Since You Asked
I am from dank wine cellars in South Jamaica…from cousins named Johnny, Joey, Nicky and Frankie who harvested Queens grapes. I am from a line of women sporting artichoke haircuts and pink collars. I am also from a Carmine Street tenement that lost its address in the last century. I am from the mind of a man who sent other men to the moon.
From a red-shingled house that echoed with three languages all at once.
I am from a bar in Marseilles; a meadow in Molise, but most of all,
I am from 116th Drive off Sutphin and Foch Boulevards…from a zebra-colored neighborhood where everyone called my grandmother mamma; where cornrows were everywhere but never in fashion. I am from tomato and basil plants strung low with rainbow colored yarns leaning sideways in damp summer soil. I am from gnarled hands that sew and tailor, iron and wash, cook and make all the places I come from.
Las Andeanas in Astoria
They arrive from Ecuador,
Bolivia and Peru, on the sidewalks
in Queens they step in sneakers without socks,
bowler hats top round gold-toned faces
hair tied back in little girl braids
swivel from side to side
between rounded shoulder blades.
They fill blue plastic bags
with glass and plastic bottles
pile them one on top of the
other like shiny blue clouds
billowing out of shopping carts
high above their heads.
I whisper “buenos,” as I run to wake my heart,
keep the memory of the new women
who descend from the Andes
and volcanoes to Astoria’s alleys
trading soda cans and beer bottles
for nickels and dimes.
Bagel Shop, Astoria, Queens
Her grandmother’s silver braid brushes
my back. We are that close
in the Broadway bagel shop.
Her shoulders slump
inside the ruffled polyester blouse
no match for the loomed cotton ones
with hand-crocheted collars
she left back home.
I turn my head, look over her shoulder
to the sharp eyes in the copper
Mestiza face that belongs
to her granddaughter, smiling
a wide grin as she demonstrates
to abuelita how one chews
an American, big-as-a-flying-saucer
bagel oozing with cream cheese
managing to keep the queso
off her shirt or the table.
They are not the Jewish bagels
I came to love as a girl.
Those could fit in the palm of my hand.
Called mini bagels now,
only people on diets order them
or thin-as-reeds Japanese tourists
who file in to taste everything American.
No matter that the counter girls
are from Puebla, Mexico, the owner Korean.
And the cream cheese, not the farmer
cheese Jews and Germans brought
to the Lower East Side, dry and crumbly.
The American type manufactured by Kraft,
works as a schmear that neither
slides nor slips off tough round bread.
Add a lop of coral lox for the prize.
My Calabrese grandmother
would decry eating fish and cheese
together, would not be amused
at how much of it I would eat.
Maria Lisella is the sixth Queens Poet Laureate 2015-2018. Her Pushcart Prize-nominated work appears in Thieves in the Family (NYQ Books), Amore on Hope Street and Two Naked Feet. Her work is also included in The Traveler”s Vade Mecum (Red Hen Press, 2017). She co-curates the Italian American Writers Association readings. By day, she writes for USA TODAY, Travel Market Report and the bilingual publications, La Voce di New York and BridgePuglia