Via Incanto–Poems from the Darkroom
Paperback, 96 pages
A dark room, as any gothic heroine will tell you, holds mystery and danger; a darkroom, however, houses both these things and a process of delicate creation as well. Under a red or yellow bulb, chemicals bring forth glimpses of life, moments of captured light—but if the paper is left too long, the image can be destroyed. If you touch the chemicals, instead of using tongs, you might get burned. In Marisa Frasca’s Via Incanto: Poems from the Darkroom, the chemical baths that bring forth the pictures of her life stretch across two languages, from Sicily to New York, from ancestral or childhood memories to the experience of an immigrant. These chemicals that make her, or, more properly, make the life of the speaker, demand various shapes—couplets, long broken or indented lines, prose poetry, a tight-lined and isolated quatrain—but all work through the same drive, this making of the image of life, so that the voice remains consistent—or at least as consistent as a developing person can be—through developer, toner, and fixer.
And the pictures are vivid. In “Sicilian Blood Oranges” the final snapshot-stanza shows these fruits new-fallen to the ground and kicked by the speaker “until the blood / stopped flowing.” The blood is the juice of the now-desiccated oranges but also the menstrual flow of a woman who has been taught that her period is shameful and dirty. The poem, and the woman, develop through being told not to touch plants because
the plants—plants wilt—
die—when you have
In these lines the dashes, restarts, and corrections (dropping the definite article from plants, swapping it for a possessive pronoun later), as much as the reference to menstruation as “thing” or “things,” communicates the unspeakability of menstruation both to the reader and to the speaker of the poem who here relates what she was told when young. A syntactic hinge connects these lines to the next stanza, in which she is warned to keep her legs crossed because
Men can see—
our silent mating calls.
Following these warnings, the act of kicking the blood out of the oranges becomes an attack on menstruation and, thus, a displaced attack on her own body. She destroys the ripened ovaries of plants because she cannot destroy the systems inside her.
Many of the other images are of people rather than things—family, friends, long-lost relatives like the speaker’s “. . . great-grandmother Catena. Her name / means Chain. She sits on caned chair in front of our door on Via Bixio” (“Catena in Black Shawl”). There also people glimpsed briefly through a tourist lens. In “Disposable Goods,” that lens witnesses underage prostitutes in Cambodia
. . . taught to lick
their lips—hold up three
little fingers—say Yum Yum
Boom Boom—$50 for three
The first line break hints at the other, sexual licking that they have had to learn, and the image becomes part of the collection’s exploration of the mistreatment of women, no less important for being seen from a distance and influencing, too, the speaker’s own growth, as she comes to see her story in a global context rather than a merely personal or familiar one.
Similarly, there are photographs seen only “[i]n the week-end New York Times”:
There are in-laws gripping hand tools with pivoted jaws
Pulling out fingernails from Sahar Gul,
Gangly bride, 13, moaning on piles of hay
because she refused to do her chores or have sex with her much older husband, according to “Sonnet for a Girl.” These witnessed events, though seen second-hand, shape the woman who voices these poems, too. They become part of what the world means to her and lead her to ask “Which god officiates these temples of fire? / Same as creates peaceful seas, shelters, clinics?” The global context becomes a spiritual one as well.
Besides the figurative darkroom in which such images develop, these poems also have a real darkroom, the space where the speaker’s father made his art, a space thus inseparable from her origins. In “In the Darkroom,” the speaker, as a young girl, watches her father print photographs from Carnevale and retouch some images to give their subjects more normative appearances:
Customers said Signor Frasca was Jesus
fixing the deformed; others called him
“The Photographer God.” What mystery the dark!
In the dark, he creates new people (because these images could never be the people themselves and, with his fixes, they are not even approximations of them), even as the poem’s speaker has been recreated, as she grows up, through the chemical baths of people working to create her according to different ideals.
Eventually, in “Depth of Field,” she takes up this process, becoming an artist and the developer of her identity, though reluctant at first and, even in the act, never wholly apart from outside influence:
Father, is that you dangling the red light bulb
behind my eyes from your grave? Why
do you come so late in fountain rush of thought
rising like an Oligarch Christ?
I don’t have 50 years. It takes that long
to become a poet.
Yet she does make this choice, to “narrate beginnings before the world / became criminal murdering love,” to say how the artichoke’s heart must be prepared by that love “so needles won’t stick in my throat.” It is this choice that gives us these poems from the darkroom.
How outsides influences and acts of self-fashioning add up to a whole image, how they work inside us to make us who we become remains dark—what mystery, indeed! But through powerful imagery and language, Marisa Frasca has shown us one branched and varied route to becoming one Via Incanto.
Review by PQ Social Media Editor, Elizabeth Kate Switaj