Barbara Poti Crooker

    Reflections on Immigration, Identity, and Poetry

I’m thinking about immigrants and immigration right now, as every day it seems one of the presidential candidates is calling for building a huge wall, deporting illegals, raising our quotas, etc. etc. And yet, indigenous Americans aside, didn’t we all come from somewhere else? And wasn’t it a huge struggle and hugely brave of our ancestors to attempt the trip? I’m the grandchild of immigrants, from southern Italy on my father’s side (Emilio Poti) and from Scotland via Canada on my mother’s (Isabelle Smith), and these two contrasting strains of inheritance/ DNA have made me who I am today. . . . I’ve written about this: “I look like I am ready / to dance the tarantella in a dusty square / in Naples, where half my grandparents / came from. And I am also the woman / behind her in the Scottish dress, a primary / plaid, hair the color of shortbread, eyes the color / of tea, the other half of my DNA” (“Two Young Women, the Yellow Dress and the Scottish Dress [Henri Matisse, 1941]”).

My father, as the child of immigrants, was focused on assimilation, which meant that I grew up apart from my heritage, as he was estranged from his family (partly because of his “mixed marriage”). But there was a thaw when I was in college, and so as a young adult I was able to learn about and become part of a large, warm extended family. My grandmother, Annuciata (Emma) Cuccaro Poti, was always part of my life, and I cherish her stories while at the same time, I regret the questions I didn’t know to ask. Some years after her death, I tried to find information about her coming to America via the Ellis Island website, but came up blank. On the advice of a cousin of my father’s (I knew the year and the name of the ship), I went back to the Ellis Island site, only this time, I looked on the ship’s manifest. There I found my grandmother, her sisters, and her mother, all listed as “baggage,” because they were women. Here is the end of a poem I wrote about this, pondering their journey: “How could they imagine / a passport, red and gold, the towering stone forests of the terra nova / that would one day fill the horizon past the railing of the SS Nord America, / where a small eleven-year-old girl, my grandmother, recorded only / as part of the baggage of her uncle Gaetano, finally reaches the shore” (“The Map of the World, 1630, by Henricus Hondrius”).

They didn’t come to steal jobs from other Americans; they came because they were starving. And also because they had skills, as tailors and seamstresses. My grandmother worked in alterations in the big Bonwit Teller store in Boston into her late eighties. Among the many things she taught me was the virtue of patience: “She taught me how to sew, / made me rip out mistakes, fix crooked seams, taught me everything / I needed about editing and revision: “if something ‘s worth doing, it ‘s worth doing well. / Submission, rejection, submission, rejection, pacienza, pacienza (“Wrapping Paper”).

My grandmother was also a talented knitter; I have a three-part poem that uses knitting as a metaphor for each generation, ending with these lines: “I take words and knit them back in poems. / Something could be made of this” (“Knitting”). It’s not a huge leap to realize the connections between sewing, knitting, domestic needlework (my grandmother also did biancheria) and the struggle to pin meaning to an image, patch and darn early drafts, untangle skeins of memory, twist a thin filament into something beautiful, into a poem. My family is also unusual in that a third cousin who did some genealogy found that although a village near Napoli was the point of embarkation for the Potis, the family had originally come from Corsica, and prior to that, from mainland France, probably Brittany. A strong Celtic gene would explain, I think, my blue eyes and red-haired children. From these forbears, and from my mother’s side, I think I’ve picked up another valuable trait, which is stubbornness. It’s not easy being a writer today—you need a hefty dose of stubbornness to not become discouraged by the weight of rejection we all must bear.

The final gift from my immigrant ancestors is love: love of food, love of gardening, love of art. This is the wellspring from which I drink. I have many ekphrastic poems, where words have a conversation with painting. And I have many poems on food, including this one on zucchini which ends my fourth book: “In Corsica, my ancestors weeded / around your roots with zappas, / leaned on them to survey their zolas, / small plots, hoed them smooth / as a Zamboni clears the ice . . . .” (“Zucchini”).

    Sketch for ‘Le Bonheur de Vivre,’ 1905
    The Happiness of Life, Henri Matisse

So, this is a schematic, a long smear of teal on the left,
soft greens, synthetic blues, glowing golds mixed with
hard mineral pinks filling out the rest of the frame. Later,
this sketch will realize itself into a scene of bathers, serpentine
art nouveau curves lounging on the yellow lawn, the tropical
jungle foliage exploding behind them. But who can describe
the color of happiness? Could it be days like this, clear,
mellow, no fogs of loss creeping in? Days when not much
happens, the October sun coaxing gold from the leaves,
the earth turning one more notch? Let the busy world spin.
Let me sit here as the afternoon ripens. If happiness is a color,
let it be tactile, tangible, something I can eat with a spoon.
Because all too soon, there will be Death, sitting in the corner,
nursing his cognac. Let me lick up all the sweetness while I can.

    Lighthouse and Buildings, Portland Head, Cape Elizabeth, Maine, 1921
    Edward Hopper for Linnea

This April day’s as golden as the Allagash beer we drank
on that wharf in Portland; the translucent plate of oysters,
the sunlit wedge of lemon—You drove me out to Portland Head
to see the lighthouse Hopper painted, although walking was difficult—
your labored breath, your stiffened joints, your gimpy heart—
So we sat on the rocks outside the frame, breathing in the salt air,
holding our faces up to the sun. Your red hair, brighter than the signal
lamp calling the sailors home. I’d left a bad winter behind, so much snow
we thought there’d still be piles left in the blue shadows come July.
But there we were, on a perfect spring day, the sky the nacre of the inside
of a shell, the ocean laid against the horizon like a knife edge, our backs
resting on the jetty’s warm rocks. The buff and tan meadow grass
exhaled with the wind.

And then, years later, an email with the header: sad news, and I don’t want
to open it. Grief unhinges me like a shellfish. Hopper said All I ever wanted to do
was paint sunlight on the side of a barn. Or on a lighthouse. Look what he does
with his surfaces. Look how the two of us still sit there, beyond the borders,
part of the painting, whose subject is light.

    Word Search

This day draws the story in desultory,
the slow plodding narrative of the snow.
It takes apart collection, finds the low
haunting notes of a cello within. It sees
that silent and listen are one and the same,
that within its cage of letters, hearth contains
both heat and earth. Be alert. A kind word
is hidden in sword. A golfer’s stance
lies in the distance. Golf written backwards
is flog. Refer has it both ways, coming
and going. If you turn wolf inside out,
you get flow, clear water running down
to the sea, beside which sheep
may safely graze, by the desultory
waters, on the earth.

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