Review: What We Pass On by Maria Mazziotti Gillian

Brian Fanelli, PQ Contributing Editor
What We Pass On
Maria Mazziotti Gillan
Guernica Editions
Paperback, 440 pages
ISNB: 978-1550713046
For decades, Maria Mazziotti Gillan has defended the narrative form in poetry, especially through her workshops, interviews, and personal aesthetic. Her collected poems, What We Pass On, showcases four decades of her work and proves how the narrative form can serve as a fine document of the poet’s life. The collection is a journey that begins with poems about her parents and adolescence, and then transitions to poems about her children, grandchildren, and husband’s illness.  By the end of the book, I felt as though I knew the poet better, thanks in part to her attention to detail and her willingness to not shy away from the confessional.
What We Pass On contains selections from four previous collections, Where I Come From, Things My Mother Told Me, Italian Women in Black Dresses, All That Lies Between Us, and some newer poems. The early poems in the collection contain memories of her Italian immigrant parents and growing up in Patterson, NJ. The opening poem, “Betrayals,” echoes Robert Hayden’s poem “Those Winter Sundays” in the way that it recalls the subtle ways our parents show love for us and the indifference or cruelty we show in return, or more specifically the way teenagers can be “savage and innocent” towards parents. The opening stanza highlights this especially well with the lines, “At thirteen, I screamed/’You’re disgusting,’/drinking your coffee from a saucer/Your startled eyes darkened with shame.” In a mere four lines, Gillan does much to illustrate the relationship she had with her father as a teen.
Like a lot off poems in the collection, “Betrayals” seamlessly handles the passing of time, and the poem shifts between past and present with ease, until the final realization at the end of the poem, which mirror’s Robert Hayden’s last lines from “Those Winter Sundays,” “What did I know, what did I know/of love’s austere and lonely offices?” Both poems make plenty of observations about the love parents have for their children, which is a realization that often comes once the children are older.  Gillan writes
I was sixteen when you called one night from work.
I called you “dear,”
loving you in that moment
past all 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.
The mother, too, is a central character of the collection, one who is as detailed and fully realized as the father, grandchildren, husband, and other characters that populate the poems. “Public School No. 18 Paterson, New Jersey” can be considered a praise poem to the mother. The poem details the troubles the daughter had adjusting to school and being American, while trying to hide Italian language so her teacher, Miss Wilson, would not scold her. What comes through the poem is a sense of pride, both of family and heritage. Gillan writes:
I am proud of my mother,
dressed in all black,
proud of my father
with his broken tongue,
proud of the laughter
and noise of our house.
Like a lot of the other poems, “Public School No. 18 Paterson, New Jersey” shows how rich the well of memory can be and how family members, as imperfect as they sometimes are, are fine subjects for poems, even worth praising.
The second half of the collection shifts to poems about being a mother, grandmother, poetry mentor, and wife to an ailing husband. Gillan roots the poems in strong narrative details, while sometimes blending personal history with broader social and political issues.  But even when the poems shift to other characters, past generations still echo, which shows how the past is always linked to the present and how one generation influences the next. In the collection’s title poem, “What We Pass on,” Gillan draws resemblances between her son, husband, and grandson, which illustrates the ways that traditions, mannerism and looks are passed on. She writes, “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. At this point in the book, Gillan still finds ways to address family and memory, but the subject never grows stale because she finds new details, new memories, and new observations to include in the poems.
What We Pass On is another excellent addition to Gillan’s long-running canon. The collection is rich in surprises, emotion, and confession, treasures that can be found if poets are willing to be as bold as Gillan and go into the cave and draw from memory, family, and personal experience.