Where We Grew Up is Jennifer Lagier's poetic reminiscence of growing up in California's lush agricultural Central Valley in an Italian–American Catholic family in the 1950's/60's. It is hardly a nostalgic recollection! The first lines of the opening title poem tell us we're in for some serious scars:
The walls had hooks,
wire barbs reaching from stucco
to rip a child's skin.
Not to mention a child's psyche, libido, self-confidence, health.
Bitter memories of Catholic indoctrination inform such poems as "Confirmation," "Family Dinners," "Accepting the Habit," "Witch Hunt," even "Last Supper," with its reference to betrayal. The poem "Confirmation" begins:
Ironically, it's a nun who
orders mother to purchase
my first pair of high heels,
nylons, the superfluous bra,
rubber strait-jacket girdle.
She tells me the vulnerable priest
needs these reminders to adorn
my pudgy twelve-year old body
so he won't succumb
to overwhelming desire.
The sexless nuns inevitably corrupt and poison the narrator's concept of sex. "Summer of Love" is a sad memory of losing her virginity. The ironic title refers to the hippie summer of flower power, 1967, but feels more bitter than full of naïve optimism.
It's a warm Central Valley night.
You are a 16-year old Italian Catholic virgin,
half undressed and uncomfortably wedged
between the bucket seats
of your steady boyfriend's blue Muatang.
After months of his begging, you finally give in.
As he tears his way into you,
a drunk careens from the river bank willows,
peers through the windshield,
passes out on the car hood.
So this is passion,
the romantic act of becoming one,
you tell yourself
despite embarrassment, pain.
Outside the homeless bum twitches.
You wonder what happens now.
All the way home, you feel you've been cheated.
While the narrator's sense of being conned, swindled, might just as easily be in reference to the prevailing hippie philosophy, "the romantic sense of becoming one" seems also to be a reference to church indoctrination about the promises of spiritual union.
By far the most poisonous memories of growing up in the Central Valley are the health consequences of pesticides that hadn't yet been identified as real and serious. "1958 Fruit Cutting Shed," "Time Deposit," "Ripe for the Picking," and "Death Watch" are poems about the carcinogenic effects of pesticides, herbicides, DDT. "Time Deposit" concludes:
Now we carpool to chemotherapy,
yearly family funerals,
draw down poison's interest:
Did I say the most poisonous memories? Well, only literally the most poisonous. Memories of the family dynamic are ultimately much more toxic. The mother is a real tyrant. "Toxic House" ("Mother shrieked at our incompetence as workers"), "Family Dinners," "Shame" ("Your mother says / she's the only woman / in her community / with two daughters / and six sons-in-law. // You are an embarrassment...") are all poems that feature a truly oppressive mother whose constant tirades erode the narrator's self-confidence.
In contrast, her father, who died in 2009 ("Hard Frost"), is shown as a long-suffering, companionable and sensitive, and loving man The poems about him that conclude Where We Grew Up are bittersweet, elegiac.
Ultimately, as Lagier writes in the final poem of the collection, "If the Shoe Fits," all of these influences, circumstances and events, for better or worse, go into an understanding of who she is, what she has become. "These hands are direct descendants / of my Italian Great Nona ... // I inherited my mother's teeth / sharp and strong ... // This heart wears its / Catholic crown of thorns ...
From my father comes
the gift of laughter,
a need to make the earth bloom,
extra–wide farmer's feet.
For all its bitter memories, Where We Grew Up ultimately feels redemptive. The scars may be there, but who hasn't got scars? That's what time and age are all about. It's the understanding of who one is that finally counts.