Vox Populi: A Public Sphere for Politics and Poetry
1. In Aliquippa
The mill loomed large
and after dark, nightmarishly
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,
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
to anyone whose skin was not white,
instilled in us
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,
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 remained forever unmolested.
Racism was overt
in my large Italian family
on both sides.
And my mother stood
shooting with hot brown eyes
down every asinine
from the beloved
who shared my blood
but not my truths.
My mother was a beacon of
had her back.
They were different
and I stood faithfully
apart with them.
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
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.
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
I met like-minded people,
tried my hand at
legal advocacy and failed
for shy inattentiveness
and a deep seated fear
to New American Movement meetings, where I never
understood the controversies;
changed my major 4 times:
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.
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
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,
organized buses and remained
a foot soldier for Central America.
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
“No blood for Oil!”
But their faces and their joys
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
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
conscience and attempted patience
left room only for
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
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
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
8. But still
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
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.