Half a century in the madhouse: how
did the seasons go?
You were a boy when they put you there—
“brilliant” and frantic.
You “thought” you were “a girl,” my mother said.
She was fifteen. Sicilian.
Had to interpret your craziness
for American doctors.
Brooklyn lowered its gray stone guts
over your head.
You got on the subway.
City College would help. And Virgil.
Uncle Joe the pharmacist chanted Virgil.
You were nineteen. The windows quivered.
What was on the other side?
“He put his fist through the pane,” my mother said.
She wanted to think you were dead.
Outside the high glass of the Long Island sick house
leaves fell and swelled and fell.
Crumbling orange, popping green.
Colors bursting over and over
like glass slowly shattering,
then faster, faster.
Probably the television was on
for the last quarter of a century.
You started with Ozzie and Harriet.
Then Star Trek. Spock.
Leaves flamed and bubbled.
Archaic shades of Palermo, where you were four
when Uncle Joe made his fevered speech
and the family had to flee.
White corridors unwound.
Your adolescent notebooks were gone.
You loved a nurse named—what?—
who sometimes helped you pee.
Your bathrobe fell open.
Your knees ached.
The screen glimmered like a window.
Wars and soap operas. Jello.
When I was fifteen my mother told me about you.
In decorous Queens, I read your college notebooks.
The El still rampaged past the Williamsburg brownstone
from which they took you,
shattering windows, dusting tomato plants.
Now I think:
“There’s no elegy for you,
your language, your madness.”
A quarter of a century ago
I was watching I Love Lucy
amid the bricks and windows of Queens.
I hope you loved Lucy too.
I hope you chatted in Sicilian with Sulu.
I hope when your bathrobe opened
some fierce bird of Palermo
now and then rose from the folds of your body
and spoke Latin phrases I will never know.
letter to yue an
Slit straight across the top,
your empty envelope
appeared in my mailbox three days ago,
and after a minute of rage at the US PO
my blood, as the saying goes, ran cold:
Tienanmin Square, censors, informers—
all I know of your return address,
PRC, boldly spelled out in English characters,
seemed to speak of doom.
My friend the retired foreign correspondent
thought so too:
the slit, the emptiness,
he shook his head, sardonic, grim.
But here are your poems, tossed
naked into the mailbag, lost
and found again, along with your mild
“what has made me delightful
is that all the courses taught by you
suit me perfectly.”
You’re somewhere in Xinjiang, China,
in the Foreign Languages Teaching Office,
and it’s April 6, 1990, as you write
in a neat clear hand:
“I am very pleased to know you
from my friend Han Bin
who is now studying in the Davis campus,
University of California. . . .”
You send poems called “Homestead,”
“The Myth of the Final Century,”
and “Don’t Save me.”
You tell me you’ve read Frost and Williams,
Ginsberg, Plath and Wright.
I want to reply that once I studied
Li Po, that I know how to dream
dramas of the Silk Road, of
Lao-Tzu and of the sacred monkeys.
But I really don’t, and anyway now
your quotidian is mine.
You say so yourself in a single stanza:
“Getting up in the morning
you won’t feel unfamiliar
with dressing, bed-making, brushing
washing and combing. . . .”
Does this mean that, as Auden once declared,
poetry makes nothing happen
so the censors let your letter through?
I won’t believe that
and I don’t think you do either.
Please write again soon and let me know
what this month has been like in Xinjiang,
where your rooms are and how many
students you teach at the Engineering Institute.
In one line you call yourself
“Yue An, an extremely weary guy.”
Perhaps that’s why your poems
“suit me perfectly.”
I won’t save you, if you don’t save me.
And I want to agree that the “final century”
is just a myth.
hid in the toy box,
stuffed with the mysterious kapok
that she said was making me sick:
Heidi, round-faced, kinky haired;
Clara, her giant ragged friend;
daddy’s Genovese sailor lad;
and those odd pals, the bride
and Carmen Miranda
and the black-masked carnival panda. . . .
All banished to the foyer closet,
secreted with lock and key
from friends and “crooks” and me!
“A rag and a clothespin,” she said,
“should be enough for any kid.”
And she should know, she added,
mother and teacher for all those years!
The blue walls of the bedroom shed no tears,
the rabbit knitted into the tattered rug was silent
the way the little girl was silent when she went
into the witch’s house
and understood she was as tiny as a mouse
and the witch knew exactly what to do
with the heavy key to the oven and the torn-up
bodies meant for the Sunday stew.
The little girl was silent and sad and sorry
that the dolls were going so far away,
and only the dolls refused to worry
because they were sure how they meant to live in the closet,
they knew they’d never forget
the glittering Alps that had long ago glazed their button
the oranges that winked on magic islands,
the swaggering Mediterranean on which they once had gazed,
the midnight bedroom’s gates of ivory and horn,
and O yes, the door inside the blue wall, the secret door
that might at any minute open
onto the terrible tundra
where their fur was born.
Native Language Conversation:
I tried to explain
I can’t speak the language
without a dictionary
so many times
I said sì
because I didn’t know
how to say no
I tried to explain
I can write
with a dictionary
so many times
I said nothing
because I didn’t know
how to say anything
ho cercato di spiegare
everyday I worked on my
explanation in my kitchen
alone with my dictionary
polishing perfecting practicing
l’americana è una poetessa
scrive scrive sempre scrive
scrivendo una spiegazione breve
that I could say
a poco a poco
I perfected my explanation
un po’ più raffinata
everyday I practiced
saying it writing it
I was ossessionata with the need to say this
dopo un po’
I had become an expert
in talking about
not being able to
ho cercato di spiegare
non posso parlare
without a dictionary
un’esperta nel parlare
del non potere parlare
and I couldn’t say qualcos’
e meglio riuscivo a spiegare
meno ero convincente
c’è un inferno più
A Little Spaghetti
You’d think a kitchen sink in
Italy would have a drain
that can take a little
When I was thirteen years old
back in Brooklyn
and I had to buy kotex
I’d write it on a slip of paper
and hand it, folded, to the old
man behind the counter at the
corner drugstore, who would
open it up and yell,
“Kotex? You want a box of
kotex? What size kotex
would you like? You want
the big box of kotex or
the small box of kotex?”
And I would hide my face and
think real hard at the other
customers: They’re for my
mother. They’re for my
So I write on a slip of paper
l’idraulico liquido just in
case I forget between now
and when I get to the super-
market, where I can get it
myself off the shelf, unless
it turns out they don’t sell
it there and I have to buy it
in a place where I’ll have to
ask for it and I don’t speak
Italian too well. But
they’ve got it at the supermarket
and, as long as I’m here, I guess
I’ll get some coffee, three new
shapes of pasta, a bag of something
Italians probably think is cheese
doodles, a couple of cans of ceci
soup, and a box of tampax.
One of the first things you notice
here in Alcamo, a small town in
Sicily, is that all women between
the ages of 40 and 75 have short
auburn hair. So here I am with my
43-year-old face and my 76-year-old
hair. The man at the register runs
my stuff over the scanner. Coffee and
he pushes it to the end of the counter.
Pasta, pasta, pasta and he pushes them to
the end of the counter. Cheese things
to the end of the counter. Ceci soup,
ceci soup to the end of the counter.
Tampax and he looks up at my long
gray hair, back at my tampax,
up at my long gray hair, shrugs,
and runs my tampax over the
scanner. And I’m standing there
thinking: How do you say in Italian—
They’re for my daughter. They’re for my
I know I’m getting old. I figure I’ve got
maybe half a dozen eggs left. I’m
pausing as fast as I can. And when
I get home, I take out my dictionary
and my grammar, and I write the
following on a little slip of paper.
Quando ero bambina, indovinavo l’età
delle persone da come parlavano
l’italiano. Le persone che parlavano
molto bene l’italiano erano le più
anziane e avevano i capelli più
grigi. I don’t know what
that means but I think it might
mean something to people with a
christopher columbus sense of
direction. And that guy at the
drugstore in Brooklyn is probably
dead by now.
ODE TO GARLIC
Garlic rolls at Leonardo’s restaurant
like doughboy buttocks
it sweats the chunky plant of miracles
that swears and curses under its breath
the surge of chopped topped food used in
the wars when antiseptic ran out
garlic tastes strong in swimming lessons
in melted butter as chunkfuls come over
like a friendly neighbor and cleans your
blood for you
lowers your blood pressure
witches who were healers buried it under the
four corners of the dwelling to protect you
while using herbal medicine
one clove peeled very carefully and put inside
bad gall bladders don’t like it
otherwise it hangs out in the kitchen
in gangs wearing white crinkle coats all
holding on to the same rope until cloves
separate and one sneaks out,
checks out, before paying the hotel bill
the knife falls, the garlic presses
Oh Garlic, Oh Garlic
the sneaky thief of fresh breath, in the sneaky pool
sweeping toxins out of the streams inside veins.
(or trying to be italian in the south)
I went low on Parmesian memories
wrinkling the bed
on my shoulders
with small teethy bites
as if eating pizza
deep dish pan love
sees dried after the tomatoes
were canned and harvested
from plump fatful work
of the sweet-smelling, bowing
sucking out seeds
stuffing sausage seasoned casings
like a low street rumble
For no good reason
you left me.
An Italian deserted
is unheard of.
On a small moto guizze
a man who does not barter
but does like men better
but not because he thinks
grew up with Italians he
where once he held an Italian
who thought she was a princess
but was not spoiled
the same name his and hers
doing calm sweet yawns like
stretches and struts
from crashes on a motorcycle
life moves too fast for the
NATIVE TONGUE in knowing what
bracchioll tastes like
but not being able to speak
the native tongue
died in recipes with gramma and ma and grandpa
with a pasta machine
no one cares
in inculturating into America
the melting pot made me hot
all my culture sizzled away into steam
Now I am a white people’s dream.
A Matter of Conscience
for Maria Corralejo
First I see the
women cannery workers on strike
whose only bargaining tools
consisted of eight days
of prayer and self-imposed hunger.
Today, Sureño gang members
carrying management-provided weapons
patrol the concertina wire corridors
between busloads of scabs
and picket-line labor.
the tenth child
of immigrant field hands,
describes 400 women and children
falling to their knees,
dragging themselves slowly
toward a church
down the Watsonville highway.
Sometimes, she tells me,
there is nothing left
to place between greed
and the poor
except our own bodies.
Guest of Honor
Over seventy and curious about my mother
and her laughing sister, Roseanne,
he travels from Lake Como,
across an ocean and half a continent
to revisit the California P.O.W. camp
where he lived behind wire
and obeyed armed American guards.
On weekends, my grandmother
signed them out to milk cows,
prune her fruit trees, work in the vineyards,
young Italians captured in Africa
who spoke her dialect,
came from her village.
Fifty years past the fact
of their youthful adventures,
he tells of Uncle Jimmie
slicing through the fence
with his strong wire cutters,
late nights drinking wine,
dancing with Stockton farmers’
hot Sicilian daughters.
At the cemetery, he genuflects
and says a prayer before Nona’s headstone,
remembers the woman who spoke broken English
and braved small town persecution
to support the prisoners of war
who could have been brothers.
Above Lake Maggiore
Here acreage is so precious
it is sold by the inch.
My ancestors’ bones
are dug from their beds
to make room for new homes
on expensive Swiss soil.
The family comes
to read headstones
but finds skeletons bundled
like kindling within a stone cottage.
Grey skulls with empty eye holes
shells of dead relatives
peer back through steel bars
at the children
of their children’s
who stand above Lake Maggiore
staring into open rock windows.
Blue glaciers roll from hard skies
down Alpine valleys
to quiet cobblestones, the silver
spread of high altitude lakes.
My grandfather’s name is carved
upon the rugged wooden door
where our bloodline began
and distant cousins remain,
in a house four centuries old
with mountain slate for a roof,
ancient walls a foot thick.
HOW WOMEN GET TO HELL
With some it is circumstantial;
familiar terrain reconfigures, one
misstep, and lives disassemble;
illness manifests, husbands vanish,
children spin wildly off into darkness.
The certainty of loss is bitter
on their tongues as they descend.
Others march there,
fancied up, lusty enough
to kiss the devil; the gate
swings open; destiny
turns the key.
Some marry the devil,
spend lifetimes exchanging
immense effort for small affection,
terrified silence for perilous calm.
They enter meekly, bereft of thought,
empty of notions.
But the young ones,
because they are blind,
or blithe or beautiful,
seem to find the path no matter
which way they turn;
that slippery, golden path,
which takes them, smiling
and unsuspecting, to the brink;
where they stand, pretty toes
pointing down, ready for the push.
Persephone was abducted, taken
from the light, but some daughters
go willingly; renaming the darkness
love, they step down.
He bought her with trinkets, an ounce or two
of affection; her heart fluttered; she did not
recognize the serpent’s twist in his smile.
The night he told her disobedient girls
were buried in the mountains she dreamed their bones
glowed in the dark earth like weak lanterns, that
their peasant fathers cried out to the Madonna
and crossed themselves as they floated by.
So when the devil bent to unlace her shoes,
she did not object, and went two days barefoot.
The morning he returned, parcel of new clothes
in one hand, vanished shoes in the other,
she put aside her dreams and lay with him.
Shivering, she rose to dress;
this time he bent to lace her shoes.
They drove through the village; the mothers
hurried their daughters away; everyone knew:
he was the wicked prince in the golden coach,
she, his expendable princess.
Quick as gold spun from straw, heroin hidden
in shoes, has made him rich; but when this
senorita arrives (the airport dogs run,
sniffing and yelping, at her heels) she yields
to the customs’ search.
In the old story domination
is a metaphor for passion.
The long, narrow windows of the county jail
shimmer at night; cell by cell,
each woman recalls her passage: the politics
of arousal, the consequence of persuasion,
the sad, seductive, foreplay of submission.
She stopped painting
when age and illness shrank her world
to seasons glimpsed through dirty panes.
Propped on pillows, long legs crossed
at slim ankles, she addressed visitors
in an accent cultivated from the movies,
her ringed hands punctuating the air
like a queen’s.
Slowly, in an offhand way, her story
unraveled: unmarried, she’d borne a son,
a tow-haired boy, blue-eyed, his face
suffused with light.
Among odd treasures (shells and chicken
bones and little tins of buttons) we found
the photos of this hidden life; it was
his drunken father drove the car
that spiraled off the road that rainy night.
In her thirties, the world went to war;
she became a draftsman; in a photo,
posed at her desk, pen aloft, her sad eyes
are turned away from the lens.
Unschooled, but brilliant, she bent
to the task, outworked every man;
of course, they paid her less.
At night she woke to paint her demons:
vibrant as stained glass she caught them
writhing up from hell, screaming mouths,
twisted forms, bug-eyed and taloned
All her days she lived a life surrounded:
hung, floor to ceiling, spilling
from innumerable piles, devils
danced before her eyes, filled up
all her drawers, mocked her
with their lies.
The day before she died, she told
the nurse of a son, how he
was three years old
and somehow left alone.
After work today I’ll go uptown,
fetch her ashes from the budget mortuary.
Won’t we be a pair?
She, dying in obscurity, work
never shown, I , with my
notebooks of scribbled poems,
two working girls,
taking the subway home.
WOMAN IN THE DARK
I dream the waters beneath the earth
rise up, that the rooms are flooded.
Waves lap against the dresser legs,
shoes swirl around in the current.
A river splashes down the stairs
to the entryway,
where we come and go
from our various days.
But what stirs me is not the water’s sound,
it is these tears that wet my hands
and sink my heart that wake me:
half-dead of thirst, half-drowned.
Even in hell Persephone was a poet,
could sense the strong tug of the world,
the moon’s passage, the furious hoofbeats
of her mother’s passion; she’d been instructed
in the frailty of innocence, knew
that beasts were ever-prowling, still,
she went flower-gathering.
He plucked her; she struggled, cried
out to her companions; they tumbled down.
Pounding her essence with his male self,
commanding her to yield the world,
he put his whirling darkness in her.
When it was over
she had to rethink herself,
learn the unfamiliar mysteries of darkness,
invent the secret language of the self,
envision the spinning dance of stars.
To become the brute’s victor,
she’d outsmart him; if he must try
to reduce her, she would enlarge,
wrench herself open,
let the whole world rush in.
I Dream of my Grandmother
and Great Grandmother
I imagine them walking down rocky paths
toward me, strong Italian women returning
at dusk from fields where they worked all day
on farms built like steps up the sides
of steep mountains, graceful women carrying water
in terra-cotta jugs on their heads.
What I know of these women, whom I never met,
I know from my mother, a few pictures
of my grandmother, standing at the doorway
of the fieldstone house in Santo Mauro,
the stories my mother told of them,
but I know them most of all from watching
my mother, her strong arms lifting sheets
out of the cold water in the wringer washer,
or from the way she stepped back,
wiping her hands on her homemade floursack apron,
and admired her jars of canned peaches
that glowed like amber in the dim cellar light.
I see those women in my mother
as she worked, grinning and happy,
in her garden that spilled its bounty into her arms.
She gave away baskets of peppers,
lettuce, eggplant, gave away bowls of pasta,
meatballs, zeppoli, loaves of homemade bread.
“It was a miracle,” she said.
“The more I gave away, the more I had to give.”
Now I see her in my daughter,
that same unending energy,
that quick mind,
that hand, open and extended to the world.
When I watch my daughter clean the kitchen counter,
watch her turn, laughing,
I remember my mother as she lay dying,
how she said of my daughter, “that Jennifer,
she’s all the treasure you’ll ever need.”
I turn now, as my daughter turns,
and see my mother walking toward us
down crooked mountain paths,
behind her, all those women
dressed in black.
There were already two other Marys, so she became Mame.
The family never took my father’s brother’s wife seriously.
They ignored her Shirley Booth babble, changed her name,
smirked at her specious orange pincurls and cotton/poly
housedresses. Only her bulk insisted on her presence.
She was the kind of woman who could live in a duplex downstairs
from her Neapolitan mother-in-law and never bitch. Visits
to Mame’s “flat” (she introduced me to the word) were rare
and hoped for: pink plush carpet, mirrors with gold driblets,
bunches of rubber grapes, K-Mart Venice in baroque
frames, cut-glass bowls of M & M’s and Cheez-its!
She’d serve nothing but Royal Crown cola; died years ago,
survived by a daughter (amateur calligrapher and beautician)
and her husband, with the suave little mustache, a garbageman.
They did not commit this rape wantonly, but with a design purely of forming alliance with their neighbors by the greatest and surest bonds.—Plutarch
Wake up, my friends said.
Those who sleep here
die. But I was dreaming.
A man in gold epaulets,
hair the color of baked clay.
every adorable feature
on tiptoe, blue eyes,
strong hands, lips unmoving or moving
only to kiss me.
I dreamed so hard
I must have conjured him.
When I woke he was there.
His fine lips opened.
My father buys me whores at home.
You I'll take for nothing. . . .
They were right.
It is dangerous, a woman’s languor,
when men dream of populations.
So I try to conjure
a face for her to wear. In this white ward,
faceless men have seized my sleep,
they minister to me
waving needles and fetishes.
Days, I toy with names.
I toy with vigilance,
too late. I count in months.
The pile of shirts and booties grows tall.
I will guard
her crossed eyes and clawed hands with all I have.
I walk on sand,
sink deep into fire.
Sharp knives cut
the walls of my stomach crack
open as glass. My moans
are red jelly, a mass of shining
splinters pokes out through my
belly, you are born!
You are not twins!
You cry and are lifted high
dangling red string.
Numb lungs, living nerves,
this amazing absence of air!
I vomit gingerale
into my just washed hair.
Silver elves in chromium light
poke with needles,
bunch intestines back,
sew flesh seams. Your screams
are stitches taken in me.
They shatter my glass belly again;
more glass spinters fly up.
No warning, no Ladies Home Journal story,
just sudden blood
and you are there
and you are screaming
into my matted hair.
The high white halls of silence,
the sheer falls of light,
with You at its center:
Delicate. Perfect. The rose.
I see You like the eyes of a deer,
Your extremely thin face
under its crown.
So faint You are, and strong,
Your head inclined towards the ground
as though You smelled holiness.
Your legs so stilled,
ready in a moment to flee or stay.
It is Your eyes I know best,
their braced clarity.
What is it You are listening for?
I see You turn a corner,
down the hall,
far from me,
lost like a simple shadow among my sisters.
They tell their beads in their hands.
You slip in and out: the simplest light.
Brief. Pure. Quick.
I move through the pantry,
putting this white bowl next to that, and there You are
placing Your hand over mine. My palm bleeds.
What is this hurried taste in my mouth when I receive You?
Time? Loneliness? Sudden endings.
Mary of Magdala
of this light
sears my eyes
where I lie
with my mouth
in the ground,
tasting the dirt of Israel,
waiting for my blood to spill and change the ground.
if I listened
I could distinguish
of the men
who are about to kill me,
I might even
judge the weight
of the stones
in their hands.
But I would rather
taste the dirt
that I have known Israel,
know that I can say:
This is Israel,
as they lift
their white stones
What is flesh
that I will
so quickly bleed?
and I break open.
I offer no resistance.
They caught me.
Now only I
am to be held accountable.
into the ground.
They say nothing
of her beauty,
of her fate.
They have forgotten
The pure waters
where they watched her
as they watch me.
None of that
They say nothing
or of Absalom,
nothing of the mind
splintering into anguish.
I am here
to the ground
of the man
who caught me
around my neck
like a cowl.
Then I hear someone ask a question.
3 March 1996
ah they call me a poet
but do they know
these drops of blood on paper
that I call words?
who knows the famous writer,
this real lady,
alone in her holy room
with her crystal rosaries?
and oh your face not here
the absolute singularity
the light in your eyes I breathed once
so without exception.
exactly how good are you
where you are not here in any of these rooms?
and oh, what shall I name you?
loss or grief
or something never known
I can not say abandoned or refused
I remove the lace gloves
from my hands
and the ring
and the mirror
and the child
I will call her Miriam.
My hat walks down the street alone
and I am under it.
12 April 1996
With my head bent
like an old cow’s
I consider these skulls of words
these tricky balances.
I move them like dice
or like dominoes.
I set them one against the other.
I run my hands along the walls.
Here. A membrane.
Angels spill like grapeseeds into my cup.
I drink, I write.