Collection of Italian needlework pieces, circa 1920
Out of the depths (stuck bottom drawer, old chest)
I’ve dug from plastic-bagged indignity
a mound of lace meringues: fine white crochet,
mine now by force of law, and loss, and mess.
My mother’s hoarding of her mother’s handwork,
chastely intact, most of a century.
Mysterious nonna, visited
too rarely, poorly understood
(our lost words locked each other out;
our only common tongue was food)
I never watched you, in bad light
inventing beauty thread by thread.
What were they for? In the exuberant Fifties,
my mother set them everywhere, such foam-spun
indulgences as social climbers prize.
O dresser scarves, o tablecloths, o doilies
spume-white against her dark mahogany!
Useless but for one virtue: looking nice.
Scholarly monographs explain
how whitework, hung from balconies
in Naples on procession days,
could air a daughter’s worthiness
for marriage. Streets of froth and fizz!
(They make me queasy, facts like these.)
Pinned to the chubby arms and backs of sofas.
Small snowy rounds under the family portraits
and fragile porcelains on the tops of shelves
that held the books no one picked up to read.
The stuff of stiff-necked parlors, only used
for company. Too holy for ourselves.
What happens when the patterns change?
When oceans rip a past away?
Lacework that stood for luxury
frayed to lavoro. Done for pay:
chains into loops, loops into chains,
managed between the labor pains.
And holiness, subject to dust and ashes
(house dust, ash from my father’s cigarettes,
impatient handling, children’s grubby hands)
broke down. Then the tuition for two daughters
meant outside work. I watched her take the strain.
It was the Sixties then. Of course I ran.
Bleach them all spotless. Starch and press.
Plastic defends from pointless tears
each noose around its nothingness.
Hide them, untouched for fifty years.
Never forget, though I forgot.
Leave them to me: executress.
What happens now? Who values patterned beauty?
Form on repeat, like rosaries or song?
It speaks constraint; perhaps it set her free
within its limits. Art strung out so long
is never simple, never a pure line.
All of its sad entanglements are mine.
Nonna I never really knew:
my mother, last of your loved seven
daughters and sons, is dead with you.
From the white rose of Dante’s heaven,
mumble your clipped-Italian prayer
over this frill of sound, of air.