I Want to Write a Poem to Celebrate

my father’s arms, bulging and straining while he carries
the wooden box of dark purple grapes down the crumbling,

uneven cement steps into the cellar of the old house
on 19th street. The cellar, whitewashed by my mother,

grows darker as my father lumbers past the big coal
furnace and into the windowless wine room

at the very back where he will feed the grapes,
ripe and perfect and smelling of earth,

into the wine press. The grape smell changes
as they are crushed and drawn out into the fat

wooden barrels, and for weeks the cellar
will be full to the brim with the sweet smell

of grapes fermenting into wine, a smell I recognize
even forty years later each time I uncork a bottle,

an aroma that brings back my father
and his friends gathering under Zio Gianni’s

grape arbor to play briscole through long July
nights, small glasses before them, peach slices

gleaming like amber in the ruby wine.

 

Maria Gillan Book Cover_What We Pass On_3-8-16

First published in the Haight Ashbury Literary Journal and from What We Pass On: Collected Poems 1980-2009 (Guernica Editions 2010), Copyright © 2010, reprinted with permission of the press. What We Pass On can be ordered Amazon.com.

 

Gillan author photo_5-26-16Maria Mazziotti Gillan is the winner of AWP’s 2014 George Garrett Award for Outstanding Community Service in Literature, Poets & Writers’ 2011 Barnes & Noble Writers for Writers Award, and 2008 American Book Award for All That Lies Between Us. She has published 20 books and is founder/ executive director of the Poetry Center at Passaic County Community College in Paterson, NJ, and director of the creative writing program/professor of English at Binghamton University-SUNY. www.mariagillan.com

Author Photo: Joe Costa.

 

 

Poet’s Note

For me, memories are triggered by scents that bring me back to an earlier time. Here, while uncorking a bottle, the aroma of the wine transported me back to the cellar in the tenement in Paterson, NJ, where I grew up and where my father made wine. When I was a girl, I was often embarrassed by all the things that characterized my family as an immigrant family—that they weren’t American enough and too poor—and everything I wanted to deny in myself. The older I become, the more I celebrate the rituals and foods and people, who made my childhood so gloriously varied and so full of work crafted by loving hands. 

 

Notes on “I Want to Write a Poem to Celebrate”

Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

This free-verse poem occupies 19 lines, divided into nine couplets plus a single closing line. It’s straightforward and accessible, with regular syntax, grammar, and punctuation and simple diction, with single-syllable words predominating. I found it last fall while reading Maria Mazziotti Gillan’s collected works and knew immediately I wanted it for Father’s Day. I’m always looking for poems that celebrate the spirit of such holidays without giving in to Hallmark stereotypes, and this is one: brimming with love for a remembered father but not tainted by sentimentality.

How does the poem communicate deep feeling without sounding trite or clichéd? One strategy is the focus throughout on the wine rather than on the father. It appears first as grapes on the father’s back, then goes in a press and then into barrels. When we see the grapes again they are in the form of wine served “under Zio Gianni’s / grape arbor,” presumably the very source of the grapes used to make that wine. In 14 lines we are given the entire life cycle of the grape: fruit, mash, juice, wine, and then again fruit. The father is allocated about five lines that describe the straining musculature of his arms as he wrestles the box of grapes downstairs and into the wine press, and then him gathering with friends and family at the uncle’s house to drink the fruits of fruit, ferment, and labor. The word “father” is mentioned just three times (lines 1, 6, and 15), but the title makes it clear that the poem’s purpose is “to celebrate / / my father’s arms.” In that last phrase we see it again—deflection used to pay homage to the father indirectly to avoid resorting to empty praise.

One thing that attracted me to this poem is the sensory experience it projects, with language invoking all five senses. We feel the weight of that wooden box, hear the father’s lumbering steps, smell the must and fruit of ferment, taste the sweet peaches in wine, and see many colors: dark purple, whitewash, amber, and ruby. One way the senses are triggered is by judicious use of adjectives, many of them compound.

Let’s talk about adjectives, because there are so many in this poem (at least 30) and also because writing workshops tend to dismiss them. Writing classes and workshops are fond of tossing out broad “dont’s,” like don’t use adjectives and adverbs, don’t use “moon” or “soul,” and for God’s sake don’t use “heart” except as a body part. Also, “show, don’t tell.” And for centuries, poets have delighted in breaking these rules in excellent poem after poem. Rules can be helpful, I guess, for beginning writers who sometimes use these elements in unsophisticated or clichéd ways. But the rule really should be: don’t use them without being conscious that they’ve been overused in poetry and without making sure they are, in your poem, conveying something fresh and new. A time-honored way of breaking the rules is irony; that is, use of the tired cliché in a self-conscious way that shows the poet is fully aware of it and is in fact exploiting it to some advantage. Another way so popular as to almost have become its own trope is to use the verboten word or technique as part of the poem’s overall strategy of directly and explicitly challenging the rule. This poem, however, is entirely sincere and its use of multiple adjectives is not in the least defiant or ironic. For me, that is part of its charm.

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  • Maria Lisella June 8, 2016 at 7:18 am

    Maria Mazziotti has a way of making this memory and others before it, immediate, important and shared. I can smell the wine, the fermented state of that cement-walled basement because I, too have been there, but she has captured this in as you say, without a scintilla of sentimentality and she tells so much about class, immigration, loss, and what we keep forever. So glad you loved this poem too.

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