Marc Alan Di Martino
Having grown up on the East Coast of the United States, I now live in Perugia, Italy, where I work as a teacher of the English language. I have been writing poetry since 1998, and published my first poems in Pivot - now defunct - in 2000. Since then my work has been published in Rattle, Poetry Salzburg Review and other places. My favorite thing about writing poetry is the chain of unforeseen discoveries that happen during composition - like going to bed in one place and waking up in another - which never fail to produce a sense of wonder in me.
The king of spaghetti. Early 1970s.
In memoriam Roberto Corrado Di Martino (1942-1990)
In memoriam Roberto Corrado Di Martino (1942-1990)
Roberto Corrado Di Martino, my father, died suddenly from heart failure when I was fifteen. It was around 8:30 on a school night - a Tuesday, I seem to recall. I was sitting in my bedroom at my mother’s house watching sitcoms when the phone rang. We rushed to the hospital. By the time we got there he was already gone, lying on his back in his running clothes, his favorite New Balance sneakers on his feet. I don’t think I cried. I was in shock. I woke up the next morning convinced it had been a dream. That was the worst part. It wasn’t.
My father’s death unbalanced me. It threw me into a darkness I’d carry through high school and into college, and finally to New York City, where I would first try my hand at serious writing. My parents had divorced when I was eight, so this was the second blow. For much of my life, however, it was background noise. I made it so. When we got married, my wife and I chose the same spot in Rome that my parents had four decades earlier: Michelangelo’s stupendous Campidoglio with its bronze statue of Marcus Aurelius at the center. My father was a Roman, born in that city during Nazi occupation. He told me stories about growing up in the aftermath of the War, of a place not unlike a Pasolini movie from that period. But it wasn’t until I had a daughter that his death began to haunt me full time. His absence was itself his strongest presence. It begged a reckoning.
My parents had married in 1966, then moved to Boston where my father enrolled in college to study engineering. My mother was a Bostonian - not the Henry James kind, but from an immigrant Jewish family who had made Boston their home. Her parents had been born in what was then Poland - my grandmother in Lida, my grandfather in Vilna. Both were places one might find on the front of a Roman Vishniac postcard with something scrawled illegibly in Yiddish. My sister was born in 1970; I came along four years later. Our family eventually settled in Cockeysville, Maryland, the suburb of Baltimore where I grew up.
My father worked as a chemical - or ‘comical’, as he was fond of saying - engineer. He was also an amateur rock collector with an enthusiasm for the cosmos. He had read Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking, and tried to interest me in their ideas. I was a skate punk. I listened to hardcore music and wasn’t overly interested in books or ideas. Only years later would I find myself gravitating toward the literature that animated him in his last years. Eventually, it would meld with the facts of his life and the stories of his youth into a series of poems.
It is impossible to write about my father without mentioning divorce. It was what defined him for the last eight years of his life. He was a divorced man. Period. Everything else seemed to flow from that. One of the fondest memories I have of him is looking through a cheap telescope from the balcony of one of his single-man apartments (he had many) at the craters on the moon. They were surprisingly clear and visible. He was also a lonely person, a stranger in a strange land. He never quite understood America, I think. Now I live his situation in reverse, as an American in Italy, and it has helped me to understand something about him in retrospect.
Divorced, my father bought a telescope.
He wanted me to learn about the loneliness
he carried in his gut like a time bomb,
a suburban loneliness, an unquenchable solitude
born of an inability to feel
at home at home or anywhere else.
His home was in the stars - was that what he
wanted to teach me? In my eyes
he was alien: swarthy, European,
a patchwork of incompatibilities
passed on to me through oblique mutations
I’ve yet to grasp.
We’d point it at the moon
from our small balcony on Greenside Drive
marveling at its pockmarked surfaces
scanning for life among its lonely faces.
He had an angry streak. His second wife was an alcoholic of the Mommy Dearest type. They lived in a huge waterfront house with bay windows in a Baltimore neighborhood called Bowley’s Quarters. I hated that house. It was full of spiders and whiskey. My father and his wife were married in a lawn ceremony there in 1983, and did virtually nothing but fight for the next two years, often violently. The police were sometimes called in to break it up. His wife would insult him for being a foreigner. He would put his foot through furniture. Sometimes I would find him seated at the dining room table, staring out the bay window at something far beyond. He was engrossed in rage, perplexed by what his life had become, entertaining ways to disentangle himself from it. All I saw was that squinted eye, which for me meant danger, tread softly.
One eye squinted at the world
he broods for hours at the kitchen table
twitching a restless muscle in his brow.
I am afraid to walk across the room
as his cubic anger multiplies
and day recedes without lunch or dinner.
My stomach howls for him to calm himself.
Like Joshua, he is convinced the sun
will stop for him alone, as he tears down
the last remaining girders of our life.
When I am old enough, I meditate,
I will escape from him.
Just then his hand
in one hushed motion - like wind on water -
sweeps up a pepper shaker wordlessly
and smokes its glass against the farthest wall.
My grandfather Paolo was from Sicily. After marrying my grandmother, Santina, they came north to Rome in 1940. He worked as a carabiniere, a kind of military police officer, while she raised four young children in a one-bedroom apartment in the shadow of the Vatican. (My aunt still lives in the same apartment today.) During the war he had a second job in order to put food on the table. My grandmother did everything else, and somehow found time to paint roses and bowls of fruit. One morning he brought home a surprise for lunch - porcupine. During wartime, meat is meat and you take what you can get. And they were better off than most - my father wanted me to understand that. My grandparents both died before my sister and I were born.
When we were kids in Rome, during the War,
meat was a luxury, though we had more
than most. Our father was carabinieri.
Your grandfather, nonno - you never met -
worked the night shift patrolling a rich
American’s villa. It made ends meet.
One evening he spied a fat porcupine
and trained his flashlight on its spiky hide.
It curled into a bush at nonno’s club.
He coaxed it out with tiny bits of bread.
As soon as he caught sight of its ball nose
he cracked open its skull and brought it home.
Nonna prepared it as a Sunday stew.
We ate it - six of us - flesh, bone and sinew.
A funny thing about my father is that he would wake up every night and wander to the refrigerator. He’d hold open the door, the light beaming out across the dark kitchen. He’d swig from a gallon jug of milk, usually leaving only a trace for breakfast the next morning. He’d also feast on whatever else he found in the fridge. Over the years, I’ve tried to understand this behavior as stemming from his undernourished infancy. He was short, and he always told me it was because in his first years of life (1942-44) there was never enough to eat, due to the War. Anyway, there is something comical about this poem which counterbalances the anger and loneliness of the others. I like the image of him as a raccoon - a thoroughly American animal, which he certainly was not.
He’d empty nearly a whole gallon of milk
each night, metal tubes of anchovy
paste, stewed tomatoes, hamburger
meat he called ‘steak tartare’, salted &
peppered, black cherry ice cream
meticulously excavated to reveal
a diminishing pink ziggurat
at its center like a frozen heart,
gobs of fruit leeched to his beard
then walk the house in the semi-dark
his open eye a roving periscope.
Once he snacked on an entire tin
of Danish butter cookies, his delicious sin
betrayed by a tower of ruffled papers
on the kitchen counter - as though
a thoughtful raccoon had raided
our garbage while the world slept.
One of the most irksome things about my father’s death is that I have almost nothing material of his. His third wife, whom he met through Alcoholics Anonymous, hoarded everything. Maybe that’s unfair. Maybe I ran away and she stayed and we lost touch. I was fifteen and, due to some bizarre living arrangement, had to live with her for a year after he died. She was out of her mind with grief, as they had been married for just over a month. It was supposed to have been a new beginning for them both. They had bought a nice house. They both had good jobs. They were happy. Then he collapsed on his way to take a shower. It was instant, like a Polaroid. In this poem I borrow a few images from Virgil and Frost, two of my favorite poets on grief and loss.
The hole keeps growing larger every year.
Its edges gird my world. It eats the light.
Peripheral vision has become a gauze
of half-remembered lore, a loose handful
of objects. Photographs. An expired passport.
A winter coat my mother stitched from a kit.
A chunk of sandstone crumbling in my palm.
That’s it. The rest of him is owned by others
I’ve lost, too. Only memory persists
bringing him back to me like Anchises,
a ghostly apparition in my arms.
Poetry redraws what time erases
but can it fill these empty spaces?
When I left New York for Rome in 2003, I believed I was taking a sabbatical. I didn’t realize I was chasing after my father’s ghost, that I’d spend a year retracing his footsteps in the very apartment and neighborhood where he grew up. But that’s what happened. Of course, I was making my own fresh footprints at the same time, laying down the foundations for what would become my own vita nuova. My daughter, as I mentioned, has made me more acutely aware of my father’s loss. These poems come, in some way, from the stories I tell her to keep his memory alive. Stories have always been humanity’s way to ward off death. Shakespeare, in Hamlet, was writing only a few years after the death of his own son, Hamnet. In the play, Prince Hamlet is summoned by the ghost of his murdered father, who implores him not to forget. “Remember me,” he commands his son. (It has been said that Shakespeare himself played the role of the ghost onstage.) After a lifetime as my family’s Hamlet, I have attempted the Sisyphean task of resurrecting my own father’s ghost, if for no other reason than to say, “This man existed.” And he will be remembered.
He never felt quite at home in America. (I am on the left.) Circa 1977.
© 2018 Marc Alan Di Martino
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