Monday, January 8, 2018

'Paterson Light and Shadow' Reviewed by Jennifer Martelli on Ovunque Siamo

Paterson Light and Shadow
by Maria Mazziotti Gillan and Mark Hillringhouse.
Reviewed by Jennifer Martelli on Ovunque Siamo - New Italian-American Writing

Black and white photography is a choreography of nuanced tone: the eye is drawn to the reflection of light, how it dances against the dark. Mark Hillringhouse’s photo, “Winter Falls,” depicts a cold, partially frozen river, barely mirroring the sky. The bare tree branches could be shadows. The falls, white-braided with deep gray, seem frozen in motion. The city –Paterson, New Jersey– is blurred in the background. It must be overcast or near nighttime: two white spots glow far away–headlights.

I could be watching a movie frame at “Big Joey’s house... on his father’s 16 mm projector” in Maria Mazziotti Gillan’s accompanying poem, “In the City of Dreams: Paterson, NJ.”

Paterson Light and Shadow, a collaborative homage to a city rendered in Mazziotti Gillan’s honest, unflinching poems and Hillringhouse’s stark yet gentle black and white photography, never shies away from the shadows of an aging, working-class city populated by generations of immigrants. The artists contrast the shadowy shame of an old-country heritage with light that exalts the ordinary.

In Mazziotti Gillan’s poem, “17th Street: Paterson, New Jersey,” the speaker’s parents –who embody the Italian immigrant experience and all of its nobility and anachronism– become part of the photographic landscape. Mazziotti Gillan writes:
...the open look on my father’s face, sparks flying from him in pleasure, my mother’s hand, delicate, the charm of those moments where I rested in the luminous circle of love.
Facing this prose poem is Hillringhouse’s “Passaic River Winter Tree Branches.” We are drawn to the center of the photograph–the center of the river–by a misty light. This is the deepest point of the river, where the light falls. Delicate and bare branches reach across the river, like arms.

Hillringhouse’s capturing of reflecting light–and of light reflecting is probably best seen in his photographs “Bendix Diner,” which depicts the inside of a vintage diner: stainless steel appliances, spotless counter top, glass bricks. The sunlight shines on surfaces, walls, those strips of metal around the faux-leather counter stools. Through the frosted windows we can see bare tree branches.

Mazziotti Gillan’s poem, “Jersey Diners,” speaks of this light: “ ...Looking back, I see our young faces / lit by the harsh diner lights.”  This is a poem mourning the inevitable passage of time, employing similar light and shadow techniques: "glory, and we, our faces still untouched by grief and loss / caught and framed in the diner’s windows."

The speaker’s parents embody the conflict of the first or second generation of immigrants: a love for this “protected/and safe” community and a deep shame. In her heart-breaking poem, “Daddy, We Called You,” Mazziotti Gillan addresses the contrast of both cultures. At home her father was “Papa//but outside again, you became Daddy.”

Mazziotti Gillan’s poem, like a Hillringhouse photograph, uses light and shadow to convey an emotional depth, “Papa, how you glowed in company light,/when the other immigrants/came to you for health..."

The father remains illuminated, even as the daughter, embarrassed, denies him:
You were waiting for the bus, the streetlight illuminating
your face. I pretended I did not see you,
let my boyfriend pull away, leaving you...
I was ashamed to have my boyfriend see you,
find out about your second shift work, your broken English.
The glowing circle the father creates in the home enables the poet the opportunity to find her voice.
 “Spruce Street Factory Warehouse with Figure” by Mark Hillringhouse
My favorite photograph is “Spruce Street Factory Warehouse with Figure.” Like an Escher drawing it demands study with its geometry and depth. A seemingly simple, flat face of an old building with dark paned windows, the drama plays out with the fire-escape zig-zagging up and down the facade. Or, is it the shadow of the fire escape? Which way do the stairs go? This factory, like the factories “Papa” and the millions of immigrants worked their second or third job, allowed the next generation a way out, an escape.

The father’s stoic toil allowed the poet to bloom, “to go to college... to absorb the feel of the city... to carry the voice of the people, my people, in my head, to hear their stories, and save them to tell.”

Both artists display Paterson’s rich and reflective life, its voice. The frozen river in Hillringhouse’s opening photograph is thawed in the closing photo, “Passaic River from Lincoln Avenue Bridge.”

The poet’s voice is like the water that surrounds Paterson Light and Shadow. “I hear these people who are so much a part of my life, their voices caught like music in my mind,” Mazziotti Gillan writes. The poems and photographs are constantly moving from light to dark, from stasis to movement, ice to water: “I had to cry a long time before I could learn to sing their songs, as my own.”

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