My parents who had nothing but their big hearts,
the circle they drew around us to keep us safe
and the place they made for others to join us at our table,
the way they taught us by what they did
to love each other and the world.
–Maria Mazziotti Gillan, “Badge of Embarrassment,” from When the Stars Were Still Visible
We live in a divisive time. As if the multitude of difficult emotions have been waiting in a cave like a bear in hibernation for the moment to surface, anxiety, fear, anger, and bitter silence, have emerged to wander the world, hungry for expression. The Wall Street Journal reports that adults are throwing tantrums in restaurants, on planes and at home. To put it mildly, people are having a tough time.
Shame, lack of forgiveness, embarrassment, loneliness, Maria Mazziotti Gillan’s newest book of poems, When the Stars Were Still Visible, doesn’t shy away from naming and describing difficult emotions that can arise when dealing with challenging experiences. With honesty and vulnerability, Gillan’s poems dive into the messy heart of being a human, the hardship of navigating a world where you don’t necessarily feel welcome, and where it’s possible to hurt people you don’t even mean to as a result of reacting to them out of your own lack of understanding.
In her previous books, Gillan has written about the search for identity, the desire to belong, aging, poverty, and sorrow. Gillan returns to these themes in When the Stars Were Still Visible, exploring them from different angles. While reading the poems, I couldn’t help but think that if more of us could be as humble and vulnerable in telling our painful stories as Gillan is in this volume of poems, we might gain greater empathy for lives different from our own, and for challenges people confront and carry that we may not know about.
No stranger to a life with few amenities, several of Gillan’s poems relate hardships growing up in her family of origin. In “The Face We Presented to the World,” Gillan describes her cold-water flat of childhood, with its oilcloth table cover, and dishtowels made of flour sacks, heated by a coal stove. “Love Song to HO Cream Farina” tells of the time Gillan’s father had surgery for a tumor, leaving her parents with only $300 to last them through the year and resulting in the family’s meals repeatedly consisting of farina. “I suppose I should remember with bitterness / How poor we were…” writes Gillan in “Even After All These Years.” But bitterness holds no place at her family table. Though faced with continuing challenges, Gillan’s parents offered the children ongoing comfort. Her mother standing at the stove, Gillan remembers the spaghetti she put on the family’s plates a physical embodiment of her care. Gillan closes the poem by saying,
Even today, when I am sad or lonely,
a plate of spaghetti makes me feel
my mother’s presence, soothing
and beckoning me home.
Love is a powerful and sustaining force. A warm potato to hold, freshly baked bread’s aroma filling the house, a plate of spaghetti–these were physical assurances that in the midst of adversity, love remained; that the world was still good. Gillan’s poems bear witness to love’s persistence and power to reach across time as a continued nurturing and healing presence.
Several poems in When the Stars Were Still Visible explore themes dealing with falling short of images we sometimes feel compelled to meet. In “I’ve Always Envied Women with Beautiful Hair,” Gillan contrasts the perfect haircuts upper-middle-class girls sported in pages of Seventeen magazine, with haircuts she received that made her want to keep her head down, shoulders hunched, and eyes lowered. A variety of poems depict the effort to be accepted and to fit in at school, and to be perceived as “good.” Teachers find Gillan shy, and friends forget to pick her up on the way to a party. As a young adult Gillan councils young men on how to apply for conscientious objector status while still hearing the voice of her upbringing suggesting it’s best to follow the rules. Vividly capturing each of these moments, Gillan takes readers into those tender places of the heart where we tap into our own raw spots of cognitive dissonance, the times we’ve felt lost, confused, and “fragile and as transparent / as a dragonfly’s wings.”
In a world that can often be full of posturing and craving for power, Gillan’s writing present the opposite. The poems lay bear a very human heart with its weaknesses and strengths. In doing so, Gillan demonstrates it’s possible to be loved as we are, even because of our weaknesses. In “Claiming My True Name,” Gillan relates when she began affirming her Italian name and heritage, to identify with a culture that several decades before was denigrated in America. When embracing her name, Mazziotti, with its fabulous double “z” and double “t”, and choosing to treat it with tenderness, we feel her triumph.
And I pronounce it for them,
waving it in the air like a banner,
proud of my Italian-self,
proud of all the things that marked me
as unique, as different, a foreign creature
who can at last claim my own true name.”
The proclamation is a peak moment, a celebratory event. We read the words and recognize it’s possible to claim those parts of ourselves that have been rejected, that never seemed good enough in other’s eyes. We notice as Gillan turns inside out the notion she’d absorbed from the ambient culture that her essence was somehow inherently inadequate and not lovable enough. We feel her exultation, as if she’d been let out of a prison and at last had the air she needed to become who she was all along.
Unraveling from shame and pain can take years. Cultural shifts may sometimes be necessary before it’s possible to move past the hurt and injury arising from the various ways we’ve learned shame, both visible and invisible, that labeled us as other. Often that sorrow remains hidden beneath the surface, as described in the poem, “Moll Flanders, Zia Louisa, and Me,” where Gillan’s aunt who loved to dance the Tarantella, could be heard through the apartment walls crying at night, though she emerged each morning smiling and laughing. We rarely know the fullness of each other’s stories or the weight people carry beneath the surface. The poem releases some of that pain by making what was hidden visible.
One of the poems in the collection that struck me as particularly powerful is “Ode to Something Once Lost.” The poem describes a time when a friend mocked Gillan in front of a group of women. Surprising herself, Gillan writes that she turned on the woman and
told her she was insulting and rude
to me and everyone else, that the others
were afraid of her and that I never wanted
to go anywhere with her again.
That must have been a difficult and likely uncomfortable moment. Interestingly, even though the young woman sent an apology letter asking to be friends, Gillan writes,
My heart was a stone,
anger like a fire inside me. I called her. We talked.
I wish I could say I forgave her
but there was always a small corner of my heart
that remained closed to her.
Our friendship once shattered could not be repaired
and I’m ashamed to say
even fifty years later,
I still do not forgive her.
Some hurts cut deeply, leaving us unable to move beyond them. In naming her inability to forgive, we learn we, too, can take courage and look honestly at our limitations. People have histories that have shaped them and create limitations. Perhaps having been hurt many times, when a new situation arises bringing up the pain again, you reach a boundary you no longer want to cross. To do so would set yourself up for being hurt or mistreated again or might mean putting yourself in a position or situation you know is not right for you, and “Ode to Something Once Lost” affirms the value of personal boundaries.
The cover for When the Stars Were Still Visible is one of Maria’s drawings. Pinpricks of light and a luminous moon festoon a dark night above a city outline where a collage of people walk a street wearing bright clothes. The scene is from her childhood memory when stars were still visible above Paterson, New Jersey, the setting for many poems in the book. The cover is perfect for a book full of poems that shine.
David Mitchell, in Cloud Atlas, writes, “These forces that often remake time and space, that can shape and alter who we imagine ourselves to be, begin long before we are born and continue after we perish.” Long ago Gillan’s mother bought her a pink Smith Corona portable typewriter with a pink case so she could become the writer she dreamed to be. I’m very grateful for Maria’s mother, the gift of that typewriter, and for the poems in When the Stars Were Still Visible– the light in them that touches and strengthens the life of those who read them.