Header image  
    Table of Contents
Maria Mazziotti Gillan

Driving Into the Dark Sky

Yesterday, when I drove up Route 17 west, the sky,
the mountains, were covered in a blanket so gray
and bleak even I, optimist that I am, can’t find a spot
of joy anywhere, not in the dark lines of the trees,
not in the black belt of the road winding in front of me,
not in the salt splashed on the windshield I have to squint
to see through.  The farther I move away from you
the closer you are to me, though I try so hard

to leave you behind.  I can’t erase the image
of you sitting in your electric wheelchair in your blue
Family Guy boxers, your rumpled white undershirt,
your legs so devoid of fat I can see every muscle
and tendon, legs that won’t hold you up, though you
keep forgetting  you can’t walk anymore.

Your body is a mass of bruises and cuts from all the times
you’ve tried to climb out of your bed, the slap
of you falling and hitting the floor; your body is bent
in your chair, your head, too heavy for your shoulders,
leans sideways.  I can drive for hours through the Catskills
and never leave you behind.  Your eyes now seem
so confused.  You struggle to remember what day it is
and insist on searching for me, even though Althea, the woman
who takes care of you, explains I’m not home; still, you insist
on being helped into your chair so you can see for yourself.

Remember that trip we took to Italy, when we walked
together through those ancient cobblestone alleyways?
I could not have imagined a time when you would not
recognize me.  I see this disease erasing more and more
of what you were, and looking at you, so bent and beaten,
makes me want to howl with grief.  You, who sang to me
while you played your guitar, “Black, Black is the Color
of My True Love’s Hair,” I wish you would come back
to me the way you were.  I am ashamed that I drive faster
and faster to escape the image of you with your lost
frightened eyes, your hands that can no longer hold
a piece of toast or a cookie, your head so bent it is like an iris
with a broken stalk.  I am ashamed
at how hard I try to leave you behind.




What Is Lost

We all believe that if we just do what we’re supposed to
the world will remain firm beneath our feet.  But inside us,
that wise person who lives in our bellies knows
that even our friend Alin, who always kept her doctor’s
appointments, ate the right foods, exercised every day—
that she is the one cancer is destroying.  So today

I am waiting for the phone call saying she is gone,
she with her unbreakable spirit, her cheerful smile.
Oh well, it could be worse, she says a few weeks ago
when she could still talk.  Yet she remains solid, unflinching,
even when I cannot stop myself from sobbing.  It could be

though it’s hard to imagine how, when we both know
that now that she has given up chemo and radiation, now
that she has stopped eating, she cannot survive.  I watch
her stretched in her lounge chair, her smile firmly in place,
and I want to rage against fate—that this kind, compassionate    woman,
this woman who did everything she was supposed to, has    cancer
growing inside her, silent and deadly as a cat burglar.  And I    think

of my husband dead now thirteen months, my husband
who always hedged his bets, who ate the right food,
exercised even in the middle of a snow storm, my husband
who took vitamins, worried that pesticides would harm him,
my husband who looked strong and vital, destined to live    forever,
until one day he wasn’t, the doctor telling us what we might    expect,
telling us what the disease meant, but not able to tell us how    slow
and dreadful a death it would be:  twenty-five years, with each    day
a little bit worse, skills lost, one more thing he couldn’t do:     drive
a car, ride his bike, swim laps, or run, and then gradually not
even read the books he loved or even put on his pants.  In the    end

what remained was a man pared down to the size of a boy,
a man who could not walk or stand or speak, and in
those last days, even while I sat next to him and held his hand
he didn’t know me, this man who could not stop what waited
for him, and I’m thinking now how all the precautions
in the world can do nothing to save us from our fates.




Reading at the Strand in New York City

Laura and I are going to read at the Strand bookstore,
but first we’re headed toward a Japanese restaurant that,    when we
get closer, is out of business.   I can’t walk anymore, Laura    says,
Look, there’s a restaurant across the street.

Everything hurts, I say.  I’m hobbling.  I know, she says,
I’m so tired lately, I don’t know what’s wrong with me.

I’m too fat, I say, that’s what’s wrong with me. 
Oh no, she says, you lost weight.  Laura, I say, you’re lying. 
No, I’m not.  Look at the pictures from last year.

I shrug, and don’t repeat “you’re lying,” though I know she is.
We sit down and order vegetable soup and spinach quiche
and we pick at our salad with small dark green leaves.
We’ve been friends for thirty years, both poets, both editors,
and we both worry about getting fat and old.

You don’t look fat, Laura, I say, you lost a lot of weight
and you never put it back on.  I’ve gained some of it back,
she says, but I know she’s just trying to make me feel better.
When Laura was young she looked like Elizabeth Taylor.
We’re the same age, and she looks years younger than I do,
and men follow her around, even now.

I don’t think I want a man anymore, she says, though I’ve had
a boyfriend since I was two.  It’s so much work. 

Laura, I say, you’ll always have a man.  I think you’ll meet
someone else soon.

Oh, maybe you will! she says.  I’m horrified.  No, I say, I don’t
want one.  I can’t take care of anyone else again. 

Oh, well, she says, you say that now.  Do you mind if
I put on my makeup?  I can’t do a reading without makeup.
Go ahead, I say.

I always have to have a boyfriend, she says.  I know it’s silly, but I have to.

I don’t say I wish your taste in men were better.  I don’t say
how do you manage to find the most selfish men on earth?
Instead I say, I know you’ll have a new man by the end of the    year,
Laura, don’t worry.  I know you will.




We’re into It Now, This New Year

We’re into it now, this new year, February already half gone,
time unraveling like a ball of yarn, the sky pale blue,
the courtyard lit by a dim light.  In Texas a man flies
his small plane into the IRS building, kills himself
and one other.  He leaves behind a message on the Internet,
says he hates the IRS and they have destroyed his life
and they deserve to be destroyed, an eye for an eye.

Before he boards his plane, he burns down his house.
A talk show host sets up a web page praising this man
for his actions; the government shuts down the page
for preaching hate.  In the newspaper this morning
there’s an article about the number of people, like the man
in his plane, who believe they shouldn’t pay taxes.

We’re into it now, this new year, hatred and discontent,
rallies and prejudice, noise and noise, talk on the tv and radio
fueling it on.  I thought we had grown beyond this.  Rush
Limbaugh wants Obama to fail at any cost; Senators won’t let
a single bill pass to make sure he’ll be limited
to a single term.  My friend tells me that on the radio
at three in the morning, the Coast to Coast host talks
conspiracy theories in the same breath as aliens,
Sasquatch, the Loch Ness Monster, the monsters now upon us
in our speech. 

We’re into it now, this new year.  Dennis gets weaker
and more confused with each day.  Jennifer’s laugh
sounds brittle, and every day I feel a little shorter
than I was the day before.  I used to tease my Mother
about being short.  Now I have to put a pillow
on the seat in my car so I can see over the dashboard.
We’re into it now, this new year, and what can save us
when we’re drowning in rage and hate?




Thirty-Five Miners Rescued

On the news I see the narrow shaft that will be the escape
route for the miners in Chile trapped underground for so
long.  What would it be like to be caught for months
in darkness, uncertain whether you will live or die?  But I
watch, along with many people in the world, as the miners
emerge one by one, into freedom and air, protected by
huge dark glasses from the light.

Sometimes I think of you, the disease that started to attack
your mind and body twenty-five years ago.  Your journey of
grief and loss moved you gradually away from the light.  How
frightened you must have been as you felt your life growing
more and more constricted, narrow as that shaft the miners
used to escape, its sides closing in on you as you lost so
many things you used to be able to do, each day your body’s
new betrayal, the way we all take for granted that we will be    able
to walk without falling, to speak so everyone can understand.

Hold my hand you said then, hold my hand, as though
with my touchI could stop your incremental movement
toward death.With each day, death with its gnashing teeth
grewbolder, came into the room and sat behind us, rattling
its bones and laughing. We both pretended we did
not know, though today in the hotel decorated
for Halloween I see the black and orange sign taped
to the door.  Beware! Beware!  It proclaims in black letters. 
I think of the full moon, the way it predicts disaster,
and of those miners emerging one by one into a daylight
most doubted they’d ever see again, and of you, dead now
nearly six months, gone to a place where I hope you have
your body back, strong and fully yours as it was
when you were young.