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

and pig,

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.

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