'Mixing Cement' by Peter Tomassi
This gritty, sweet first book divides into four sections: "Cement," "Sand," "Water," "Lime." In them, a father teaches his son masonry, building humble foundations we take for granted:
Rows of gray, dark gray, gray,
Mortar, block, mortar, block, mortar . . .
A subsequent poem articulates accomplishments:
He framed in boxes: patios, front porches, stone planters.
It was great, he would say, clutching a trowel
As Zeus might have . . .
I expected at least one poem to explore the symbolic qualities or functions of cement, sand, water and lime—a sort of "Masonry 101." Instead, I was left to wonder whether the poems in each section correlated more to the properties of Lime than to other unifying factors. Reading on, however, my attention was taken by the masonry metaphor itself. What begins as "The Trade" in the first section becomes "The Art" in the last. The Art is clearly writing. The poems give the reader a sense that the father's trade is a foundation for the son's different artistry. A tension locates in the young, working class, Italian American writer coming of age, splitting off from the patriarchal limb:
Trunk, branch, fruit:
We're still family aren't we?
The poems, boxed, sit solidly in even stanzas, often six stanzas to a poem, like the unobtrusive planters they describe. That said, Tomassi randomly deviates from this structure, as evidenced in uneven line counts, sporadic indentations and digressions from his initial capitalization convention. One suspects Tomassi is verging on a more conscious experimentation with form.
Readers will learn to look for Tomassi's profane lexicon: lightning, cigars, coffee, Italy, sweat, and bleach—signposts through a maze of wistful relatives and neighbors. My favorite poems are "Milestone," about making one's name in history, "Amalia," about a forgotten relative, "Boy and Girl," for its long, lean form on the page, "Mortar," for its brevity, "Fetch," about a knowing dog, "Backyard Orpheus," a tale of a strange deformity, and the humorous "Rear View." The book's poems show a diversity of subject and narrative power that should enlist many fans for Tomassi.
What I thought were my hands
Are a pair of mason's trowels.