Vox Populi

A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature

Emily De Ferrari: In the Belly

1. In Aliquippa

The mill loomed large

and after dark, nightmarishly

glowing red

on the river road we would take

before I was five

to my grandmother’s

sweet, warm and yeasty 4 rooms

above my grandfather’s pool hall and

sporting goods shop,

where he

publicly spat on his grapes

so no one else would eat them,

and climbed the steps

to lunch with us,

a secretly pressed coin

into my hand, for ice cream,

before descending back to work

to set the balls in tidy

triangles, sell penny candy

and fishing lures

made by my uncle

with great talent.

But later, that uncle,

with great perceived supremacy

refused to sell

hunting guns

to anyone whose skin was not white,

whose racism

instilled in us

wild fear

as he flashed

the white power salute

and posted White Power signs.

But my grandfather,

living by then

after the sudden death

of my grandmother,

with his sister and brother

on the other end of Franklin Avenue

in a big house with a fig tree

to which every night he drove

his boat of a car,

emerging first

from the back of the pool hall

into the narrow alley,

at the base of the dark hill,

carrying in a brown

paper bag, all the day’s cash money

in a routine that was watchable,

and predictable,

and remained forever unmolested.

Racism was overt

in my large Italian family

on both sides.

And my mother stood

against it,

shooting with hot brown eyes

down every asinine


that flowed

from the beloved

who shared my blood

but not my truths.

My mother was a beacon of

honesty and

strength and

my father

had her back.

They were different

and I stood faithfully

apart with them.

2. Vietnam

The teachers wore flag pins on their lapels,

the students, red white and blue arm bands.

But Martin Luther King

and Cassius Clay

connected with us.

Our black arm bands forbidden

in the halls of Hopewell High,

I took to wearing all black, but

not owning that much all black,

wore browns and navy blues in a personal

protest that went largely unrecognized.

I railed often against the terror of Kent State, and the bombing of Cambodia

and remained

till much later unaware of the deaths at Jackson state;

obeyed parental dictate;

missed May Day and

all local protests.

But in a final one time act of defiance, boycotted graduation with this:

You dress us up in matching caps and gowns

and march us across the stage like you’ve

trained us to look and think alike, and

I’d rather not participate.

3. Pittsburgh

The war and Richard Nixon and the narrow teenage lens of anti-establishment with which I

dismissed my friends’ mothers, the mill, its men and my understanding of their world views,

propelled me up the Ohio River to

breath deeply the

refreshing smog heavy

air howling down

the canyons of Fifth and Forbes avenues.

And in the

Hallowed Halls

I met like-minded people,

tried my hand at

legal advocacy and failed

for shy inattentiveness

and a deep seated fear

of authority;

to New American Movement meetings, where I never

understood the controversies;

changed my major 4 times:


Political Science,




for a course of study that wasn’t over my head and finally

settled on this scheme:

Take every class pass/fail,

protest the worsening war,

picket to boycott grapes and lettuce,

stand up for bail bond reform,

campaign for George McGovern and recovery

of lost rights at Wounded Knee, and remain

forever enamored of the Black Panthers.

Living simply and collectively,

doing unskilled work for pay, intended to

visit Italy for 3 months, and understand

something about myself, learned more than

I’d ever guessed was true as the trip

morphed into a year from Paris to Quetta

and Karachi and back via Scandinavia,

often on my thumb, where I was shamed into

recognizing my ignorance of the world and

came for the first time to see the PLO as

resistance rather than fringe terrorism.

4. Midwifery

The path to midwifery opened suddenly

through a field of feminism loaded with

landmines of misogyny.

Once open, the path was never questioned,

but twisted and turned from a vision of

home births in bucolic settings, (Vermont

maybe) and the naïve belief in, “Peace on

Earth Begins with Birth” to the hard

reality of inner city poverty, and rural

exploitation from the Bronx to the

Mississippi Delta to Baltimore, from HIV,

and drug addiction to incarceration, the

resilience and grace and ferocity of women

under pressure humbled and seduced me,

at every birth, or obstacle or loss.

Blood ran like wolves in El Salvador

but for a minute

the Sandinistas were victorious in


and then the contra war descended over us

like a slimy web of deceit

that wove

cocaine trafficking,

Israeli arms deals,

Iranian hostages and

CIA covert operations

to derail the revolution

and sicken those of us watching.

I blocked the steps of the Supreme Court,

sat down on the floor in Trent Lott’s office,

enjoyed my year’s worth of visiting with my probation officer,

and lied on every job application about the arrests.

Never learned Spanish,

spent two weeks at a midwifery exchange

with traditional Nicaraguan midwives

in Leon and Managua

near the end of the contra war,

raised money,

organized buses and remained

a foot soldier for Central America.

5. Family

Swept off my

feet by the most infuriating of men, who felt

as familiar as a nickel clutched in a

granddaughter’s hand, with a clarity that

understood purpose and action, I was smitten.

Small children will

protest with you,

accept handmade clothes from Guatemala,

tolerate planning meetings

if there are toys, and

march through the house shaking a tambourine

and chanting

“No blood for Oil!”

But their faces and their joys

make the

horror of blood and bones spilt on sand more unbearable

as our tax dollars shifted east

to pay for screeching missiles and brilliant

trails over the desert.

Yet the demands of raising them blunted the

energy I needed

to show them how I want to engage in the world,

and in every joy is a small ache of guilt and privilege.

And so life flows in waves of engagement and disengagement.

And then they start to play soccer

and the whole gig is up for a while.

6. In the Belly

Being present for women in pregnancy and birth,

bracing the birthing room doors

from the onslaught of corporate medicine,

a schizophrenic dance

in a profit driven non-profit dancehall

where personal expression is safe

if it

cheers black and gold and on some Fridays

wears same but where I talk about CTE

as though it is the opposing team,

and cringe at e-mails addressed to “Dear Ladies”

and want to throw my arms around

the two nurses I recognize as allies.

Balancing this against parenting

with attempted

conscience and attempted patience

left room only for

showing up,

standing up and

holding heavy signs over my head for penance.

The feeling that there was not enough time

to do anything completely,

left the sense that nothing was done well, not parenting,

not midwifing and certainly

not activism.

7, Palestine

In December, 2008,

as my children grew to independence,

1400 Palestinians were killed

in 22 days of Israeli assault in Gaza.

I responded at


organized educational events

and picketed.

I wrote letters and

visited my reps and

felt sick of ineptitude.

A year’s planning led to

3 months in the West Bank,

my midwife skills my card to connect with women, and

my body a

tool to accompany Palestinians


the occupation.

8. But still

Winding down

from mothering pre-adults and approaching


I’m emerging from a cocoon of family and

job into a world that needs activism as

much as ever.

Standing Rock echoes Wounded Knee,

Black Lives Matter echoes Emmett Till,

Palestine echoes South Africa,

displacement in East Liberty echoes the lower hill,

mass incarceration echoes Jim Crow,

Myanmar Rohingya echo Rawanda Tutsi,

Syria echoes Yugoslavia

and the echoes continue

to bounce and bounce and bounce off

the walls of injustice.

I’m not sure how I fit in anymore.

I feel a bit like I’m trying to find a major again,

moving about looking for a place where I

think I can make a contribution without

understanding how a twitter feed works.

At a minimum,

I’ll continue to show up


stand up

and hold signs high above my head.

Copyright 2017 Emily De Ferrari. This poem was delivered as a segment of Living Our Lives–An Organizers’ Storytelling Hour held at Big Idea Bookstore in Pittsburgh PA, December 14, 2016.

Emily De Ferrari is a nurse-midwife who practices in Pittsburgh, PA.


Jones and Laughlin Steel Mill in Aliquippa, c. 1970

Pittsburgh, c. 1970

4 comments on “Emily De Ferrari: In the Belly

  1. Betty-Anne
    March 9, 2017

    Hi Emily. I saw the reference to Nicaragua and knew it was the same Emily with whom I shared a short but unique time in Leon 30 years ago. Glad to see you are still an activist. As am I. And just retiring as a midwife? I am not quite retired. Have brought back vaginal breech to Canada’s capitol and madly training midwives as well as the physicians at one hospital willing to learn.

    Meanwhile, I just dug up that old video we made while we were in Nicaragua, exchanging with the midwives. Having just come back from working with midwives in Xela, Guatemala, I see things have not changed a great deal in Latin America — but the indigenous people are stronger politically than I think they ever were, at least in Guatemala. It is just that all of us are part of dying democracies around the world, bought out by the corporate reality and unopposed because of the death of the liberal class. For us in Canada it is Kinder Morgan buying out the Liberal Party (They have “donated” $33,000 to the BC Liberals alone). For you, it is the uncertainty about everything from your new President’s foreign policy to the death of the EPA. Retirees here continue to realize that we all need to wake up with the young people that had their hopes set on Bernie.


    Liked by 1 person

  2. Theresa Casciato
    January 19, 2017

    The text is beautifully written and a joy to read!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. infohund64
    January 19, 2017

    Sent from my iPhone


    Liked by 1 person

  4. anisioluiz2008
    January 19, 2017

    Reblogged this on O LADO ESCURO DA LUA.

    Liked by 1 person

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