Such Things: Selected Poems, Albert Tacconelli, Moonstone Press, 2022, pp. 86, $19.95
Reviewed by George Guida
Albert Tacconelli is a thoroughly Italian American poet. His poetic personae embody and dwell in a mostly Italian American world of intense emotional relationships among family, friends and strangers embraced as intimates. Their compassion animates and gathers the selected poems of his third collection, Such Things.
The simple title of the volume reflects Tacconelli’s direct and transparent approach, reminiscent of Maria Mazziotti Gillan’s, to his subjects, those intimates lost to time; and to his attempts, amidst the vicissitudes of age and loneliness, to remember them. The Italian word for this emotional struggle is malinconia (“malincunia” in most southern Italian dialects); melancholy is the deeper subject of this poet’s work. The question, as his father poses it in “Fraternal Monologue”: “this brief, past-present life / is it one dream seamless, melancholy?” In poem after poem, Tacconelli seeks an answer by resurrecting mother, father, aunts, uncles, cousins, lovers, friends and fellow travelers. The central metaphor of “Flea Market” reflects his method and motive:
Among flea market tables I
rummage searching for old photos,
photographs tugging the heart,
possessing a presence…
I ache to belong.
Life’s unbearable loneliness.
Tacconelli mitigates this loneliness through identification with those who have gone before him. In the brief poem “Giving Away,” Tacconelli remembers a friend, Peg Donohue, giving her possessions away as she grew old, before reflecting on his own experience of loss:
Closer now to Peg’s age my possessions—
joyless, burdensome, and how to endure
the gnawing sense of impending oblivion.
To my self I’ve become less and less familiar,
and my life, more and more mysterious.
Even in his typography, Tacconelli isolates his “self,” but his sense of isolation and “impending oblivion” leads not only to melancholy, but also, in many of these poems, to hope, or, if not that, at least to insight.
Beginning with his family, in the first three of the book’s seven sections, the poet both pays homage and fathoms the lives of those dear and lost to him. In “Elusive Moment,” the poem that opens the collection, an eponymous cousin Albert returns home from war and fails to recognize his namesake young cousin, leaving him “a baffled child for decades.” That baffled child will puzzle out his bafflement in verse. In “Void,” the poet reveals how his mother’s absence conquers what he now understands as his brother’s “narcissistic complaining.” In the title poem which follows, Tacconelli casts his father’s distraction as “a million memories of Ma.” In “Experience,” his father is “helpless” before his grief, and, at first, “unable to help” his son, but later, in “Louder Than Words,” he gifts the boy comfort and redemption, by enrolling him in Saturday morning art classes, through which “Ba’s love shown brighter / than any of Mr. Kimball’s colorful still lives.”
Tacconelli’s malincunia and redemption rest also on the memory of his extended family and of Italian (American) culture itself. In one of the collection’s more effective poems, “Nonna’s Shawl,” the poet avoids the pitfall of sentimentality and uses the metaphor of the shawl, his “regalo” to her, to show how “Everything comes and goes, or like / Nonna’s beloved shawl, simply vanishes.” Nonna herself joins the afterlife (Tacconelli both imagines death as oblivion and finds hope in Christian faith), “where ancestors waited; continue waiting.” Behind these ancestors and behind Tacconelli’s own life stand traditions that, by the close of the collection, take him in, promising more than just a seat on the other side. Visiting Sicily in “Intimations,” his persona detects
superseding past, superseding mythic past.
Who am I? Who are my ancestors?
Who are my family, friends, loved ones?
And, most important for his desire to belong,
Which myth claims me as its own?
Whichever myth it is, imagining his place in it allows him to belong.
If Tacconelli’s disconnection from family and what he mocks as “the real world” are on the surface difficult to understand, we can again ascribe his melancholic stance to the natural process of loss and to his calling as an artist, which, as he demonstrates in poems like “Secret Vocation,” the real world often fails to appreciate or even to acknowledge. We may also ascribe it to his identity as a gay man at a time and in a context when coming out was not an easy option, a man whose sexual awakening, which occurs while he is serving in the military, the poet portrays in the poignant poems “Momentary Escape” and “Absence in the Barracks.” In “Disguise,” the strongest of the many narrative poems here, Tacconelli reflects on his encounter with “a pale young man with slender hands” who sells incense on the street. He is joined to this man in an “unspoken neediness,” a desire to connect with another lonely soul in a welter of “people coming, going, without glancing / at the pure spirit.” Then, employing a stock Christian trope, he asks, “Did one of them suspect he might be in disguise / I mean, an angel making a living selling incense? / Did one of them hear the lonely angel’s song?” To which he answers, “I heard the song. I knew the words.” The speaker’s willingness to state plainly that he recognizes and honors someone else’s trials and that he finds kinship in alienation marks these poems as both traditionally Italian American and forward-looking, as in the final poem “UFO Episode” in which the speaker awaits aliens, unafraid, “anticipating “amici lontani, far away friends,” who include, of course, the poet’s dead.
Having Witnessed the Illusion by Nicole Greaves, Glass Lyre Press, 2022, pp. 102, $16.00
Reviewed by Federica Santini
“Like Orpheus I play / death on the strings of life, / and to the beauty of the Earth” (Ingeborg Bachmann, “To Say Dark Things”): like Bachmann, Nicole Greaves uses her personal, musical language to build a mysterious, haunting melody that plays on the strings of life and death, light and darkness. And, like Bachmann and her exact contemporary, Sylvia Plath, Greaves’ work places itself in a metamorphic space where identity and self are at the same time objective and metaphoric, very practical and dreamy. The perspective keeps switching between one strong, fearless woman and every woman, each one of us struggling, winning, grieving. Who is the mother, then, and how does the loss of a mother intersect with one’s own motherhood? What is the bond that connects mother and daughter? What is the bond that connects each of us to the other?
In this unforgettable collection, the lyrical voice, the shifting I, keeps “boomeranging back at [her]self,” weaving contrasting experiences and emotions –loss and sheer joy, birth and miscarriage, death and light, light, light—until the lived experience of losing a mother melts into the full understanding of the sorrows and joys of motherhood: “[…] ¿Entiendes? / The quickly remembered English: Do you understand? / Entiendo, Mamá. / ¿Entiendes? / After you are dead, I’m happiest becoming you.”
Although not explicitly pervasive, multilingualism plays a large role in this collection, which addresses multiculturalities, the difficulties of acculturation, and the importance of community building across borders. Thus, the mother’s sparse Spanish words resonate implicitly throughout each poem and serve as an echo of the migrant’s experience, the shimmer behind the veil of the “found illusion” of the title. “The pearl in the box, a piece of that / burning. Will I always be the sum / of my poverty? […]” asks the main voice in “At Fifteen,” aptly capturing the unsettledness of displaced adolescence.
In the same way, the individual experience (“[…] I am such a souvenir, something brought up // from the wreckage […]”) turns into a net of family ties: a tapestry made of ancestry, love, and generational trauma, as seen in the close bond that emerges in almost each poem between the poet and her mother, Nina Virzi de Herrera (1943-2010), to whom the volume is dedicated. In succession, that multiplicity of voices (the grandfather, the mother, the poet’s own children) and lives enlarges to encompasses the entire community of those displaced, a sisterhood of the unlanded, in an escalation that culminates in the striking prose poem “Ticonderoga,” in which the lyrical I becomes, through a dream, every child who is displaced, every child who risks violence and abuse because of experiencing migration.
From gender to class, from motherhood to migration, there are numerous thematic threads that form this complex, multilayered work, which takes us from Panama to the U.S., across generations, borders, and languages. Yet, the volume maintains its unity thanks to the poet’s ability to render herself entirely open to the world, and making us open alongside her, until we merge in a novel humanity, we recognize ourselves as one: “You can’t tell if they’re coming or going. // No, my lovely little nut, I said, / they are one and the same.”
Reading this book is an illuminating experience, which leaves us aware of both our fragility as humans and our being all-encompassing entities: “A whole village asleep inside us / with the mistral wind and its cleansing.” Alone, and yet together, growing in unison, in the light.
Our Lively Kingdom by Julia Lisella, Bordighera Press, 2022, pp.110, $18.00
Reviewed by Chad Frame
The poems in Julia Lisella’s full-length collection Our Lively Kingdom are broad enough in scope to encompass a life, but incisive enough in focus and insight to capture it.
This book is, as the title poem lays out, a garden of “perennials and herbs grac[ing] the kitchen window / of its sweet cottage,” with the poet’s hopes for her own life, for her family, her students, for the welfare of society as a whole all patiently watered, tended. And through it all, these poems of wit and wisdom, memory and intention, love and loss, “come shunting through with a tiny roar.” We’ll be hearing its echo for years to come.
Lisella’s work is that of a poet with a lifetime of experience, her variety and skill in craft on full display—from poems in neat couplets, tercets, and quatrains to more scattered forms incorporating whitespace, to longer, stanzaless pieces. There’s even a (gorgeous) pantoum. The book is organized into four sections, which the poem “Mercy” hints at—”She likes the way her sections / divide unevenly / and force each drawing of the 4 seasons / into secret rooms.”
The poet adeptly explores complex emotional and philosophical issues through the lens of everyday life. In “Long Distance” (which I’m pleased to have first published in this very journal), the speaker addresses several stages of removal—”he is staring…at our dog on our porch who is staring / at a bird in our backyard,” and the difficulty of connecting at a distance. The setup of speaker observing husband observing dog observing bird goes beyond simple reflection on distance—rather, it grasps at the universal frustration that we can never truly know what another is thinking, and, by extension, can never truly know one another. When the husband “puts the phone / to the dog’s ear to see if he will recognize” her voice, the dog does not, in an almost Magrittean reflection on representations not being a substitute for a genuine presence.
These poems engage many roles and explore the interplay between mother and daughter, wife and lover, student and teacher. The final section is dedicated to poems about the pandemic, from reflecting on time in lockdown in “#2020” to a bittersweet image in “The Flower Moon” of “odd blooms: Boston’s antibodies / nestled in blue paper masks flattened and wet.” Then comes the heart-wrenching “The New York Times Publishes 1000 Names,” with its anguished pleas—”Let us be tired.” … “Let us read the names out loud.”… “Let us hear the fear in a neighbor’s cough; / let us hear the fear in a siren,” as if naming (and reliving) the same experience a thousand times, acknowledging a communal exhaustion and shared trauma.
The collection closes fittingly with “I’m Receiving Now,” which, in essence, addresses the perplexing events not only of recent years but of life as a whole, as if existence is “the plot without an ending / [we] can understand.” The speaker asks, “Who is going anywhere?” in the literal and figurative, as both further lament of lockdown and as existential meditation on purpose. “How silly I’ve been,” the speaker reflects, as if to say, why try to make sense of this? Our lives are too often jumbled, like “furniture cramped and full / of dust and blankets,” yet they are still “the gifts left on the doorstep” or “the mail, boxed and damp / in the cold rain.” However our story arrives, Our Lively Kingdom sagely, sympathetically, and sublimely suggests that we stand, “hands extended,” “arms bare and wide,” to receive it.
Defying Extinction by Amy Barone, Broadstone Books, 2022, pp. 88, $18. 50
Reviewed by Linda Romanowski
If anyone wishes to rebuff the idea that existence is endangered, one need not venture far by reading Amy Barone’s Defying Extinction. In this hopeful collection, Barone finds a way of looking the world in the eye and refuting the thought that demise is near. She accomplishes this not by overly grandiose verbiage or overbearing imagery, but by presenting veiled spheres of defiance. She speaks for herself, about herself, in the circle of five elements. The reader is introduced to the inner sphere (The Sacred Places), the outer world (The Wild), surprising finds of introspection (Heirlooms), the interconnections (Love & Family), and the summation (Anima Protection). These elements, found in her Contents page, direct the reader throughout the collection.
Barone is clearly a poet of place, but she skillfully places the reader beside her. Her roaming world travels provide insight not only to her surroundings but how her environment balances her determination to settle herself in the world. This is a defiant act in itself. There is a consistent thread of simmering truculence, not aggressive but focused, affirming. The inaugural poem, “Survivors,” directs the reader to the persistence of nature. Living creatures persist, as the world attempts to undermine their presence. Defiance does not need to be loud, just unswerving in determination.
A poet of great literary range, Barone’s moves from single stanza to couplets, tercets, and overarching free verse built in layers that shift from that softer accessible voice to unexpected endings. Her motifs of place and the connection between ordinary objects, colors, and textures with history provide sensory depth and beauty. Some of the poems, such as “Beauty Parlor” and “Heavenly Park” approach near prose in form, as if Barone is thinking/perhaps reading out loud throughout time and geography. This is not forced, but genuine. I am with her in “Analog Heart,” I draft-write from scratch as I too find it “…gentle on my low tech mind.” A skill that is an heirloom of sorts, the satisfaction of a ding on a vintage typewriter. Two pages later, I find myself nodding over “The Head Nut” poem, a shop in my own neighborhood that sells confections and aromas that evoke memories of childhood. I’ve gladly waited in many civilized lines there, holding on to this community relic that is “slowly vanishing in American towns.”
There is one poem which presents defiance in a different light. “Rest Stop” clearly illustrates defiance as resistance resonating with humor and truth without necessarily resorting to sarcasm. The reference of the hippo’s yawn brought laughter, as this is a visual image not usually associated with the wild, yet Barone’s “…yawn could fill a photo frame.” There are minute details providing a kaleidoscope of “A tiny shock of orange sashays” from the “Bronx Butterfly.” In “Gripped by the Edge of Night,” those of a certain generation can admit in the privacy of their reading the allure or particular appeal flickering on the TV screen, teasing the young mind with the mystery with what is intentionally unseeable. “Message,” a tribute to Barone’s mother, is a metaphor for the hummingbird, those flitter stances, leaving the author and reader “to decode.”
When the title poem “Defying Extinction” appears, Barone has ushered us to this moment. While it seemingly appears abruptly, it is well-placed and paced. It is a strong couplet memorial to the predominantly female casualties of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911. As cloth donations are described to banner-lift the memory of those perished souls, as workers are elevated with respect “…mostly immigrants in a new land,” there follows a razor-sharp reminder. The ending lines plunge into horror, those sparse words conjuring the reader’s imagination of frantic disaster. The final word, “remembering,” dignifies the poem’s appearance in Anima Protection, as a trope in preserving survival and honoring it. In the same section is the excellent poem “Forgetting,” followed by “Mindscapes” to answer the former piece by stating, “The dead impart the best advice.” Barone’s including herself as a Selenophile, in “Lunar Love ” in her fondness for the moon, draws the reader back to the beginning of her work, in the “Sacred Places.”
Barone’s “elements” offer hope, a refuge. For it is the sacred places, the wild, the heirlooms, love and family and anima protection which defy extinction. May it lead the reader to seek their own or find solace in this author’s offering.
Addio, Love Monster by Christina Marrocco, Ovunque Siamo Press, 2022, pp. $16.95
Reviewed by Nicole Greaves
As an English teacher, I tell my students that one of the most magical aspects of a book is that the story is always happening. Time stands still, however, in the story, you slip back and forth through it, following the stitches that masterful writers, like Marrocco, thread throughout and, in the end, fasten together in an operatic close, with a fate that feels inevitable, while readers delight in the reverie that is almost Biblical.
Fabric serves as an apt metaphor for Addio, Love Monster, Christina Marrocco’s, lyrical and astounding first book from Ovunque Siamo Press. Addio, Love Monster takes place during the mid19th century and spans decades in the fictitious Mulberry Park in the suburbs of Chicago, on mostly Singer Street littered with “craning mulberry” with “arms heavy with quilted purple fruit.” In this setting, women cook, clean, iron, garden, and hang laundry out to dry, the literal and figurative. Women, too, become increasingly independent and American, working, confronting their husbands and even, finally, divorcing them. It’s a place where characters, mostly Italian but some German and Irish, hold on to their old world ways yet also meld by buying “American cheese” that becomes more bearable with “tomato and giardiniera,” or are sure to drink milk because the doctor tells them Americans are “all tall” because they do.
Marrocco infuses Italian throughout: banditi, furioso, fidanzata, molto difficile, ciucciariello…reminding us that sometimes words just don’t feel translatable, and that our identity links to our past just as it does our future. She also creates a patchwork for the senses that help readers understand the lure of the neighborhood and its particular interworldly magic, like on the feast days of Our Lady of the Flowers:
And so, the avenue was blocked from cars and sawhorses and streamers.
Lighted arches made a tunnel that gleamed well past midnight in gold and red and
green. The oyster sellers, cannoli makers, beer and wine sellers came forth in dozens and
dozens The lupini man with his huge table sectioned into squares showed off salty lupini,
roasted cecis, and nuts of all sorts, pumpkin seeds, squash seeds, and more.
Her descriptions further compel the setting with exacting imagery like “Milk Dud brown” eyes and “wooden pegs clinging to the ropes like straight-backed men with big heads.”
Reading through the book is akin to peering through advent windows. We move past the curtains into the light of different homes, places, zooming in like onto a stage when the spotlight flickers on to frame one character, yet the others remain silhouetted in shadows. While the narrative voice is omniscient, Marrocco positions us inside each character almost surgically, and as they are illuminated so are our ancestors. Here, through her meticulous dissection, we come to know ourselves even better and how our environment comes to shape us. When Marrocco moves into non-Italian characters, it’s often to reveal how Italians were viewed by others and provide a subtext for how divergent cultures found a home with one another:
His sister Lena had married into Italians and there were Italians everywhere on the block––in fact Mulberry Park was mostly Italians now. A quiet man, Reinhold often felt the Italians were far too much. They yelled out windows and from porches to porch, sometimes laughing, sometimes cursing in their language. But other times he felt freed by them because they appeared to be without subterfuge.
We feel much of that freedom through the eyes of Signora Giuseppa Millefiore, a stregha who emigrated from Sicily with her young family, is the matriarch who takes command after her husband’s death, buying real estate that she fills with her children so that she can keep watch and dance with her grandchildren, offering them Jordan almonds and dimes, and even swallowing the “gritty” earth of her garden to ask that it “continue to feed the Millefiores into the future.” She is the grandmother we thought would never die, who fed us delicacies and seemed to love us better than anyone else. She is the powerful woman who taught us that just our sheer will sustains us.
Yet, there are some characters who remain confined, locked by happenstance. We learn about Josie whose indiscretions come to define her, even years later. She, perhaps, gives one of the most powerful insights in the book when she considers her grandmother for whom she is named: “Josie knew her intimately, but then again, not at all.” This is true of so many of the characters, even husbands and wives. Nicky, the golden glove boxer, doesn’t tell his wife, Lena, that he endured a traumatic experience, spurring fits of rage. She’s left to wonder why he beats her up several times a year, seemingly unprovoked, as she looks for that goodness in him; he’s also the person who wraps his children’s Christmas presents and sets up the tree on Christmas Eve to create everlasting memories.
Then there are those shadow characters who aren’t forgotten in this book, the figures just beyond the curtain, such as the dandelion seller who wanders the railroad tracks, harvesting her goods and carrying fireballs to give to local police officers she knew as boys.
Marrocco masterfully captures these characters’ humanity in the scope of the time period. As Tolstoy wrote: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Maybe the variations in their suffering are only slightly nuanced at times, since they so often fall victim to fate, but it’s there. We come to understand their particular hunger and the source of their envy: Not really for magnificent houses but for husbands who don’t hit them, locks of their deceased mother’s hair, a baby of their own. We feel for the bright Santina who longs to go to college, but when she enters her house steps “out of America” into a “minor kingdom or principality of Naples” where her father serves as king, there exists no such option. Her fate is no more hers than the chickens’ Giuseppa orbits around her to snap their necks if they act unruly. Because of moments like these, our empathy primarily lives with the women of the book. Readers, however, see broader perspectives.
We even hear from the night itself through the voice of Signora Millefiore’s cat, Gatto Fred, who loses an eye to its wildness; however, he still can’t help himself and asks to be released into the dark with its battles and lovemaking, and sometimes both at once. He reflects the larger neighborhood and the natural cadence of life without discrimination. Marrocco also continually conjures birds who migrate and draws parallels between them and the immigrants themselves:
They chattered and twirled not unlike the birds in the trees above them, robins and red winged black birds just come north and juncos and chickadees gathering to head south.
There is a night, however, when nothing unfavorable happens. No one even “stubbed a toe on the way to the toilet.” Perhaps Our Lady of the Flowers is pleased with them and places a calm over Singer Street. Here, Marrocco amplifies fate. Sometimes, we just don’t know why things happen.
Addio, Love Monster is a time capsule that readers sense was harboring in Marrocco, a ship ready to launch. Here, she erects that analog world that made us acute observers. One that sharpened our senses. Even some characters resist TV, preferring card games and the radio. The characters may not travel far, just those three blocks of Singer Street––though some may make it a few neighborhoods away––but their feet do ache from the walk. Even if they leave, Mulberry Park is never far beyond, just as Italy, Germany or Ireland weren’t far for their parents. We may say addio, but the love and the demons dwell in us as one, with a kind of reckoning that becomes that symbiosis of how we learn to survive. This is a book you will return to over and over again to consider that balance.
Marrocco has given us a gift, an afghan made by a beloved grandmother or aunt that is somewhat displaced in our modern world, yet we proudly display it on our sofa’s back, wrap it around us on a cold winter’s night, knowing it will be the very thing we want to cover us as we leave this world.