THE SILENCE IN AN EMPTY HOUSE
BY MARIA MAZZIOTTI GILLAN
NYQ BOOKS, 2013
All griefs are as unprecedented, as original as the whorls in our fingerprints, and yet certain poets are able to take the specific ceremonies of grief and loss and reenact them in such a way that they are meaningful to all who read their work. This portability is something the poet Pessoa mentioned when he wrote: “The personal is not the human. To become the human it must make a bridge.” This bridge is the contrivance of the right ceremony, the necessary words that will release the energy of true feeling and allow that tentative thread to be touched and felt by the reader. Maria Mazziotti’s new collection, The Silence in An Empty House, does just that.
Of course, Gillan has been sending out such threads for decades in other books, but here the threads are tighter and vibrate both with more passion and precision. In earlier reviews and essays, I spoke of Maria’s emotional rather than feeling sense, her instincts for singing arias, her direct laments rather than structured elegies. Maria is still a poet of directness and what I called “gush,” but the cumulative effect of these poems is that of someone who has despaired more deeply into a type of newfound wisdom: the returning whisper of the shy girl who no longer has to be overcome by the strong woman, who can now stand with the strong woman and be her inner reserve of strength. The whisper has returned with the grieving for the dead husband to whom this book is dedicated, and it has given this distinguished poet a gravitas that is never forced nor insisted upon, but all pervasive. These are poems that fully match such great books on grieving as C.S Lewis’ A Grief Observed, and Marie Howe’s What the Living Do. The poems have the controlled burn of the most passionate poets, yet are often calm, reflective, and filled with pianissimo effects I have not seen before in Gillan’s work.
In the past, Maria Mazziotti Gillan is strong, perhaps surprised by her strength, but capable of pushing anything or anyone out of her way. The other works contain poems of triumph, of victory over all that has sought to put her in her place either as a woman or as the child of immigrants. But the poems in The Silence in an Empty House go beyond triumph or defeat. They are true wisdom poetry—what might be called without any hyperbole, an Orphic descent into the underworld, and a rising again having made a tentative and sadly beautiful peace with the limitations of even the most triumphal lives: death, disease, futility take their toll, take all we have, and yet a certain grace-filled gratitude hard won and beyond the hubris, the arrogance of triumph comes to inhabit these poems. And their final meaning is nothing less than a luminous joy the poet can affirm even in the midst of loss.
Part of this joy is in recall, in invocation. As with the poetry of her previous books, no novelist could be as detailed and solid in her scene painting than Gillan, as in, for example, the opening of her poem, Kitchen in the House on Kenwood Road:
My first kitchen after we married, the one in the small
Cape Cod on Kenwood Road, had Sanitex wallpaper
with orange vases, bright yellow flowers
and brown pepper mills. I thought it was cheerful,
especially the large windows spilling light over the tile floor.
The plain-spoken and detailed categorizing of things is for Gillan no gimmick or shtick. In this respect, Gillan shows the descriptive gifts of an Elizabeth Bishop. Her work is not meant to shock or vamp the tropes of everyday life. It is not pretending to be anti-lyrical (whatever that means) or to embrace the per-formative self as exhibitionist. It believes in the intrinsic lyrical merit of saying things directly, of the truly conversational lyric narrative of place. Gillan’s poems also prove Jack Gilbert’s dictum, “the abnormal is not courage.” There is enough sorrow and depth in normal life that one need not seek to overly determine its distortions. Gillan’s poems do not rely on tricks. They could exemplify Gilbert’s values: the life well-lived as courageous rather than the moment’s flourish. The accomplishment of daily bread rather than the dazzle of things that fail eventually to satisfy.
The poems of The Silence in an Empty House read like good creative non-fiction, only without having to resort to expository writing or the longer developments of scene. The poet never gets in the way of her story and yet every word of it seems directly expressed from a living body, from a person—not a character. It cuts to the chase and proves that poetry is still the most effective and most direct medium to tell the “slow news” of the world Williams insisted was vital to staying alive.
Kitchen in the House in Kenwood goes on to be about something far more serious than an inventory of Gillan’s starter home. She is teaching at Caldwell college; her husband decides it’s time she be a proper stay-at home wife. She gets pregnant and must quit a job she loves at Caldwell college. She is required to quit by the policy of that time, which the college enforces; but also by the husband’s enforcement of middle class life expectations in the early sixties. What makes this poem and Gillan’s poems about her husband in general so good is that he is a mass of contradictions, a flawed yet handsome and beloved man Gillan loves both with the ferocity of lust and with an eye out for becoming a more socially accepted and fully middle-class American through her marriage to him. So her relation to him is both that of ardent lover and social climber; and neither, by the miracle of honesty, cancels the other out or makes either less true. What she learns throughout this book is that the trade-offs involved in love either in terms of romance or social climbing are never clear cut, or win- win. She concludes this poem:
Years later, I look back at that slim young woman standing
at the sink, tears sliding down her face, and want to tell her
that love sometimes asks of us a sacrifice
it has no right to require.
This last bit of rueful wisdom is not common to Gillan’s earlier work. Here she is venturing to give the benefit of lived experience, to sum up, to drive her grief and sense of loss towards both the pragmatic acceptance of limitations, and the gratitude, the type of deep and abiding gratitude that caused the poet Stanley Kunitz to insist on “living on the layers and not the litter.”
Much of this book amazes me because it faces the fact that getting everything you want, being happy and successful is eventually little more than a more honorable way of achieving your corpse, and yet, and yet, and yet… gratitude is the answer to the futility that dances with all our shadows. Just as the character of Gabriel in Joyces’ The Dead finds infinite compassion and forgiveness the answer to inevitable death, Gillan finds gratitude at the heart of almost unbearable losses, both personal and ecological. Dennis, the subject of most of these poems—the beloved, the blond middle-class prize, the beautiful man a shy, first generation Italian girl could never have hoped to have caught yet did indeed catch and hold becomes ill of earl onset Parkinson’s, and begins a slow, painful ride toward death. She raises her children in the abundance of middle-class opportunity only to have her son become the kind of man who may have looked down on her when she was an immigrant’s child. People come to the poet for advice, for strength, for comfort, but in her hour of need, she is mostly alone and I think of the lines of the great German poet, Holderin: “Catastrophe! Cries the soul—in solitude.” Perhaps no poem in the book displays Gillan’s newfound aility to tie her personal life to the larger losses affecting the world than in Watching the Pelican Die. Ecological concerns have never been a preoccupation of Gillan’s before. If anything, she was someone who thought nature best seen through the window of a warm car or office, but she has now evolved beyond the comical selfish woman in the poem who worried that the mudslides in California would affect attendance at her readings, and has seen, through the death of her husband and the iconic image of the Pelican during the BP oil spill, the larger sense of loss. The loss is in—not of a sometimes merciless loss in things. Some might contend that the newfound empathy for the ecology comes through defective means—by a selfish equating of her personal grief with the larger catastrophe of the oil spill, but this is exactly the genius of Maria Mazziotti Gillan: there can be no abstraction that does not flourish first through root and thorn, through some real and solid materiality and concreteness. Reality is the necessary angel in Maria’s poetry, and the reality of the personal is the necessary material out of which the bridges between the personal and the human, the local and the universal are made. No book of Gillan’s builds finer more lasting bridges. This is the culmination of her life’s work, even more so than her collected, and it proves that even reaching beyond the age of 70, and losing almost the whole of her leading list of life players—parents, sister, beloved spouse–Maria Mazziotti Gillan is still not done with her changes. This book is essential reading for anyone who believes poetry has the power to speak for more and plot for more than just the exhibitionist and voyeuristic self. Moving away from the triumphalism of the determined immigrant’s daughter, this book is a greater triumph and gift for all those who understand her final lines said in the full winter of her life:
How grateful I must
remember to be, to hold
so much in my hands.
so much in my hands.