Sunday, February 18, 2018

Poetry Floats Against the Current of Time: A Review of 'Paterson Light and Shadow'

Paterson Light and Shadow, with poems by Maria Mazziotti Gillan and photographs by Mark Hillringhouse (Serving House Books, 2017) was reviewed by Adele Kenny in the Fall 2017 issue of the Tiferet  journal.

"It’s been said that poetry floats against the current of time, and this stunningly beautiful book by Maria Mazziotti Gillan and Mark Hillringhouse shows—through written language and photography—just how true that statement is. More than observation or remembrance, this book is both a tribute to, and a celebration of, Paterson, New Jersey. Both Gillan and Hillringhouse have lived and taught in Paterson, have walked and wandered through big and little spaces in the place once known as the Silk City. Together, they capture the light and the shadow of Paterson, past and present.

Maria Gillan is one of American poetry’s first ladies. Her work is always warmly and touchingly human, her voice authentic. Her style is essentially narrative with strong lyric undertones. Skillfully compressed and perfectly crafted, Gillan’s poems are filled with the generosity of spirit for which she is known. With adeptness of image and syntax, the poems in this collection are both thoughtful and elegant; they are driven by the author’s observations of life and her reflections on losses and love, all underscored by commitment to the particular. Technically impressive and filled with inner music, these poems rise from deep emotional centers and, as always, move between past and present with sureness and understanding. Keenly observant and fully aware of human frailty, Gillan raises her ghosts and, through them, she documents the struggles and joys of life as it was and as it is now. Most importantly, deceptively simple straightforwardness is the genius of great poetry, and Maria Gillan is a genius.

Creating structural and tonal nuance through black and white photography requires both artistic and technical brilliance. Mark Hillringhouse is brilliant. A poet, essayist, and photographer whose works have been widely published and exhibited, he articulates time’s passage through subtle shades of meaning, feeling, and tone in his black and white photographs. In these images, texture and patterns are not distracted by color and are thus profoundly compelling. In the same way that Gillan controls and directs her work through image and emotion that is never overly stated, Hillringhouse incorporates varying tones of gray to create small subtleties that add up to maximum effect.

Gillan is a master of line and stanza breaks. She also excels in creating enjambments (continuing sentences from one poetic line to another without a pause or terminal punctuation) such as those seen in these lines from “Opening the Door: 19th Street, Paterson”:
The crumbling cement steps led down to the dark cave
of the cellar where the mouse traps waited
in the corners and the big, iron coal furnace squatted
next to the coal bin. My father used a shovel
to scoop the coal out: it made a scraping sound... (page 42)

Hillringhouse, too, is a master of line. The image opposite “Opening the Door: 19th Street, Paterson” (page 43), shows the front of a home. What strikes the viewer immediately is the crumbling cement staircase, which perfectly matches Gillan’s first line. Run-down, shabby, the short staircase presents a narrow construction that draws attention to the center. From there, Hillringhouse uses lines to invite the viewer’s eye to move about the image and not become fixed in one place. He skillfully captures the lines of the door, windows, steps, railing, and fence.There is a constant play of light against darkness in the poems and photographs that speaks to
life’s dual nature; and the poem/picture juxtapositions created by Gillan and Hillringhouse are extraordinary. Especially striking are “Going to the Rivoli in Downtown Paterson” and the accompanying image.

...On Saturdays, after school, when I was a girl,
we’d take the bus downtown and we’d walk up and down
Main Street in and out of stores. We never bought anything,
but we liked wandering the aisles of Meyer Brothers,
spritzing ourselves with perfume, if we dared, and smelling
the leather purses we couldn’t afford. Then we’d retreat
to the Rivoli, to the elegance of the theater, to that moment
when they’d dim the lights and the movie would flash onto
the huge screen and we’d leave behind our ordinary lives
and enter the world of the film, a place where people lived
lives that were magical and glittering, a place
where people could have whatever they desired
and never have to count the costs. (pages 72-73)

The image that faces the poem is one of the ruined theater (page 73). Surrounded by darkness, a band of light enters through a doorway and falls on the rubble in places where seats once were. The starkness and desolation are underscored by that band of light, by the perspective achieved by the photographer, and by the prevailing sense of the lost “magical and glittering” to which the
poet refers.

Powered by love and buttressed by memory, these poems and images leave the reader/viewer with a feeling of loss and change that is a leitmotif throughout the book. Intensely focused and showing mastery of composition and form, texture and depth, the poems and images of people and place in this collection are thoughtful and intelligent, as well as rich in nuance and meaning. Together, Maria Gillan and Mark Hillringhouse have created a book that looks at the past through the lens of what we know and see today.

The poems and images in this book inform one another with a special tenderness that speaks of identity—both personal and geographic. They give even those who have never been to Paterson a personal and touching look at a city that, like so many American cities, has changed irrevocably. For all of us, there is a Paterson in our individual histories—a hometown, a place we shared with family members and friends, a city or town that we remember. Along with poignant poems and exquisite images, this book calls us back to the spiritual geographies that we call home."

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