Maryfrances Wagner’s collection The Immigrants’ New Camera: A Family Collection has a
I Bring Aunt Mary a Christmas Tree
Oh, what a good Italian woman you are.
You’ve baked biscotti and iced them nice,
pink and green just like I love. And they
taste just like your Aunt Rosie’s. I wear
that lap quilt you made me to dinner.
I’m afraid someone might take it, though.
I can’t believe all of the stuff you bring.
I loved the pizza and the pizzelle,
but I don’t have anywhere to put
those family pictures. You can take those
home. I don’t recognize some of them.
What’s that behind your back? A little tree?
You call that a Christmas tree?
It’s nice that you put blinky lights on it
and decorated it with reindeer and candy canes,
but it’s not more than a foot tall! Troppo piccolo.
Uncle Johnny brought home big trees.
Sometimes we had to cut the tops off.
I used to put tinsel and ornaments on the tree.
They were big and beautiful. Ask Jimmy.
This hotel is too small. I’ll be glad when we
go home. These pigra maids take forever when I ring.
Uffa! What’s that? A crystal star? Too many lights.
Shut that thing off before I quit breathing, and don’t
hang that mistletoe in the doorway. I don’t want
some old coot in a wheelchair grabbing me
on the way to dinner. We’ve got enough
Wagner’s use of dramatic monologue works well here, deftly wrought so the narrator’s presence is just a whisper in the background. The forte voice of the aunt carries the poem, as she voices her judgements. Along the way, details of life in a nursing home create another thread in this dense poem. Wagner balances lyric with narrative perfectly.
No poem in this collection is simple. The stories may appear to be about making wine in the garage or school memories. The overlays of language, however, as well as the implied emotions complicate any topic.
One of my favorite poems is one where Wagner describes miscellanea left in her father’s drawers after his death. The catalogue elaborates more about grief and character than the objects. The poem “My Father’s Nightstand” begins:
I empty the dead drawers
and sort what my father kept close:
Chapstick, shoestring, book of stamps.
Flashlight, two keys, Allen wrench.
The orphaned keys, the wrench, and the flashlight all suggest mortality, the final law.
Wagner collections family stories from all her previous collections in this new book. They interact with each other, so repeated characters, like Zia Rosie and Nonno, develop into full-fleshed companions. Most of the people in the book are dead, so there is an eerie quality of ghost stories also in this interesting and complex book.
History of Italians in the United States often overlooks the Midwest. This book helps to expand the cultural nuances of this region. The family members, however, are familiar archetypal characters that all can relate to. This book is enjoyable on the page, and Wagner will present readings of it in the Kansas City area, not to be missed.
Dec 6, book release party at Westport Coffeehouse, KC, 41010 Pennsylvania St., KC, MO, 7 pm. At 8:00 will be a short reading, and Robert Stewart, Jenny Molberg, and Cameron Morse will be present. Enter through the Green Room or come downstairs through the coffeehouse. If you can't stay the whole time, at least drop by.
The Immigrants’ New Camera: A Family Collection by Maryfrances Wagner, 174 pp., Spartan Press, 2018, $15.00. https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-immigrants-new-camera-maryfrances-wagner/1129786690?ean=9781946642707