I was weaned on stories. My grandmother would repeat tales of her childhood in Italy, of her prophetic sister who died there during the Spanish Flu epidemic, of their crossing in the winter of 1919 on the ship that almost sank in the middle of the Atlantic, of her early years in New York City. I was especially taken with the stories that described their lives in Settefrati, their town between Rome and Naples in the mountains, and the antics of her strange, deeply religious sister. I see now how those stories were mythic, that they were not simply narratives, they were tales that created an arc of meaning for her, connecting the poverty and desperation of her lost world, her childhood in Italy, and what she had made of her life since then. She, her mother, her brother and her sister Marietta, spent WWI in Italy while her father was in New York; separated by the war they could not cross the ocean in either direction. She said her sister was an angel on earth who had been predicting her own death. When all three children were in one bed with the deadly flu that ended up killing more people worldwide than the war had, the doctor pointed to my grandmother and said she was going to die. Hours later it was her sister who died instead. My grandmother would say that Marietta had taken her place. Marietta had been praying for months to die and in preparation had insisted on making a pilgrimage her last summer during the yearly celebration of the Virgin. This young child, not yet 10, had declared she was not made for this world and made her exit early.
Wanting to keep the stories and voices alive was, in part, what made me want to be a writer. In trying to preserve them, I have learned how complex stories are. They have layers, improbabilities, they leave us with questions. In their retelling they can become calcified or embellished, or they can morph. Even here I’m giving you only the shell of the story as I know it—so much is left out. But it was also language itself that interested me, the music of it, the spell that words make on the reader, the search for what’s beneath narrative and how to say what seems unsayable.
In 1988 I was pregnant. My husband and I planned a trip to Italy that spring. My grandmother had died the year before and I wanted to make a pilgrimage to her town. The day we were set to rent a car and drive from Rome to Settefrati (that was before Google Maps and the town was not on any map I could find—my father said, drive south to Sora and turn left), my husband delayed and we left three hours later than planned. After he got us out of Rome, I drove, jumping out to ask directions in my basic Italian while he slept in the car. We arrived mid-afternoon when most Italians are napping; the town was deserted. Across from the small piazza was a shuttered store with my name on it: Macari Alimentari. We strolled a bit and then I spotted an old woman walking her dog along the stone wall overlooking the valley. I went up to her and spoke as best I could.
There are times when you know that you must break open the narrative you have made of your life, to question the things you believe and the direction you are going. Grief is a good sledgehammer; poems come out of the wreckage.
Take me out of the new century, there’s
a train will go there, backwards, passing among
trees that look ready to burst into flame, past
stone walls giving off baked mineral smells—
I wait for the call, guttural bird settling
in the tallest oak I’m drinking water in
the land of drought, everywhere someone’s
digging for elixir to soothe the sun-sick
brain To tell this history is one kind
of survival but to unhistory myself—
train out of here—as if none of this
ever happened, the thrumming
wings flying backwards, searching for rain
Once armored and scaly, now bloated,
with a wry smile, the dead alligator’s
guarded by vultures who won’t
be scared off A chalky ghost in the ditch,
it’s tilted on its side, legs stilled
along its flank as if mid-step
in a procession, waiting to plod
onto the road, trailed by slime, picked at
by hunched angels The path’s soaked
from last night’s rain, roots combing out
through mud, and I’m paralyzed in overgrowth
wanting to turn back through the wet
slab of air, through insect clouds and webs,
back toward the stench of gator with
its corpse-fuzz, its swarming within
Early morning haze, what’s dead
is living, blank tarmac
slicing the river of grass
- Whose Dream?
Giant trees—conductors of light and dust—
To call something wild is to cordon it off, what’s wild is only itself and we
could drop again into the feral pool, at the edge of everything.
Mornings, where are you when you wake are you dreaming all the time?
When your mind’s habitat tangles, the dense wet growth, we help you
along a path that leads somewhere, doesn’t it?
I’m sure now that the trees speak, that they are intimate underneath, in the
dark, and in the full-haired canopies above. What do they dream?
Giants, some with thousands of years of knowledge stored inside them
when they’re hacked up for their burls—they who pull down the stars as
nourishment, who reach into space and space bends toward them—If we
were conductors of dust and light, if our roots spread for miles, if in our
We tried to follow you but we couldn’t keep up