Shining Rock Poetry Anthology

Poems by Joseph Bathanti

See Bruce Weigl's review of Bathanti's most recent book of poems in Current Book Reviews.


We called it DiDomini Row:
because every soul in that span
of three-storey, blonde brick rowhouses
licking out of Omega Street

glutted, obese, haunted
by the embittered
Napolitano ghosts
of the diaspora

was a DiDomini. Of God.
They owned the bakery
I tripped into dusky afternoons
with three nickels from my mother's change purse

and instructions to buy a loaf of crippled
split heels, fissures, brutto,
but cheaper, good as what sold
for perfect. Bread was bread.

My dad paced the Union side of a Wildcat,
washing dishes at the Kennilworth,
gutting out the steel strike
at the Edgar Thomson Works.

My mother collected Compensation.
Perhaps crippled was an admission of something,
humility at the least a fine virtue
I wouldn't have known a thing about.

My parents, our entire family,
felt the DiDominis held themselves too high
for what they were.
I learned to despise those with more than me,

yet loved my daily errand to the bakery.
It smelled like the Lord God of Hosts.
Behind glassed rows of Italian pastry,
ravishing as stained glass,

Mrs. Di Domeni,
as if just emerged from her bath,
silk summer frock, often barefoot,
peeked over stacked loaves
spreading the counter down upon me. 
"A loaf of crippled, please?"
She smiled and handed me the broken bread,
DiDomeni elegantly scrivened in red

across its white sleeve. Then my reward:
"What cookie, Caro Giuseppe?"
her Petrarchan accent leavened
with the lassitude of wealth.

I wanted to kiss her naked feet,
to live inside her. Sex and money
were the same. In slick tissue,
she handed me the delicate cookie

I always chose and ate ceremonially
on the way home:
first, the fluted white corpus;
then the spall of fudge that crowned it

held on my tongue until it dissolved.
She was too beautiful for the other women
on the street not to loathe:
regal cheekbones, magnificent hair,

the powdered bodice of Sophia Loren,
lazy almond eyes, alabaster teeth,
all that money. They said
she was Grazziella's apprentice strega,

a witch, a gypsy.
She cast the malocchio.
They said she had to get married.
It was Francesco,

her sissy son, she carried.
Moorish Francesco a real shame
fat superior face,
black oiled hoodlum-curl

twisted coquettishly over an eye.
He was beautiful too.
We crucified him for it.
Even in winter he went shirtless.

He loved his big belly.
Francesco had a Negro father,
a long-distance teamster rarely home.
Perhaps a Spaniard. A Cuban.

Anything was better than black.
Puerto Rican was better;
they said that about Roberto Clemente
that he wasn't black, but Puerto Rican

though the color of sizzling asphalt.
Francesco's dad was light-skinned;
that was a good thing.
I'd forget about him,

then suddenly he'd lumber his flame-blue tractor
majestically over the curb,
like a wyvern come to roost,
into the junk lot across from DiDomeni Row

where we played baseball
and park beyond the first base line
in burdock and beggar lice.
Bright License plates from every state

hung from it like scales.
Even after he killed the engine,
it hissed and shuddered and smoked.
In a black Pirates cap,

gold gothic P at its crest,
tall and thin, grey mustache,
he descended silver rungs from the cab,
a little fan on its dashboard.

None of the men on the Omega Street had mustaches.
He wore dungarees.
His glance fell upon us, too bitter
to be wistful, but not unfriendly.

He missed the game;
Francesco didn't play.
He loitered a moment
until an errant ball strayed his way,

genuflected like an infielder,
gathered it up, cocked like he'd fire.
He could have killed us
we were small children

but he seemed fearful of us.
He never said a word, nor did we.
He held the baseball a moment;
then, like an amnesiac, smelled it,

lobbed it back; crossed Omega
and entered the house,
in the center of the row,
where his queen awaited him.

We knew this man as Mr. DiDomeni
though that couldn't have been his name
the black Mr. DiDomeni.
He never crossed the bakery's threshold.

Some said there were two husbands.
But that wasn't true.
There was just this man.
Poor Francesco: Look at the lips,

they'd say, the wiry hair.
There was an intimacy to punching
his unctuous porcine body
like he was mine to take it out on,

the half-breed, the superior boy.
I made him cry.
Wasn't that proof of something?
The slumbering tractor hulked in the weeds;

and, one day, when we gathered
to choose sides,
it would be vanished.
We heard the entire street heard

(and they hated her for this too)
Mrs. DiDomeni in the house,
like a singular Greek chorus,
her myhthic weeping.
Pigeons lined her gutters.
Crows draped the telephone wires.
DiDomini bread was never absent
from our table.

High Mass

Winter Sundays,
when my father was on strike from steel,
he and my mother woke late,
then rose and prepared for high mass
at Saints Peter and Paul.

Wandering into their room,
I climbed into the four poster cherry bed
they bought at May Stern
the month before marrying in 1947
warm from their bodies, their scent,
its voluminous spread
and blankets enveloping me.

My mother in a slip, at her vanity,
watched me watch her in its mirror.
Eyebrows arched, mouth slightly open,
tongue dabbing at her upper lip
the way women unconsciously arrange
their faces when making-up
she plucked and painted, brushed
forever her long brown hair,
circled her mouth with a golden tube of lipstick,
and pressed her red lips together in a kiss.
Around her neck fastened pearls,
dipped each ear to earring,
slipped into her dress and called,
Joe, my father's name to zip it.

Dark, clean-shaven,
he stood at the bureau
where they kept insurance policies,
immunization records,
secret envelopes
choosing a necktie and handkerchief.
His white shirt had French cuffs, ruby cufflinks.
He smiled at me.
That quickly he had her fastened,
his red silk tie looped,
without even looking
into a perfect four-in-hand.

My mother, a seamstress, inspected him,
then patted his blue suit lapel.
She made my sister's clothes.
Those mornings, my father in the house,
we weren't rushed and resigned.
We ate eggs and bacon
and rode to church in the Plymouth.
Marie and I learned as children
never to cross a picket line.

Betsy Wetsy

Apprenticed to motherhood,
Marie made pot holders on a wee loom
and gave Betsy Wetsy her teeny bottle
with real formula that disappeared
with each prurient suck
of her plastic mouth:
bright red, coquettish,
pursed like Betty Boop's,
the same black burlesque curls,
starlet lashes
looks that spelled trouble,
etymology of the word doll.
One of her blue eyes was tetched.
It lolled open of its own volition.
Marie loved her all the more for it.
Betsy Wetsy could wet,
her singular feat,
her raison d'etre,
what we all waited for.
Scandalous: a hole
out of which pee dribbled,
soaking her dotted swiss.
Marie bathed, then diapered, her.
I despised her undressed.
Mother washed her clothes with ours.
My father built her a cradle.
I thought she was one of us
that eye fixed on me.

Please see our Book Review section for a review of former North Carolina Poet Laureate Joseph Bathanti's most recent book of poetry.

These poems are reprinted from The 13th Sunday After Pentecost with the permission of Louisiana State University Press.

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