Donna Masini: Poems
Donna Masini’s book of poems, That Kind of Danger, won the Barnard Women Poet’s Prize in 1994 and was published by Beacon Press. Her novel, About Yvonne, was published by W.W. Norton. Her newest book of poetry, titled A Chain of Such Longing, will appear from W.W. Norton in 2004. Masini is a recipient of an NEA and a New York Foundation for the Arts grant. Her poems have appeared in TriQuarterly, the Paris Review, Georgia Review, Parnassus, Boulevard, and many other periodicals. She is a full time professor in the MFA Creative Writing program at Hunter College and teaches poetry workshops at Columbia University. She has also taught at The Writer’s Voice in Manhattan. She has read her poems on campuses throughout the Metropolitan area. Donna Masini is a life long New Yorker who grew up in Brooklyn. She is a graduate of Hunter College and New York University. Her work has been praised for his communicative power and emotional strength. Her writing has been described as stark and sensual, energetic and intimate. She deals with urban, working-class passions with moral strength and generosity. Her poetry is both visceral and transcendent. Donna Masini is the Distinguished Poet Judge for the Annual Bordighera Poetry Prize of $2000 and bilingual book publication for 2003-2004.
Poems from That Kind of Danger, (Beacon Press: Boston.) Copyright ©2001 by Donna Masini:
My Mother Makes Me a Geisha Girl
It is Halloween. 1962. Brooklyn.
It is late October. Afternoon light
seeps through venetian blinds.
I am eight years old. My mother is
making me up. My mother is making me
a geisha girl, rubbing white paint
across my face, my ears, down my throat.
Under her hands, my head
tilts. She works me over, licks
the tip of the Maybelline liner, marks
a black arch across my brow, adding
the years, filling in what she knows
should be there, the exotic
curve of the eye, hooking
toward the hairline, mole dot below
the lower lip. With a slim brush
she traces red into my lips, experience
paints in the sex. Blue shadows. Green shadows.
One hand twisting the hair from the nape
of my neck, she grips the bobby pins
in her mouth, talks through the narrow slit
in her teeth. Hold still, she says,
and blot and blink.
She lightens, darkens, leaves
a pi ‘le of my mouths on crumpled Kleenex.
She is back
in 1947. Coney Island. A ride
called the Caterpillar, strapped by her date
in her seat. The lights go down, the puckered
larva begins to close, the boy
wraps his arm around her; she has waited
for this moment all her life: lipstick fresh,
stocking seams straight, her stomach flutters, she
stiffens, feels the vomit rising, she smiles
sinking, thinking this is not right, the Caterpillar
crawls through the tunnel, worms in the dark,
vomit rising, she backing away. This she tells me
as if to say the body knows. My body
does not know how to move in this pink
satin kimono she wraps about me. I choke
in the sweet cloud of her
Evening in Paris she sprays through my hair,
daubs at my throat. The body knows.
What my mother knows works on her, working on me.
Mincing steps, intricate hipwork. I can’t
roll like the curve of my mother. She belts
me in, making a waist where no waist is.
My mother shows me how to be sexy.
Shows me my face in the oval mirror. I look
like a doll, all powder and posing,
wanting my own eyes back. How many faces I am.
I hunker down into a small knot,
a dark place where faces float
belly up like bloated fish. The girl
in the mirror is crying, her mother yelling
white paint smearing steamy shadows rolling
down mixing red blue black green.
Nights My Father
We never knew exactly what our father did
in dark basements, late into the night.
His work clothes, cellar smells.
The dark came out of him.
Dirt green, creased black,
ACE in big red letters
a yellow diamond stitched across his back,
below the earth with rats and tar,
roaches, spiders, waterbugs.
Only he knew the way out.
Underground by the oilburners
where the heat went dead
he crawled into iron mouths
hauled out fists Of oily sludge.
Could a man get trapped in there?
Scars, creases where grease seeped in, never came out,
thick soot worms under his nails,
he rolled the hose from tanks to valves
ladies, alligators curled in basements.
When the harbor froze he slept on the floor by his truck.
In the middle of the night there was something
in our kitchen,
rattling through the silverware
in our kitchen drawer.
In the gold night light, a bear,
The thick fur breathing.
I amimed a gun, I shot.
The fur parted.
It was my father. His good suit pressed
But the hands stuck out: greasy hands,
So black the creases darkened as he washed them.
He didn’t need anyone. He could di it alone.
Boildrs humming, clanging, air banging, heart buiilding.
There she goes, he’d yell,
At the center of the earth, where the heat is, and rough hands,
Men’s hands. The way they touch.
Warm ;men with rough hands
Cha-cha bossa nova
The snoring comes from that place,
Low sounds in the body makes.Our father heated people in winter
And he danced our mother
With the grace of a bear,
Iumder red bulbs,
By the Christmas tree
The pudding black, so black,
A cake of shaking oil.
I remember him in winter
Mornings when I wake,
The bridge hanging across the street in the snow
Trucks skidding, whispering in the icy sun.
The whispers from the bedroom,
The creaking of the floor, the whispers,
The dark something dropping, then he snorted through the night
Water dripped, radiators popped.
Don’t touch him, we screamed
As he came through the door,
‘my head in his work clothes.
The dark coming out.
All night the glazy stare at the TV set.
Heart. Get it going. He begins to stamp ans steam.
He went under, down under streets, gratings
The places men went.
Could a man get trapped in there?
Graves. Caves. Boilers. Crawling.
Nights I heard him humming.
Wheel of Fortune
for Mauro Masini (1896-1988)
My grandfather is watching Vanna White.
His loose shirt exposes the bones of his neck.
He stares from the TV to his prayerbook and back.
He is dying.
He sinks into his ninety-two years
dreaming already another place.
One turn of the wheel and he floats out,
Vanna moves forward, shimmers
like a terrible fish,
her voracious smile a revelation of teeth.
I reach out to touch him
his shoulders bird-weak, brittle.
I want to build his village around him, of air and chicken
the soft Tuscan earth.
I face backward to speak to him.
He is a wheel broke loose, spinning out,
his children tethered to the spokes trying to hold him.
A long time ago in a place far away . . .
so his stories begin. We ate chestnutflour,
raised silkworms, chickens.
I left for America with my brothers.
Brooklyn. Old home of Italialn and Jews.
The streets. West Indian now,
Widening their legs to take in the new,
The old Granada Theater a Baha’i church.
Where are the cracks you tarred?
Young man, new beard, walking the streets of an alien city.
Old man whirling through old space
Grasping a wheel,
Scattering prayerbook pages across Flatbush Avenue.
The gold band slips from his finger, too thin now;
The weight of its sixty-five years no longer secures him.
He’s letting it all go-zippers, pajama tops, bowels, and
In a Tuscan village a garden of tombstones, photographs-
my people MASINI carved on a churchyard wall,
terra cotta floor, floor his father laid, tile by tile.
The land he worked. The people he left.
I already miss the particular and definite
movements of his fingers
squeezing a bag of sugar and cream,
the muscular arm stirring a pot of polenta,
the cheeses, the fruits, the bowl of strewwed prunes,
sign of the corss over a handful of pills.
Dante, Recipes. Ave Maria.
He is a child now,
Close to beginnings.
He is younger than I am.
Ninety-two years is not long enough.
He lifts his legs, raises
his prayerbook to the TV screen,
looks up at me, blinking, expectant.
The wheel if turning
Wist, I want to whisper, say your good-byes.
Good-bye to Villa, il Volto Santo, the church on the hill,
to terra cotta, mortadella, Lucca, Firenze.
Good-bye Giovanni, Filiberto, Pietro, and Laura.
the boats that carried you to New York and the boats you
followed going back.
Good-bye to the 1910, Ellis Island, Oliver Street,
the boccie courts where you found your old tongue
The Italian Bronx where you discovered your wife,
her quick hands, her superstitions and fears.
Good-bye to Canal Street, dishwasher jobs
the German baker who taught you:
breathe life into dough-let it rise.
Good-bye to nightshifts and train rides to Brooklyn,
to Holy Cross Church, bamboo cane down Flatbush Aveenuye,
weak legs, unsteady hands.
good-bye to novenas and rosaries, holy cards, candles
to Gloria, Hugo, Bruno, Diana.
Good-bye to the oak chest.
Good-bye to the courtyards you tarred
the stone steps you painted,
the grandchildren who chipped them with stoopball and sticks.
The wheel is turning.
My grandfather is sleeping.
Dormi in pace ora
Dante. Recipes. Ave Maria.