Review by Gail Fishman Gerwin
THE PLACE I CALL HOME
by Maria Mazziotti Gillan
PO Box 2015
Old Chelsea Station
New York, NY 10113
2012, 81 pp., 14.95
Anyone who has read Maria Mazziotti Gillan’s body of work knows that this prolific poet follows one of the major tenets of writing: write what you know. Here is where she excels and The Place I Call Home meets expectations for honesty and insight. Those who know her poetry always want more and those who read it for the first time are immersed in a life somewhat conflicted: filled with warmth yet riddled with guilt, touched with success yet plagued by inadequacy. She unabashedly mingles pain with love; she takes us on a journey that is personal and universal at the same time, and through her craft she offers deep understanding of people who populate her worlds past and present.
Gillan is a child of immigrants; we know that immediately. Her childhood home is lean in material goods yet filled with richness of a noisy family, of foods we can taste right off the page, of lush gardens and the gardeners who tend them. From the start we are transported to a back yard where there are “vines heavy with ripe tomatoes” and the “tart aroma of zucchini and eggplant.” We get to know her mother, father, Zio Guillermo (“Zia Louisa’s fourth husband”) among others, and we see Maria—a skinny, bookish child in a “world … as small and perfect as it ever be.” Food plays a prominent role in descriptions of her childhood: Bosco, Easter’s roast chicken and potatoes, and cinnamon and vanilla that recall her mother’s baking. As in a good novel, her narrative poems are truly structured: she moves from A to B to C, then back to A or B and onward, always building on previous poems’ foundations and constructing singular foundations within singular poems as if weaving memories on a loom straight from Paterson, NJ’s, famed silk mills. She uses images that evoke a time when shoe stores x-rayed feet, when girls sewed their own graduation dresses, when tables were covered with oil-cloth.
Gillan’s poems—rhythmic, pounding with content that craves rereading—are accessible stories. Her “characters,” really those who formed the cocoon of love around her and at the same time challenged her, come to life in many layers. She tells us that her father worked in factories all his life, yet countered this toil (she offers, “I’d shoot myself if I had to do this job”) with voracious reading, knowledge of current events, and his ability as the designated neighborhood tax accountant without a formal degree. He could “add, multiply, and divide in his head faster than an adding machine.” She tells us of this proud man who, sidelined by a tumor, “wouldn’t let my mother apply for welfare,” so the family lived on “spaghetti and farina and my mother’s homemade bread every day.” In one of her previous collections (more than a dozen), Gillan writes of not wanting her date to see her father and his limp—she carries guilt for it to this day, but frees herself enough to share this information.
This freedom of information pervades the latest collection. In her workshops and at retreats, and in her book Writing Poetry to Save Your Life, she alludes to a crow on a shoulder that acts as a pecking censor for truths that lie within. She takes her own advice to get rid of the crow and taps her deepest feelings—and secrets—to produce poetry that is forthright and uncloaked. This is evident in stories of her youth when, despite many loving acts (“she’d wrap my hair in white rags/ to make it curl”), her mother (whom we know by other poems she adored) “was old fashioned and strict/ and I didn’t have toys.” We feel the universal ambivalence on the poet’s part. Who doesn’t feel ambivalence in the parent/child relationship?
The consummate love of mother endures. When it comes to this mother who remains within Gillan almost two decades after her internment in the “mausoleum drawer where we shelved her,” we see a daughter longing for the aromas of garlic and meatballs, for the heat of an iron crisping the hand-me-downs from Zia Christina’s daughter (we can feel the poet’s embarrassment at wearing them), for “basting threads piled like clouds around,” for this mother who did piecework at home, a tiny woman Gillan’s brother called “the little general,” for a woman who served espresso in “tiny china cups.” This mother, who never went beyond third grade in her native San Mauro, Italy, and “was ashamed that she never learned/ to read English,” scrimped to buy her daughter “a Smith Corona portable typewriter in a pink case/ so that I could be the writer/ I said I wanted to be.”
The reader is warmed, concerned, and protective for the child who wasn’t comfortable in her own skin (“I’ve always been shy in my body”), then—a little more than halfway through the book—is stunned by Gillan’s transition to her adult life and into a marriage that becomes marred by her husband’s debilitating illness. As she soars to success in her vocation that takes her to places where praise and academic demands abound, he remains at home, declining. Here is where Gillan tosses the shoulder crow even higher into the wind and delves into what she calls “the cave.” Where others might hide the anguish she faces, she bares it and shares it eloquently. She reverts to apostrophe in many of these poems, addressing her husband as if he were there, letting her words assuage her disappointment and often her guilt: “I try to pull our house/ complete with nurse’s aides and medicine and/ wheelchairs, behind me like a huge red wagon …” We feel her anger guilt, frustration, and empathy all rolled into a single convoluted emotion when a crisis occurs just as she “was trying/ to get ready to leave to drive up 17 west to Binghamton.”
Even her poems that start out with Nature’s beauty or quirks—“Each spring I fall in love again with the sun’s hand on my face”—form a contrast with the terrible reality of her husband’s illness. She cannot allow herself to enjoy the sun’s warmth for long; in this state she cannot lasso the warmth that enveloped her as a child. She feels alone and she is not afraid to tell us. Gillan is relentless in this group of poems; she can’t “fix what is wrong.” She never leaves a feeling unsaid; she never leaves a stanza unclean. She beats out the rhythms of the inevitable in free verse, in triplets, in wide poems, in narrow lines, in patterns that keep the eye moving among the words she needs to write, the only medicine she can dispense to help herself heal. And yet we are not uncomfortable as we enter her grief; she turns the mood with reminders of the strong love between man and wife to parry the sadness: “… the you/ I love is there in the way you hold my hand to your cheek,/ the way you smooth back my hair.” When her husband returns (“wobbling and unsteady on your feet”) in his wheelchair from negotiating for a patio set with the neighbor next door, she writes “… even after forty years,/ this is how you show you love me.”
She lets us in on her worries about her children, comparing the breakup of her daughter’s marriage to the earthquake in Japan with exquisite metaphor: “My daughter has been touched by the radiation/ of her husband’s betrayal.” She aches for her grandson, the target of middle-school bullies. She talks of telling her granddaughter “how beautiful she is,/ how creative and intelligent …” Gillan realizes that “the voice inside her,/ that crow,/ is louder than mine,” and we remember the book’s earlier poems that describe this grandmother’s own insecurity even into adulthood, a “girl,/ so introverted she cannot speak, who has followed me my whole/ life, that girl who hides behind my bluster and courage …”
Gillan’s poems are rich with images. We can feel her family in that house on 17th Street, we can picture green mountains where “the music of the universe is everywhere,” we can watch a family of ducks cross River Street in Paterson “as they move graceful as dancers onto the water … into the dazzling morning light.” So much is revealed and at the same time, so much is unsaid in her poems, a perfect balance that lets us read between the lines and interpret her perceptions and her intent.
Maria Gillan epitomizes courage. Her words, her poetic grace, her appreciation for the warp and woof of her art, are gifts to a community that does not tire of hearing her voice. This community silently thanks her mother for that Smith Corona.
In hot violets and reds, the beautiful cover of The Place I Call Home depicts Gillan’s alter ego, luxuriating on a chaise lounge, a book in each hand. This is a far cry from the poet’s peripatetic life, in which she heads two poetry centers four hours apart, in which she teaches internationally, in which she hosts weekend retreats that disseminate her skills and mentor poets of all ages, in which she crosses the country to accept the accolades that shower her, and in which she continues to honor her beloved hometown of Paterson. This is a book than cannot be digested in a single reading. It is essential to find a chaise lounge (or even a kitchen chair with a tiny cup of espresso at the ready) and come home with Maria Mazziotti Gillan.
Gail Fishman Gerwin authored several plays as well as two poetry collections: Sugar and Sand, 2010 Paterson Poetry Prize finalist, and Dear Kinfolk (ChayaCairn Press), recipient of a 2013 Paterson Award for Literary Excellence. Her poetry, reviews, essays, and fiction are widely published. She is the founder of inedit, a Morristown, NJ, writing/editing firm, and associate poetry editor of the journal Tiferet.