June 2004

Wendy Anderson

poetry

blue suburbia by Laurie Lico Albanese

Laurie Lico Albanese’s remarkable blue suburbia gives us something unusual, a memoir in verse form, which in its opening poem demands intimacy: “come closer,/peer in through our kitchen window/on Christmas Eve ” Inside is a seemingly normal family -- Dad trying to assemble a tricycle, Mom fixing stuffing, kids asleep or a-twitter as they put out cookies for Santa. But right away we realize this family is far from “normal.”

In "The Story of My Life", we get this: “First thing is the belt/worn soft from my father’s pant loops/curling like a black eternity glyph/across my legs, /pliant back of my thighs/hard shin of my calves/in bed, almost always in bed/almost always in the dark/the strap in his fist... because I was stubborn/he says, the belt was a mercy,/if I’d used my hands/I would have broken/your bones." And we get this: “I love my father./How can I tell the story of my life/without starting here?”

So okay, she loves Dad but he’s no softie. And the former neighbors probably sexually abuse their kid and even try to lure the author inside. And some other neighbors leave behind a bathtub full of dogshit and urine smells in all the sinks when they finally depart. And the relatives who come to drink and grill get overly rambunctious and take risks when they play with the passle of youngsters. But that’s just childhood for Lico Albanese.

Her matter-of-fact recounting paints a grim, blue-collar upbringing. Her father is overwhelmed by family and unable to cope with his wife’s nasty depressions -- and her sheer nastiness. But he seems to believe -- and the writer, too -- that he’s loving, just a put-upon working stiff, doling out necessary physical punishment and some hard truths his girl will need to survive. In "Five Best Ways to Maim a Man," he has learned a jail is under construction across from his daughter’s school.

he says I need to know
some things about men...
any inmate with half a brain
and somebody to bribe
could run across the cauliflower fields,
duck under barbed wire,
hide near the bleachers
I pass every day.

I am nine years old.
I listen
with my mouth shut.

She does listen -- who wouldn’t? -- as he explains how to gouge out eyes and drive cartilage into the brain. She listens because she knows “[h]e tells me this because he loves me.”

She’s just as sure her mother does not, and in poem after poem her mother’s extreme silence or spare words to her -- that she’s too smart for her own good, that she’s the cause of her mother’s unhappiness -- are like fists, as she blames her daughter for her own misery.

One does not go through such a childhood without some results, and Lico Albanese can tell horrific tales with a dash of humor. She drinks, does drugs, has severe car accidents at a young age (...crossing four lanes of oncoming cars/shooting between two telephone poles/through a set of hedges..../into the living room wall/of a deserted brick house/that’s what rebellion got me). Her sister attempts suicide. Her motorcyle-riding boyfriend hits her. When her parents learn her bruises come from this guy, her mother “spins around/and spits out/you are a fool/and a slut, to which the writer shoots back, “someday/I’m going to be out there in the world/and you’ll be stuck in these same four walls.”

And therein is the truth. For despite the hard times at home, there’s also the teacher who takes her on, her love of books, and her determination to get out, to do and be something other than what she knows. On her own she applies to college. Finally comes the day when she’s in the car with her parents, driving to her new life. From Five Words: “I was sure/my mother /was crying/because I was leaving home... I leaned forward.../she must have heard my breath in her ear/must have felt me/drawing near/she didn’t turn/but said, in a voice/only I could hear/I’m so ashamed of you...” This “lash of unlove/unleashed me./with those five words/my mother released me/into the world.”

We can’t help but be fascinated by it all, and so we follow as she gets through school, where skinny girls have parents who visit with casseroles while her own mother hangs up if she calls; looks for work and finds it, in large part because of her enormous chutzpah; gives a brief recounting of her love life (an abortion done up in poetry is not for the faint of heart); and finally lands on the arm of a man who gives her the love she’s craved. From "I Hid":

Nobody found me for years. . . .

I hid, no one saw me
until you came along
and we huddled under blankets
reading the unbearable lightness… .

you pulled me naked
in front of the mirror

took my chin in your hands
said, look,
look

and I saw something
altogether new --
I saw my center
filling

But being in love and married, not surprisingly, proves difficult for Lico Albanese, and she constantly worries about what will happen if she fully reveals her childhood scars to this man “who seems some days,/to conspire with angels. I wake/some mornings/next to Nick/and fear this is the day/everything will shatter.”

That sentiment sets the tone for many of the later poems, as she has children, gardens, and tries to live normally -- always wondering if today will be the day everything good comes to an end. She struggles to find peace and put the past in perspective. It’s a slog. When her mother flies in to see her first baby -- a visit that is itself unexpected -- she is downright joyous, and Lico Albanese wonders how to take this woman she doesn’t recognize: “where was she/when I was/young?”

Her relationship with her mother softens with time, but never too much. When she takes another baby to visit her mom, who is dying from cancer, her mother tells her she is lucky. Her response? “...and even in the midst/of this sorrow, witness/to my parents’ heartbreak/I can’t help but whisper/into the nape of my baby’s neck,/it wasn’t luck/you know, Jack/I was determined to learn/how to be happy/before I died” (from "Lives Collide"). Lico Albanese’s tribute poem to her mother after she’s died, "When She Comes to Me", is heartbreaking, as she imagines a tender mother she never experienced.

We learn more about her father in "Good-bye". Her dad won’t visit his own father, who is on his deathbed.

...only the two of them
knew why

maybe it had
something to do
with the way the old man
hit my dad
with a closed fist
year after year

or the fact
that he beat my grandmother
unconscious
and left her
on the kitchen floor

maybe that was all there was.

Lico Albansese comes to understand her folks, although less so her mother. And she understands their awful influence. The most powerful poem in the book is "Once," where she tells of a trying day when she is alone in the house with her boy.

I felt my father’s rage roar inside me
heard his voice in my throat
felt myself getting bigger and louder and stronger
and still Jack wouldn’t stop
still he kept shouting and prancing
and bouncing off the bed
until I whipped the wire through the air
and brought it down on his back...

The poem is chilling and also brave.

She jolts us in other ways. She tells a powerful and convincing story in an early poem, then she just as convincingly tells us later that the scene didn’t happen as she previously described it. We must live with that honesty. It teaches us how tricky memory -- and the art of memoir -- can be. As Lico Albanese says toward the end of the book, “Every word is absolutely true in spirit.”

She ends with the poignant "Moon Over New York," prominently featuring her father, and she dedicates the book to him, as she “never doubted his love.” Almost as an afterthought she dedicates it to her mother as well.

A good way to end this review is with part of her poem "What Saved Me?", in which she credits therapy, doctors, drugs, friends, her mother-in-law, and her faith. But ultimately, she has saved herself, as she realizes, “I was just a 38-year-old woman/putting on her makeup, /wiping a stray fleck of mascara/off her eyelid, slipping on her shoes,/locking the front door,/stepping outside into an/ordinary/glorious day.”

Let’s hope she keeps stepping into glorious days, and keeps writing, too.

blue suburbia by Laurie Lico Albanese
Perennial, HarperCollins
ISBN: 0060565632
211 pages