Maria Mazziotti Gillan is a recipient of the 2011 Barnes & Noble Writers for Writers Award from Poets & Writers, and the 2008 American Book Award for All That Lies Between Us (Guernica Editions). She is director of the Binghamton Center for Writers and the creative writing program, and professor of poetry at Binghamton University-SUNY. She is also the founder /executive director of the Poetry Center at Passaic County Community College in Paterson, NJ, and editor of the Paterson Literary Review. She has published 18 books, including: What We Pass On: Collected Poems 1980-2009 (Guernica Editions, 2010), The Place I Call Home (NYQ Books, 2012), The Silence in an Empty House (NYQ Books, 2013), Ancestors’ Song (Bordighera Press, 2013), and Writing Poetry to Save Your Life: How to Find the Courage to Tell Your Stories (MiroLand, Guernica, 2013). With her daughter Jennifer, she is co-editor of four anthologies.
Maryfrances Wagner is the author of Red Silk, Salvatore’s Daughter, and Light Subtracts Itself, and co-editor of I-70 Review.
When I first read The Silence in an Empty House, I had to put it down for a while. I was overcome with a sadness that made me think of every family member I have loved and lost, every dog and cat I’ve had to bury. It is a deeply moving and cathartic book, and Maria Mazziotti Gillan conveys the emotional turmoil of loss and grief with startling truth and honesty. Her journey is one many face, but there is a strength and courage in her words that express what any reader might feel but could not openly say.
What Gillan has written is a chronological and autobiographical collection of poems. The opening poem is about a happy time on Coney Island where she rode the rollercoaster and the merry-go-round with her future husband, where she’s “grateful to circle/the group,/the placid, lovely horses going up and down” having been frightened by the plunging rollercoaster. Her last words of “When We Were Engaged” say, “. . . I can pretend to myself that you didn’t know/how afraid I was, how much I hate/that last, huge plunge.” In the next poem she feels the same way about the Ferris wheel at the World’s Fair but is too embarrassed to tell him that she doesn’t really like amusement parks. These two opening poems set up for what is to come. As she pretended she loved the rides, she later pretends his Parkinson’s isn’t as serious as it is when she can’t bring herself to tell him the truth.
The poems following those opening two are about setting up a married life together, getting their first house, launching their careers, moving to Kansas City, worrying about tornadoes, going to movies, taking vacations. Then, in the next section in “Watching the Bridge Collapse” she says, “We really believe we are safe,/the roads we travel built to last, and are shocked,/no matter how many times it happens,/when the ground falls away. . . .” She questions how life can change so drastically and the man who “could swim a hundred laps” starts moving slower and slower, and his voice becomes “thin as a thread.” He starts needing an aide to feed and take care of him. Gillan says what so many in a similar situation might think but don’t want to say: “I do not understand how love could become so complicated./I am ashamed that some part of me wants this to end,” and she finds herself planning the funeral “fraught with guilt” and shame as he becomes “more like a baby than a husband.” The poems that follow show the torment she went through, the sadness at losing him, the shame from wanting it all to be over so that she could move on. Any caregiver experiencing the slow death of a spouse or parent would be able to empathize with what she openly admits about her mixed feelings. She tries remembering the good years of raising children and taking trips, but reality brings her back to dealing with the decline. Outwardly, she tries to go on with her work and life, but inwardly, she is struggling.
Once she loses her husband of forty-six years, her “life grinds through its daily orbit,” and something inside her “goes flat,” but little things like cascading light or a butterfly make her feel he is with her. At 3 a.m, she talks to his ashes and asks “for the forgiveness [she] should have asked for when [he was] still alive.” The quiet she thought she wanted feels lonely, and she says, “I wonder if I will ever have the courage to climb the stairs/to our bed, to leave the comfort of this one room that contains/me and the loneliness that lives inside me/now that you are gone.” Every disaster including a dead deer on a road, a Pelican dying from an oil spill, or rescued miners, she feels more deeply now having experienced loss so intensely and for so long.
Although she talks to him late at night and remembers special details, she knows she has to learn to live in her silent house alone, and she does. She figures it out, learns she can do things she never had to do before, and moves on. She never forgets, though, and little things continue to trigger special memories. After her husband has been gone for two years, her red Christmas cactus blooms, and she is certain he sent the blossoms. She ends the book with words that reflect her journey through grief, guilt, confusion, shame, self-preservation and, ultimately, healing.
What book/s poem/s have helped you through a difficult time?