Things I’ve Heard While Growing Up Italian by Alise Versella

“You don’t look I-talian.”
“Do you get dark in the summer?”
“Do you know anyone in the mob?”
“Of course she’s Italian, she’s from Staten Island.”
“And look at her nose…”

Yes, let’s address my Romanesque 
That hooked beak
For so many years I loathed
My profile
Learned the perfect head tilt, the proper way to smile

Do you know my great-grandparents came outta Harlem?
Yes, 110th 
Do you know I can’t
Say anything nice in their native tongue

But boy, do I know how to eat
And I can feed you well
Take a look at this meat
This Sunday bread

This superstitious Catholicism
I cross my chest
         There are a lot of names I won’t take in vain
I think about the blood of my father’s 
Father lush within my veins
It’s a stain that blooms
Roses throughout the carpet
You can’t rinse the blemish
Of a created name
But what is a name 
Except a mark of one’s history?

Greasy ginney

I still have the steamer trunk they came with off the boat
Seems unfit that one’s whole life could hide inside of it

My mother’s job at the stock exchange. They didn’t like her name.
She hid behind married 
They didn’t care that Guglielmini means “little William”

People ask why I get so pissed when they miss the proper pronunciation
Of my name
Can never guess that this mess of letters in a foreign alphabet would mean so much to me
At least they didn’t say “hey bitch”

But I have lived for years within this name and heritage
Have grown accustomed to defining myself by the looping Ls that swell 
Off my tongue when I tell you “it’s Versella”

My last name is a verse of poetry
A tree that extends its roots through the city
And connects the constellations like a street grid
A subway map home

Yes, I am Italian 
A vivacious, passionate woman
I know what it is to live
Because we are always dying
Like a language you can no longer recall
The olive-skinned faces of grandfathers long gone

I am holy divinity carved 
From marble 
The grace in a Renaissance painting
The Madonna as you pray for salvation 
Yes, I am indeed Italian 

As golden and blood as oil and wine
And I taste just as sweet on the tongue.

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