POETRY By: Sandra M. Gilbert, Rose Romano,

Kathy Freeperson, Jennifer Lagier, Phyllis Capello, Maria Mazziotti Gillan, Kathleen Ossip,

Daniela Gioseffi, and Tina De Rosa



by Sandra M. Gilbert



Uncle barney


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.

Flashing membranes.

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

courteous letter:

“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.




the dolls


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.


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by Rose Romano



Native Language Conversation:

Intermediate I


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

rewriting 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

ero divenuta

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.


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by Kathy Freeperson





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

cures infections

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

cleaner’s outfit

sweeping toxins out of the streams inside veins.





(or trying to be italian in the south)


I went low on Parmesian memories

yellow sheets

wrinkling the bed


on my shoulders

with small teethy bites

as if eating pizza

Chicago style

deep dish pan love

one remembers,

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

the sauce


like a low street rumble

For no good reason

you left me.

An Italian deserted

before dessert

is unheard of.

On a small moto guizze

a man who does not barter

not batter

but does like men better

but not because he thinks

them better

grew up with Italians he


thin legs

where once he held an Italian

who thought she was a princess

but was not spoiled


composed of

the same name his and hers

doing calm sweet yawns like

a cat

stretches and struts

nine stitches

from crashes on a motorcycle

life moves too fast for the

Italian sometimes.


NATIVE TONGUE in knowing what

bracchioll tastes like

but not being able to speak


I sigh

the native tongue

died in recipes with gramma and ma and grandpa

making ravioli

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.


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by Jennifer Lagier



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.


My friend,

the tenth child

of immigrant field hands,

describes 400 women and children

falling to their knees,

dragging themselves slowly

in protest

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

expatriate children

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.


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by Phyllis Capello








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.






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.






for L.


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.


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by Maria Mazziotti Gillan



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.


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by Kathleen Ossip



Aunt Mame


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.

I molded


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.


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by Daniela Gioseffi






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.


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by Tina De Rosa





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


The brightness

of this light

sears my eyes

where I lie

with my mouth

in the ground,

tasting death,

tasting the dirt of Israel,

waiting for my blood to spill and change the ground.


I know

if I listened

well enough,

I could distinguish

the words

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

and know

that I have known Israel,

know that I can say:

This is Israel,

as they lift

their white stones

against me.


What is flesh

that I will

so quickly bleed?

Tear me,

and I break open.

I offer no resistance.


They caught me.

Now only I

am to be held accountable.

Only I

will bleed

into the ground.

They say nothing

of Suzannah,

of her beauty,

of her fate.


They have forgotten

so easily

her privacy

brutally sundered.


Her bath.

The pure waters

where they watched her

as they watch me.

None of that

is mentioned.


They say nothing

of Tara

or of Absalom,

nothing of the mind

of David

splintering into anguish.


I am here

my face

to the ground

the hands

of the man

who caught me

are wrapped

around my neck

like a cowl.


Then I hear someone ask a question.





3 March 1996

For Miriam


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 quickness

the fire

the absolute singularity

the light in your eyes I breathed once

then gone.

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

won’t do

I can not say abandoned or refused


misunderstood perhaps.


I remove the lace gloves

from my hands

and the ring

and the mirror

and the child


I will call her Miriam.


I will

always 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.


I breathe.


Angels spill like grapeseeds into my cup.

I drink, I write.


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