The Girls in the Chartreuse Jackets (Cat in the Sun Books, 2014) by Maria Mazziotti Gillan
Reviewed by Eniko Vaghy and published in Ragazine, March 2017
The Last Word Is “Grateful”
A former teacher once told me that it is not the first word of a poetry collection that matters but the last. In The Girls in the Chartreuse Jackets, poet Maria Mazziotti Gillan concludes with the word “grateful,” thus unveiling the hidden message of this wonderful collection.
Maria Mazziotti Gillan does not use gratitude as a “catch-all” word for a series of emotions, but unwraps gratitude and places every aspect of it before her reader, giving it a newfound significance and distinct voice. The type of gratitude presented in The Girls in the Chartreuse Jackets is not a static sensation – it is neither overly exuberant nor strictly somber (though both extremes arise). I would say it is akin to falling on your back and getting the wind knocked out of your lungs. You lie paralyzed – simultaneously afraid and in awe as oxygen slowly fills your chest and leaves you thankful for the air, but oddly nostalgic for that uncomfortable suspension of body and breath.
Gillan gives her readers this kind of punch and release with her poems of gratitude. In “How the Dead Return,” Gillan is concerned with two losses, the passing of her mother and the tragic decline of her husband’s health. Gillan begins despondent, administering a tender nudge to the reader’s gut:
Ma, sometimes I feel that you are with me
each day, though you’ve been dead eighteen years already, my life
slipping away from me like water
in my hands. Why is it that you are the one I think of always
when I am afraid or tired
In the next stanza, Gillan seems to revive a little, explaining that her mother’s voice encourages her to persevere even when the desire to "…crawl / into [her] bed to hide” (Gillan) is acute. But this strength is immediately obliterated when Gillan sees her husband, Dennis, “…sliding down / in his electric wheelchair, his head bent / like the broken stalk of a tiger lily / or a gladiola, eyes terrified and pleading” (Gillan). This is the breathless moment of the poem. The audience is given this image of a man who is as precious as a flower to his wife, but has been trampled over and destroyed by disease.
When Gillan states, “…I am tired of so many people who need me, / no one for me to turn to for comfort…” (Gillan) the poem becomes increasingly claustrophobic and the reader starts to wonder if any reprieve will be reached.
The tension in the poem is cut with one word, or should I say person – “Ma.” Gillan writes:
…Ma, you come to me/ as though you were still alive. Sometimes,
I can smell you, vanilla and flour and sugar,
you with your bread dough rising in its bowl,
you bringing me dishes of pasta or cups of espresso…
By including these sensory details such as the scent of Gillan’s mother’s cooking and the types of comfort food she brings, Gillan releases her readers from their state of limbo. With these five lines, the reader is able to resume, to live once more. The true resolution is achieved when Gillan ends her poem by saying
“I swear I can close my eyes and conjure you up,
and for a moment, it’s your arms I feel around me,
your hands in my hair”
And we are back. This final passage is the epitome of the summit of gratitude; the glorious inhale. Its flavor lingers on the reader’s palate; it stings like a fresh scab. Gillan reveals that gratitude is not achieved through primarily good experiences or acknowledged in the midst of moments of pleasure. No, gratitude arises in lieu of something. The fact that Gillan can relish the cooking and tenderness of her mother is because she is not physically present and will never be again. This does not dilute Gillan’s emotions, though. To her, eternity is possible for those who wish to remember and it is through the memories of another person that one can receive comfort, and thus, gratitude.
Eniko Vaghy is a senior at SUNY Binghamton majoring in English Literature with concentrations in Creative Writing and Global Culture. When she is not writing poetry or reviews, you can find her exploring the beauty of her hometown with all the zeal of a first-time tourist.
Maria Mazziotti Gillan's most recent books are the poetry and photography collection, Paterson Light and Shadow and the poetry collection, What Blooms in Winter . Her collection of poems along with some of her paintings is The Girls in the Chartreuse Jackets . Maria's official website is MariaGillan.com.