Thomas Centolella

Thomas Centolella

The Country Inside Me

I have a terrible confession to make: I have never been to Italy. The land of my paternal grandmother and grandfather, the language my own father was fluent in yet never taught me or my siblings, has existed for me as a dream and a longing unfulfilled. Every time someone mentions their fantastic visit to Italy, or posts photos online of the Forum and the David and the colorful Tuscan dish they had for dinner, I am torn between wanting to weep and wanting to scream. I will get there, I keep promising myself, and sooner rather than later. And yet, here I am: in San Francisco, tethered to a laptop, my legs propped on an ottoman, writing about being there.

I am unspeakably grateful, then, for my Aunt Rose, rest in peace. My father’s beloved sister was the conduit into the details of my Italian heritage. It was through her storytelling that I came to know something of my Roman grandfather, who died before I was born, and how richly complex my Italian family’s world was before I joined it. Enraptured by Aunt Rose’s tales, I’d look over at my father and wonder why I hadn’t heard about any of this from him. But Aunt Rose was so gifted that even my reticent father was pulled into her spell and gladly became her collaborator.

When I wrote a fictional account of the family in America, it seemed a no-brainer to give the narrative over to our chief storyteller’s point of view. Here is how I described the power and value of what Aunt Rose (“Giulietta” in the story) was doing for me and my relatives, and even for herself. It follows a passage in which her father has risked death by drowning to protect his livelihood, and, by extension, la famiglia.

There might not be any greater marvel than the instinct for survival. Unless it is belief. Giulietta recites her story with every bit of devotion she brings to the rosary. The details are her beads, smoothly she moves from one to the next, particulars she recites by heart, until they become the litany of her salvation. She knows in her afflicted bones that without her family, past and present, she is nothing.

I must add that without her eminence we as a family would have been, if not nothing, then terribly much less than what we were. The story is called “Brutti ma Buoni”—literally, “Ugly but Good”—a reference to the Italian cookie of the same name and my nod to the delectable texture of life residing within the less-than-attractive shell of circumstances. It is also a nod to the legendary prowess of Aunt Rose in the kitchen, a talent she inherited from my grandparents. Of course, it is a commonplace that food is central to Italian culture. As I constructed “Brutti ma Buoni,” it became evident that the art of cooking was quintessential to my family’s spiritual well-being as well as its physical one.

My grandfather Mike was a chef/restaurateur who in the early part of the twentieth century brought Roman cuisine to central New York State. At his lakeside night club in the Adirondacks, the entire family worked alongside him: my grandmother cooking, my aunts waiting tables, my father and his brother doing prep work and clean up. Aunt Rose and my father would later provide me with a cinematic rundown of scenes: Grandpa Mike ensuring his success during Prohibition by smuggling in booze from Canada with his Indian buddy; my father’s envy of my uncle because he was the one who got to body-paint the nearly naked dancing girls; the potentially disastrous raids by federal agents and the ingenious ways the family would foil them; the local Mafia capo making Mike an offer he couldn’t refuse, but which he refused anyway, with startling results. And too, there was the praise of a man so magnanimous during the Depression that he would laugh off the debts owed him (to the great consternation of his wife, mother of eight), and not hesitate to feed a starving hobo—not in a corner of the kitchen but at a table among the swells, because “nobody here is better than he is.”

And when tragedy arrived on the scene, as it must, Aunt Rose was there, holding the center together with her sorcery, both anecdotal and gustatory. It was through her that I came to learn that the nature of the meal and the nature of the narrative are one: they sustain us. To quote Muriel Rukeyser, “The universe is made of stories, / not of atoms.” Yes, and a memorable chicken cacciatore.

And on that note I will say ciao. I have to go hunting down the hill for some sfogliatelle, my favorite pastry—as close as I’m going to get today to that boot-shaped country I have yet to set foot in and yet which is always there, inside me.


Just my body and breath on a noon hike to the top
of Mt. Vision, its panoramic view of the Pacific,
scorched terrain along the ridge, the estuary far below
glinting like a silver necklace someone lost in the grass.
Shouldn’t there be a name for the private pleasures
that don’t depend on the company of others?
Like a visit to a favorite master at the museum
that includes dropping paper money on the way
into a paper cup with a pathetic few coins
while the snoozing owner dreams of her own
private pleasures. Somewhere in the world
there has to be a term for how you feel
as a child in summer, riding your revered bicycle
long past dinner, clear across town, no permission needed,
while the sky quietly performs its variations
on the theme of blue. And an expression for how it is
to be revisited by the feeling of the child
freewheeling through the August dusk. Nostalgia
won’t do—the pleasure in the recollection
is more a grateful nod to the past than a yearning
to return to it. As for the present, prepping a pot
of lentil soup in December to be savored at a table
for one, or chancing on a stellar local band
before it goes supernova, or returning to an author
treasured when you were young and thrilling again
at the old delights, as well as the new delights
that needed all that time to surprise you now—
shouldn’t there be a name for that?
Even doing nothing when there’s no one around
and nothing to be done. In Tuscany they say
Dolce far niente—It’s sweet to do nothing.
To which I would add: solo, raising my wine glass
of cut crystal which, though chipped, is holding a bouquet
while the evening light marries its deep red darkness.

Memo to Self

It was something about order,
a quote from an obscure guru’s interview,
attached by magnet to the freezer
alongside other reminders. Paul Klee’s
Arab Song, a veil with eyes that seem mischievous
and two leaves, one singing of the sun’s fire,
one crying over blood that has dried. Edward Albee
on the arts, saying we have to start paying our teachers
more than we pay our garbagemen. The motto
of a steak house chain: “All you have to be here
is you, unless you’re no fun,” nicely paired
with the cartoon of a frumpy woman
telling a frumpy man, “Sometimes I wish
you were more incandescent—you know,
like an Italian.” But that long gone
ragged scrap of wisdom about order
(or was it transcendent calm), something
about allowing it to inhere, to obtain,
without the intervention of effort
or even intention—a shining sign post
in the daily rain—something you could use
right about now… Whatever possessed you
to take it down?

The Visitor

On the TV show the portal
was called a stargate
a mammoth circle of hieroglyphs
through which the adventurers entered
the amplitude of possibility
hazards be damned

But when he arrived the portal
was nothing so grand
an industrial clothes dryer
in a run-down laundromat            an entrance
that seemed like a prank          which if you knew him
was no surprise         The surprise

was all his
He looked around to get his bearings
and found himself standing
in the ash gray overcoat
of the cremated

On the back of his neck
speckled into a design
still in the making         the orange yellow pollen
of the underworld

He’d only been seven days dead
so it made sense he was ready
to hit the party (revelry his religion and raison d’être)

It was then I had to put my hand
on the nape of his decorative neck
as much as I was loath to do it
inform him
with all the gentleness I could muster
that he had to go back

old friend         more of a brother
than my own kin

I could feel he knew what I’d said
was true
his old wild man gusto
seized now by the sadness of being
neither here nor there

In the round glass of the portal he was shown
the awful transparency
of his face
even as his ash gray coat turned black
And then
he was turned away
from the one world he had loved
the one I was still learning to embrace

and neither of us looking back