July 6, 2009

Review: Lowering the Body by Stephen Murabito

At their best, poems derived from childhood memories offer powerful insight about our world. In his most recent collection of poetry, Lowering the Body, Stephen Murabito offers this best. By sifting through the aspects of memory to paint a picture of a working-class family in upstate New York, Murabito succeeds in depicting a struggling world filled with resilience and a quiet pride.

In the book’s first poem, “First Prophecy, 1962" where we are introduced to a young boy who will be the voice of witness in the rest of the collection:

Once upon a time
On the corner of West Eighth and Oneida
A six-year old boy
Stood up on a coffee table,
Kicked aside issues of Look and Life
And shouted Giants, Giants, Giants.
The gathered Sunday clan
Of diehard Yankees fans.
Paused, stunned in salted Planters and cold Genessee.

These opening lines introduce us to a young boy who is different from his family. And indeed, it is this difference that comes into play for the poems that follow where a young boy is able to spin stories from both the concrete images of winter landscapes and hard, physical work and the more surreal images of family ideals and religious beliefs.

Family takes center stage in this book. Often, there are stories from a child’s point of view of family hardship. For example in “A White Baldness” the poet explains:

The only time I ever saw
My proud, strident, reserved mother
Run like a schoolgirl toward my father
Was the night he lumbered up the porch
And peeled open the screen door
With his left hand, the right bandaged
And dangling — a white baldness.

Certainly, a sense of urgency infiltrates this poem, with the persona is shocked by his mother’s fear. However, a quiet contemplation marks many more of the works. For example, in “Parents Sleeping” the young boy examines his parents in bed, asking, “Who were these exhausted people, these dead/Beauties the white covers muting their form?”

It’s in the landscape of the New York snowbelt where Murabito tries to answer this question. We see harsh winters where the world seems to be holding its breath and spring baseball games where fathers and sons enjoy the gentle breeze of competition and stadium hot dogs. But we see even more. In the poem “Delivering Sfogliatelle to Cousin May” we witness a world “Where soot and spit were tough enough/To still the Oswego River.” And in a closer, more domestic scene, the poet chronicles a fight where “Uncle Mickey beat a man up onto his front porch and out his side door, leaving him to bleed/Into the last green of that year’s tomatoes.”

But the main setting in this collection is the family grocery store, a world most completely described in “Four Quarts, Four Loaves” during a snowstorm:

During the Blizzard of ‘66
The only thing that wasn’t white
Was the inside of our house
At last, after the two-hour trek

To get bread for his customers,
My father emerged from the front door,
Itself gone white around him.

This world of a family store (and the struggles found within its isles) is the main backdrop of many of these poems. Its conclusion is found in the last poem of the collection titled “Saby Closes the Store, January, 1969" where the persona contemplates the final hours of a store by saying, “I’d like to think he wasn’t alone/When he locked up, rounded Eighth, and came home.”

Indeed, many of Murabito’s poems are sobering. Still, this collection is not without humor. For example, who could not at least smile at the small boy in “Eating Pepperoni on Good Friday” who takes “the magic stick from my father’s meat case” so he can sneak to the roof where “only God, above the oaks, can spot me.” Or laugh out loud at the images in “My Mother Joins the Hippies” where the mother “Dark Polish face hardened from beauty to political outrage” leaves her store to protest “our own Mrs. Thompson” who was banned from teaching because she was pregnant.

In essence, Murabito’s collection is a work of landscape. Through his words, we feel the ice cold of upstate New York, we smell the food from a family grocery store, and we see the tired lines in the people’s faces and smiles. But through this collection, we also have poet chronicling a world of family owned businesses, intimate gatherings, and an America that seems to be fast disappearing.

Review by Karen J. Weyant

Lowering the Body by Stephen Murabito was published by Star Cloud Press.

Karen J. Weyant lives and teaches in western New York. Her first chapbook of poem, Stealing Dust, has recently been published by Finishing Line Press. She blogs at www.thescrapperpoetwordpress.com

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