Arts & Culture · Poetry

Poetry Sunday: “I Want to Write a Poem to Celebrate,” by Maria Mazziotti Gillan

In this poem, many of the adjectives are compound and modify other adjectives. Hence, grapes are not simply purple but “dark” purple, a qualification that more precisely conjures the image of Concord grapes, the dusky clusters of which I can envision right now, hanging in bunches from in my grandmother’s old, peeling arbor in the rural Pennsylvanian summers of my childhood. Anyone who’s seen a Concord grape can supply the details that distinguish it from its pallid, stiff supermarket cousins: small, seeded, with a heavy, soft, and sweet outer skin that can be pinched away from the tart pulp. All these details came to me because of that extra modifier “dark.”

In the same way, cellar steps are not simply uneven but are “crumbling, / uneven,” telling us the steps are made of stone and eroded from the action of many feet passing over them, an image that encourages us to feel their worn edges under the arches of our own feet. Other compound adjectives used to similar effect are “windowless wine” describing “room” in line 6, and “fat wooden” describing “barrels” in lines 10-11. Here, we are looking at a subset of a subset of all possible barrels—just the wooden ones, and of those, just the ones that are fat, the adjectives drawing an ever-narrowing frame of reference.  

A technique that enlivens these modifiers is the author’s use of participial forms of verbs. We saw this above in the word “crumbling” applied to the stone step to describe an ongoing dynamism that has abraded the steps for years. We sense that action and also of the history of generations of feet dragging grapes down the stairs. (Imagine the difference had the writer described the steps as simply “worn.”) In another example, “straining” and “bulging” contain the verbs “strain” and “bulge” and allow us to see the father’s muscles in action, just as “crushed” and “drawn” are active words that allow us, viscerally, to experience the punishing process required to transform grapes into wine.  

Another thing I noticed is that the frequency of adjectives diminishes as the poem progresses. With more than 30 in the poem as a whole, only six occur in the last five lines. What is the effect of this? As mentioned above, the use of compound adjectives causes more precision and restriction of image: a room is not just a room but one dedicated to wine, and is further a “wine room” that also is windowless. Fewer adjectives result in images less carefully delineated that have the potential of becoming more universal and iconic. Hence, who gathers at the end of the poem is “my father / and his friends,” people who could be anyone’s father and friends, perhaps even our own.

The relative paucity of descriptors at the poem’s end make its last image stand out  and shine like facets of a blunt-cut gem, and this is what remained with me months after I first read the poem: “small glasses before them, peach slices / gleaming like amber in the ruby wine.” That, and the simple, heartfelt adoration of a daughter for a father who is gone—the perfect tribute for Father’s Day.


Read more of our popular Poetry Sunday columns here.


Paradise Drive book coverRebecca Foust’s fifth book, “Paradise Drive,” won the 2015 Press 53 Award for Poetry and was reviewed in the Georgia Review, Hudson Review, Huffington Post, Philadelphia Inquirer, San Francisco Chronicle, Washington Review of Books, and elsewhere. Recognitions include the 2015 American Literary Review Award for Fiction, the 2015 James Hearst Poetry Prize, the 2014 Constance Rook Creative Nonfiction Award, and fellowships from the Frost Place, MacDowell Colony, Sewanee Writer’s Conference, and West Chester Poetry Conference. “Paradise Drive” can be ordered at For more information visit


Recommended For You

Poetry Sunday: ‘Mozart’s Mother’s Bones,’ by Robin Ekiss

Ekiss_Book_Cover+copyEven the best mother-daughter relationships are necessarily tormented with issues of dependence versus independence, identity formation, role reversal, competition, and impossible desire. Some give rise to poems like today’s: fraught, even agonized at times, but also honest and still holding a place for love.

Poetry Sunday: ‘Sins of Grammar & Usage,’ by Ellen Doré Watson

Ellen Dore Watson cover_Dogged Hearts_3-3-16“Sins of Grammar & Usage” is free verse, three stanzas of nine lines of roughly equal length except that the last line in each stanza is about half the length of the others. I love the poem for its heightened use of and very canny look at language; that is, words and the grammar and syntax that govern how those words are used.

Poetry Sunday: ‘Variations on an Old Standard,’ by A. E. Stallings

ATHENS , GREECE , THURSDAY 8 : ATHENS , GREECE , THURSDAY 8 : Alicia Elsbeth writer recipient of MacArthur Fellowship (Photo by Milos Bicanski/Getty Images for Homefront TV)ATHENS , GREECE , THURSDAY 8 : ATHENS , GREECE , THURSDAY 8 : Alicia Elsbeth writer recipient of MacArthur Fellowship (Photo by Milos Bicanski/Getty Images for Homefront TV)A. E. Stallings is well known for her remarkable, seemingly effortless mastery of formal poetry as well as for her much-praised Latin and Greek translations.

Join the conversation

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

  • 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.