Friday, August 18, 2017

Poem: "Oak Place Musings"

Oak Place Musings


On my neighbor's roof, plastic butterflies
freeze in rigid postures. Rubber ducks waddle
into trimmed evergreens; plaster cats climb
siding toward peaked roofs

Once, in a vacant Paterson lot, I caught
a butterfly, the lot seemed huge. Daisies
grew there and marigolds and red berries
which stained our fingers. We had crepe paper
whirlers in varied colors; we spun and spun.
The whirlers were an army of insects
buzzing, till tall grass and flowers blurred.

The butterfly in my hand beat its wings
in terror. My hand stained gold.
When I let it escape, it flew away fast,
and then, forgetting, it dipped and swirled
so gracefully I almost stopped breathing.


By nine each morning, Oak Place with its neat box
houses lies still and empty. Children have vanished
into yellow camp buses, parents departed in separate cars.

The street settles into somnolence. Its lines
and angles imprison handkerchief lawns
until even the old oaks no longer seem at home.
In my yesterdays, I dreamed myself out of the old city,
imagining a world just like this one,
away from strewn garbage and houses stacked close as teeth.

Today I mourn tomatoes ripening in our immigrant gardens,
the pattern of sun on walls of old brick mills,
a time when each day opened like a morning glory.
Some days when I look at my hand, I imagine
it is still stained gold.

"Oak Place Musings" by Maria Mazziotti Gillan from Good Poems for Hard Times, edited by Garrison Keillor

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

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Review: The Girls in the Chartreuse Jackets

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

Friday, August 4, 2017

Maria Mazziotti Gillan Interviews on 'The Poet and the Poem'

The Poet and the Poem audio podcasts are part of the webcasts and podcasts from the Poetry and Literature Center at the Library of Congress. Hosted by Grace Cavalieri, whose interviews and book reviews have appeared in various journals including The American Poetry Review.

Her original "Poet and the Poem" series aired on public radio in 1977. "The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress" is an outgrowth of that show premiering in 1997. Approximately twelve episodes are produced each season.

Cavalieri also has 16 books and chapbooks of poetry and 26 produced plays to her credit. She is twice the recipient of the Allen Ginsberg Award (1993, 2013), and has received the Bordighera Poetry Award, a Paterson Poetry Prize, and a CPB Silver Medal, among other awards. In 2013 she received the Association Writing Program’s “George Garrett Award” for Service to Literature. A recent poetry book, Water on the Sun, is on the Pen American Center's "Best Books" list.

Maria Mazziotti Gillan has appeared twice on the program and the hour-long interviews are available online.

"Anno Della Cultura Italiana, 2013" contains interviews with four Italian women Emily Ferrara, Sabine Pascarelli, Maria Mazziotti Gillan, and Rose Solari
Listen at

Maria Mazziotti Gillan also did an earlier solo interview.

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

Monday, July 31, 2017

Poem: "I Open a Box" and and a Review of 'Paterson Light and Shadow'

Maria Gillan's Childhood Home, East 17th St. Paterson (rear view)
Photo by Mark Hillringhouse
It is always good to have your poetry reviewed by other poets you admire.

Poet Jan Beatty wrote,"In Paterson Light and Shadow, Maria Mazziotti Gillan writes her beloved city with transforming courage: In the city of dreams no one dies, she says, all the while we witness the lives of immigrants--her father who worked at the Royle Machine Shop and swam the Passaic River, the daily poverty and relentless spirit of the dreamers of Paterson. These fierce and lovely poems speak to the wonderful photographs of Mark Hillringhouse as she sings the road back to the 17th Street kitchen with its big black coal stove. No one writes with the heart and soul of Mazziotti Gillan--from the depths of loss to the still shimmering happiness.

Poet Marge Piercy also praised Gillan's latest book: "Paterson Light and Shadow is a fascinating collaboration between poet Maria Gillan and photographer Mark Hillringhouse. Maria Gillan's poems evoke the warmth of a childhood in the home and neighborhood created by Italian immigrants. Outside in the WASP world at school, it was a colder place where all that made her life sweet at home made her ostracized and demeaned. These poems and photographs also show the transformation, typical of so many American cities, from bustling hub of manufacturing with a lively downtown to a shell marked by decay and unemployment. Gillan gives voice to a past generation of the city and current desolation."

But poets also look forward to "reviews" by their readers. Sometimes those are given verbally at a reading, but reviews can also appear online. That is the case for this recent review on posted by Charlie Brice.

You get a new book in the mail, sit down, decide to read a couple poems, and, as you finish the book, look up to see that the afternoon has slipped away. That’s what happened to me with Maria Mazziotti Gillan’s new collection of poems, Paterson Light and Shadow. This new volume, coauthored by photographer Mark Hillringhouse, is the latest addition to what has become one of the most prodigious careers in contemporary poetry. Maria Gillan transports us into a vanished world of childhood smells, sights, sounds, and emotions that, as most childhood things, never totally abandons us. She brings this world to life like no other poet I’ve ever read. 
My favorite Gillan poem is in this volume: “Daddy, We Called You.” I listened to her read that poem to a hushed audience almost 20 years ago; an audience that sat in stunned silence as shame circled the room like an deadly virus. The poem that most struck me this time, however, was “I Open a Box."

I Open a Box

…and find inside a picture
of myself as a child, sitting
on a small chair, wearing overalls
and shoes that must have been
hand-me-downs because they are
so worn the sole is coming loose.
I am no more than 18 months
old and cannot have been walking
all that long. I am squinting
into the sun, my nose crinkling
with effort the way it crinkles now
when I am trying to see in bright light.
Behind me, the six-family tenement
where I was born on 5th Avenue
in Paterson, the rickety stairs rise up
three floors, the porches tilt a bit
as though they might fall off
if someone were to jump on them
too hard. My mother delivered
me herself in this coldwater flat.
The doctor didn’t get to her in time,
and when he did, he, in his pressed
and starched white shirt and expensive
suit and polished shoes, stood at the door
and didn’t enter the room. My mother
cut the cord and washed me off, wrapped
me in a clean blanket. When she
was dying years later, she said,
“The doctor didn’t even come into
the room. He washed his hands, wiped
them on one of the rough linen towels
I brought from Italy, stood in the doorway.
“You’ll be okay,” he said, and left.
“Oh well,” my mother said, “I think
he was afraid of catching it.”
“Catching what?” I asked.
“Poverty,” she said.

Maria is the queen of endings! Who would have ever seen that ending coming? 
Hillringhouse’s photographs are stunning. I was especially taken with his photograph of the Paterson Danforth Public Library on page 37. This photo depicts, in the most artistic fashion possible, the play of light and shadow in the book. 
This is a wonderful collection. I hope you all get a chance to pass an afternoon with it.

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

Thursday, July 13, 2017

'Paterson Light and Shadow' Reviewed on Poetry Spoken Here

Poetry Spoken Here is a podcast that posts new episodes on the 1st & 3rd Fridays of the month.

On the July 7, 2017 program, the host, Charlie Rossiter, reviews Paterson Light and Shadow, the new collection of poems by Maria Mazziotti Gillan with photographs by Mark Hillringhouse.

Listen to the review or the full program which also includes an interview with poet Juliet Cook.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Poem: Going to the Rivoli in Downtown Paterson

Abandoned Theater - Photo by Mark Hillringhouse

Going to the Rivoli in Downtown Paterson
by Maria Mazziotti Gillan

When we were growing up, we went to downtown Paterson
to the Rivoli theater on Main Street to see the latest movies
and the stars we loved – Rock Hudson, Doris Day,
Tab Hunter – the theater ornately carved with cherubs
and angels, elaborate moldings and glass chandeliers
and velvet curtains. That was when Paterson still thrived,
before the first shopping center opened in Elmwood Park
and then on Rte. 4, the Garden State Plaza and the Bergen
Mall, and people stopped taking the buses into downtown
to shop at Meyer Brothers where the elevator operators
wore white gloves and announced the goods on each floor,
before they stopped going to Quackenbush’s with its curving
stair that led to the restaurant where people with money
(or more money than we had) would stop for lunch
or to Berman’s for cashmere sweaters or to the Rivoli
or the Fabian to watch movies. That was in the fifties before
the wealthy people from the Eastside section moved out
to Fair Lawn or Glen Rock, before they moved to places
where they had to have a car because there was no
public transportation, before poor people started moving
into Paterson, people poorer than we were, the immigrants
who crowded into the ethnic neighborhoods
like the Totowa section or Riverside in the thirties and forties, and who
by the late fifties moved out, too, to blue collar suburbs, looking
for more space, bigger gardens, before they, too,
all bought cars and stopped walking or taking buses
and trains. 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.

This poem appears in Maria's collection Ancestor's Song and in the new poetry and photography volume Paterson Light and Shadow