Book Reviews

Mescalito Riding His White Horse – Inspired by the Musical Adventures of Peter Rowan by Mike Fiorito, O Books, 2023, PP. 112, $14.95 

Review by Nicole Greaves

Mike Fiorito takes us on a cosmic hayride in Mescalito Riding His White Horse – Inspired by the Musical Adventures of Peter Rowan, a montage of essays that weave interviews conducted with bluegrass legend Peter Rowan with mysticism, contemplations on Buddhism, the history of bluegrass, and Forito’s own coming of age in the 70s and 80s. Mescalito Riding His White Horse is, thus, part memoir, where Fiorito underscores how in life, “we have agency, but are enmeshed in history.” Repeatedly, Fiorito meditates on the “alchemical process of music” that so interests Rowan and what Fiorito comes to understand as he delves into the past, the real and the imagined, to contextualize this meditation so that we as readers can join Fiorito’s mind, making his experience our own, just as a song so often does. 

Toni Morrison said: “If there’s a book you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” Clearly, this is such a book for Fiorito. The book begins with Fiorito saying, “I wrote this book because from the moment I first spoke with Peter in 2021, I have voyaged into the origin of music.” This book, thus, is his retroactive roadmap. We learn about Fiorito’s introduction to Peter Rowan through the band Old & In The Way, with Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia on the banjo and how discovering this album awakens a pilgrim in Fiorito who plunges into bluegrass, self-discovery, and Buddhism. We then astral project through time and space, Fiorito’s life and Rowan’s, and reality and various dreams through Fiorito’s psychedelic imagination that begins to emphasize that our great human interconnectedness is best exemplified in music, which we come to see as our emotional core, our spiritual one. 

There is sorrow, too, where Fiorito considers the world today: “The world of new hope and change that Peter’s generation helped usher in seems to be fading in the rearview mirror.” There are times when he looks back at his own losses, primarily his youth, and that hopefulness that our own summer yields, but also the loss of his father, who dies shortly after he returns home broke to New York from California. He writes: “For years I had a recurring dream that New York City and San Francisco were connected by a bridge. I could get to either place in a matter of minutes.” Here, Fiorito’s world begins to fold like an origami bird, revealing that as time collapses, it also takes shape. 

In the next section, Rowan steps in as a father figure or sage, as the archetypal storyteller often does. Rowan becomes the teacher who arrives when the student is ready. In the actual meeting between the two captured in this section, “Interview with Peter Rowan in Sausalito,” Rowan and Fiorito come together as old souls connecting in this lifetime. Here, Rowan and Fiorito delve into Buddhism and the nature of music as spiritual, the origin, birdsong. 

Throughout the narrow volume, we do learn a great deal about Peter Rowan and bluegrass in America, beginning with Bill Monroe, dubbed the father of bluegrass, with whom Rowan played and learned from during his early days playing music. Fiorito carefully distinguishes the two and highlights how Rowan continued to “reinvent himself.” We travel down the Northeast Corridor and hear the stories of those early days through Rowan, whom Fiorito quotes extensively to capture him. We see that reinvention Fiorito addresses, building from his work into collaborations with such luminaries as Gillian Welch, Jack Cassidy, and the Tibetan singer,  Yungchen Lhamo, who introduces Fiorito to Rowan.

It was appropriate that I was driving from Maine to Philadelphia when I started the book. My husband, a Deadhead, was much more versed on Peter Rowan than I. We stopped and listened to the music as it appeared in the book, which felt right to do. Mescalito is interactive, enticing you to pause and listen to a tune as it appears, or lyrics quoted from it. In fact, there are song lyrics stitched throughout. You want to hear them out loud, and I believe that when Fiorito reads from the book, he often plays the music. It would be great if a Kindle version had hyperlinks to the music or videos. 
The title comes from “Free Mexican Airforce” and many sections are also tilted from songs, often from Dharma Blues, a title Rowan experienced some criticism about since someone titled an album the same name in the sixties. Rowan, however, comments that “everyone should do a Dharma Blues album,” speaking to their own journey. Certainly, this becomes Fiorito Dharma Blues. In the end, Fiorito wants us to wake up to experience, and to pay attention. He reminds us that the word “Buddah means wake.” He continually conjures Huxley’s book Island, which begins with the word “attention.” Fiorito keeps our gaze, yet this book is hard to read just once. Like poetry, its layers beckon us to return as it continues to “awaken us in a new world” that is the one we already knew.


Aisle 228, Sandra Marchetti, Stephen F. Austin State University Press, 2023, 88 pages

Reviewed by Jennifer Martelli

Sandy Marchetti opens her latest collection, Aisle 228, with a sonnet about Chicago’s Wrigley Field. In “Frame,” she writes

            Tucked in the western grandstand imagine

            Wrigley: a sliver of light, orange-green

            beams gone between Golden Arches

            as scoreboard plates clink in place.

The poems in Aisle 228 elevate the experience of baseball and the speaker’s devotion to the Chicago Cubs by engaging with loss, hope, love, and connection. With an eye and ear for imagery and sound, Marchetti reaches into the heart of “America’s pastime,” to the choreography of baseball, family, and poetry. The poems become prayers, and who hasn’t prayed for their home team, just like the speaker’s father who

                                    gripes and wipes his nose

            through the April game—

            the team terrible again—

            yet the players lope over this green hill

            and our minds agree to rise

            and clap for them.

            I will make my baseball confession here: I was raised in Red Sox nation and married the first cousin of Tony Conigliaro. I am well-acquainted with disappointment; I am also the least interested of all my family in the sport. And yet, I found myself transported by these  poems. Marchetti’s “Inning Ending Twin Killing” pays homage to my favorite poem, “Poem,” by Elizabeth Bishop. An ode to Pat Hughes, the radio announcer for the Chicago Cubs, Marchetti reflects on the connections made by the sport and the play-by-play announcing, much like Bishop does with the little painting in her poem.

            What a thing

            it is to listen

            to you describe

            grounding into

            a double play. . .

                        This is

            what “we get

            for free—”

            your voice

            for a last

            half inning.

When I think of baseball, I think of all the sounds: the “thwack” of the baseball against wood, the organ music, the announcers, all that cursing! Marchetti, a master poet, weaves sound throughout this book, not only by poetic form and meter, but by her emphasis on sounds and their conveyance. In “Broadcast,” Marchetti employs internal rhyme while describing a baseball radio broadcast,

            The scenes your consonants round—

            those ballpark sounds—scruff rough

            on my skin. You dictate my stillness

            and my bend. Along the network line,

            you refine each strike in attempts to mend.

            Poetry as a part of baseball—or baseball’s poetics—serves as a means to convey loss as well. The sport becomes numinous and ghostly. In “Twilight,” the speaker laments

                                    How can we know

            where the strike zone is—imagining

            cube, filament I could not hold

            in my hand? I asked, “How can

            you tell?” and my father said,

            “Watch—you’ll learn. You’ll know.”

            They play, rhythmic and swift,

            until the young men are gone.

There is an elegiac quality to many of these poems, as if the speaker is attempting to reach back to older connection, much like tuning a radio dial. Baseball is a connection to the speaker’s father and to her lineage. In “Fable,” a prose poem full of delicious sounds, the speaker reaches for her heritage, and for the heritage of her beloved stadium.

            My mother’s parents met in Brooklyn, and I wear

            my grandmother’s stone. I’m sure her diamond

            reflected Ebbets with him in tow, the severe man

            who gifted its glow. . .

                                                                        . . .My

            grandparents headed west after Dodgers left,

            Ebbets sold and blown.

The poems of loss are grounded in place, in majesty of the ballfield. “1060 W. Addison,” is described as “Little haunt, this/was the first heart/break we knew.” It’s as if the speaker’s need to keep things in a place is a way to hope. The homage to Ichiro Suzuki, “Myth,” explains

                                    We want to believe

            in permanence, the not

            quite going, the falling

            back into waves

            and surfacing spring

            after spring. . . .

            Baseball is the thing that returns “spring/after spring.” This is a hope generated through a collective love and listening. “My father thinks you can find/a signal from anywhere—” Marchetti writes in “Listening for Bob Uecker.” There is a surety, not only in the poetry, but in “the distance//spun out its curve/to find you.” The diamond from Ebbets Field to Wrigley finds its way into Marchetti’s ode to the 2016 World Series win by the Cubs. In “Game 3,” the speaker tells us

            The intersection bled into the ballpark’s

            glow. From the streets below, we held

            the diamond aloft on our exhales alone.

Aisle 228 is a book for any lover of baseball, community, or poetry. Sandra Marchetti is a master whose “Hands work the blur.” Baseball—that heartbreaker for so many—becomes illuminated in this collection, as

                        the concave

diamond spreads

            against the night:

            a shallow bowl filled

            quick to white—

            the stadium breath

            flared then folded tight.