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Honoring Rosemary Cappello’s life in letters


Rosemary Cappello feels that she has “lived a life that was very literary,” starting with a childhood where “learning was greatly appreciated and encouraged” and including a dynamic commitment to Philadelphia Poets, where she has been promoting, editing and publishing poetry since 1980.

In April, she received a living tribute, hosted by Larry Robins of the Moonstone Arts Center in Philadelphia. “Poets were invited to compose poems as tributes to my mother’s life’s work as community organizer of literary events; editor of “Philadelphia Poets”; and as a poet, herself,” said her daughter Mary. “It was a tremendous outpouring of love and inspiration.”

“Expressing herself artistically has always been a part of Rosemary’s life,” Kelly Gartner wrote in the newsletter of their Center City co-op, noting Cappello is known for “letting her mind open to the words and colors that are stirring inside, waiting to pick up her pen or brush and let the beauty out.”

Her artistic outlets include playing the piano; becoming a dedicated letter writer at age 15, when her two oldest sisters entered a convent and she wrote about family happenings; crafting poems published in several chapbooks, and more recently in a full-length collection published by Bordighera Press; writing prose, primarily essays and movie reviews; founding “Philadelphia Poets”; performing as a historical interpreter; earning a bachelor’s degree at Widener University in English, 30 years after graduating high school; and creating large watercolors.

“Escapism is my middle name,” she emailed Mary, who shared it at a writing conference. “Perhaps learning was an escape for me.” Writing also is an escape. At one point, she was agoraphobic and “used letter writing literally as a means of leaving the house,” Mary told attendees.

Cappello, a “proud Italian American,” is one of six children of her father, a shoemaker who emigrated from Teano, Campania, and her mother, daughter of immigrants from Italy. She has visited Italy three times, to experience Teano, Naples and Rome.

She grew up in Llanerch, Pennsylvania, was in high school when she started working as a secretary and resumed that career after the birth of her three children and her divorce.

Those letters to her sisters were so well-liked that the mother superior read them to the entire convent. The voice she evoked in those letters then showed up in poetry, sometimes published in the Catholic Star Herald in South Jersey, and writing for the Widener student newspaper.

When she began writing poetry, she was more into imagery. Today, she’s more into narrative. All along, she wrote about love. “I wrote a lot of love poems because I was always in love.” But not now, she said, citing anthropologist Margaret Mead’s belief that people experience four increasingly mature relationships. “Sometimes I try to count. I think my last love was my fifth, and I’m ready to be single for the rest of my life.”

“Philadelphia Poets” began as a monthly, and it’s now an annual, with a vibrant Facebook page. Cappello already has 200 submissions to assess for the next issue.

She plays the piano daily but is less regular about writing and painting. “If I’m going to create something, I have to do it when I’m inspired,” she said, citing her “prednisone paintings,” when the medicine kept her awake, and her “prayer paintings,” when her daughter was ill.

“I may not have all that much longer to live, but I’m taking advantage of every minute of it. … Never give up learning and appreciate the finer things of life. … My main thing is I’m good to myself.”

Now it’s time for her words to speak. This is the start of one poem from her 2019 collection “Wonderful Disaster.” (The title comes a poem in which she writes “Falling in love, at my age, with you, at your age, is a disaster, but a wonderful disaster.”)

I write, write, write about you, and us,
and early memories from long before our time, and
snow, and all this writing seems to age me. A pity.
I want to be young. I want my mother to
comb my hair the way she did when I was four,
making me a princess though we lived in poverty.
As I got older, I rebelled against the pride she took in my hair
(“capelli ricch’,” my grandmother would comment, and
“propria Napuletan’,” nodding as if in obeisance to both Naples
and my hair.) It hurt as Mother combed out the knots, the kinks,
and I screamed until my father called out from his shop, “Rose!

Stop hurting the child!” Soon, I refused to let her comb it anymore.
Oh Mother! Comb my hair today!

Make me young and rich and beautiful!

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