In Answer to Their Questions

is where I'm understood,
and included,
where aglio e olio
is Neapolitan
for soul food.

means my living habits
are not quirks
but ceremonies, mostly invisible
to the non-Italian eye.
My skin color is olive, not "white"
and the hair spreading down my arms
and legs and over
the top of my lip
is a dense garden
cultivated for centuries
by Neapolitan peasants
digging, dropping their sweat
into the soil
like seeds, passing down their genes
breaking their backs to subsist
resisting their own extinction
down there nel mezzogiorno,
the land of the forgotten,
they clung like cockroaches to life.

My skin color is olive, like theirs,
and the hair spreading down my arms
and legs and over
the top of my lip
grows thicker
the more black pepper I shake
over my spaghetti.

means the boat
from the boot-shaped country
The immigrants teeming like lentil beans
in New York Harbor
exhausted and sick, crammed in thick
below the deck
shoved into steerage like cattle
They made a three week passage
over icy water,
watched their dead family members
heaved overboard
by authorities who altered passenger lists
removing Italian lives
like lint
from old clothing.

meant whole families herded in line
for a doctor's exam,
and someone singled out
as defective
sent back,
Italian in fact
were the syllables and vowels of our long
and beautiful
family names
lopped off on Ellis Island, 
our bloodlines stopped
like zucchini chopped in a Cuisinart,
the original American Express.

Because Italian
meant a country divided,
the Northerner's boot
in Sicily's ass
the Neapolitan shit on
a country torn, and half
living in miserable squalor
in the South.

meant my Neapolitan grandparents
losing family one by one
to hunger and disease
forced to leave
one by one, eldest sons
first in line for a boat
that would deliver them
to a land where the streets
are paved with silver and gold.

meant my grandfathers Dominic and Donato
supporting their wives and children
by sweeping the streets of New York
the custodians, but never the beneficiaries
of that wealth.

But Italian meant
you do what you must to survive
You keep your mouth shut
Celebrate what you got
and be thankful
you're alive.

It meant one generation later
five kids draped on couch and chairs
T.V. blares, Sinatra sings while the phone rings
and my mother finally flings
her hands in the air
invoking the Goddess
Give me one hour of peace. One hour!"

Italian American
meant whole neighborhoods
laid out like a village in Naples:
Ambrosio, Iovino, Capone, Barone, Nardone,
Cerbone, Luisi, Marconi, Mastrianni,
and we 'Mericani'  living right beside
"those ginzos straight off the boat."

meant Sunday morning sausage and meatballs
foaming in oil,
a pot of pasta water set to boil
and the hollow tap of a wooden spoon

or Mrs. Nardone chasing us with the broom
her tomato plants flattened
by the kids next door
We mimicked her English
with up-your-ass gestures
that crossed an ocean
to roost on our hands,
olive-skinned Americans
who didn't know what the hell we were saying
or to whom.

meant the old men playing bocce ball
in Hartley Park,
Mr. Bonavitacola roasting peppers
in his backyard,
and every nose in the neighborhood
inhaling the aroma.

was the horn honk
of Ambrosio's red convertible,
parading up and down the street
on Saturday afternoon
his comings and goings
announced with a musical toot
that never would suit his more Americanized Italian

was the sound of my cousin Anthony's accordion
as he practiced upstairs
squeezing the air
into deep hums and festival sounds,
the accordion strapped to his back
the sun glinting off chrome and black keys,
a taste of Festa di San Antonio all year long.

meant the yellow patties of polenta
frying in a pan,
a pot full of escarole greens
and Ma spreading the lentil beans
on the kitchen table,
talking to me after a day at school
sorting the good from the bad,
the good from the bad
at the kitchen table.

Or my sister Lisa
sitting the kids down,
pouring salt crystals onto a plate on the kitchen table
telling us: "Here's the white people,"
& pouring pepper over them, "And here's the black people,"
& pouring olive oil over them, "And here come the Italians!"
and us squealing with laughter as the oil bubbles slithered  and slid
over the salt and pepper,
retaining their distinct
and voluptuous identity.

But Italian
also means those garlic breath bastards
dirty dago wops with greasy skin
Ginzos straight off the boat
Slick-haired, like vermin they bring disease

means the entire Mafia looking over my shoulder
whenever I cash a check.
"Capone? She's from Chicago!"
and their laughter
because they associate my Italianness
first and foremost
with a criminal and hardened killer.

But, second generation Italian American
means I do what I must
to survive,
means I won't keep my mouth shut,
won't shrink to fit
someone else's definition of our lives.

Italian American
means my living habits
are cultural ceremonies, not quirks.
My skin color is olive
And the hair spreading down my arms and legs and over
the top of my lip
grows thicker and thicker
the more I resist,
the more I insist
on possessing
entirely who I am.

© 1989 –1990

First published in Unsettling America: A Multicultural Poetry Anthology, edited by Maria Mazziotti Gillan and Jennifer Gillan, c. Viking Penguin, c. 1994, and also Sinister Wisdom, a quarterly  journal, c. 1990.

Reading at City Lights Bookstore,      
San Francisco, CA (Oct. 2008

In My Neighborhood

The smell of roasting peppers
was often floating in the air
as Mr. Bonavitacola sizzled them
over an outdoor flame,
the sweet aroma drifting to every nose.

You would often hear the loud buzz
of an electric saw
as the Nardone's next door
knocked down a wall
With hammer and nails
they'd sheet rock a second bedroom
extending their front porch
to accommodate their bursting family.

In my neighborhood
people re-built their homes from scratch
Old toilets sat
on sidewalks
Tomato plants sprang up
on the slivers of land
between sidewalk and street
The neighbors were at it again.
We thought of them as ginzos,
right off the boat
They came from Italy
as we did,
only more recently.

They moved in next door
and next door
and next door
till one by one, all down the block
the dagos flocked
and our neighborhood became
a Little Italy, of sorts
They moved in next door, leaving
their families
an ocean behind

They'd fix up dumpy houses
working their asses off
the whole family sawing hammering
till they made it halfway good
Home sweet home

They sent their kids to American schools
I bambini non parlavano italiano.
Only at home, would they eat Italian food
and speak Italian words.
Le parole italiane esistevano solo a casa.

The Italians in our neighborhood
kept a distance from the Americans
and their strange ways
their broken families, disrespectful kids,
and politicians full of lies
They could never quite trust
questo mondo dei americani
where nothing is superior to
the almighty dollar bill

But in America they could
find a job,
buy a broken down house
and make it home.
They could squeak out
a way to live

Yet decades later, if you ever asked them,
they'd still say
"La mia famiglia e di Napoli, Sicilia,
Calabria, Avellino."
They'd still say
"Io sono italiano."

* The children did not speak Italian.
* Italian words lived only in the home.
* this world of the Americans

Published in Avanti Popolo: Italian-American
Writers Sail Beyond Columbus, edited by the
Italian American Political Solidarity Club,
c. 2008, Manic D Press, San Francisco, CA


Ode to an Ipod

The motor spins
while I listen to thin
wooden sticks
tapping hollow logs
and flutes gliding softly
over green palm leaves
I walk
in a calm forest
not unknown to thunder,
traveling the lowlands of Kenya

Suddenly a bird chirps alone
and is echoed by a whole flock
singing up the sun
singing it over the hill
singing so shrill
while palm fronded animals begin to creep
in the shadows
and the day starts bright and warm.

Temperatures peak and bees swarm
in the moist jungle air.
I lose my bearings swearing
I’m in the lowlands of Kenya
leafy, shadowy, dense
wondering if I’m
chirping bird
gliding snake
or spotted cheetah sprinting
through the yawning trees.


Published in 100 Parades, the California Poets in the Schools Statewide Poetry Anthology c. 2000.

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