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i thought elvis was italian

by Domenico Capilongo

The debut collection of Toronto-based poet and karate instructor Domenico Capilongo has most of the components typical of first collections: family stories, personal lyrics, travel poems, and a handful of what can only be described as creative writing exercises.

Capilongo’s narratives of his parents’ immigrant experiences are full of stock ingredients – bewilderment, alienation, discrimination, perseverance, etc. – and lack the vivid specificities, not to mention stylistic zing, of recent work on the same theme by Carmine Starnino and Pino Coluccio. The writing generally wants for self-confidence – it is high in personal feeling, but lacks craft.

For some reason, Capilongo mostly eschews capitalization: other than “WOP,” the only capped word is the first person singular pronoun. He also often dispenses with punctuation and favours fragmentary syntax. These callow techniques seem to be part of an urge to declare that this isn’t prose. (Capilongo does use punctuation – often too much of it, creating an undesirable choppiness – in the book’s several prose poems.)

For the most part, however, it is the prosaic that predominates. Capilongo, apparently concerned that his reader won’t get what he’s talking about, explains things too much, such as the fact that he and his family were “the only italians in swift current / saskatchewan.” This is overkill, given that the poem makes this clear already. There are occasional glimmers in several poems – a strong line, a sharp image, an original insight – but they are for the most part drowned out by the utilitarian prose, the mixed metaphors, and the godawful clichés, such as an unborn baby that is “a miracle about to happen.”

The two strongest pieces are “kinkakuji, the temple of the golden pavilion,” a longer prose piece with flaws, but also the most distinctive voice in the book, and “yokohama dentures,” a postcard story with the memorable image of a Japanese businessman’s aesthetically intense ritual of cleaning his false teeth using chopsticks and a bowl of water. These suggest that Capilongo has perhaps a greater gift for prose than verse.