Blood Memory: Prose Poems
by Michelle Reale
Idea Press, 2021
Reviewed by Sheree La Puma
“I can’t get out from behind my own eyes…I wade into imponderables and centuries of the nameless cling to me like a second skin” Michelle Reale, Blood Memory
For those of us that are of Italian heritage, memories are the threads that bind us to the homeland. Histories in the form of oral storytelling were often passed down from generation to generation.
This allowed us to reflect on the culture/individuals that informed us. Yet, today as families splinter off, those very narratives risk being lost forever. Michelle Reale’s new poetry collection Blood Memory: Prose Poems speaks to those bloodlines and the accumulative weight of collective trauma. Reale’s collection is a window into ancestral experience, each poem a freeze-frame, a layer of past lives unearthed like a collection of artifacts. As you read along, the words build upon one another to recreate generational dysfunction, grief, and often-troubling images of faith and surrender. Reale’s voice is both lyric and fierce. She wields language as a tool to chip away at the foundation that she inherited:
“I called you down in a field of dust and bone, your parents speak spread thin and coarse. I shifted ash though my fingers, heard the echo of every song we ever sang by heart. The incidence of bone pierced me in all my vulnerable tendencies which were many.”
It is out of language tinged with hope and regret that Reale manages to unravel the immigrant story. With an ear for rhythmic pacing and an eye for fine detail, she is like a cinematographer zooming in on an injured child, you can’t help but turn the page:
“Every tick of the clock brings a tragic story, even this one to an eventual end.”
With each new generation, something is lost, and something is remade. Reale excavates the trauma of “past indiscretions.” She journey’s from early life to death and beyond with a candid inner dialog that is rare in this type of work. Nothing is left untouched: addiction, shame, rejection, loss, and even love:
“I tried to build a bridge from the unknown to the known place and failed like a shamed schoolgirl. All that funeral food, tough meats and fruit with spiny skin, like all the pills of the terminally ill. Hard to swallow. We speak of the afterlife and imagine our reunion with the mystic figures…the ghost of burned out cigarettes haunting their thick fingers, to say nothing of the women with the still satiny scars across their chests where a breast or two used to be, still worriedly clutching yellowed pearls…”
Such moments of introspection, collide in the shadows to create a litany of loss which expands the poetic discourse. You can’t help but leave Reale’s book with new self-awareness and a yearning for more of her work. Blood Memory is an important addition to Italian American literature.
Interview with Robert Scotellaro author of What Are The Chances?
By Lauren Amariti
After a short fumble with the technology of Zoom that we are lovingly adapting to, I was finally able to sit down on camera with Robert Scotellaro for an interview on his newest collection of flash fiction, What Are The Chances? He possesses fascinating insights into his own process and a unique way of approaching writing. He frequently discussed his use of his notebooks as a primary source of inspiration for his writing and how he approaches writing with the idea of “mystery and discovery” at the forefront of his mind. Scotellaro looks in a notebook at a phrase he previously wrote down and explores a world that concept could exist in; he specifically refers to these notebooks as to why he will not use the term writers’ block.
Scotellaro is a self-described “spree writer,” essentially meaning he does lots of writing at once, and he uses alternative methods, such as these self-made prompts, as a way to get into the writing zone. As a writer, I find this insight intriguing and a special way of approaching writing, a way to take pure ownership over the work produced. Drawing from experiences in the real world allows Scotellaro to be truly authentic. I asked him specifically about his work “Those Eyes In The Rearview,” in which a man is driven to the dentist by an Uber driver who is convincing him he is going to hold him hostage because of his wife’s recent affair. Repeatedly, he notes the crazed look in the driver’s eyes before it is revealed the driver is a method actor. Based on an experience with an Uber driver with troubled eyes, Scotellaro recorded that image in his notebook to return to. This technique helps him write boldly and concisely, an aspect of flash fiction that he loves.
Another part of the process of writing for Scotellaro is that he inhabits his characters, really putting himself in their shoes, a thought-provoking, philosophical way to approach creation. Scotellaro, while joining the Beatnik movement near its close, noted how their philosophical approach informs his poetry more than his flash fiction. However, the poetic style of flash and the ways in which prose poetry and flash fiction are alike, as Scotellaro noted, makes readers wonder if that philosophical mindset can be truly separated from the work.
A particularly thought-provoking piece I asked him about, “The Pencil,” is a story about a school shooting, in which the narrator survives because he once lent the shooter a pencil. Based largely in the reality of America’s gun violence epidemic and Scotellaro’s history as a Vietnam combat medic, he touches on the feeling in this piece of “actually [knowing] what it feels like to have people intentionally trying to kill you.” He discusses the various iterations that particular piece went through, the first of which was written from the perspective of the shooter, a writing experience he describes as “harrowing.”
What primarily connects his works, besides a dog named Edgar, is the idea of chance. For example, the chance that the narrator of “The Pencil” saves his own life by simply lending a classmate a pencil once. Another common theme throughout the collection is that of relationships of all sorts. Scotellaro, again, related this to his exploration of the characters he creates. He noted about these relationships that “the desire to need to connect as humans is primal and primary, and it’s at the heart of most literature to one extent or another.” He uses the commonly seen theme of the broken relationship to build conflict: it makes the stories interesting and, again, gets at that primal desire for human connection.
When asked how his Italian-American background informs his current writing, Scotellaro speaks to how it functioned as poetic inspiration when he was a poet. He wrote various pieces about growing up in East Harlem, a working-class, Italian-American neighborhood once considered a Little Italy. Some family dynamics in What Are The Chances?, particularly in their presentation of gender, speaks more to that sense of disconnect in the recurrence of broken relationships. Scotellaro’s Italian-American experience is more reserved for his poetry. However, there are some accented bits in the collection, particularly seen when characters are eating spaghetti and meatballs, and in some names of his characters. He, however, is currently recording stories from his home and may use them for a future novella, flash collection, and novella of flash fiction. About this collection of work, he wants readers to know how he loved writing and thinking about connections. He eagerly tells me his next project is already complete and is experimental in form, a collection of flash fiction composed in triptychs, as a series of postscripts.
At Ovunque Siamo, we like to delve into the aspects of the Italian-American experience that inspire our authors. Food is on my mind, as it so often is, so I ask Scotellaro about some of his favorite dishes. His favorite sauce for pasta is puttanesca, and his favorite dish is a memory of something his grandmother made, snails in red sauce. He fondly notes how he ate the snails with a toothpick and used the shell to cup the sauce, noting it is a regional, old-world dish from Potenza, where his grandparents are from. He only had the dish three times, but he remembers it with fondness.
by Eugene Mirabelli
McPherson & Company, 2020, 577 pages, $20.00
Reviewed by Elizabeth Jaeger
When I picked up Eugene Mirabelli’s gripping novel Renato, this was my mindset: I was reeling from my father’s death from COVID in the midst of trying to build a writing career and make a name for myself. This is my bias: A deeply empathetic bond with the narrator and main character, Renato Stillamare, himself an artist.
The novel is divided into three sections. The first section, “The Goddess in Love with a Horse,” carries the reader back to Sicily in the 1860s, where we meet Renato’s ancestors, the Cavallùs. The history of the family is told as if it were torn from a chapter of folklore, with elements of storytelling that are reminiscent of Gabriel García Marquez. We meet the family patriarch, Angelo Cavallù, who possesses the hindquarters of a stallion, siring the Cavallú clan, and jaunts off to join Garibaldi in his campaign to unite Italy. We eventually follow his grandson, Pacifico, to America where, after working as a laborer and then a foreman, he settles down in Massachusetts. The section ends when Renato, just a newborn, is left on his doorstep. Pacifico’s daughter and son-in-law adopt him.
In “Renato, the Painter,” we see Renato at seventy. He has moved out of his home, away from his wife, Alba, not because he doesn’t love her, but because he craves time and solitude to paint. His life is waning, and what he craves most is an art show at a gallery on prestigious Newberry Street. He feels such a show will rescue his career and usher in the success he deserves. But art is subjective, and it doesn’t always matter how good it is, what matters is what sells, what captures the right person’s eye on the correct day. “Some painters can’t afford a pot to piss in while others get rich selling shit and it all depends on which one the patron chooses.” Luck! So random. So decisive. Eventually, Renato takes his wife’s advice, sets his goals a little lower, and he finds a gallery willing to show his work. The gallery is not as esteemed as he desired, and the conditions are not ideal, but his work sells.
“After Alba” is the final section of the novel. Renato’s wife is dead, and he’s lost his passion for painting. Drifting through his days, he searches for a connection, any connection to his deceased spouse. He reconnects with friends, and eventually finds his way back to painting. Without his wife, however, the rewards of his work feel hollow. He laments: “I knew Alba couldn’t tell me my paintings were great, and I couldn’t tell her she had been the most beautiful woman in the room tonight.” Despite their infidelities and conflicts, Renato misses her greatly. He waited eighty years to examine his life, and when he finally does, he leaves us with this: “The gods have given us love instead of immortality.” Perhaps it’s because through our love we give others life, even after they have died.
Renato, in the most basic reading, is a love story, but it reaches so much deeper. The novel is a family history, offering a glimpse of life in Sicily and the immigrant experience in America. It is about living life unapologetically, reaching for the stars, and embracing your blunders instead of scorning them.
The prose is magical, especially in the opening section, and the characters are frustrating yet endearing. I close the book and I can still see Renato, alone, paint brush in hand, poised before the canvas.
She Seduced Me: A Love Affair with Rome
By Mark Tedesco
dixi books, 160 pages, $12.93
Reviewed by Mark Spano
Does still exist a passionate pilgrim. Moving inside these walls, who can’t perceive air,
light, the faintness of the stones, imbued with the obsessive ghosts of time…
As a young man, Fellini films inspired me to want to make films. In 8-1/2, La Dolce Vita, and Roma, Fellini dealt with his “passion for place” that became an artist’s muse. And, for Fellini, Rome was that place that became his mistress, his muse, and the seductress to his imagination. This is also true of author Mark Tedesco, who, with his new book that recounts his time living in Rome, She Seduced Me – A Love Affair with Rome, leads his reader on an idiosyncratic odyssey through the capital city of Italy and western civilization.
Tedesco uses a mix of prose forms to transport the reader back and forth through a bounteous past and the anomalous present of the “eternal city.” The author weaves a narrative with personal stories, morsels from interviews, and imagined fictional accounts to create his very unique representation of a place that has been an inspiration to him and so many others. Rome is simply too vast a subject in terms of geography and imagination for one person to definitively chronicle what exists above and below the city’s surfaces.
For millennia, Rome’s siren chant has called to her the most significant artists, musicians, writers, and minds from across the world. One, of course, is the artist/outlaw Caravaggio about whom Tedesco writes, “It was in that middle ground, between the human and divine, that Caravaggio’s work flourished.” Whether in catacombs or cafes, like Caravaggio’s work, Tedesco’s Rome inhabits that “middle ground, between the human and divine.” I truly enjoyed this book because of the personal nature of the author’s impressions of indisputably one of the greatest cities in the world. If you’ve traveled to Rome, if you wish to travel to Rome or only want to travel to Rome from your reading chair, I highly recommend She Seduced Me – A Love Affair with Rome by Mark Tedesco.
The Mercury Man
By Frank Gioia
The Troy Book Makers, $15
Reviewed by Mike Fiorito
The Mercury Man by Frank Gioia is a nostalgic look back at an Italian American experience in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, NYC, from the fifties to the late sixties. Gioia takes us on a journey back to the sights and sounds of that world, from the dress styles to the music and to the codes of behavior, as he experienced them.
And while Gioia is a generation older than I am, I recognize the characters and scenarios in the Brooklyn he describes. I knew guys like his Uncle Nick, the natty dresser. Gioia says, “You could cut your fingers on the crease of his pants.” He says that even his father was a snazzy dresser and that his mother ironed his clothes while listening to Sinatra and Martin. The men’s colorful outfits were only accentuated by the nonnas dressing in black, turning them into penguins.
Throughout the book we get vivid descriptions of the neighborhood. How all Italian neighborhoods in Brooklyn had pork stores, for instance, where you could get “pickled feet, caul fat, and pork skin.”
I said nostalgic at the outset as many of the stories in The Mercury Man describe happy times. I kept seeing scenes from Grease in my mind as I turned the pages. Scenes of drag races, cars revving, firing up their engines. Gang fights where no one dies.
There are also explorations of identity in some of the short sections. How Gioia describes going to a drag show in Manhattan and, as a straight man, still getting excited even when learning that the performers were men.
We encounter the Sicilian immigrants in the neighborhood, who had arrived near the turn of the century, as they take positions on street corners, wearing heavy dark suits and shiny white ties. Some were laborers. The more enterprising ones started businesses, as butchers, bakers, or cobblers. Their children spending their weekends polishing their Pontiacs, listening to doo-wop groups like the Moonglows.
As in The Bronx Tale film, Gioia depicts the Brooklyn gangs, divided according to race. He belonged to the Halsey Bops, which were mostly Italian and Irish kids. Gangs like the Bishops were African American. And although, in one scene, he and his friends spent days sharpening weapons, collecting beer bottles to make gasoline bombs, the result is a member from each gang fist fighting. Thankfully, there are no bloody knife fights or gang shootouts in The Mercury Man.
Gioia joins the army in 1963 to discover life beyond the neighborhood. When the army learns that his administrative skills are better than his technical skills, he’s ironically sent to the Mekong Delta, a battle area, to teach the supply team there how to be more efficient.
Gioia’s tale ends in 1966 when he receives a visit from a neighborhood guy, Mikey, whom he served with in the war. Mikey is a soon to be made man, working in the Gambino crime family. “He’s in charge of all fireworks sales in the city. Drives a new Buick, has an apartment in Manhattan and a live-in girlfriend.” Despite Mikey’s offer to join the mob, Gioia is perturbed by Mikey’s obsession with guns. After his meeting with Mikey, he never sees him again. We can presume Gioia never joins the mob.
Gioia’s Brooklyn is a thing of the past. There may be only small sections, perhaps even just a few patches of streets here and there in Bay Ridge, Bensonhurst, or Carroll Gardens like the Brooklyn described in The Mercury Man. If you want to get a glimpse of that world from that time, The Mercury Man provides an apt window.
The Trinity of Grace
Reviewed by Mark Spano
From Dante’s use of terza rima in his Inferno to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s use of rap couplets in Hamilton, poets have copied forms, invented forms, even thrown them entirely out the window. And what is the poet’s perennially evolving preoccupation with form? If poetry is language elevated and individualized, then what Allen Ginsberg or Shange Ntozake did yesterday, no poet worth his or her salt would dare do today.
As writers, we attempt to elevate language and the experience of reading and hearing language through originality. Whether imagery, voice, structure or even the placement of words on a page, poetry happens when the poet transcends words into something greater than words in his or her own vision.
In the Trinity of Grace, Joseph Amato’s new collection of poems, the work is of a far more contemplative nature than his previous work. These poems are prayers, parables, remembrances, and farewells. In this group of poems, the searing heat of poetic tradition or prosodic innovation is lowered to a simmer. In his eighties, the poet is no longer in need of any sort of gadgetry to tell us of what we all will eventually relinquish to life.
In the prologue to his book, the poet tells us, “I increasingly fly the flight of migrating birds—even dragonflies, the saunters of mammals, the bends of many rivers, and the sounds of black ice.” The reader finds these themes and ideas from Amato’s prologue revisited in individual poems throughout the book.
In the poem “Mourning the Death of a Weeping Willow,” Amato offers poignant parting words for a silent departed friend who has acceded to “Earth’s deep swallow”:
Gone my willow
Clock of life’s seasons
That remind me of birth, death–
Earth’s deep swallow.
These poems are prayerful. Amato’s delicate and elusive handling of words could be read as a subtle liturgy—a Mass for the departing and departed.
When reviewing poetry, I caution my reader that poetry—any poetry or some particular poetry may not be for you. And I offer that same warning for this collection. Should you, though, choose to plunge into this book, you are likely to find a gem or two.
What Are The Chances?
by Robert Scotellaro
Press 53, 2020, 119 pp. $14.95
Reviewed by Lauren Amariti
What Are The Chances? by Robert Scotellaro is a collection of brilliantly crafted microfiction narratives from the renowned author of four other collections of microfiction. He uses this form to deliver to his audience a series of compelling contemporary narratives of the domestic fiction type, depicting love, relationships (some broken, some otherwise), family characteristics, short conversations about the meaning of life, and a dog named Edgar. His writing is understated; this is very much a collection of slices of life. Each story, however, still delivers a profound impact by the conclusion. His form is effective in evoking emotions and fully immersing the reader into a whole universe dynamic in less than 2,000 words. His stories are meaningful and bring a sense of reality to some often unusual situations. Particularly notable is “The Pencil,” a profound piece taking on the contemporary issue of gun violence in the United States by depicting a school shooting centering around a student hiding in the bathroom, fearing for his life.
His characters are very ordinary, but the topics of his stories are unique, sometimes very far out there, such as “Those Eyes In The Rearview,” depicting an interaction with a method actor Uber driver, and “Flatware,” telling the story of a man who stabs his neighbor’s brother in the neck with a fork. This isn’t to say each story isn’t unusual in some way or another, but these tend to transcend the slice-of-life category that most of the other stories more readily depict. There are recurrences of themes, names, dynamics, and the dog named Edgar, perhaps suggesting many of these are linked short stories and tell various parts of the lives of the characters involved in these narratives. What is striking, however, no matter the unusualness of each story, each casts light on aspects of life that many authors are afraid to touch on, such as life in its true ugliest of forms, broken relationships, the scars they leave on the people involved, and others affected.
Scotellaro’s prose particularly stands out as his language is hypnotizing, fully immersing you into a situation you could hardly imagine for yourself, in such a short number of words. His background in poetry shines through in the way he constructs his microfiction narratives, and, specifically, in the language, he elects to use words that make the words flow like water. For readers who enjoy poetry turned prose in short, realistic yet incredibly unique narratives, for readers who enjoy reading contemporary, domestic fiction about the truth of many of our lives in often abstract ways, for readers who like short concise stories with a takeaway that is strong, impactful, applicable to real-life while coming from a distinctive situation, What Are The Chances? is certain to be added to your reading list.
Zen of Pop
by George Guida
Long Sky Media
pp. 97 $ 12.95
Reviewed by Mike Fiorito
Like so much of George Guida’s work, The Zen of Pop is daring and original. The poems are sometimes funny, sometimes sad, and often enigmatic. Sometimes they are all these things at once. In The Zen of Pop, Guida expresses the voice of the musician or song he’s satirizing. We’re never lost on Guida’s lampoon.
The very first poem in the collection, “Untitled, with Barry Manilow,” explores the idea of Manilow singing in German:
I dream of Barry Manilow
Singing in German: Ich bin muzick,
und I write ze songs. Ach!
Guida launches on a philosophical exploration of what-ifs from the scaffolding of this opening line. He sees Manilow belonging to a guild of singers that extends back into medieval times. The very idea of seeing Manilow through this lens is hysterical. But this is typical of Guida. To take an absurd notion and stretch it so far to the edge of credulity that you can’t believe you can still recognize the idea from which it emerged.
The romp continues. We’re now delving into another Manilow song, as if dropped into it, like the poem is a genie’s bottle:
A man under Bette Midler’s spell
won’t question the spheres
He accepts what he hears
as common call. I wish I had
a doppelganger far enough away
who sang and dreamt the way
a doppelganger does. For Barry
it was Tony, who loved Lola,
once a showgirl, many songs ago
Guida invites us to take a ride down the slalom of his imagination, finally asking, “What if Beethoven crooned that tune to Kant?” I can’t stop imagining Manilow wearing a wig and dressed in colorful Enlightenment era clothes, playing by a candelabra.
We’re not always sure where we’re going in Guida’s poems, but we trust he’ll take us there. There is an ease of language in these poems despite the wildness of the ideas. We trust him as a writer.
I sometimes had to read a poem more than once to figure out the narrator and their perspective, as in “The Rumors about Donna Summer.” Observing Guida deftly weave a tale out of an incredibly inventive idea is where the magic happens. There is brilliance in this poem.
In “The Rumors about Donna Summer” we read the narrator’s words. Do they reflect Guida satirizing gossip magazines? Who is being satirized here?:
she was a drag queen (like you) yet Christian all the way (like you)
hated gays, called AIDS a divine plague (like you) died of AIDS spoke
German married a German man although she was a man (like you)
had Nazi sympathies (like you) she was black (like you) was really a
white man (like you) took the name Summer (like you) because it
sounded better than Spring wrote to forget (like you) the child she
could never have because she was like you.
In this poem, Guida pokes at Summer and at the gossip magazines and the people who believed them. I only learned about some of these rumors after reading Zen of Pop. A born-again Christian, Summer continued to deny making the remarks over the years, saying she was hurt by the backlash that ensued. “What I supposedly said I did not say, and my reference to AIDS was really an innocent reference,” she told The Advocate in 1989. “I never said, ‘If you are gay, God hates you.’ Come on. Be real. I don’t understand that. Anybody who really knows me knows I wouldn’t say that.”
Rather than chasing the rumor, Guida leaves us with an epistemological problem, reminding us that there is often a Zen nugget at the center of these poems:
Remembered and forgotten the rumor we hear is ourselves,
you are and death (like you) dies (like you)
when she sings a song (you heard) she never wanted to
Being a Dylan fan, Guida’s Dylan poem caught my attention. In “If Dylan Were a Poem, he’d be,” Guida emulates Dylan’s voice and writing style, being both evocative and contradicting all at once. This poem is filled with quotable phrases, each line annihilating the preceding line as in not a poem but a word in spite of itself / in spite of you but not out of spite, just out and then He would tell you to be your own iconoclast / and then refuse bombastically.
And for Dylan fans like me, this is what attracts us to Dylan. It’s not contradiction that’s captivating to us. It’s showing how contradiction is the essence of being human. And how capturing this in words is Dylan’s poetic genius.
In stark contrast to his Dylan poem, Guida takes a sharp turn in his presentation of Stevie Wonder. As opposed to the word twisting, meaning bending style of Dylan, Stevie Wonder is pure symphonic joy. It’s like Wonder explodes our minds with happiness with his songs. Wonder bypasses the conflict-ridden nature of Dylan and goes right to the heart of a feeling. Guida scatters the words GROOVE, LOVE, VISION, SOUL and HIGHER around a gray square. And we know exactly what he means. Anyone can love Wonder. It doesn’t matter what language you speak. Wonder presses your happy bones; the result is that a part of your brain lights up with the emotion he’s triggering in you. Whereas, if you only speak Italian, Dylan’s music might get lost on you.
This collection couldn’t end with a more clever and more hysterical poem than “A Mother Explains the Lyrics.” Not only is the idea itself brilliant, but it just might also be close to true for many people. If the poem was just clever, it might be boring or feel like it’s talking down to us. Instead, the poem talks at eye level and laughs along with us. Anyone in their fifties knows exactly which artist Guida’s writing about in each stanza. Trenchtown. It’s in Jamaica / The government’s terrible. The people suffer / Nobody cares. / But they’re happy, / because they sing.
Then there’s Springsteen’s “Born to Run.” He thinks they were born to run, that that’s the way to stay young. You can’t stay young. Why would you want to? Zen of Pop is a fantastic collection. Each poem has a way of embodying the artist’s voice and personality. But all the poems hang together. Like all great poems, you can reread them and discover them anew each time. Being simultaneously funny and deeply insightful, Zen of Pop is a satisfying and delightful read.