Two Book Reviews

Days We Are Given by Alice D’Alessio. Buffalo, NY: Earth’s Daughters, 2009. $10.

Reviewed by Ralph Murre

Why is it, I wonder, that parents so rarely fare well in poetry written by their offspring?  You might suspect, after reading a large part of what’s available on the current scene, that (a.) poets’ parents are mostly terrible people, or (b.) good parents simply don’t engender good poetry.  There’s another possibility, though.  It may well be that it takes a much better than average poet to write in a way that makes us want to hear about the parent who is guilty only of being human; to write in a way that discovers the nuances of that parent.  Alice D’Alessio is such a poet.  In the first of three distinct sections of her Days We Are Given, she speaks elegantly of the youthful desire to be anything but elegant, about a grandmother’s insistence upon making a young lady of tomboy Alice; of a mother whose sin was in being, perhaps, average:

      I wanted nothing but to not be you:
      shapeless in flowered housedress
      sewn from Woolworth fabric
      frizz-permed and tediously
      gabby after church, while I sighed,
      weight-shifting foot to foot,
      cringing when the ladies gushed,
      You look just like your mother.  

She writes of a father who was, maybe, overly intent upon filling his children’s heads with all the facts and formulas that he thought they’d need: “ . . . (How far to the moon? How long / would it take you in a spaceship at 2000 mph?) / We were your projects; you, the engineer.  . . .

The second section of  D’Alessio’s book is set in the waning days of her first marriage, but still, there’s her mother: “. . . Her voice soft as the baby sweaters / that spun endlessly from her needles . . . What will the boys want for dinner, she said. / Woman’s Day has a good recipe. . . .”   And that, as Alice is arranging chairs on the deck of the sinking ship of matrimony –

     Cheap lawn chairs, they move easily,
      scrape the cobblestones
      like metal fingers.
      Too close, too far away.  I keep moving them –
      Facing each other?  Side by side?
      An inch or two this way, and that.  As if
      all the world depends on how we sit.
      As if we are Palestinian and Jew
      forging impossible treaties,
      and not two nice people who never learned to talk,
      who let the silence go on widening
      to a chasm no words could ever bridge.

All of this sets the stage of course, for D’Alessio to rise, if not from ashes, then at least from a life perceived as humdrum.  In the third and final section of Days We Are Given, the poet travels to a new life, a new mate, a different landscape of the psyche.  She does not travel without baggage, to be sure, but

     Yes, yes, I say.  The valley
      stretches like an anthem, the cliffs
      hold up the sky, tree solemn.  Only the birds
      and space to breathe.  Poems flutter
      from every twig.  Oh yes.  I say.
      Here   is the where   I was going to.

It’s a rare thing to find a book of poetry, if the poetry is any good, which you want to read straight through because you can’t let go of the story.  It’s likely that you’ll read Alice D’Alessio’s Days We Are Given just that way.  And then, I think, you’ll go back again and again to remind yourself just how wonderfully wrought the individual poems are, and how, though they are memoir, they speak to all of us.

Ralph Murre, of Sheboygan, Milwaukee, Hubertus, Kewaskum, Maplewood, Algoma, Fish Creek, Sister Bay, Ellison Bay, Egg Harbor, La Crosse, Ephraim, and Jacksonport, now lives in Baileys Harbor.  He’s also had several addresses in California, Kentucky, and Florida, but prefers Wisconsin.