For Louise DeSalvo
I am unbaked bread because I’m soft and I rise
on a wooden kneading board carved in the shape of a pig.
Inside my yeasty gut, a small pearl of old-country dough
implants in the pink lining, a starter pearl grown so long ago,
some people call it mother.
I am a monolingual orphan ashamed of my tongue,
ashamed of my ancient language, its reversed syntax,
its thick jeweled vowels.
I am the gap between those strong teeth that stayed rooted
in my grandma’s mouth while she lay dying
in the dark wood twin-sized bed next to grandpa’s.
In between that gap, on a night table, a dried-out palm
and a dark pearl rosary wound around the green cut-glass lamp.
I am the conversation about golden Boscs
and mortadella with its pearls of fat—
how I hate the grainy meat of a pear
and that salty cock-shape hanging trussed in the deli window.
I am that hate, too.
Someday, I won’t be late to things. Or I will be late.
Or I won’t care.
I am the bone buttons on a gray cardigan: I am the tongue
and teeth that bite the buttons right off the wool.
I am the crown of one Neapolitan cypress too shy
to touch the crown of the other.
After the period at the end of a staccato
sentence, I am the long breath through the lips,
the double space no one here uses anymore.
AUNT OLGA ARGENZIO
Her brother gave her the attic to live in and a hot plate. The branches from the silver blue pine out back grew high enough to scratch the walls: something made house there. She kept her old doll on the twin bed and a box of pop-a-beads on a small bureau by the gable window. I would make necklaces over and over by sticking the plastic knobbed end into the hole of the other bead just for the satisfaction of pulling them apart, for the pop of air sucking out. When I grew older, I remembered this and how it was like sex and it was like time. All the beads were olives: green, brown, black. She had to bathe in her brother’s apartment on the second floor: Uncle G wouldn’t pay for plumbing her room. Once, when I was a child, I ran up from his sister’s—my grandma’s—apartment on the first floor where everybody ate, ran through the cool back hallway where the wine hung in baskets and the belts and my grandpa’s old fireman’s jacket—ran up to see my uncle who sat alone and migrained in his dark parlor. He sat below an oil painting of a woman clinging to a stone cross in grief or in gratitude: the cross had no savior, though, just a gray eye, watching me. When I was old enough to articulate the questions, I asked my mother if I had dreamed this. She didn’t look up from her ironing (all my father’s white shirts)—no, that probably happened. Aunt Olga, years before she died, would come to our house, the new ranch, to iron those shirts, but we couldn’t tell anyone that she did this. She told her boyfriend—an Irishman from Brighton—that she didn’t believe women should be ordained. I remember, over a plate of golden calamari rings, how she said how wrong it was to even ask this. When the cancer found her fast, I got lost in the hospital searching for her death room. Wigless, she lay like an old man finally: bald, dull silver, her nose what they call Roman: hawk-like, her mouth moving, thirsty, prayer-less.
Long ago, when I needed to be numb,
I offered my loves clear broth
in mercury glass bowls so
they never knew what they held and I
could read their emotions in degrees
Now I bring myself to everyplace I go,
sure that my body is 60% salt
water, 40% deserted island. A woman
waits in the field that grows
along my diaphragm. She holds a yellow
snake with pearly pink eyes. I can hear the blades
of grass groan. Someday, before I
end, I’ll leave that island, sail to the colony
in my belly, or maybe swim to the kidney-
shaped grotto. And I’ll own what’s there.
Understand, that if you cut me
in half, one of my sisters will grow, that
sometimes I am my children, and those times
are the most painful. Believe me.
Jennifer Martelli is the author of My Tarantella (Bordighera Press), awarded an Honorable Mention from the Italian-American Studies Association, selected as a 2019 “Must Read” by the Massachusetts Center for the Book, and named as a finalist for the Housatonic Book Award. Her chapbook,After Bird, was the winner of the Grey Book Press open reading, 2016. Her work is forthcoming in Poetry and The Sycamore Review and, most recently, has appeared in Verse Daily, The DMQ Review, The Sonora Review, and Iron Horse Review (winner, Photo Finish contest). Jennifer Martelli is the recipient of the Massachusetts Cultural Council Grant in Poetry. She is co-poetry editor for Mom Egg Review and co-curates the Italian-American Writers Series at I AM Books in Boston.