Today's poetry for today's world

Maria Mazziotti Gillan    


Maria Mazziotti Gillan won the American Book Award

for her latest book All That Lies Between Us.  She is the Founder/Executive Director of the Poetry Center at

Passaic County Community College in Patterson, NJ.  

She is also Director of the Creative Writing Program

and Professor of Poetry at Binghamton University -

State University of New York.  Maria Mazziotti Gillan

has published eleven books of poetry, including The

Weather of Old Seasons, Where I Come From, Things

My Mother Told Me, and Italian Women in Black

Dresses.  She is co-editor with her daughter, Jennifer,

of four anthologies: Unsettling America, Identity Lessons,

Growing Up Ethnic in America (Penguin/Putnam), and

Italian-American Writers on New Jersey (Rutgers).  

She is the editor of the Paterson Literary Review. 






To buy Maria Mazziotti's books,

click on any book cover on this page.








Panic in your face, you write questions

to ask him.  When he arrives,

you are serene, your fear

unbetrayed.  How unlike me you are.


After the dance,

I see your happiness; he holds

your hand.  Though you barely speak,

your body pulses messages I can read


all too well.  He kisses you goodnight,

his body moving toward yours, and yours

responding.  I am frightened, guard my

tongue for fear my mother will pop out


of my mouth.  "He is not shy."  You giggle,

a little girl again, but you tell me he

kissed you on the dance floor.  "Once?"

I ask.  "No, a lot."


We ride through rain-shining 1 a.m.

streets.  I bite back words which long

to be said, knowing I must not shatter your

moment, fragile as a spun-glass bird,


you, the moment, poised on the edge of

flight, and I, on the ground, afraid.




What We Pass On: Collected Poems 1980 - 2010

(Toronto, Canada: Guernica Editions, 2010)







Public School No.18, Paterson, New Jersey




Miss Wilson’s eyes, opaque

as blue glass, fix on me:

“We must speak English.

We’re in America now.”

I want to say, “I am American,”

but the evidence is stacked against me.


My mother scrubs my scalp raw, wraps

my shining hair in white rags

to make it curl.  Miss Wilson

drags me to the window, checks my hair

for lice.  My face wants to hide.


At home, my words smooth in my mouth,

I chatter and am proud.  In school,

I am silent, grope for the right English

words, fear the Italian word

will sprout from my mouth like a rose,


fear the progression of teachers

in their sprigged dresses,

their Anglo-Saxon faces.


Without words, they tell me

to be ashamed.

I am.

I deny that booted country

even from myself,

want to be still

and untouchable

as these women

who teach me to hate myself.


Years later, in a white

Kansas City house,

the Psychology professor tells me

I remind him of the Mafia leader

on the cover of Time magazine.


My anger spits

venomous from my mouth:


I am proud of my mother,

dressed all in black,


proud of my father

with his broken tongue,


proud of the laughter

and noise of our house.


Remember me, Ladies,

the silent one?

I have found my voice

and my rage will blow

your house down.




What We Pass On: Collected Poems 1980 - 2010

(Toronto, Canada: Guernica Editions, 2010)







Daddy, We Called You




"Daddy" we called you, "Daddy"

when we talked to each other in the street,

pulling on our American faces,

shaping our lives in Paterson slang.


Inside our house, we spoke

a Southern Italian dialect

mixed with English

and we called you "Papa"


but outside again, you became Daddy

and we spoke of you to our friends

as "my father"

imagining we were speaking

of that "Father Knows Best"

T.V. character

in his dark business suit,

carrying his briefcase into his house,

retreating to his paneled den,

his big living room and dining room,

his frilly-aproned wife

who greeted him at the door

with a kiss.  Such space


and silence in that house.

We lived in one big room-

living room, dining room, kitchen, bedroom,

all in one, dominated by the gray oak dining table

around which we sat, talking and laughing,

listening to your stories,

your political arguments with your friends,


Papa, how you glowed in company light,

happy when the other immigrants

came to you for help with their taxes

or legal papers.


It was only outside that glowing circle

that I denied you, denied your long hours

as night watchman in Royal Machine Shop.

One night, riding home from a  date,

my middle class, American boyfriend

kissed me at the light;  I looked up

and met your eyes as you stood at the corner

near Royal Machine.  It  was nearly midnight.

January.  Cold and Windy.  You were waiting

for the bus, the streetlight illuminating

your face.  I pretended I did not see you,

let my boyfriend pull away, leaving you

on the empty corner waiting for the bus

to take you home.  You never mentioned it,

never said that you knew

how often I lied about what you did for a living

or that I was ashamed to have my boyfriend see you,

find out about your second shift work, your broken English.


Today, remembering that moment,

still illuminated in my mind

by the streetlamp's gray light,

I think of my own son

and the distance between us,

greater than miles.



silk worker,


night watchman,

immigrant Italian,

I honor the years you spent in menial work

slipping down the ladder

as your body failed you


while your mind, so quick and sharp,

longed to escape,

honor the times you got out of bed

after sleeping only an hour,

to take me to school or pick me up;

the warm bakery rolls you bought for me

on the way home from the night shift.


The letter

you wrote

to the editors

of local newspapers.



silk worker,


night watchman,

immigrant Italian,

better than any "Father Knows Best" father,

bland as white rice,

with your wine press in the cellar,

with the newspapers you collected

out of garbage piles to turn into money

you banked for us,

with your mouse traps,

with your cracked and calloused hands,

with your yellowed teeth.



dragging your dead leg

through the factories of Paterson,

I am outside the house now,

shouting your name.




What We Pass On: Collected Poems 1980 - 2010

(Toronto, Canada: Guernica Editions, 2010)







Writer's Tip: I believe that poems are found in the deepest part of ourselves, a place I call the cave.  It is in the cave that we confront the truth of our lives and of what it means to be human, and it is this truth that we convey in poems.




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