Lenny DellaRocca’s new collection of poems, Blood and Gypsies, is really two distinct books. “Blood,” with its connotations of family and violence, is full of stories of three generations of an Italian-American family. The other book, “Gypsies,” is made up of mostly short, enigmatic, cryptic poems – “vignettes” (that word is in the title of seven of the poems in this section).
But both sections (or books) are imbued with a kind of melancholy nostalgia for something that never was or cannot be understood. The poems in both sections have a powerful, imagistic quality – like things you can see but cannot explain. Thus, the two complement each other, just as that very title, Blood and Gypsies, already conjures something magical, something familiar but strange at the same time.
The first section begins with a poem called “The Trouble with Family,” a comical and complicated picture of family resentment. It reads like a legendary family story about a feud nobody quite remembers the cause of, one that’s been embellished and distorted as in a game of telephone. This is why so-and-so got pissed off at so-and-so and why everything has been changed ever since. Every family has these stories.
And indeed, DellaRocca’s point throughout these poems is that families really are only their stories. In the poem, “Saints in a Fresco” he writes “I am there only by story.” It’s only from hearing these stories again and again over time that he knows about “Far off in the past /my family picnics under an oak tree.”
Or again, in “Burning Names,” when preserving the “younger versions of your grandmother”:
That’s all that’s left of them,
stories in eyes from the other side
of another world.
In “Forty Years Later” DellaRocca writes:
My mother’s voice is the story of women
who live their lives without ever calling out,
a girl’s leap into womanhood.
The very title of the poem speaks of endurance of family through time by the sheer force of story. Her voice is the story.
Blood and Gypsies is dedicated to DellaRocca’s father’s memory and indeed there are several poems that deal with his passing – “The Viewing,” “Listening to Ave Maria on a Sunday Afternoon” – but Biagio DellaRocca is no less persistent in memory and story and dream, where existence is ultimately established. The poem “Dream of My Father” comes right after “Song of Sisters,” which is about his mother’s death. And just as stories are conveyed in voice, song is another potent bind:
Aunt Angie sits at my mother’s bedside
in one-room apartment
where afternoon bakes their shadows on the wall.
She sings a song in Italian,
a song my grandmother sang
in a two-family home in Brooklyn
where late afternoon
that old slice of religion
fell through windows
while macaroni boiled on a coal stove.
The song is warm bread from the oven
baked a long time in my aunt’s voice,
and my mother, dying,
sings with her.
In contrast to this lovely, peaceful picture, “Dream of My Father” resembles images that will dominate the “Gypsies” section, strange dislocations we feel in dream where the laws of physics no longer apply.
This time we sit at the table.
My father, dead a year now,
throws down his cards.
Just so, the poems in “Gypsies” are full of stark images like something from Ezra Pound. In “Eight Lines” we read: “A triangle of birds in the sky // Children under the spell of puppets.” Gypsies actually do make an appearance in “The Arsonist”:
He wanted to be a fine guitarist,
live in Greece
but here in the cold
the gypsies laughing at him
the stinking elephants watching him,
all of them, everything
While the images in the “Blood” section aren’t always heartwarming, they do involve the bind of family, and while we have noted a certain feeling of confusion and disturbance in those poems, the poems in “Gypsies” may convey a greater impression of disorder. What is a “gypsy” if not an alien, after all? The poem that best captures the mood of the poems of this section is the one entitled “The Foreigner”:
He had never been out of the country.
He wondered if any of them would find him.
And as he waited,
some of the girls from town
climbed trees as he walked by,
calling to him in Italian, laughing,
telling him that if he wished, he could
look up their dresses.
And as it was that he did not understand a word,
he continued to walk, smiling,
to himself, without looking up once.
The girls, laughing still, dangled
their young, sun-ripened legs.
Now completely out of the familiar, apparently hiding from a vague “they,” the protagonist of this poem seems to be alienation itself, made flesh, teased by the girls he cannot understand, under whose skirts he will never see the mysteries.
Blood and Gypsies, thus, really is made up of two distinct themes, the familiar and the strange, but like a yin-yang symbol, the two are inextricably bound in true telling of the story of who any of us is.