Poems in the Manner Of
Scribner Poetry, 2017
What Blooms in Winter
Maria Mazziotti Gillan
NYQ Books, 2016
At first glance, Maria Mazziotti Gillan’s new collection of poetry, What Blooms in Winter, has little in common with David Lehman’s recently published Poems in the Manner Of. Mazziotti Gillan’s collection maintains the thematic and aesthetic continuity that runs throughout her body of work; Mazziotti Gillan, here, as everywhere else in her work, earnestly relates the life story of a working class daughter of immigrants, growing up in Paterson, New Jersey, who made a place for herself in the poetry world. Lehman’s newest collection, on the other hand, catalogs the poet’s influences and enthusiasms, providing a series of nimble homages to the writers who have been fellow travelers on the road from An Alternative to Speech to The Best American Poetry 2017. While Lehman’s protean cosmopolitanism might jangle against Mazziotti Gillan’s homespun emotional éclat, both What Blooms in Winter and Poems in the Manner Of share the distinction of being finely wrought collections by poets whose contributions to the nation as teachers, organizers, anthologists, and supporters of the arts are inestimably great.
In many respects, David Lehman’s Poems in the Manner Of serves as a companion volume to his recently published The State of the Art: A Chronicle of American Poetry 1988-2014. If The State of the Art scans, with tremendous discernment, the bright stars and the penumbras of the contemporary American poetry scene, then Poems in the Manner Of directs a similarly acuminous gaze at the poet’s own personal canon. The poems in Poems are more than mere stylistic imitations of poets that Lehman admires; Poems in the Manner Of reads as the compendium of affections and predilections that have steered a life in poetry. In a sense that runs parallel to the lyric narrative chronicling of a lifetime unfolding in Maria Mazziotti Gillan’s work, Poems functions as a spiritual autobiography, a grand map of misreading, a pheasant disappearing in the brush, a search for the inexplicable, a renovation of experience, a purging of the world’s poverty and change and evil and death. Lehman frames the poems in this collection with prose that often further illuminates the intimate resonances carried in the lines. For example, Lehman prefaces “Goethe’s Nightsong” with the following remarks: “My father, who arrived in the United States as a refugee from Hiter’s Germany, used to recite this German poem by heart with an uncanny gleam in his eyes. It has often been translated but never, to my mind, satisfactorily.” The poem, a translation of “Wandrers Nachtlied,” reads:
Over the hills
Comes the quiet.
Across the treetops
No breeze blows.
Not a sound: even the small
Birds in the woods are quiet.
Just wait: soon you
Will be quiet, too.
Lehman includes several other translations in Poems, of Apollinaire, Baudelaire, Mayakovsky, and (loosely, but most entertainingly) Max Jacobs. Each translation signals a deep encounter with the poem in question, a further implicit elaboration of Lehman’s aesthetic stance and tastes.
In addition to translations, Poems in the Manner Of includes among other forms, the cento, the prose poem, a Dylanesque rock ballad, a Jazz standard, and a poem in the shape of a multiple-choice test (on Freud). Throughout the collection, Lehman interrogates as he reverences—Lehman’s poetry, here, is a species of criticism—the work of Catullus, Li Po, Lady Murasaki, Shakespeare, Bashō, Christopher Smart, Wordsworth, Byron, Keats, Whitman, Dickinson, Hardy, Hopkins, Rimbaud, Cavafy, Yeats, Stein, Frost, Rilke, Stevens, Williams, Woolf, Kafka, Millay, Parker, Moore, García Lorca, Michaux, Hemingway, Borges, Neruda, Auden, Lowell, Brooks, Bukowski, Plath, Sontag, Koch, and O’Hara. A love of the silver screen (and the Great American Songbook) runs like a discrete tributary through the long list of writers Lehman honors in these poems. Also, running through these poems at every turn is Lehman’s own adventurous, gregarious, indefatigable life in poetry. This is a life that celebrates equally “the smell of Galouises and Gitanes sans filtre,” “the taste of white nectarines in upstate New York,” the prose of James Joyce, the lyrics of Johnny Mercer, the way that Manhattan felt in the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, 00s. David Lehman’s life as a poet, as a scholar, as an educator, has been one turned outward on the world, characterized by generosity and an overriding passion for the written word, by an unrelenting wonder and a simple desire to understand the complicated celestial mechanics of poetry. Poems in the Manner Of continues Lehman’s poetic project, gathering paradise, one grain of sand, one universe, one wildflower, at a time.
Like David Lehman, Maria Mazziotti Gillan has tirelessly promoted the work of countless poets and writers. As the director of The Poetry Center in Paterson, New Jersey, as the editor of the Paterson Literary Review, as the head of the Creative Writing department at Binghamton University, and, overall, as a champion of community outreach through poetry, Mazziotti Gillan has spent her life nurturing literary talent and encouraging young writers of all ages to find a home on the page. What Blooms in Winter continues the stylistic and thematic patterns that have been Mazziotti Gillan’s hallmark for the last four decades; Mazziotti Gillan’s is a poetry of endlessly expanding democratic vistas, grounded in, and forever returning to, the Riverside neighborhood of Paterson during the fifties and sixties. Taken as a whole, Maria Mazziotti Gillan’s poetry obsessively confronts her experience coming to terms with her hyphenated identity and her working class origins. As the poet Joe Weil has noted, Mazziotti Gillan’s poems aspire to the aria; and like the aria, each poem needs to be considered as part of an operatic whole. These poems are her biancheria, her embroidery work, homemade, artful, delicate, her dowry for future generation; as Gillan says, in the poem “The Lace Tablecloth and the Patterns of Memory”: “all the people I have loved are tucked away/ carefully in my mind, so that I can lift them out/ and remember and be comforted.” Not only does poetry comfort, for Gillan it restores. Each poem in Mazziotti Gillan’s body of work represents a Whitmanesque attempt to chronicle her own American journey as the daughter of Italian immigrants.
Although Mazziotti Gillan’s poems often alternate between contemplating love and loss, grief and joy, pride and shame, these emotional tropes merely provide the backdrop for her exploration of how the mind and the heart constitute themselves in any given act of recollection. In this sense, her poetic project runs parallel to the English Romantics, particularly Wordsworth. Also, like William Blake, Maria Mazziotti Gillan would agree that “a tear is an intellectual thing.” The intellect and the emotions overlap and intermingle in all of her poetry. What Blooms in Winter retraces the subject matter that Mazziotti Gillan has obsessively confronted throughout her body of work: the poverty of her early childhood, the experience of growing up as “a good Italian girl,” the concerns of motherhood, family, death, love, and the complicated miracle of remembering all that is no longer present. Like Mazziotti Gillan’s recent collections Ancestors’ Song and The Silence in an Empty House, What Blooms in Winter also contains many poems about travel, and topical poems about an earthquake in Nepal, terrorist attacks in France, and Nelson Mandela’s funeral. Most surprising in this collection, however, are the short lyric poems that haven’t featured prominently in Mazziotti Gillan’s poetry since her early books. “Dream Sequence,” for example, reads in full:
I imagine moving under green water
as though I could breathe without an airtank.
I am a silver fish and imagine goldfish gliding
past without noticing me,
and I, my body suddenly free of awkwardness,
move with such grace, I could be
a young girl again, lithe and slender,
as though I had been born to inhabit this world
like the sea creatures, my body shimmering
in the watery dark.
This gorgeous, lithe, alacritous ten line poem stands in apt counterpoint to the torrential approach of the typical Mazziotti Gillan poem. Poetry, for Maria Mazziotti Gillan, offers a way to inhabit this world, despite the reality of pain, suffering, and death; gracefully, once again in What Blooms in Winter, this poet butterflies the dark.
Reading What Blooms in Winter and Poems in the Manner Of back to back during National Poetry Month 2017, I am reminded most forcefully of the virtues of a life in poetry. To paraphrase David Lehman, paraphrasing W.H. Auden, these books show that contemporary poetry not only survives, but thrives, in the valley of its saying. Maria Mazziotti Gillan and David Lehman are the kinds of poets all young poets should aspire to emulate; both poets have placed the care of others and the interests of poetry above their own work. Both poets have taken E.M. Forster’s epigraph to Howard’s End as the watchword for their careers: only connect. The impulse to celebrate and to understand underwrites the imperative to connect in the work of both Mazziotti Gillan and Lehman. The connectivity privileged by the lives and works of true poets such as these always and inevitably runs counter to the superficial forms of interconnection that bind the lives of so many contemporary Americans. Both Maria Mazziotti Gillan and David Lehman remind me that truth and beauty will never come either from social media and mainstream media or from the worlds of politics, business, and law; truth and beauty unfold face to face, and on the page, and both are infinite domains. Our work as lovers of poetry is to undo the damage of haste and dwell there—in the eye, in the ink—together.
Dante Di Stefano is the author of Love is a Stone Endlessly in Flight (Brighthorse Books, 2016). His poetry, essays, and reviews have appeared in Brilliant Corners, The Los Angeles Review, Shenandoah, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere. He is a poetry editor for DIALOGIST and the poetry book review editor for Arcadia.