Amid the high-rises and the McMansions, between the interstates and the eight-lane highways, the ghosts of an older Tampa fan themselves in the deep shade of bungalow porches and live oaks. You might catch a glimpse if you smell a trace of cigar smoke and cracker roses, and look quick, before they fade.
Both Tampas, old and new, are the subject of Gianna Russo’s fine new poetry collection, One House Down.
Russo earned her MFA in poetry at the University of Tampa, was founding editor of the Florida poetry publisher YellowJacket Press and is an assistant professor of English and creative writing at Saint Leo University, where she directs the annual Sandhill Writers Retreat.
She’s also a third-generation Floridian and Tampa native, and that informs every one of these beautifully detailed poems. Tampa has changed with such speed that much of its past has been flattened by the wheels of growth, but Russo remembers a different city and evokes it with bittersweet clarity.
Many of the narrative poems in the book are set in Seminole Heights, Russo‘s longtime home, witnessing the transitions in “this mugshot of a neighborhood where I live/with its one long avenue stretched like a nekked leg.”
Some of the poems look backward at Tampa’s earlier days with affection, like Nebraska Avenue Torch Song, with its warm images of Sulphur Springs’ long-gone pool and arcade. Pecha Kucha for Big Guava wraps short poems around Burgert Brothers photos from the 1920s: Gasparilla, Plant Park, Bayshore, Seventh Avenue, Lake Roberta. (A Pecha Kucha is a presentation of multiple images with brief commentary.) Of one photo of the Hillsborough River she writes:
Back when we counted all the animals on the banks:
snapping turtle, hoot owl, anhinga, little possum.
Otters swam their rap, manatees drifted in river jazz.
What can you say of home? — Just press on it, a good hurt,
press on it over and over.
In other poems, such as Old Orange Avenue and Where Letha Lived, Russo looks at the knottier subject of race relations in Tampa’s history, tracing the borders of neighborhoods segregated by law, lines faded but still scars. Although, she writes, “No one ever called her the maid,” Letha lived at the other end of the street (the other side of one of those color lines) from Russo’s grandparents. She worked for them for “twenty-odd years,” earning their compliments in a time when her children couldn’t swim in public pools. "How did she feel hand-washing/the shorts of a Jim Crow judge?” Russo wonders. “I don’t know how to feel about all this now.”
Other poems focus on the present, whether it’s the uneasiness of a crime in the neighborhood or the pleasures of shopping at Publix. Professional Development: Active Shooter draws from Russo’s work as an educator, which these days requires training on how to deal with lethal violence in the classroom. The poem ends with these lines: “Later I enter the classroom of freshmen./Every backpack’s loaded.”
The Methodist Women’s Society Cookbook (United Methodist Church, Ybor City, circa 1953) serves up past and present at once, juxtaposing bits of a quaint cookbook written by ladies who wore “corsages like fluffy divinity” with contemporary images of church members in a parking lot feeding ”the addicts, the homeless, the curdled minds.”
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Whether you’re an old Tampa hand or a newcomer, Russo’s poems in One House Down will give you a deeper vision of the city.
One House Down: Poems
By Gianna Russo
Madville Publishing, 85 pages, $16.95
Meet the author
The University of Tampa Low-Residency MFA program presents a free evening of poetry to launch a new collection by Saint Leo University assistant professor Gianna Russo (One House Down), also featuring Orlando poet laureate Susan Lilley (Venus in Retrograde) and Amanda Forrester, at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday in the University of Tampa Music Room, 401 W Kennedy Blvd.
Russo will also be a featured author on Nov. 9 at the Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. tampabay.com/expos/festival-of-reading/.