The Place I Call Home by Maria Mazziotti Gillan
Maria Mazziotti Gillan has won numerous prizes for her poetry and has read throughout the U.S., including her ancestral village in Southern Italy. She has won the 2011 Barnes and Noble Writers for Writers Award and the 2008 American book Award. She is the founder and Executive Director of the Poetry Center at Passaic County Community College in Paterson, NJ,and Director of the Creative Writing Program at Binghamton University, SUNY.
After fourteen books of poetry, you would think that any poet would begin to run out of things to say and places to take readers where they have not been before. I have seen this in poets I used to admire as an undergraduate and now find uninteresting, lacking inspiration.
But as I read Maria Mazziotti Gillan’s latest collection, The Place I Call Home, I realize that she is not among that pantheon of famous American poets whose poetic, well, has gone dry, whose source has become intellectual rather than emotional, the source of all good poetry. But I must hasten to add that there is nothing here in her fourteenth book of poems that is unfamiliar. While she returns to sources familiar to her wide-readership, she takes her reader once again to emotional depths that seize your attention and won’t let you go until the end of every line of each poem.
These are unmistakably Mazziotti Gillan poems, with a self-assured voice that you will not hear in many other American poets writing today. She reminds me of the current Poet Laureate of the United States, eighty-four- year- old Phil Levine from Fresno. As he has mined his industrial, working-class heritage in pre-1940s Detroit over the last forty years in his poetry, his poems have only become more interesting, more emotionally gripping, and more relevant to our times.
Similarly, Gillan returns to familiar subjects again in her poetry: her childhood anxiety growing up Italian American in the 1950s and 60s, her working class Italian immigrant mother and father, her life with her husband suffering from an incurable aliment, living without him after his death, and her daughter and son, their challenges as children and adults.
Gillan’s poems are not based on the image or metaphor, but rather the line. She writes in the vernacular, a strong, conversational voice that only a few American poets have successfully sustained. She writes a free verse line that extends across the page, then back again to the edge of the page, then back again, until the thought is not just completed but infused with an emotion that ultimately carries her extended lines.
In the opening poem of the volume, "The Sound Carries Me Toward Childhood," Gillan writes:
It is dark. I swear I hear my mother calling, though it is
fifteen years since she died and more than fifty
years since we lived in the 17th street apartment that I think of
when I think of my childhood, that two-family house
with its back stoop where all the neighborhood kids joined us.
Her voice carries the reader, born on a cascading freshet of words line after line describing her Paterson childhood at home with her immigrant Italian-speaking parents and siblings. It was a time of Zio Guillermo’s garden resplendent with oregano, rosemary, mints, zucchini, eggplant, and tomatoes. It was a time that she shared with her brother and sister at her immigrant mother’skitchen table covered with oilcloth. The memories aren’t stagnant, but as Gillan says, they remain an avenue into her aging self, where she can still feel as “loved as I was then.” Like all the other poems, memory is not reduced to nostalgia, but a legitimate avenue into her personal history and by implication her readers’ personal histories, as well as our shared national history.
What Gillan remembers, we remember about that past, wherever or whoever we are.
Some of the titles of the poems that follow outline the history that Gillan is after; “My Mother’s 1950s Refrigerator,” “My Brother Stands in the Snow, 1947, Paterson, NJ,” “Even When We Didn’t Have Money,” “I Grew Up With Tom Mix,” “The Tin Ball and the War Effort,” “All His Life My Father Worked in Factories,” and “Doing the Twist with Bobby Darin.” In these poems with their long, rhythmic lines Gillan traverses both the trials and the joys of growing up poor in her immigrant parents’ house at a time when ethnicity and multiculturalism were not celebrated aspects of the American social order.
In “A Few years Ago, I Moved You Out of Our Bedroom,” Gillan explores her guilt-laden feelings over the time she was forced to ask her ailing husband to move out their shared bed:
“You’d wake me up from my from my deepest sleep
and then I’d be awake for an hour or two,
before I could fall back to sleep
and my alarm went off each morning at 6 a.m.”
Now that he is gone, in her poignant, closing lines Gillan writes,
"My body keeps searching for the space you used to
occupy, the heat of your body that warmed me
all those years when I was always cold.”
In “The Other Night, You Came Home,” she writes of the toll that his illness was taking on him physically. Gillan’s guilt is compounded by what soon became for her in the 1980s and after the success that she began to enjoy as a poet and as a renowned creative-writing teacher.
Overnight or for extended weekend seminars and readings, she was forced to leave her ailing husband, who had to fend for himself. In one instance his medication runs out, and Gillan writes, “There is no medicine / for the sound guilt makes at 3 a.m.”
These are poems that plumb the depth of human feelings, with which everyone can identify.
In “A Poem about a Turnip,” Gillan writes of her daughter’s pain over her former husband’s betrayal and the break-up of their marriage. He served Gillan a turnip once for dinner, and she writes, “I hated them / so white, bland and difficult to swallow like his betrayal.” In her anger, she writes, “I’d hit my ex-son-in-law in the head / with a turnip or a really big uncooked sweet potato / if I could.”
In spite of the introspection that characterizes all her work, Gillan’s voice is never frail, never betrays exhaustion over her struggles as a girl, wife, mother, and adult.
In a closing poem in the volume, “Life Was Simple,” she writes of her problematic relationship with her grown son. He refuses after all these years to acknowledge and approve of his mother’s literary fame, a son “who thinks that I should give up my poetry / and workshops and readings all over the world, /who looks at me as though he doesn’t know anything / about me..."
In “Why I Worry,” and “The Boys Call My Grandson Names,” she shoulders her grandchildren’s struggles as they grow into adulthood.
Yet Gillan lives as much in the world as any poet. In “The Riots in Cairo,” “In Japan, the “The Bratz Dolls Outpace Barbie,”In Japan, Earthquake,” and in the final poem of the volume, “The Ducks Walk Across River Street, Paterson, New Jersey,” Gillan addresses contemporary themes other than the self, family, and friends.
Her collection ends, as that family of ducks, “their heads proud in the air,” stops traffic on River Street in both directions as “ they move gracefully as dancers onto the water / and let it lift them into the dazzling morning light.”
This is poetry that is a celebration of who we are, a recovery of the self through its unabashed and even sometimes painful honesty, a poetry that allows us to go into that “dazzling morning light,” each day with a sense of renewal and strength in who we are, in spite of our weaknesses.
Ken Scambray’s most recent works are The North American Italian Renaissance: Italian Writing in America and Canada, Surface Roots: Stories, and Queen Calafia’s Paradise: California and the Italian American Novel . His essay on the Watts Towers and the Underground Gardens appeared in Italian Folk, ed. by Joseph Sciorra.
Maria's Official Site is at MariaGillan.com. Her latest publication is the poetry and art collection, The Girls in the Chartreuse Jackets.