Book Review

Book Review by Antoinette Libro

Maria Famà

The Good for the Good (Bordighera Press, 2019)

ISBN: 2019943148; 63 Pages

The Good for the Good by Maria Famà opens a wide and revealing window on her Sicilian heritage. In the twenty-seven free verse poems collected here, you will find Famà’s family and friends and their inimitable sayings and proverbs, all of which give rise to these poems—a unique concept that inspires and unites this extraordinary book.

The arresting cover art is from a painting titled Sicilian Street Scene from a Window by artist Rosario Famà, the author’s father. The gently arching window depicted here in pastel tones invites the reader to contemplate and enter the world beyond, where an up-close and intimate visit awaits them.

Famà begins her collection with “Remedies,” a poem about her father, “he who has a remedy for everything.” Here we find a list of fascinating and practical remedies for all sorts of maladies, from “chew roasted chickpeas to stave off hunger” to “dab vinegar on bug bites.” This comforting list of remedies lulls us along until the final line, when father finally admits the one exception he has no remedy for: “there is no remedy for death.” The abrupt rhetorical reversal startles the reader and the truth of it snaps the poem shut in our hearts and minds.

The next poem is inspired by Famà’s grandfather, who in his wisdom, advises us, as its title says, to “Tip the Hat you Got.” Here in the vernacular the poem does for us what some months of therapy might not, which is not only to accept ourselves as we are, but also to take pride in who we are, and as the saying suggests: “Do your best with what you got.” In a few well-chosen words and images the poem offers a precious nugget of wisdom to savor and put into practice.

The intriguing title poem, “The Good for the Good” introduces us to Famà’s paternal grandmother, Maria Concetta, and her maternal grandmother, Domenica, on the way to their children’s wedding. When Maria Concetta is paid a compliment on “her stylish new hat” she responds by saying “the good for the good,” instead of the expected “thank you,” which surprises Domenica. We soon learn that her response is a clue to the steely resolve that allowed Maria Concetta to survive Fascist rule during World War II. As with this and several of the poems in the collection, Famà deftly interweaves historical events within the narrative.

For instance, “Chickpeas” is another poem where history and folk wisdom artfully intersect. Here the pronunciation of the Sicilian word for chickpeas, ciceri, helped identify the French inhabitants of Palermo. “Hold up a handful of chickpeas/Say ‘ciceri’ in Sicilian tongue.” But the French were unable to utter the word in an acceptable Sicilian accent and so gave themselves away as detested interlopers. Interwoven throughout the poem is the legendary Sicilian Vespers rebellion of 1282, which resulted in the massacre of the French under the oppressive rule of French-born King Charles I. The word ciceri repeats throughout the poem like a chant, “Ciceri ciceri ciceri,” until it becomes a cry of personal identity and call to action. The poem begins and ends with the overarching thematic refrain, “This is how we pass down our history.”

The close relationship between two women depicted in the poem Comari, Zia Angelina and her Comare Maria, is remarkable not only for their genuine affection, but also for their resilience in adjusting to the new country. The women find resourceful and pleasant ways to pass the time together. Indeed, the two “…passed flowered china dishes/filled with delicacies/to each other” and “they sipped and dipped” and “they made do/with dishes coffee greeting cards.” Rhyme, repetition, and wordplay combine throughout this poem, and the musicality of key words, phrases, and pauses pay homage to the oral art of poetry. The rituals that deepen the emotional bonds between the two women help compensate for their loss: “to make do/they had to/they made do.” Thus the women transcend their tensions and feel at home despite being “far from their Sicilian town.”

In “Dopo I Confetti, I Difetti,” one of Famà’s most striking narrative poems, we overhear a conversation between two elderly women heading to a wedding on a midnight train. Meanwhile, two young women board the train at Arezzo, “free from school ready for summer fun in Venezia.” The elderly women chat about the bride and groom and the upcoming wedding, while one of the girls eavesdrops on the conversation and hears the elderly women pronounce the phrase, in unison, “Dopo I Confetti, I Difetti”— the provocative saying that means “after the confetti, the defects.” The confetti refers to the sugared almonds given out after the wedding ceremony, sweet delectable morsels -- but the insightful saying uttered by the women assures us that after this sweetness comes the sour – the discord, the defects. We recognize the wisdom of this pithy proverb regarding human nature and the inevitable, if unwelcome, truth therein.

Still other poems cause us to chuckle, as in “Patati,” the final poem in the book, which levels the playing field by the strategic use of the humble potato. “Americans say Baloney!/ My Sicilian family says Patati!” Further, the exchange continues: “Someone says he is a CEO/CEO of what? Patati?/You say you won a prize/ A prize for what? Patati?” You may never look at a potato in quite the same way after reading this poem, but despite its delightful humor, it delivers a cautionary and much needed truth, lest we take ourselves too seriously!

This collection of poetry abounds with wisdom and wit. Just as you will not easily forget the admonition at the heart of the poem in “Tip the Hat you Got,” you will smile in recognition of the wry observations found in other poems, such as “Quanno Quanno,” a poem that assures us of all the things that can and will go wrong once we leave the safe confines of our homes.

In The Good for the Good Maria Famà captures the heartbeat of a country and its culture. Here unforgettable characters spring to life with a few deft strokes and their expressive sayings startle and slip into your consciousness where they will remain. Indeed, the thematic refrain found in “Chickpeas” may be key to the entire book as it reminds us of the familial ties that beckon and live on in the rolling landscape beyond the open window depicted on the cover. Ultimately,

“… this is how we pass down our history.” This is who we are. Here human nature is on dazzling display by the hand of a gifted poet, and you will revel in its infinite variety as you travel from one poem to another, smiling or tearing up in recognition, meeting yourself on every page.