Amy Barone’s ‘We Became Summer’: Italy, New York, clear-eyed realism
The Philly-born, Bryn Mawr-raised poet now lives in New York. Her first book of poems takes us to Italy, to Manhattan, to jazz clubs and relationships, and to family scenes.
We Became Summer
By Amy Barone
NYQ Books. 89 pp.
Reviewed by Frank Wilson
If you just skipped through this intriguing collection, reading at random, you might get the impression that the speaker in the poems is a party girl flitting from jazz club to jazz club, boyfriend to boyfriend:
I want to live my life like
Clifford plays the drums.
Which would be "Cooly observing the heady scene … Face masking emotion."
The heady scene has its shadows, though, and boyfriends have problems:
Furtively, I watch him wipe
Blood from tracks on his arm ….
Born in Philly, raised in Bryn Mawr, Barone now lives in New York. This is her first book of poems, following a chapbook titled Kamikaze Dances. She has been an Italian correspondent and a board member for the Italian American Writers Association. Perhaps not surprisingly, there is joy on display in the seven poems set in Italy. Abruzzo especially appeals: "My origins are rooted in a land of untamed nature, / where beech trees shaped like big cotton balls dot the / rocky mountainsides." Unlike Tuscany, "the prissy / picture postcard of a region whose perfectly / placed trees make me think the gods went a little crazy / with their manicure kit."
Though the speaker in "When in Italy" says, "Pledge to stay forever and never go back," go back she does, to the jazz clubs and slippery guys, such as the one limned in "Romance Chelsea Style":
We met in our apartment building …
he kissed me on the subway / after our first date at Maxwell's. …
On my birthday he gave me a gift that will last forever,
a nameless song that called me the brightest star.
It took years to wean myself off him,
much longer than it took him to quit the needle.
Then there's "Home," the penultimate section, the heart and soul of the collection, shedding light on all the rest, not least the music, starting with "Soundtrack to My Mother's Life": "She loved to croon especially when sad. … she romanced life, found beauty elsewhere. / 'The Shadow of Your Smile,' so appropriate, / as her smile sparkled. It follows me everywhere."
As for the "Soundtrack to My Father's Life," "He loved Gershwin, big bands, opera, marching bands":
The house felt barren after he left.
Music no longer sprang from corners of rooms.
Two poems seem especially revealing. "Amelia" tells of her grandmother, "A lady from Puglia," who "landed in Harlem in the early 1900s. / She bore eight children including my father":
Headed by an unskilled laborer,
The family relocated to Bryn Mawr.
Holding court "from a fluffy sofa … She insisted her children see no hurdles."
My father adored her.
My mother said she was crazy.
I bear her name and want to be
nothing and everything like her.
Then there is "At the Bird Sanctuary": "when in the throes of panic fourteen years ago, / I discovered the mini-park … Prayed for nature to take its course."
I couldn't imagine life with an aimless musician,
Preferred the path of travel and that few strings prolongs.
But only for so long: "I now return to pray that nature reverse its course, / for a vitality to return to my mother that the stroke robbed. … Roles reordered, I rush off to an aging parent, / to cook, clean, and shop … I long for conversation that will never come."
The speaker turns out to have inherited a peasant's clear-eyed realism, which lets her see, without blinking and without a trace of self-pity, when the party's over. As she says at the end of "Fall in Philadelphia," "We want all that we had."
Frank Wilson is a retired Inquirer book editor. Visit his blog Books, Inq. – The Epilogue. Email him at PresterFrank@gmail.com.