I am ashamed that I drive faster
and faster to escape the image of you with your lost
frightened eyes, your hands that can no longer hold
a piece of toast or a cookie, your head so bent it is like an iris
with a broken stalk. I am ashamed
at how hard I try to leave you behind.
Gillan read her poetry this month in South Dakota as part of the Great Plains Writers’ Tour. Jim Reese, an associate professor of English at Mount Marty College, brought Gillan there in 2008 after she had received the American Book Award. She also visited the writing program at the Yankton Federal Prison.
“Twenty minutes into her reading and talk on craft, she had the men in tears,” Reese says. “She makes you go to places and relive emotions that you’ve had hidden in your head. That is the goal I give my students at the prison camp. I want them to come to terms with the emotional instabilities that brought them to prison.”
Maria recalls that visit, her first time speaking in a prison.
“I was nervous before, wondering how they would respond, but they just wrote fantastic poems for me,” she says. “They were very brave in what they wrote.”
Maria's two new poetry collections deal with the courage it takes to look at hard stories in our lives.
In Ancestors' Song, she particularly writes about the women in her life, what they teach one another and what they pass on to their children - intentionally and unintentionally.
In The Silence in an Empty House, she writes about her husband's 25-year-long illness and her own grief after his death, as well as fears and guilt that she didn't do as much as she might have when he was ill. The poet also deftly mixes into the collection poems about the destruction of our natural world, such as the BP Gulf oil spill in 2010.
Loss comes in many forms in the poems.
“When I was a kid we lived in a ghetto, a very immigrant community in Paterson (N.J.), but we would go out when snow fell and my mother would scoop it up, put a little espresso in it, sprinkle a little sugar on it, and that was our ice cream. You couldn’t do it now, not here. The sky’s too polluted. I can remember looking up at the stars in the sky in Paterson, so many of them. Now you can’t see them at all. I think you can still see the stars in South Dakota, but not in New Jersey, and that’s a loss for all of us.”
As she writes in "Leaving New Jersey and Autumn Behind":
...Each day brings
its own images. How grateful I must
remember to be., to hold
so much in my hands.
More: Poet's work tracks 'trajectory of my life'