One House Back from One House Down

One House Down by Gianna Russo

Madville Publishing, 2019

Paperback, 96 pages, $17.00



The majority of the fifty-three poems that populate One House Down, Gianna Russo’s second poetry collection, are set in and around Tampa, Florida. As the poet guides us through a bit of Tampa’s history—the noisy streets, the voices of a hundred years and more—we locate the growth of a community. The constant is Russo, a poet of Tampa—remarkable and protean, not unlike the city itself. Russo’s poems are an honest record of a city’s quick evolution, but most importantly, these poems are a love song for the family, friends, and neighbors who inhabit Tampa with her.


One of the collection’s standout poems, “Where Letha Lived,” addresses the value of the places we get to call home. The speaker’s father begins the poem: “You know she helped raise you, says Dad. / They were lovely people. If you went by, she always invited you in.”  For the father, it is important that his daughter understand the privilege of acceptance, the willingness of another family to open their home to her. As the poem builds momentum, the speaker declares: “I don’t know how to feel about all this now.” The poet is on the cusp of discovery, and the early placement of the poem in the collection elicits expectation in the reader—will the poet discover how she feels about all this now?


The charm in “Where Letha Lived” lies in how we come to know Letha. About a third of the way into the poem, Russo re-introduces lines and images, and this process of doubling continues to the poem’s end. In a coy bit of plotting, the poem initiates the engagement of our memory. The stories Russo re-tells us about the life of Letha establish a sense of familiarity. Our memories become the speaker’s memories. Letha becomes recognizable. Russo’s use of memory, her coaxing us into our own memories of Letha is not coincidental. Lethe is the river of forgetfulness in Greek mythology. Russo is reaffirming her own fading memory of an important person in her life. The speaker says of Letha, “She must have had a kitchen garden. / Do I remember? No.” The poet also points out the cultural boundaries during this time in her youth: “One end of the street, a clutch of tickseed. / The other end, the Italians, their tomatoes and greens.” She sees, as an adult, the invisible lines of division we are ignorant of in youth—a part of how she feels about all this now.


Russo works in free verse, but she also employs other poetic forms with similar, deft skill. There is an ekphrastic poem, a pantoum, a poem in the form of a cookbook recipe, and a poem in the shape of a standardized test, but the literal centerpiece of One House Down is “Pecha Kucha for Big Guava.” There are interesting and unlikely cultural connections in that title alone. Big Guava is a nickname for Tampa, and pecha kucha is a Japanese presentation method involving twenty slides, each accompanied by twenty seconds of dialogue. American poet Terrance Hayes adapted this storytelling technique for poetry, and Russo puts the form to great use, galvanizing the collection.


Russo’s pecha kucha consists of twenty photographs of Tampa. Similar to the narrative construct of One House Down, the photographs move through time (1920–1954). The photographs are necessary for the poetic form, but the poems that accompany the photographs stand on their own. These poems are so exquisitely written; the photographs are rendered moot. Here, you’ll see what I mean—the poem without the photograph:


 She’s standing there like a ghost, but really

 it was her house first. Those cabbage palms,

 bougainvillea, white gardenia, beauty bush.

 Her crone of a house wreathed in cracker rose. Now:

 sandspurs, boarded up windows, a locked door.


One House Down is a deep map of Tampa and of the poet’s familial connections to its neighborhoods. It’s not quite written to the scope of Ulysses, but this collection reads like a peripatetic narrative. What the reader discovers is a southern landscape replete with oaks, azaleas, and magnolias. “In the Midst of Magnolia” is a singular, southern poem that is dedicated to Joelle Renee Ashley. Russo conjures the aroma of the magnolia: “Your stories buried in the blooms, the creamy bowls of magnolia.” The alliteration is wonderful. But the speaker struggles to get it right—this poem in dedication: “The fading house on Rainbow Road / where voices ping-ponged in your brain,” or “A raunchy clause where the sexy you stretched herself out.” These descriptions lead to the poem’s conclusion:


 The poem I wanted for you has failed me. Here:


 On long drives out to your house stars made a cliché of the sky.

 There was a gateway to grief and you walked through it.


 Magnolia perfume is the gist of it.


The speaker wants us to believe that these final lines are what exist on the other side of failure—how all of us feel, or should feel—about love, about friendship and family, but especially about the places we call home.


The collection ends with “Somewhere Jazz,” a poem of exuberant reflection. Russo writes, “I wanted this to be about the house.” It’s easy to believe the speaker is referring to the poem, but Russo has made this move before—directly telling us where her narrative intentions have gone off the rails. The speaker is talking about the book itself—the house of the book holding all of her loves, “The house where you called down all your ancestors. / Much before the house I thought was me was thrumming— / pure inside with jazz.” And there’s the turn, the moment where the poet figures things out. Russo has become the house she peers out from as the collection begins, and the house she dances within as the narrative of these endearing poems refuses to end, but instead plays on.


Please also see “After the Poetry Reading: A Condom” by Gianna Russo.


After the Poetry Reading, a Condom







We publish an extra poem this week in celebration of the arrest of a suspect

in the murder of four people in the Seminole Heights neighborhood of Tampa, Florida.

Gianna Russo wrote this loving picture of her neighborhood, and we accepted it,

before these murders began. We hoped that the perpetrator would be found

so that the casual vivacity of the area could be restored before we published

the poem. Today we hope this nightmare has ended for our friends in Tampa,

and we celebrate the joie de vivre of that area with Russo’s work.


I stepped away from the bar at Ella’s where the din is handcrafted and foams up to a roar,
 as the famed poet served us his lines succulent and Southern.
With his Rhett Butler accent, the poet summoned Old Uncle Walt.
So Whitman came among us with his taste for bacony bodies and sweat-odorous men,
draped his arm over the poet and reached for the jalapeno poppers.


I stepped away from the cherry martini that had me teetering
on those heels I hardly ever wear anymore since they kick up my bursitis,
 but I’d put in my contacts, too, so what the hell.
I stepped away from the wine-rinsed laughter and the joke I told
if a place could have its pants down, this one does—
this mugshot of a neighborhood where I live
 with its one long avenue stretched like a nekked leg.


And what about that woman in the towel once, right there across the street,
three a.m., outfoxed by the absence of a bathtub and her mislaid name?
Of course the cops were called and they folded her like a burrito into the back seat:
 just another Tuesday night in Seminole Heights.


The night was just three beers along when I left the julep-voiced poet
 singing of Lincoln Continentals cruising the side streets, their flopping mufflers.
I walked into the after-rain on Shadowlawn Street.
Twilight sorted its lingerie in the leaves, rosy and white,
and I tottered down the block toward my car, while in all the yards,
confederate jasmine mounted the fences, bouquets on the bridal veil bushes shuddered
 and the magnolia tree came inside each mammoth blossom.


Then just as I leaned to unlock the door, I looked down at the old brick street
and saw it lying flat in the dirt, the deflated jellyfish of lust:
 used, tossed over, open-mouthed, smiling,
it was the remains of someone’s poem, or at least the start of one.