Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Poet Laureate of Awful Truths

In an online article a few years ago, Donna Gialanella of the The Star-Ledger dubbed Maria Mazziotti Gillan "the poet laureate of awful truths."

The article was written at a time when her husband, Dennis, was struggling with Parkinson's disease. He had always been a part of her poetry. But new poems of that period were not love poems, but ones that chronicled him wetting his pants in his wheelchair, and recalled an argument more than 20 years before that was the first and only time he ever struck her. Another poem ("Selective Memory" from All That Lies Between Us) has her husband announcing that if something happened to her, he would remarry. Her response: "your words sting worse / than if you had stabbed me."

My daughter tells me I practice selective
memory, that I erase the parts of the past
I don't like or don't want to know.
I denied it but then I thought maybe
she was right after all, that maybe I need
to soften the sharp edges of memory, as though
I were working colored chalk over a painting.

So it must have been selective memory
that I was practicing when I let myself
forget that I've always loved my husband
more than he loved me, that fact I forced
myself to forget as he grew ill and we grew
together over the years, moments glittering
like gold in rock the way those remembered
glimpses of a beloved face or the feel
of a hand or words spoken softly stay
with us...

Though Maria sometimes worries that her poems may seem mean, she says that "I think there were so many things we weren't supposed to talk about when I was growing up that I feel compelled to say the unsayable in my poems."

And yet, anyone who know Maria, knows that she is anything but mean. She is more likely to be described as a warm, Italian grandmother who is well known for helping students, and new and established writers. She readily admits that one of her flaws is her inability to say No.

And she advise those students and new writers to follow her and go "into that cave, find the deepest part of you, and write about it."

After living with Parkinson's disease for twenty-five years, her husband passed last year. Maria continues to write about him. In a recent poem, “Watching the Pelicans Die,” that was started several weeks after his death, there are two narratives. Following a writing prompt that she gives her own students, she goes back and forth between two seemingly unconnected things, finally finding something in common between them to use as a thread to weave the poems together.

She says that it was "a very difficult poem to write, because I could not confront my husband’s final weeks directly, and it became commingled in my mind with the BP oil disaster. The black slick of oil on the sand and water made me incredibly sad at a time when I was watching my husband die, and watching his hands go black at the tips. The poem is a howl of sorrow for the world and also for my husband."

But, the poet laureate of awful truth also finds in that cave the truth that is not awful but always honest, as in the conclusion of "Selective Memory."

I watch you, your face
twitching and moving, your neck twisting,
your arms jerking, and I remember
how much I love you, and would
even if you married someone else,
even if I had to return from my grave
to haunt you, even then, I can't help
the tenderness I still feel
when I look at you.