A Space Between, by Anna Citrino
Bordighera Press, 2019
paperback 175 pgs. ISBN 978-1-59954-149-5.
Review by Peggy Rosenthal
Reading contemporary poetry and writing about it is my profession. But I can’t recall ever being gripped by a book of poems as I’ve been by A Space Between.
The book tells the story of an Italian immigrant family: the parents, Gaetano and Luisa, living in southern Italy’s region of Calabria in the late 1800s; Gaetano’s decision to leave this poverty-stricken and mafia-controlled area to join other Italian immigrants in America; Luisa’s joining him in California ten years later. Then we follow their lives in this new country, then their children’s lives, ending with the perspectives of two of their adult grandchildren. So the narrative stretches over about a century.
A Space Between, then, is a historical novel — but one written in poetry instead of prose. Each poem is a mini-chapter of this family’s chronicle. And as in the best of novels, A Space Between creates characters whom we come to know well and to care about.
The technique that Anna Citrino uses to lead us into her characters’ lives is to craft each poem in the voice of one of them. Further, she gives to each of them a unique set of metaphors drawn from that character’s experience.
So Gaetano, a barber, sees the world through images of cutting and strands of hair. Explaining why he emigrated, he says, “The many men leaving San Lucido for America/had clipped away my customers, shaved my life/to bare skin.”(35) Once settled in San Francisco, he finds that most of the other Italian immigrants are from Italy’s north, but: “I’m from Calabria.//The south. I speak, and they know I’m not one of them./Like chemicals used to curl or bleach the hair,//they shape and color me into a look they’ve identified/as poor, unschooled, superstitious, and stubborn.”(44)
Meanwhile his wife Luisa, a weaver by trade, sees the world through images of threads, loom, and fabric. Musing on how she and Gaetano have made a life together in America, she says: “I walk through/my neighborhood, a thimble full of narrow streets—a world no bigger than before but strange. Chinese,/Germans, Spaniards, Greeks, we are loose threads/dangling beneath this country’s clattering loom/of tongues, pale faces and pale ways, trying to see/how we might find our way into its fabric.”
In America, Luisa and Gaetano have five children. After Gaetano is murdered by the local mafia because he refuses to pay a “protection” fee for his barber shop, their son Giovanni grabs onto his mother’s terms to express his tangled feelings: “Papa didn’t trust/the powerful—and the powerful took my father from me,//left me with a snarl of yarn wadded up so wrong/I don’t know if it’ll ever be sorted out.” “Old ways, new ways. It’s a jumbled knot.//I can’t unravel much, but I know this: we’ll find a way/to take care of Mama.”(81)
This metaphorical richness is one advantage of Citrino’s telling her story in poetry instead of prose. Another advantage of poetry is that it allows her to condense long expanses of time while keeping the narrative moving. So when son Goffredo later speaks, we know we’ve jumped to World War II: “I didn’t want to carry a gun. I loved music, singing, dancing—/…but there I stood with my brothers//on Mama’s steps shuffling our feet the last night before leaving/for the war.” We also learn why the sons have enlisted: “When not a citizen, what hope/would my mamma have had for not being taken//to an internment facility.”
Through Goffredo’s voice here, we learn of the Italian American experience during this war. In fact, what gives depth and breadth to the entire family saga of A Space Between is that the personal stories are rooted in historical realities: first in the long history of an Italian region, then in the immigrant experience in America.
The inspiration for A Space Between came from the experience of Citrino’s husband’s grandparents, but she did extensive research to fill in the blanks: at the back of the book is a nineteen-page bibliography plus a historical timeline. All this history is unobtrusively conveyed through the characters’ experiences, as in Goffredo’s above.
There’s one exception to this method of keeping us aware of the historical background of the family’s story: a section called “History,” right in the middle of the book. No individual characters speak here; rather, these poems are narrated in the third person. I find this section a brilliant inclusion on Citrino’s part, giving her story an epic dimension. The “History” poems ground the stories of her particular characters — this single family — in their geographical and historical context, from the earliest Calabrian peoples (“in the land of Homer’s Scylla”), through the mass immigration to America (“Between 1880 and 1920,/four million sailed on//to a new world called America”), to their arrival in “a world of bed bugs, rats,/falling plaster,/frozen pipes,/and dark one-room tenements”, to the horrible discrimination against “dagoes” and “wops” (as Italian immigrants were called), to the sense of America never being “quite home” (“you are of two worlds.//You will never belong.”)
Being of two worlds yet belonging to neither: this is the import of the book’s title. Twice in the poems, the title’s terms become explicit. First Gaetano and Luisa’s oldest son muses:
Papa liked to remind us, ‘We left Italy.
We’re in America now.
We’ve got to act like Americans.
Take care of ourselves,’ as if
there was the old world and the old ways,
and then there is the new.
But it isn’t true.
We’re some place in between.
Then in the very next poem, Luisa contemplates:
Today, I do laundry, hang clothes on the line,
empty cotton arms and legs flapping in dry air—
ghosts of who we are, and all the space in between.
These are the pieces of fabric we wear
into the lives we are becoming.…
But there’s always a hunger, the questions
of what it means to belong.
The cover photo of A Space Between shows laundry hanging on a line, “empty cotton arms flapping… and all the space in between.”
BIO:Peggy Rosenthal has a doctorate in English literature and has published many books and articles about reading poetry, as well as editing three poetry anthologies. See her amazon page. She has also reviewed poetry collections in periodicals including Books and Culture, Image, Cross Currents, and Christian Century.