» Book Review
One House Back from One House Down
One House Down by Gianna Russo
Madville Publishing, 2019
Paperback, 96 pages, $17.00
The majority of the fifty-three poems that populate One House Down, Gianna Russo’s second poetry collection, are set in and around Tampa, Florida. As the poet guides us through a bit of Tampa’s history—the noisy streets, the voices of a hundred years and more—we locate the growth of a community. The constant is Russo, a poet of Tampa—remarkable and protean, not unlike the city itself. Russo’s poems are an honest record of a city’s quick evolution, but most importantly, these poems are a love song for the family, friends, and neighbors who inhabit Tampa with her.
One of the collection’s standout poems, “Where Letha Lived,” addresses the value of the places we get to call home. The speaker’s father begins the poem: “You know she helped raise you, says Dad. / They were lovely people. If you went by, she always invited you in.” For the father, it is important that his daughter understand the privilege of acceptance, the willingness of another family to open their home to her. As the poem builds momentum, the speaker declares: “I don’t know how to feel about all this now.” The poet is on the cusp of discovery, and the early placement of the poem in the collection elicits expectation in the reader—will the poet discover how she feels about all this now?
The charm in “Where Letha Lived” lies in how we come to know Letha. About a third of the way into the poem, Russo re-introduces lines and images, and this process of doubling continues to the poem’s end. In a coy bit of plotting, the poem initiates the engagement of our memory. The stories Russo re-tells us about the life of Letha establish a sense of familiarity. Our memories become the speaker’s memories. Letha becomes recognizable. Russo’s use of memory, her coaxing us into our own memories of Letha is not coincidental. Lethe is the river of forgetfulness in Greek mythology. Russo is reaffirming her own fading memory of an important person in her life. The speaker says of Letha, “She must have had a kitchen garden. / Do I remember? No.” The poet also points out the cultural boundaries during this time in her youth: “One end of the street, a clutch of tickseed. / The other end, the Italians, their tomatoes and greens.” She sees, as an adult, the invisible lines of division we are ignorant of in youth—a part of how she feels about all this now.
Russo works in free verse, but she also employs other poetic forms with similar, deft skill. There is an ekphrastic poem, a pantoum, a poem in the form of a cookbook recipe, and a poem in the shape of a standardized test, but the literal centerpiece of One House Down is “Pecha Kucha for Big Guava.” There are interesting and unlikely cultural connections in that title alone. Big Guava is a nickname for Tampa, and pecha kucha is a Japanese presentation method involving twenty slides, each accompanied by twenty seconds of dialogue. American poet Terrance Hayes adapted this storytelling technique for poetry, and Russo puts the form to great use, galvanizing the collection.
Russo’s pecha kucha consists of twenty photographs of Tampa. Similar to the narrative construct of One House Down, the photographs move through time (1920–1954). The photographs are necessary for the poetic form, but the poems that accompany the photographs stand on their own. These poems are so exquisitely written; the photographs are rendered moot. Here, you’ll see what I mean—the poem without the photograph:
She’s standing there like a ghost, but really
it was her house first. Those cabbage palms,
bougainvillea, white gardenia, beauty bush.
Her crone of a house wreathed in cracker rose. Now:
sandspurs, boarded up windows, a locked door.
One House Down is a deep map of Tampa and of the poet’s familial connections to its neighborhoods. It’s not quite written to the scope of Ulysses, but this collection reads like a peripatetic narrative. What the reader discovers is a southern landscape replete with oaks, azaleas, and magnolias. “In the Midst of Magnolia” is a singular, southern poem that is dedicated to Joelle Renee Ashley. Russo conjures the aroma of the magnolia: “Your stories buried in the blooms, the creamy bowls of magnolia.” The alliteration is wonderful. But the speaker struggles to get it right—this poem in dedication: “The fading house on Rainbow Road / where voices ping-ponged in your brain,” or “A raunchy clause where the sexy you stretched herself out.” These descriptions lead to the poem’s conclusion:
The poem I wanted for you has failed me. Here:
On long drives out to your house stars made a cliché of the sky.
There was a gateway to grief and you walked through it.
Magnolia perfume is the gist of it.
The speaker wants us to believe that these final lines are what exist on the other side of failure—how all of us feel, or should feel—about love, about friendship and family, but especially about the places we call home.
The collection ends with “Somewhere Jazz,” a poem of exuberant reflection. Russo writes, “I wanted this to be about the house.” It’s easy to believe the speaker is referring to the poem, but Russo has made this move before—directly telling us where her narrative intentions have gone off the rails. The speaker is talking about the book itself—the house of the book holding all of her loves, “The house where you called down all your ancestors. / Much before the house I thought was me was thrumming— / pure inside with jazz.” And there’s the turn, the moment where the poet figures things out. Russo has become the house she peers out from as the collection begins, and the house she dances within as the narrative of these endearing poems refuses to end, but instead plays on.
Please also see “After the Poetry Reading: A Condom” by Gianna Russo.