In the Year of Hurricane Agnes by Michelle Reale, Alien Buddha Press, 2022, pp. 61, $10.99
Review by Margaret R. Sáraco
Michelle Reale expertly mines her family history, to show us one spectacular, albeit tumultuous year in 1972. The Vietnam War was raging. Hurricane Agnes blasted Pennsylvania, causing 2.1 billion dollars in damage, as well as storm-related deaths. Black September, a militant Palestinian group, kidnapped Israeli athletes during the Olympic Games in Munich. Dolores Dell Penna, a young woman living in Philadelphia, tortured, murdered, and dismembered, made headlines in newspapers and on televised broadcasts.
Meanwhile, the poet was just a kid growing up in Pennsylvania. Her Italian American family tries to balance the trauma of adolescence against the craziness of the world. They all struggled to make sense of it. Strange, how some things have not changed since 1972. Adolescent pains and the forces of society, be they intangible or real storms, molds us in malleable times.
Reale’s brilliance is capturing all of this in her prose poems. The format allows the reader to stop and devour each tantalizing piece she offers. In “Storm Tracker, 1972,” Reale drizzles images for us. “The hand of my neighbor smoking her cigarette on the porch yoked to/ours shook, and fear became the friend your mother sends home for/jumping with your shoes on the furniture.” Reale is adept at leaving the reader with lines that linger. In the poem, “The Nature of Advice, 1972,” she writes, “Adolescence is evolutionary warfare.” We hold these memories in our bodies, but few of us can uncover them, then remember them with such exquisite detail.
She invites the reader to see her family through poetry, skipping the beginning and the end. Instead, she moves us from the middle-to-middle, much like adolescence is between childhood and adulthood. Her parents, brother, sister, and grandmother move in and out of spaces, lurking in the kitchen, garden, in front of the Philco TV, and in the neighborhood. Reale is present in all her poems, allowing the reader to follow the poet down this literary path, to see where she will take us next.
She sprinkles her work with her mother’s pink curlers and Aqua Net, the Fenton milk glass bowl, transistor radios, Spic ‘n Span, Lux dish liquid, Pall Mall cigarettes, Ballentine beer, Bobby Sherman, and Sinatra evoking a time that is not now, but then. There is also the stoicism of the famous TV broadcasters Huntley and Brinkley, who brought the often-tragic nightly news into living rooms.
A young Reale watches a televised broadcast of the hostage situation coming to a head while her mother tries to distract her with new school dresses. As the situation becomes more dire, in “Black September 1972,” she writes, “A convulsion of carnage on the tarmac. Send them all/home now, wrap and package them carefully.” Riveting.
Reale primes us for a year of memories that have tragedy embedded in them. “End of Innocence, 1972” is stark in its retelling of the murdered Dolores Della Penna. “There are tributaries of chance. We step into them unaware,” she begins as the fear of what the day might bring sometimes is stronger than the reality. The poem ends with “The grim, /conversational attempts to soothe what fear looks like when life has its/ugly, insistent way with you,” which is powerful.
The poem “Hyaline, 1972,” about a woman, five months pregnant, tarred and feathered in Northern Ireland, is arresting. Televised on the Philco, Reale watches, along with her parents. “My mother doesn’t tell me to look away. Instead, she/tells me to say a prayer,” while she witnesses something so brutal, she recognizes her face is smooth and shiny from the Noxema skin cream she just applied.
After reading In the Year of Hurricane Agnes, I yearn for my misplaced and tossed adolescent journals. I wish I could remember what life was like back then. Reale has the courage to expose her soul, and the wherewithal to bring everything into one collection but she also reminds us we weren’t and aren’t alone in the world, nor in the land of adolescence, which is always fraught with danger. The trauma she exposes is tangible. The answer to an unasked question is survival. We get by, but is that enough?
If There Is No Wind by Margaret R. Sáraco, Human Error Publishing, 2022, pp. 96, $15
Reviewed by Mark Spano
The old fence rail
and a decaying brown shed
compete for which
will turn to compost first.
― Margaret R. Sáraco from “Comfort Me”
A poem is for both poet and reader an exercise validating a knowledge that both
poet and reader have lived and having lived a life, it must be somehow authenticated on
the printed page. That being said, possibly the whole business of reading and writing
Poems are some manner of human weakness. Possibly, the stronger among us do not
need such reassurances that we have lived or breathed or forgotten or remembered
sundry impressions of a passing bit of ardor or indifference. Weakness or not, I must
confess I possess a remedial mania for poetry.
Margaret R. Sáraco’s most recent book of poems entitled If There Is No Wind is a
weather report of sorts from the poet’s later years. Weather is a recurrent germ of
metaphor in these poems.
Using the parlance of our twenty-first century living, in her poem Collectibles,
Sáraco evokes a poignant assessment of the Proustian wages of lost time by the
unlikely means of an eBay posting. In “The Mating Dance,” the poet comes to terms with
the limitations of a chosen mate: “he is only capable of wooing and pageantry,” she
writes, “unsuitable for nurturing.” This thin book of poems is brimming with so many
verbal snapshots that simply call out the passing of time.
The poem “Jesus Christ Moves Me” describes, “the mysterious wrappings of a nun’s habit.” Every one of us who at one time attended Catholic school wondered if there was, in fact, a
real woman within those elaborate wrappings. We were all curious about the secrets of one of those bundles of enfolding layers miraculously animated into an all-seeing disciplinarian.
In “Ghosts in the Blood,” the poet cautions the reader against investing too much in the postcard appearances of our American landscape warning us that “America has always been broken.”
In “Remembering the Boston Marathon,” the poet reproves us for fruitless retrospection, “There is no time anymore for what could have been.” In our looking back, we must come to terms with loss, that we must see our own violence in the mirror of America.
In “I am My Mother’s Daughter,” she dives into time, aging, and the obscured
notions of privilege in modern life. And, can any Italian American put pen to paper
without at least some serious discourse on food? Ms. Sáraco’s reminiscences are warm, but they are not without portent regarding a past that we might idealize at our own risk.
Will every poem in this collection touch every reader? That seems unlikely, but most of our reading lives are just big fishing expeditions or scavenger hunts. As a
reader of poetry, I am reassured by Ms. Sáraco’s enviable optimism and her generous
words of caution. And, possibly it is these kinds of ephemeral remarks that we hold
longest in our hearts and minds.
Whaddyacall the Wind? By Annie Rachele Lanzillotto, Bordighera Press, 2022, pp. 196, $24.00
VIA Folios 159
Reviewed by Mike Fiorito
Annie Rachele Lanzillotto’s newest book Whaddyacall the Wind is a unique combination of prose, poetry, travelog, and memoir. Despite the different styles, I never lost the thread of the book. Annie’s voice rings in every sentence. Annie writes like a poet and thinks like a scientist. She even did the cover illustration and other illustrations that appear throughout the book.
There are a few themes that are woven together over the course of Whaddyacall the Wind: illness, gay culture, and Italian American culture. All of these themes are bound together by an aspiration for more humanity, and more inclusion.
Early in Whaddyacall the Wind, Annie meets Faroukh. Driving into the gas station she greets Faroukh working at a pump. “I could tell he was Middle Eastern, so I tapped my horn, ‘Ya habibi,’ Yo, my love. He broke into a big laugh, not expecting some middle-aged white lady pulling up to the pump who knew even a few words of Arabic.”
After some conversation, Annie exchanges numbers with Faroukh, thinking that perhaps they can exchange Arabic and English language studies. This is Annie: forever on the lookout for what she can learn, how to connect with people. Little does Faroukh know at that moment that Annie will have a profound impact on his life.
And after a day’s visit to New York City with Faroukh, Annie comes home to Yonkers to discover that she is invited to a literature festival in Naples, Italy.
While the prospect of the Neapolitan literature festival looms ahead, Annie wakes up one morning with a thought to go see her friend, Timothea. This thought may have been triggered, as she says, by the recent loss of Annie’s mother and the loss of her friend Athena. Having suffered numerous health issues most of her life, Annie is familiar with the contradictions and general inhumanity of the American healthcare system. “This is exactly what happens in our society if you’re alone, aging, poor, and sick. Poverty is a killer that erodes you over time.”
Annie and Timothea were fellows at a Rockefeller Foundation which brought together innovators from every sector, class, and race to self-organize around projects furthering democracy and social justice.
Annie tells Timothea about the harrowing process of getting Social Security Disability (SSD). “And my eyes are always red ’cause I don’t have a thyroid, so they assume I’m stoned. I cough a lot cause the radiation knocked out my salivary glands and paralyzed my left vocal cord. So, I’m coughing, dropping things, and my eyes are red, and I have this Bronx accent. This doctor’s looking at me like I’m a criminal Dago trying to get away with something.”
As she leaves Timothea in the nursing home, Timothea repeats what she always says upon their parting, “My arms are always around you.” The next day Annie receives word from a mutual friend that Timothea died later that night. I felt a pang in my stomach reading this. There was so much hope in the conversation with Timothea.
Then, sitting in her mother’s apartment, now her apartment, Annie wonders about the invitation to go to Italy, remembering Athena and Timothea’s voices saying, “Travel while you can. While you can breathe on your own.”
Weeks later, talking on the phone with Faroukh, Annie can tell there’s something wrong. He’s nearly completely silent, unable to talk. She detects stress. “You gotta move in with me?” asks Annie. In a few hours, he moves in with her.
Annie decides that while she’s in Italy on the literary tour, for about three months or so, Faroukh will stay at her place. But before she leaves town, Faroukh calls her with unexpected news.
“That night, as soon as he walked in the door, he stood tense with excitement as if he was ready to parachute out of an airplane. He braced himself and blurted out, ‘I not told anyone in the world this, but I feel safe to tell you. I am gay. I like the boys. I am gay man,’ adding, ‘I was afraid to tell anybody. My family, they want me to have wife.’”
It turns out that Faroukh’s dream was to walk holding hands with a man in public. Even to kiss a man in public! He has left the small village in Egypt he came from to discover himself in New York City. And once in New York City, he could never go back. He would never have the freedom to be himself back home. “He didn’t know that being gay could be socially acceptable and that men could get married. He didn’t know that being gay wasn’t against Allah. That being gay wasn’t a sin, or even a choice.”
Weeks later, now in Italy, Annie makes an intention to experience everything in the here and now or as she writes to create un momento di luca, a moment of light and oneness. To take in all the sounds, sights, and emotions as they come.
In the chapters in Italy, we join Annie on her expedition into Italian history. Into her own history. There is a delight in Annie’s curiosity and imagination. While in Italy, Annie drinks in the antiquity that surrounds her. Annie’s fascination with Italy is not claustrophobic or navel-gazing. Everyone has a valid history, worthy of exploring, Annie suggests. When we do the excavation of our personal histories, we find authentic connections to our families, our nationalities, our shared humanity, and even beyond that, connections to other living beings on this planet. For Annie, we are connected by stardust—we are all from the same elemental particles.
One of the most moving sections of the book involves Annie helping her neighbor, also a Bronx native whom she calls La Baronessa, locate her ancestral village in Sicily. La Baronessa hands Annie a scrap of paper on which she’s written several syllables and a few numbers, saying, “I want you to find the house for me.”
Annie asks, “What’s the name of the town?”
La Baronessa answers, “Cima. My father left me the house. I want you to find it.”
Continuing her line of questioning, Annie asks if she’s ever been there, and does she know what the house looks like. To which La Baronessa replies, “I saw a picture once. It’s got a balcony. It’s in la provincia di Palermo. I’ll know it when I see it.”
Annie pulls up a map on the Google Earth App and begins further questioning.
“How do you remember your father saying the town name?”
Annie makes her say it slower. Then Annie says that Cima must be a corrupted version of the actual town name. As Annie says, many of our ancestors weren’t literate. They learned orally and passed words from mouth to ear. When they came to America, the words drifted even further. Annie, thinking like a scientist, analyzes the word, and, by a process of elimination, excludes certain town names. “Cima means up top, like up top of the road or top of the mountain. Whenever I drove in Italy, someone offering directions would always tell me, Vai al cima. Go to the top.”
Annie continues asking about where the town was located. By the sea? The mountains. La Baronessa can’t remember.
“All I know is the town is in la provincia di Palermo. It’s two stories with a balcony. Not a big balcony.”
Now Annie begins the detective work, as she calls it, scouring old and recent maps of Sicily, looking for clues. How would a town’s name transform from Southern Italian, brought over to this country, spoken through a Bronx accent? She finds a town on the southeast of Palermo called Ciminna. Then she goes to Google Earth and walks through the streets of Ciminna. They take a virtual tour through streets with names like via Paolo Borsellino, via Vittime, and via Giovanni Falcone.
Miraculously, they eventually find the house. La Baronessa exclaims, “Yes! That’s it! That’s the house from the old pictures. There are curtains in the windows! Somebody’s living there. Let me see the curtains. Can you get closer?”
They see the white curtains hanging on the windows. They even see inside the house. La Baronessa says that the house needs a little work.
Whaddyacall the Wind is a tour through various times and places, some ancient, some current. Annie is our Virgil, as she holds our hand guiding us every step of the way, taking us on a voyage through illness, death, and sexual identity. The shifting writing styles flow effortlessly together, lulling us to dream along with Annie, from beginning to end.
Feathers on Stone by Joan Leotta, Main Street Rag, 2022, pp. 56, $14.00
Reviewed by Linda M. Romanowski
As my first introduction to Joan Leotta, I had no idea what feathers on stone might mean, but the title intrigued me to find out. While feathers and stones seem an unlikely combination, the phrase was enough to draw my attention to a most enviable collection of poetry. You can’t tell a book by its cover, but its title is often the turnkey to reeling readers in or shutting them out. In this case, it’s an irresistible pull to the former.
This three-sectioned collection has overlapping themes without repetition. Each section, introduced in short, bolded phrases, carries an italicized byline: a question, an observation, a wish. Each poem is highly personal yet welcoming to the reader. There is a youthful freshness in many verses, words not heavy but poignant in meaning and content. There is a folk singing rhythm, a cadence to her words, bound to the unleashing of memories through time.
As a group, these are unexpected tellings. Several poem titles are enigmatic; so much so, I read some of them more than once before proceeding. My reverting to the title often confirmed my initial delight. These are small moments exemplified with astonishment and wisdom, as one could only encounter in nature as in “Wild Jessamine,” a poem that presents an odd pairing. Can these abstract concepts carry a pheromone that reaches out from its own species to another species outside itself? In the poem “Feather to Stone,” it’s as if the stone, in its hardness, cannot recognize the feather’s message. It misperceives its characteristic lightness for weakness, an attribute lacking in substance.
Of note is Leotta’s stanza structures. Most of the collection varies from two to six stanzas. Those that are a one-stanza unit do so with a particular force, most notably, “ Feast of Memories.” This single-stanza tribute is a historic panegyric, where bravery is the sustenance of holocaust survivors. Striking lines of horror are interspersed with terse italicized phrases in riveting juxtaposition. Gathered separately, these singular seven lines create a reflection of death and defiance:
denied to their bodies
feast of memories
defied the Nazi
In complete dissonance to this poem is a preceding story-turned-recipe, “How to Make the Perfect Southern Sandwich.” Another one-stanza wonder, this mouthwatering poem stopped me in my reading tracks to chastise myself for not purchasing the seldom-seen Duke’s mayonnaise in the supermarket condiment aisle the week before. I plan to copy the poem to add to my “homemade” recipe book, a hodgepodge of clippings from innumerable sources, a poem-turned-recipe, an unequivocal first. How two poems evoke such reactions in two disparate environments is an ironic testament to an innate skill, a poetry writer’s envy. Leotta elevates her one-stanza wonders into an art form.
Is it any surprise that Part III, “Moments of Wandering,” was placed last? I think it was an intentional move to bring outside voices (Rothko and Murillo) into our reading sphere. The historic reference to Pocahontas is very personal, both to the subject and the poet. Magritte’s art brings Leotta to an unexpected understanding of her own mother. Then, there’s a diverted theme to ordinary things, particularly in “What I Found When I Lost My Earring,” when the “Oh, my goodness” moment reveals itself. There is transformative power in objects that we, as humans, assign to ground us. Likewise, an object as mundane as found in “Bottle Cap” has the poet placing the reader in the car with her. “Aging” is most personal to me. Again, a one-stanza feat. The fact the page number is the year I was born brings me to hope these poems survive, that they will “age like these roses/velvet and strong/exuding the aroma of love even in old age.” Any reader will step through the doorway of Leotta’s work and arrive satisfied with these verses in full circle.
Posts from Suburbia by George Guida, Encircle Publications, LLC, 2022, pp. 200, $15.99
Reviewed by Nicole Greaves
While Posts from Suburbia by George Guida does not explicitly reflect the effects of COVID-19, much of the sentiment and feelings of alienation it explores mirror the experiences brought on by the pandemic and helps us consider our current American landscape. All over the country, young adults currently find themselves in a state of limbo, with their isolation further exasperated by the cacophony of consumer capitalism. Life becomes voyeuristic. In Posts from Suburbia, we peer through suburban windows with the protagonist, Bill, in vignettes with pithy titles that survey this suburban landscape and voyeuristic drift.
Guida utilizes satire and witty observations through the protagonist narrator, a budding poet and blogger who returns home to Middleville from the city, after his girlfriend has dumped him. The themes center around whether Bill can take himself seriously when he considers his current predicament and his family history, but perhaps he can begin to learn that the world is larger than mere existential absurdity. Or can he? This is the question that Guida poses throughout. First, however, we must see the America he comes to know––one wrought with toxic masculinity, capitalist frivolity, and random violence––to fully appreciate his predicament, and our own.
Early in the book, readers learn that Bill’s father leaves his mother after the children are grown, to head to California. Through short exchanges, we see that the relationship between father and son is just cursory, an extension of a patriarchal world where masculinity revolves around hunting, gambling, drinking, and the objectification of women, with a lurking desire for a moment of greatness:
Every once in a while, I watch a movie starring one of my father’s heroes. In the course of the movie, the man on screen—for at the outset, he is just a man–rises above his station to perform heroic acts, save his loved ones, save the nation, save the world, receive his laurels.
Bill considers the actors, who parallel their test subjects, and he wonders if his father “will ever get a piece of that action.” Or himself…
In the next vignette, “Screensaver,” Bill’s sexual escapades begin, this first one with a married woman in which sex serves as his “reward” for their “time together,” until she and her family move away. Bill falls right into the complaint, like Portnoy’s to his psychiatrist––though the sex is a bit more pedestrian. Hooking up with woman after woman, none of whom provide Bill with any sense of salvation. Neither does religion or his time at the gym where he tries to find his masculinity but offers: “I don’t belong yet, to any of these groups, but, like an inmate in a prison yard, I feel them all watching me to see which way I’ll go.” Here, readers feel acutely how Bill is regarded from the other side of the lens.
One of the most memorable moments comes in “I Think That I Shall Never See…” when Bill attends a poetry reading where his neighbor, an older female artist, reads a poem about him peering into her windows while naked and touching himself. He sinks into his chair with that window gazing back and the realization that people are watching in a way that makes us responsible for ourselves and our behaviors. Guida, here, pushes into that polemic, the satire that reminds us of Jeffrey Tobin fondling himself and air-kissing on Zoom, or the Cuomo boys and their irreverence. We should all hope for a better 15 minutes of fame. Moments like these are Guida at his best. An attentive reader will find their way through the American graffiti to notice the layers and see the subtext.
Guida explores how those who break with conformity become the town outcasts, and who in their own way play a perfunctory role in the suburban landscape in the section, “Funny.” Funny relates to not only “behavior” but consists of a “worldview.” Bill’s neighbors label the local art teacher “funny” because “she thinks the world’s all one big happy family.” This somehow translates to local men that “she worries more about kids in Ethiopia than the kids here.”
In “What’s Up, Guy?” a stranger, Jack, begins a telephone exchange with him. It’s unclear how he knows him or if he does, but Bill, as he does throughout the book, echoing what he was taught, engages in a desultory relationship with him. Here, Bill offers an ear:
“‘I don’t mean to be mean, Jack, but don’t you have anybody else to call?’”
“‘Oh, thousands of people. But I like talking to you, big man. You’re a good listener.’”
With the conversations halting when Jack’s show comes on, the brief acquaintance dwindles over time. It comes to a close when Jack leaves to try his luck in Colorado.
In juxtaposition to Bill’s father, his mother works to continue the suburban existence. Bill notes that she came “to suburbia to beat a path to excess.” She continues to cook the large party meals as she did when her children were young and serve as a Virgil through the shopping and party planning world to one of Bill’s city friends on how to throw herself an engagement party.
A turning point in the book comes earlier in “How Does That Make You Feel?” when Bill’s mother gets a coupon for discounted therapeutic sessions. Guida pushes into that polemic again, reminding us of a healthcare system driven by profit. In these sessions, Bill, his sister, and his mother talk about their lives together, and Bill learns about his mother’s young desire to become a chef. Why didn’t she do it? Because she “had followed the path of so many from her old neighborhood: from home to marriage to the suburbs.” Compulsive shopping becomes a way to possess control, to feed the unlived hunger.
There are moments when we narrow into Bill’s past, to the high schooler he once was and that promise he held. He was smart and didn’t have any intention of wasting his life hanging out in a parking lot with his old buddies, so he moved away. But running is never a resolution. Bill, in the end, does not quite grow up or find that purpose, but he comes to pay attention. In his final observations, he sees the moon he hasn’t noticed since his return, and it “follows” him through Middleville, like a parent’s watchful eye.