
narrowing, winding, all those scooters,
buses honking. Hold onto principles
like castelvetrano olives hold onto their skin,
like houses cling to a cliff by the sea.
When night comes, pick from a carcass,
layer meat, more cheese, basil on a roll,
down the last of the Chianti, then drop
into the deepest sleep.
“An excuse for dessert
any time of day,” my father
used to say. Winter mornings
my mother made eight kinds:
the classic cantuccini version
with almonds, anise extract,
or cocoa-macadamia, while my
father at the Formica table
explained how the non-perishable
food was valuable during journeys
and wars, a staple of the Roman
legions. Ah, to bake and bake twice!
To swim all the luxurious afternoon
sipping hazelnut or pistachio air
or a savory seeded sesame or asiago-
walnut especially satisfying with cheese.
It’s March, and I’m dipping a leftover
fig and cinnamon in my coffee
over the sink, wishing my father
had held up through spring.
MY MOTHER-IN-LAW MAKES SUNDAY SAUCE
What kind do you want? she asks,
holding up bags like a butcher lifting
cuts of meat. Prosciutto-wrapped
dates and brined olives glisten
like jewels on the counter
near stools where we park.
Like children, we take turns.
My husband is spaghetti. I, rigatoni.
We’ve driven low hills of three
neighborhoods, wine padded
in a bag, a screwdriver sticking
out the front pocket. Outside,
her golden retriever and our Labrador
chase and tumble bare-teethed
under a blue heron rising.
Her sauce isn’t as sweet as my
father’s, but I prefer it that way, her
radio set to Andy Williams and his river.
My husband chops romaine, spinach,
cucumber, shallots. We help ourselves
and settle at a white-clothed table,
a mason jar of hydrangea from her garden.
My mother in-law teaches me
how fresh pepper awakens everything,
how to be alone and fill the hours
with making art, with reading mysteries,
watering ivy, combing a dog’s hair.
One of fifteen children, she teaches me
how to lose an eleventh sister,
if I’d had any sisters.
What is it about this elixir
that entwines history,
talk, memory? The chemistry
of tomato interacts with basil,
bay leaf, onion, a narrative
evolving, yielding something new,
something we can keep
in the fridge for days. Tonight,
I will sleep, I think, as I clear
dishes, sip the last of my wine,
squeeze Dawn© for her
in a silver pot in this sage cottage
full of the faces she’s painted:
a woman pouring milk, lilies
under a bridge, a Realist portrait
of a family, a man reclined in a chair,
his expression turned to the fire,
Jules Breton’s Song of the Lark,
and a peasant girl grasping earth,
looking toward home.
Janine Certo is the author of In the Corner of the Living, first runner-up for the 2017 Main Street Rag Poetry Book Award. Her poetry appears or is forthcoming in New Ohio Review, The Greensboro Review, Nimrod, Crab Orchard Review, Quiddity and Mid-American Review. Janine is an associate professor at Michigan State University. Her grandfather on the paternal side was born in Reggio Calabria in the town of Ardore.