Janine Certo



                                         We still carry them forward, somehow, 
                           each language gesture a self-contained universe, 
                               a wormhole into the lives of others as we are. 
                                                                            –Sandro Barros

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.


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.


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.