While looking for new ideas for teaching poetry this past week, I discovered a wonderful writer, Maria Mazziotti Gillan, an Italian American poet whose poetry recreates scenes with such vivid detail that you are literally inside the setting with her, living what it is she relates. In her poem, “My Daughter at 14: Christmas Dance,” Gillan puts the reader directly into the scene and the mind of a mother’s discussion with her daughter about her daughter’s experience at a dance. You feel the tension the mother experiences in wanting to support her daughter as at age 14, she learns to navigate emotions and relationships. While reading, you’re firmly aware of the difficulty and tension the mother experiences as she walks the line between affirming and cautioning her daughter.
We ride through the rain-shining 1 A.M.
streets. I bite back words which long
to be said, knowing I must not shatter your
moment, fragile as a spun-glass bird,
you, the moment, poised on the edge of
flight, and I, on the ground, afraid.
You feel the human dilemma poignantly in this poem–the difficulty and challenge in knowing how to understand the needs of the situation and to love another in a way that allows freedom and growth–blossoming, rather than fear.
In another of her poems, “Betrayal,” Gillan describes a daughter’s embarrassment of her Italian-American father when she was younger, her mortification at his yellow teeth, how he drank coffee from a saucer, and how he didn’t speak standard English. Then, as a grown woman, the tables are turned, and the daughter’s son finds her embarrassing and tells her so. The daughter remembers an earlier moment in her youth and how she treated her father,
I was sixteen when you called one night from your work.
I called you “dear,”
loving you in that moment
past all the barriers of the heart.
You called again every night for a week.
I never said it again.
I wish I could say it now.
Dear, my Dear,
with your twisted tongue,
I did not understand you
dragging your burden of love.
It takes most of us a long time to truly hear each other, to comprehend others’ lives on a deeper level. A recurring theme in Gillan’s poems is the theme of shame about social class, and how that gets in the way of understanding each other. It has been years since the last time I read Dickens’ Great Expectations, but after reading Gillan’s poems this past week, I am reminded of scenes from the Dickens’ novel where Pip, too, is ashamed of his father. Pip, an orphan, also was raised in a working class family. He gains education through the generous gift of anonymous benefactor (that happens to be a convict, though he doesn’t know it at the time) and with that education, a growing sense of shame for his humble social class origins develops. “I wished Joe had been rather more genteelly brought up, and then I should have been so too,” Pip explains. His stepfather, Joe, dearly loves Pip, but with Pip’s growing sense of status and pride, he finds his relationship with Joe awkward and visits less and less often. It’s not until much later, when he learns who his benefactor is that Pip is able to move beyond his false sense of self, and build a view of the world that enables him to move beyond his fixation on relationships where he projects on to them his own desires for status and power and that caused him suffering. Gillan’s poems, too, demonstrate the kind of understanding about the self and others that comes through time, experience, and suffering that allows empathy to grow.
The most powerful of Gillan’s poems that I read this past week was her poem, “Daddy We Called You.” The visual details in the writing are perfectly chosen to help the reader envision the scene of the daughter in the poem speaking with her boyfriend under a streetlamp light while never aknowledging her father’s presence as stands nearby at the bus stop, waiting for a bus to take him home from work. The daughter is ashamed of her father’s inability to speak standard English, embarrassed of his being an unskilled laborer in a world that honors status. Now, as an adult looking back at everything her papa did, the daughter recognizes the love her father had for her and for the family. That love was the foundation beneath her father’s life. Gillan portrays so well the kind of commitment fathers of this generation often had to their families–a commitment not given in words but lived out in faithful dedication to providing for their families, often through difficult physical work.
The final lines of “Daddy We Called You” demonstrate the awareness that time brings the daughter in this poem as she sees beneath her father’s actions to the heart of who he is–the way he bore up under hard work and difficulty because of his devotion to his family. The photos here in this post are from Citrino family history because these men, too, like my own father, and those in the Gillan’s poem, were fathers who worked long hours not for themselves and their own reputations, but out of love and dedication to their families–in order to give their children a chance to do something with their lives more than they themselves had the opportunity to do.
In a world today where money and status are power, Gillan affirms in this poem the dignity of those those around us who are often ignored because of their humble positions in life. Yet it is because power and status are not the center of their sense of self that these very people in their humility can, if we have eyes to see, restore us to a sense of what is truly valuable: our commitment to relationships with others. Humble people, those unconcerned with status and whose lives are not centered around their own egos and desires like the father in Gillan’s poem, treat others with love and respect even though people around them may ignore them and fail to return their love. This strength of character demonstrates a way of living and being that are sorely needed in our world. Gillan’s poem closes with these lines,
better than any “Father Knows Best” father,
bland as white rice,
with your wine press in the cellar,
with the newspapers you collected
out of garbage piles to turn into money
you banked for us,
with your mouse traps,
with your cracked and calloused hands,
with your yellowed teeth.
dragging your dead leg
through the factories of Paterson,
I am outside the house now,
shouting your name.
The daughter shouts the name aloud because she finally sees who he is; she proclaims his name unashamed, and sees who she is in relationship to her father. Both powerful and moving, the poem closes in a moment of redemption. Wholeness is restored.
You can hear Maria Mazziotti Gillan reading the audio version of this poem here. I recommend it. You can also read the full words of the poem here.
What is it we hold as most precious in our lives? What do we live for from day to day? Italian American immigrants were mostly illiterate. Their ambitions weren’t to make it rich. Their central value was relationship–to provide for their families. The table is the symbolic center of that life, a gathering round in appreciation of the sustenance that bonded them. Whatever our heritage, it is good to be reminded of our roots–the earth and the bounty given there that holds us up, and then enables us to hold each other. We hold each other as we stand beside each other through each difficulty life gives. We are present, affirming the value and gift in the presence of each other.
Why are these poems important–poems about immigrants, about Italian immigrants? Italian immigrants were one of the largest groups of immigrants to the U.S., and yet their story isn’t well known. But more than this, these poems are important because most of us today, live with a mix of cultures and social class all around us. At the same time, there is so much misunderstanding between cultures and the social classes. The German poet, Rilke said, “Love consists of this: two solitudes that meet, protect and greet each other.” We need these poems because we need to learn how to see past the media representations of the “other” and find how to be human together. We need to discover how to find and be our true selves underneath the weight of what we see in advertisements, propaganda or other projections of what we think we should be. “For one human being to love another: that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks, the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation,” says Rilke. This is the true work of our lives, whatever it is we do or occupy ourselves with, and this is what Gillan’s poems reveal.