What We Pass On: Collected Poems 1980-2009 by Maria Mazziotti Gillan

Guernica Editions. © 2010, 440 pp. ISBN: 978-1-55071-304-6.

Commentary by Grace Cavalieri

Reading Maria Mazziotti Gillan’s Collected Poems What We Pass On is to spend time with an eager intelligence and a love that is not always what we expect it to be. Maria Gillan has opened the meaning of the word poetry – in each poem – to become a vital moment in time. If this writer passes anything on to her generation and the next it is the collateral of truth. She makes courage and honesty the circle where everything else is outside and of no use. So why do we write poetry at all? Perhaps to try for this.

Thirty years is encountered within this book – the young wife, mother, daughter, lover – the fervent countenance of one who will not back off from the consequences of every situation, domestic or professional, who says I have to go there to make sense of it; to make human complications a demilitarized zone, to loose a burst of brilliance and language over what would otherwise be our flinty daily lives. Each poem says “How do I understand this? Let me pass through the hurt and the love because poetry takes us beyond being lonely.” You will admire – in this book – the girl she must have been becoming the poet you’ll find here.

How should we look at 400 plus pages of poetry making up a life narrative through the privilege of literature? We see a woman making her way under the weight of thought, pressing forward, keeping the thrust of her ancestors, promising them a high level of excellence.

Some poets strive for autobiography and verbal high jinks and succeed at neither because a half light of self doubt says “How much do I say? How do I fashion myself to rise high and not fall low for the reader?” Maria Gillan does not sacrifice reality for literary trends. She writes robustly with exhilaration without looking back over her shoulder.

An advantage in seeing these poems all together is to see Gillan’s clarity of purpose, and her humor, heart and habit that turn to story. In the beginning we know the poems are a foreshadowing of a life that is already spoken for by the future. We see her esthetics and literary obsessions for which she makes no apologies. The poems, from the beginning, give and demand much of our feelings because those of the writer are always accessible.

Artists will be judged by the story they tell the outer world in a balance of truth. I believe Gillan is exceptional in avoiding the flatteries of a youthful writer and the vagaries of an older writer in this world of poems. She speaks in a straight forward manner “Here is sorrow. Here is love, Help me with these. Partake of them with me, for me.” Time will decide whether Maria Gillan has raised our desires to meet her expectations, but I feel sure, at this moment, she is — brightly defiant –- on to the next 400 pages without waiting. There are always new memories, as unreliable as they may be to harvest. It takes skill. Poetry is not an easy access to happiness but here is a poet who loves her work. She must. Otherwise, how could we so richly enjoy this harmonious literary career?

Maria Mazziotti Gillan has just lost her husband, Dennis, after a lifelong marriage. Most of their history is memorialized into a fine art. Reading this book illuminates the senses, and breaks the heart.

Here is the title poem pg. 412:

What We Pass On

For Jackson Stuart Gillan

My son is handsome, like my husband and grandson.
They look like cookie-cutter men, the three of them,

my husband obviously the oldest since his illness
left his face lined and drawn, and my son looks

exactly as his father looked at thirty-seven.
My grandson is a miniature version

of the two of them, but my son and grandson
walk the way I do on my flat feet, chunky

and turned out slightly, only they hit the ground
harder. My grandson emulates his father’s walk,

his hands hooked in the pockets of his pants,
his shoulders swinging. Like his father, my son

never gives up. Like me, he needs to heal the world,
needs to be responsible for everyone.

Though my grandson is only seven,
he reminds me of my mother with her exuberant laugh,

her abundant energy, her loving heart, the parts
of all of us, even the ancestors I never met,

caught in my son and grandson. My grandson
trudges into the world on his wide feet, in him

I see my twin. I love the way he loves the feel
Of my satin nightgown on his face, the way

he attacks his food with gusto, the way it makes him happy,
the way he looks in his little electric car that he piles

with leftover lumber from the construction site,
and he drives down the hill behind the house,

wearing his hard hat, dumps one load of wood,
goes back for another because he wants to build

a tree house. He drives up the street, stops
At Carina’s house, picks her up and they ride off,

as though he had picked her up for a date.
How mixed up this genetic code that sends

my mother back to me in this boy
Growing up in North Carolina

so far from any place
my mother had ever seen.

Grace Cavalieri is a poet and a playwright. She produces The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress for public radio.