Issue Four - June 2002

From L’Italia to La Merica

By Liza Franzoni

For my great grandmother, Louisa Belfi

From your mountain village
you looked this way
in a dream that filled
your whole belly
with food and children.
In La Merica, you played the mother
to the hilt a relative said
you weren’t a good wife.
Angry and harsh, mama mia,
Yet you never complained.
Always the children, your children
defined your life,
were what mattered
and their strange survival
in this sharp dream land.

I am your unfamiliar descendant.
I am estranged, lost
in another La Merica.
The role I play is this:
the unmarried mother
who brings shame upon the family name. Yet still,
I am a mother like you
and teach my child,
like your children
an awkward tongue,
after four generations
still inadequate.

I speak in English to my child,
translate television, video games,
complex politics, “virtual reality.”
This language of unripe leavings,
of false comings and goings
has no words for kitchen walls
that absorb the sound of laughter
and the smells of many feasts.

In the weedy garden
I dig dandelion root for tea.
Puffballs spread seed
and young leaves make a good salad.
I’m attuned to other voices,
ones you heard in silent Piemontesi;
hummingbirds and buds,
quince and arugula
and crows,
who are here and there
in the tops of tall trees.
Gathering together,
the shiny blue-black birds speak
in loud conversational caws
and from their vantage point
discern the ancient patterns
of human movements
few people ever translate.
Our family flocks like crows
around the kitchen table,
still speaks in warm tongues
at the central hearth.

I think of you, great grandmother
as I stir the pot of polenta
and burn it just right.
Your harsh struggle is familiar,
one whose language I’ve learned.
The battles are habitual now.
Your stubbornness I’ve inherited
for a different war — the same war.

We hear each other’s piercing tones
echo across generations
for our children’s survival.
For us,
marriage is secondary
in our lovely burning hearts.