Paterson Light and Shadow, Maria Mazziotti Gillan and Mark Hillringhouse.
Reviewed by Jennifer Martelli
Black and white photography is a choreography of nuanced tone: the eye is drawn to the reflection of light, how it dances against the dark. Mark Hillringhouse’s photo, “Winter Falls,” depicts a cold, partially frozen river, barely mirroring the sky. The bare tree branches could be shadows. The falls, white-braided with deep gray, seem frozen in motion. The city–Paterson, New Jersey–is blurred in the background. It must be overcast or near nighttime: two white spots glow far away–headlights. I could be watching a movie frame at “Big Joey’s house . . . . on his father’s 16 mm projector” in Maria Mazziotti Gillan’s accompanying poem, “In the City of Dreams: Paterson, NJ.” Paterson Light and Shadow, a collaborative homage to a city rendered in Mazziotti Gillan’s honest, unflinching poems and Hillringhouse’s stark yet gentle black and white photography, never shies away from the shadows of an aging, working-class city populated by generations of immigrants. The artists contrast the shadowy shame of an old-country heritage with light that exalts the ordinary.
In Mazziotti Gillan’s poem, “17th Street: Paterson, New Jersey,” the speaker’s parents–who embody the Italian immigrant experience and all of its nobility and anachronism–become part of the photographic landscape. Mazziotti Gillan writes:
. . . . the open look on my father’s face, sparks flying from him in pleasure, my mother’s hand, delicate, the charm of those moments where I rested in the luminous circle of love.
Facing this prose poem is Hillringhouse’s “Passaic River Winter Tree Branches.” We are drawn to the center of the photograph–the center of the river–by a misty light. This is the deepest point of the river, where the light falls. Delicate and bare branches reach across the river, like arms.
Hillringhouse’s capturing of reflecting light–and of light reflecting–is probably best seen in his photographs “Bendix Diner,” which depicts the inside of a vintage diner: stainless steel appliances, spotless counter top, glass bricks. The sunlight shines on surfaces, walls, those strips of metal around the faux-leather counter stools. Through the frosted windows we can see bare tree branches. Mazziotti Gillan’s poem, “Jersey Diners,” speaks of this light, “ . . . . Looking back, I see our young faces/lit by the harsh diner lights.” This is a poem mourning the inevitable passage of time, employing similar light and shadow techniques:
the diners glowing only in memory, in all their tacky
glory, and we, our faces still untouched by grief and loss,
caught and framed in the diner’s windows.
The speaker’s parents embody the conflict of the first or second generation of immigrants: a love for this “protected/and safe” community and a deep shame. In her heart-breaking poem, “Daddy, We Called You,” Mazziotti Gillan addresses the contrast of both cultures. At home her father was “Papa//but outside again, you became Daddy.” Mazziotti Gillan’s poem, like a Hillringhouse photograph, uses light and shadow to convey an emotional depth, “Papa, how you glowed in company light,/when the other immigrants/came to you for health. . . .” The father remains illuminated, even as the daughter, embarrassed, denies him:
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 . . . .I was ashamed to have my boyfriend see you, find out about your second shift work, your broken English.
The glowing circle the father creates in the home enables the poet the opportunity to find her voice. My favorite photograph is “Spruce Street Factory Warehouse with Figure.” Like an Escher drawing it demands study with its geometry and depth. A seemingly simple, flat face of an old building with dark paned windows, the drama plays out with the fire-escape zig-zagging up and down the facade. Or, is it the shadow of the fire escape? Which way do the stairs go? This factory, like the factories “Papa” and the millions of immigrants worked their second or third job, allowed the next generation a way out, an escape. The father’s stoic toil allowed the poet to bloom, “to go to college. . . .to absorb the feel of the city. . . .to carry the voice of the people, my people, in my head, to hear their stories, and save them to tell.”
Both artists display Paterson’s rich and reflective life, its voice. The frozen river in Hillringhouse’s opening photograph is thawed in the closing photo, “Passaic River from Lincoln Avenue Bridge.” The poet’s voice is like the water that surrounds Paterson Light and Shadow. “I hear these people who are so much a part of my life, their voices caught like music in my mind,” Mazziotti Gillan writes. The poems and photographs are constantly moving from light to dark, from stasis to movement, ice to water: “I had to cry a long time before I could learn to sing their songs, as my own.”
The Things a Body Might Become by Emari DiGiorgio
Reviewed by Jennifer Martelli
In her poem, “Too Small to Be an Amazonian,” Emari DiGiorgio writes
Oh, to be the busty, gun-slung
broad with enough mascara to match her ammo cache. Instead, a brow
creased with loss. A root system in the palm of my hand. My eyes: the
only rosary I carry.
Images of violence and trauma—suicide bombings, mass shooting—transform not only the geography of the world, but the landscape of the soul and the female body in DiGiorgio’s debut poetry collection, The Things a Body Might Become. The reader is confronted with global horror that demands, in return, violence, bravery, and finally, a sense of unity and home. We, along with the speaker, are changed by these experiences.
Women transform themselves as they vie for control and power in an unsafe world. The women wear their protection, become the weapon. In “Electric Lingerie” the speaker claims
Because studies show a rapist will grab
the bosom first. Here is a bra with enough juice
to jumpstart a Greyhound bus, a woman
who can stride the streets of Chennai with confidence.
This attempt at control is mirrored by the woman in “Close to the Edge” who “straps the bomb-purse beneath her Salwar/might believe her life a sacrifice, this death honorable.” Much like Jamie Sommers in the classic television series “The Bionic Woman,” the women in The Things a Body Might Become are hybrids: part female, part weapon or stone or hardened shell. All have been made stronger after trauma, which is the transformative agent. The voice of the mother of a Sandy Hook victim in “Firing Point” who wishes “to hold a gun in my hand . . . . until I empty the chamber between the eyes,” is echoed in the poem “Bullets,” by the woman who digests weapons and laments, “there are so many ways to eat ammunition./Hot bullets in honey.”
The speaker, too, is a hybrid: part modern-day American, part old-country Italian, “a woman in a man’s word, a mother // in a dangerous world.” The women in the speaker’s own family are presented as goddesses. Listen to the beauty of genetics in “Heirloom,” when the speaker describes her flinty lineage:
but the stone has slipped
beneath my skin. Here, above
the heart. The women in my family
must’ve inherited some magnet
in our mother’s wombs, the stones
shaping pyramids in our breasts.
An ancient aegis protects the speaker, her own heart “carved in relief, a cameo of Athena– / onyx chest-plate, narrowed eyes.” This protection will be passed down to the next generation, the speaker’s daughter:
the most painful kind of fearless, an ant who carries
a hundred times her weight in heft and grief.
She’ll want to be a princess even if she denies it
because she’s royalty, as all children are . . . .
As I was reading The Things a Body Might Become, I thought of Jorie Graham’s poem, “Hybrid of Plants and of Ghosts,” where she writes, “I understand that it is grafting, / this partnership of lost wills, common flowers.” DiGiorgio creates a magnificent “other” from the wounded, the powerless, and the women searching for healing and completeness.
By arranging the poems so they speak first to global tragedies, and then inexorably threading repeated images throughout the book, DiGiorgio distills the focus down into the home and creates a closed form: a circle. The roundness of oil heating in a pan in the opening poem, “Close to the Edge,” where the speaker ponders “Is it selfless or selfish to kamikaze, to hijack a 755,” re-appears in the last section of the book where the speaker prepares eggplant to “fry with olive oil.” The cameo is resurrected in the poem “When Emari DiGiori Vaccuums,” when the speaker remembers her grandmother’s cooking, “When Angela Ferrucci died,/the family parceled out the last sauce stacked under the basement // steps. These were her cameo brooches.” The egg the speaker rolls “close/to the edge” and who will “cradle it between my feet,” finds safety in one of the last poems, “Understanding Dear Alice’s Dilemma,” when the speaker states, “A bird in me has hatched.”
The Things a Body Might Become is a powerful collection: unrelenting in its imagery, lethal in its language. Emari DiGiorgio asks us, “When does a girl make a fist?” The voice in this collection is a fusion of experience, heart-breaking attempts at faith and power in a world that can break us all. DiGiorgio has written an important, timely book that exults the wounded. “Some are born/with God’s thumbnail in their wrist.” We feel that pulse pushing against the scarred, healed skin.