Maria Mazziotti Gillan— What Blooms in Winter
NYQ Books, 2016
Page Length: 116
The last several months have been trying as an American citizen. Donald Trump’s candidacy has used xenophobic rhetoric to demonize minority groups and immigrants. In these times, Maria Mazziotti Gillan’s body of work, which often focuses on her Italian-American family heritage and celebrating the immigrant experience, is especially relevant. Her newest collection, What Blooms in Winter, draws on the deeply personal to vocalize her story and also give praise to the melting pot aspect that has always been a foundation of American culture.
Gillan’s latest collection continues to draw on the narrative form, and most of the poems use personal memory to address broader issues, including the immigrant experience, climate change, and global terrorism. The early part of the collection moves through grade school, before shifting to her teenage/twenty-something years, during the 1960s and 1970s. The book then addresses a number of losses in the poet’s life, including close family. Finally, the book concludes with a number of poems about Italy and her parents’ immigrant experience. The language is accessible, but the content is never simple.
Because of this election season and national dialogue, I was most drawn to poems that explore what it means to be an American. In “The First Day of High School,” the speaker recounts trying so hard to look like an “American middle-class girl,” including wearing the right clothes. Soon, however, the speaker learns that preppy clothes can’t hide who she really is or mask her “lower-class accent.” The poem then weaves in and out of memory, navigating to a moment when a famous poet told the speaker to hire a voice coach to erase her accent. The speaker refused and concludes her poem in defiance against any notion that she is not American.
Another poem, “Our First TV,” addresses manufactured notions of the American dream. The speaker lists various images from TV shows she watched growing up and their portrayal of the American success story, including the big white house and huge living and dining rooms on “Father Knows Best.” The speaker goes back even further to Dick and Jane books that taught her about “the other America” with a “pipe-smoking father raking leaves/in his cardigan and brown dress pants.” It was that first TV in the living room, however, that taught the speaker about class divide and how her living situation, a “cold-water flat” with small rooms and Italian chatter, was different than the upper-middle class American homes she viewed on TV. The poem concludes with one final reality about class divide in America, and the lines resonate especially well post-Great Recession:
All the TV programs in the world
could not have prepared me
for the invisible walls
that protected those people
from people like me.
Other poems cry out in frustration against global terrorism or climate change. “The Catskills in Mid-September,” for example, celebrates the beauty of the northeastern mountains, but ends with the lines, “As the weather swings from downpour/to drought, I know we are all to blame/know there is so much that has to change.” Other work centers on family and recalls the poet’s sister, parents, and even more recent interactions with grandchildren in bucolic settings of Italy.
Overall, What Blooms in Winter places the poet squarely on the side of the immigrant and the underdog. The book never strays from the narrative mode and frequently draws on the poet’s personal memories, either to merge the personal with the political, or to honor the memory of those who have come and gone in her life. I am grateful for Maria’s voice. Her work stands as a protester banner, waving boldly against anyone who wants to make the country less inclusive.