In When the Stars Were Still Visible, Maria Mazziotti Gillan gives us the truth, unedited and directly from the heart. This gorgeously elegiac collection creates an arc that articulates her understanding of aging and gaining wisdom. In the central poem, “Claiming My True Name,” she finally embraces her Italian roots after confessing her desire to “slide right into the life of America,” and realizes with sorrow what denying her “Italian parents and the cold-water flat,” has cost her: “How many hours have I spent drowning in shame…ashamed of our poverty, my immigrant parents, my father’s limp, his paralyzed leg dragging behind him…my own dark skin…my cheap clothes.” Throughout the second half of the collection, Gillan subtly acknowledges the shift in her own life as it parallels the lack of understanding between herself and her own children, her own frailty with that of her father and her husband. In the last poem, “Celebration in Albidona,” there is an unexpected encounter that results in an epiphany, which bridges the “old country” to the “new.” It is as if this book rose out of an alchemist’s compound comprised of Calabrian limestone and the cement of the back stoop on 17th Street in Paterson, New Jersey, where Mazziotti Gillan grew up. By the end of this poignant and resonant book, the poet accepts her double heritage with all its pain and obstacles and with all its beauty and grace.
MARIA MAZZIOTTI GILLAN is an artist, poet and professor. She is the Founder and Executive Director of the Poetry Center at Passaic County Community College in Paterson, NJ, and editor of the Paterson Literary Review.