A while ago I received a gift from a dear friend. Naturally, any gift is always welcome, and as the saying goes – “it is the thought that counts”. In this instance the thought was of the kindest and most appreciated sort. The giver’s intention was to enrich, inspire and educate. The intention was fulfilled. The gift was Maria Terrone’s poetry collection, A Secret Room in Fall.
For the uninitiated, Maria Terrone’s poetry comes as a delightful surprise. On opening this volume at any random page (a method of reading poetry collections I recommend above the linear front-to-back approach) it becomes instantly clear that these poems are an end product, a distillation of all that the writer is, and all that surrounds her. One derives the distinct impression that Terrone would have been equally successful regardless of her chosen artistic medium. I have read no other poet more adept at tapping into the energy of her environment, be it a subway train, a museum, doll factory, street market, garden. The magic happens in the transformation. From the input of the raw senses to the words on paper. The apparent ease with which she can extrapolate, see beyond the obvious, utilise her sensory perception to illuminate, to draw out meaning beyond the ordinary is her great strength, as seen in her poem below:
Glass and Pitcher
As master of the veiled reference, Picasso said, “Even casseroles can scream.”
—Curator’s comment, Fogg Museum, Boston
Just two objects standing not quite
side by side in lurid violet—the bruise
of another morning, the hue of dreams
that block your air. The table tips
forward, disturbing the planes
of domestic peace in this still life
(Paris,'44) where the pitcher salutes
with its handle, a soldier who’s slipped,
unnoticed, into the kitchen. An empty
water glass seems to waver, unable
to hide itself or harbor secrets—
a vessel waiting to be gripped, used,
smashed. Outside the unseen door,
commandants of the Third Reich
snap to life in cafés,
demanding their bread and knives.
Maria Terrone describes herself as a native New Yorker – born in Manhattan, moving to the Queens neighbourhood of Jackson Heights at an early age, where she resides to this day. Writing has been an essential part of her identity since she was a young child – poetry her chosen medium because of its condensed nature – “because every word matters”. Do visit her excellent website, www.mariaterrone.com
Her first collection of poems The Bodies We Were Loaned (Word Works, 2002) was very well received. Her work has been featured in countless magazines and periodicals, including Poetry, Margie, Poet Lore, Atlanta Review, The Hudson Review and Poetry International, and in anthologies such as The Heart of Autumn (Beacon Press, 2003). Remarkably, some of her poems have also been translated into Farsi, as she was “discovered” by an Iranian writer, and featured in an Iranian literary supplement, Hengam in 2005.
A Secret Room in Fall,published as co-winner of the Robert McGovern Prize from Ashland Poetry Press, has deservedly met with critical acclaim. Thematically broad, these eighty pages are a veritable chocolate box of delights. Let us dip in…
The Egyptian Queen Gives Death The Slip
Found: two boxes of wigs in my tomb
and a stash of makeup; considering my rain-
soaked sail to the other side, you assume
a queen needs to freshen up. But no, I changed
looks to slip by unknown in last century's hair style
and dated powder shades like bronze and clay.
You've seen my "death mask" in the museum's Nile
wing by an artist I hired myself. Pray,
do I look dumb or weak? When you stared
into my black-winged eyes, weren't you first to blink?
Taking flight is my talent. Let Death play solitaire,
or else play with you his eternal, stinking
game of boredom. That’s not for me. I’m everywhere
and nowhere, which is why you found my casket bare.
This poem works on several levels. As with all superior art, the significance is revealed gradually as the layers are unpeeled. On the surface a sublime description of a museum exhibit. What reader can fail to bring to mind in sharp relief the noble features of Nefertiti or Hatshepsut, unconquered even in death, black-winged eyes staring into eternity.
Then the feminist angle – pray do I look dumb or weak – the strength of woman, the queen, victorious even over Death, the ultimate enemy. The regal arrogance of the third last line – “or else play with you…” the “you”, being of course the lesser mortal – indeed the mortal per se!
The irony of the last line which is why you found my casket bare (presumably due in fact to Egyptian grave robbers) – permits Terrone’s apparently preposterous flight of fancy; to interpret the vacancy as a signal of eternal life, of actual physical escape from the grip of death, the quest of mankind since time immemorial. When we consider things from the perspective of the queen however, this is exactly what she would have believed. Yet to suggest a modern day Houdini-like escape in disguise requires a clever and mischievous imagination.
The Tour Guide of Pompei
scoops the ground
hands a craggy white nugget
to each woman in the group.
This is what buried the city, he says.
Not lava, but pumice,
And of course, poisonous gas.
Moments before, he’d led us
through the heat and dust to view
a glass-encased body,
contorted hands raised
to what had been a face.
The rock feels lighter than air.
Some of us weigh it in our palms,
peer closely, then let it drop.
Others cover the means of destruction
with handkerchiefs to be unwrapped,
carefully, at home.
And the absurdity of the souvenir! I remember a friend at work gave me a piece of the Berlin wall shortly after its demise. A small piece of plaster which could have come from anywhere – this poem took me back to that moment of sublime human inanity. What does one do with something so symbolically significant in the instantaneous context, and yet so intrinsically useless?
I love this humour – as dry as the pumice itself. And then there is the symbolic lightness. Somehow inappropriate, out of proportion, absurd.
Maria Terrone is in the kindest, most artistic sense a voyeur – a people watcher and listener. Her poetic antennae are forever seeking out the waves of inspiration which surround us all in everyday life, yet to which most of us are not quite accurately tuned. For example, a young man overheard on a public telephone (in the time before cell phones) presents an opportunity to muse on the somewhat uncomfortable subject of mortality:
The Robust Young Man Discusses His Burial
—curbside public phone, Manhattan
Five p.m. pause: the colors begin to meditate.
even a red satin party pouf in the shop window
grows longer and subdued, an emperor’s robe
gathering the shadows of a walled city. I’d hate
to be buried in that place, he says, resolute,
windbreaker flapping to show its lining of white net.
He pulls the tether, pacing—not in sneakers but dress
shoes perforated with small holes as if to refute
his own words, to affirm, I breathe, I sweat.
Is he quietly dying? Or could he be the type
who plans far ahead, a wheeler-dealer who invests
in real estate and burial plots at the best price.
I inch forward, finger my quarter (tails, heads),
until his eyes seize mine, alive enough to cut me dead,
and I give up waiting for that voice to interrupt—
to tell him, blasé as God, Your time is up.
How wonderful to approach the most delicate of subjects with a sense of humour – to contrast the evident youth and vivacity of the protagonist with the apparent moroseness of the subject matter. To give a voice to our natural human curiosity “Is he quietly dying?” and finally to hint at the arbitrariness of life and death - it is the grim reaper who tosses the quarter, blasé as God, the only possible results (tails, heads.)
Ms. Terrone demonstrates her wide poetic range with poems like the eponymous
“A Secret Room in Fall” – an apparently straightforward poem of six quintains, which conceals (as any secret room should!) a treasury of images, allusions and teasing hints. Ms. Terrone explains how the idea came to her:
“The poem suggested itself to me in a way that many do: with images glimpsed from my surroundings. I was reading under a tree in early fall in the block-long private co-op garden, hidden from the street, that is my oasis. Leaves, acorns and the golden light had a Byzantine, mysterious feeling. Once that theme entered my mind, my imagination took flight. Even the red and blue birds moving across the grass reminded me of the colors of a Persian carpet—one that carried me even deeper into my mind and the developing poem.
Late autumn is dense with near-decay. Corruption—both in the physical and figurative sense—can be waiting just around the corner. The poem turns on this contrast with summer. I don’t identify with the sunny, overly simplistic views we tend to have at that time of year. Fall is complex and far more interesting to me; I imagined a warren of twisting streets in the Kasbah, and a back room where “expatriates from summer” murmur among themselves, drinking mint tea. The scene may or may not be decadent. In the last, unsettling lines of the final stanza, I hint that even these secret rooms are vulnerable and that you can’t hide indefinitely because forces bigger than yourself will ultimately intrude.”
A Secret Room in Fall
From a chair beneath the oak tree,
you see minarets
in the leaves’ shadows,
acorns like onion domes, a few drops
of gold light splashing through
like a revelation:
summer is over. Farewell
to motives transparent
as glass and the blankness of mind
you mistook for enlightenment.
Cardinals and blue jays at your feet
are weaving a pattern fluid
as a Persian carpet that you must ride
deep into the maze named Fall.
Behind unmarked doors
expatriates from summer who fled
years ago are propped against pillows
in the permanent amber haze
of back rooms. They’ll serve
mint tea steeped black, whispering
that you, too, can make a home
in this once dazzling quarter
always on the verge
of corruption. There are worse places
to live with your secrets.
So take the tea, their tips, the keys
to your own concealment.
Even now, plots have been hatched
and scouts fan out
from the winter palace.
Fall is a season heavy with symbolism – almost synonymous with that period of life where reflection becomes the norm – a time for recalling fondly the green shoots of a life’s spring and the golden days of summer. This mood of reflection pervades every page of A Secret Room in Fall. But as oranges are not the only fruit, fall is not the only season. Spring and summer bring with their plenteousness other less welcome gifts.
This is the season of tears
that appear without sorrow.
First they curve April’s green spikes,
then you see as after a rain,
a painful glistening, silver coins
flung at a beggars face.
And that itch you cannot reach:
Why should it be otherwise
when everything you see
treetops, sky, your own longings
buried in their seed.
Of course this poem uses allergy merely as its metaphor. Yet like many of Maria Terrone’s poems, it works equally well in the literal. As a summer sufferer, I know all too well the feeling of those “silver coins/flung at a beggar’s face.”
Many of us will also recognise, and indeed have felt too often that itch you cannot reach – and have found our own deepest longings to be apparently unattainableand remaining stubbornly “buried in their seed.” It remains true beyond the sphere of allergy or chopped onions that tearsdo often appear without sorrow. These are often the most significant of lachrymal emissions – those which flow without warning, in joy, in awe and in the simple overwhelming of the capacity for conscious human emotion.
I shall always treasure my (already well thumbed) gift copy of A Secret Room in Fall, for the very same reason that Maria Terrone chose the medium of poetry in the first place. Because every word matters.
Interview with Maria Terrone for Pirene’s Fountain
By Oliver Lodge
OL- You’ve been quoted as saying that poetic inspiration comes “when you have yourself in a state of readiness”. Can you explain what you meant by this?
I can easily become a kind of numbed prisoner of my daily routine. Maybe that’s a coping mechanism we humans use to get through the day. If we’re creatures of habit, we don’t put ourselves in the position of seeing, hearing or feeling what’s strange or unpleasant. We’re on automatic pilot, missing the details. As a poet, I have to remind myself it may be easier cruising through life that way, but it’s not how art gets made. To me, being in a state of readiness means being open on all levels to the possibility of being inspired by and ultimately transformed by the quotidian. Recently, I came across a quote by Shelley that says it all: “Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden veil of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar.”
Almost all of my inspiration comes from allowing my senses to connect with the physical world while simultaneously allowing my mind, through close observation, to work its alchemy. Inspiration can come in that specific moment or later, after conscious or unconscious filtering-- but being open and ready come first.
OL- Your latest collection, A Secret Room in Fall. is split into four sections – “Distant Signals,” “Freeze Frames,” “Eyes Sealed Open” and “Urban Messengers.” Was it difficult to select the poems for each section, or did you have the structure of the collection in mind as you wrote the individual poems? Can you tell us a little about the significance of each section title?
“Distant Signals” refers to voices or messages from people who lived from ancient to modern times. Some are powerful like the Egyptian Queen whom I “met” at a museum mummy exhibit; others are anonymous such as a teenage girl who worked a hundred years ago in a glass factory or Blanche, a woman I imagined employed by a paint company to name its colors. “Freeze Frames” poems capture the essence of work and everyday activities. “Eyes Sealed Open” is about having a new angle of vision that helps you see in a different light. “Urban Messengers” are my city-based poems.
I didn’t have a book or structure in mind when I was writing the individual poems that ultimately appeared in A Secret Room in Fall. The poems reflect my own sensibility and therefore have some commonalities despite their wide-ranging subject matter. I knew I had more than enough poems for a second book but had only a vague idea of linking them by theme. So I turned to an editor who works with poets to help them shape their manuscripts. She was very helpful in advising how the poems could be organized to best advantage.
OL-It has been said that America and Britain are two nations divided by a common language. For example, we in Britain use the word “autumn” for the American season “fall”, as in your title. How aware should we be as poets in this shrinking world of the global perception of our work?
The Internet has made your question especially relevant. How fortunate I am to have had my work published in Farsi in an Iranian literary supplement, thanks to a college student there who discovered my work on the web—and to be interviewed now by a poetry-loving Scotsman! I find this amazing and wonderful. To be honest, I don’t think about how my work will be received beyond the U.S. when I’m writing. In fact, I try not to think at all about how my poems will be received. I focus instead on giving precise expression to my own creative impulses and then chiseling what often begins as blocks of stone into poems that bring me satisfaction.
OL-Many of your poems reflect the incredible cultural diversity of your immediate environment in Queens e.g. “The Fruited Plain”. Having grown up in the comparative cultural vacuum of rural Scotland, I’m interested to know the extent to which growing up and living in such a cultural melting pot has shaped you as a poet and a person?
I’m so glad to be living in a world capital like New York City and in Queens, America’s most ethnically diverse county. For a poet who thrives on images, this is a godsend. The sights (make it plural) and sounds of the world are literally at my doorstep and can’t help but seep into my consciousness and work. And thank you for mentioning “The Fruited Plain,” a modern ode that employs that phrase and others from the patriotic song “America the Beautiful,” but takes place in a post 9/11 environment. I was very proud to be invited to read it this past April at the World Trade Center Tribute building along with other poets—many of them immigrants—whose poems explored the meaning of the American dream today.
But please understand that when I was growing up in Queens, most of the population traced its origins to Europe. It wasn’t homogenous by any means like rural Scotland, but it was nothing like the global community I call home now. This cultural diversity has influenced me mainly as an adult. Writers have a natural curiosity. Having an “in your face” exposure to the ideas and literature of cultures other than your own can be very enriching. For example, I’ve attended readings of Persian poetry at a local church and heard poetry about the Korean-American experience at a neighborhood festival; watched a classical Indian dance performance at my local library; and viewed art by recent Asian immigrants—all in Queens.
The danger here can be over-stimulation, which can cause you to shut down and return to auto-pilot. Or you just dip your toe in—learning about many cultures but only superficially. Or you become so distracted by this banquet, you lose your focus, run around over-indulging and never find the time to sit down to write!
OL-You’ve written several poems about subway journeys and the people you observe thereon: “Omega Train”, “Dead Man Riding”, “Underground Messengers”… What is it about the subway that inspires you? As a reader, I sense an interest in the transience, the accidental nature of encounters and experiences. Do you have similar feelings in other environments?
Yes, I’m attracted in general to the fleeting and accidental in human interaction—the brief encounter or the act of observing others interacting that can leave an indelible impression. But in the no-exit environment of a subway car, human interaction is intensified and seen in stark relief. All kind of odds things occur, from the frightening to the truly funny (my poem “O Wanderers” centers on a happy young couple who dragged a queen-size mattress into the car). Maybe because my parents never learned to drive, subway travel dominates my earliest memories. My mother’s father helped dig the New York subway when he first arrived from Sicily in the early 1900s. That could explain why even today I’m so interested in these laborers, called sandhogs, and wrote a long poem about them in The Bodies We Were Loaned, my first book. On a Freudian level, the subway is like a dreamscape where our buried hopes and dreams play out.
OL-“The Tour Guide of Pompeii” ends with what for me is a wryly humorous punch line:
“Others cover the means of destruction/with handkerchiefs to be unwrapped/carefully, at home.”
You seem to have a keen eye for the absurdity evident in much human behaviour. How important do you feel humour is in poetry?
I’m delighted that you observed the humor, Oli. George Held, a poet and English professor I know, once wrote that I have “a quirky take on life.” I do enjoy writing satirical and wry poems and had amassed quite a collection over the years. The problem was that none of them fit the more serious mood of my two books. Last month, American Gothic, Take 2, was published by Finishing Line Press, and this chapbook contains lots of these offbeat poems. I’m glad they’ve found a home.
OL- You have a unique way of employing lineation and enjambment for tension and emphasis in your poems. Do you have any hints and tips in this respect for novice poets?
When I first began to take my writing seriously in the 1990s, I studied one-on-one with Enid Shomer, a terrific poet and fiction writer. She taught me that there are many elements that, combined, can move a poem from “good” or “very good” to extraordinary. A poem should contain surprises, she said, and I took that advice to heart. Enid, who writes a good deal of formal poems, also showed me how carefully-chosen line breaks can add power. I do pay special attention to the word that ends each line because of its extra emphasis. If you’re going to end on a preposition, for example, I feel that it should be for a reason.
One exercise she had me try was re-breaking a poem in draft to see how enjambment or full stop on a specific word changed the overall effect for better or worse. Sometimes ending a line on a different word can add a whole new level of meaning. This is where the joy of play and discovery enter into the crafting of a poem.
OL- Your use of rhyme appears to be occasional, spare, yet amazingly subtle and effective, for example in “The Egyptian Queen Gives Death the Slip”…stared, solitaire, everywhere, casket bare. Does this come natural to you and how do you feel about rhyme in general as a tool?
Rhyme is another tool in the poet’s box of tricks that I like to use from time to time. I’m a 21st century writer, after all, so I avoid a sing-song, obvious rhyme. Instead, I’m a great fan of slant rhyme and internal rhymes. In working on any poem, I keep reading it aloud, listening to the rhythm and music.
Rhyming doesn’t come naturally to me, but I do enjoy its challenge. For example, the sonnet form that I used for “The Egyptian Queen” and other poems was very freeing. Keeping to the pre-ordained rhyme scheme of an Elizabethan or Petrarchan sonnet allows my mind to travel in directions it wouldn’t have gone otherwise. Sometimes, the content and rhymes in the final poem surprise me!
Thank you so much, Oli, for this opportunity to talk about my poetry. Your questions were intelligent and thoughtful.
(We thank Maria Terrone for permission to publish her work, and appreciate her time and graciousness in response to the interview above.)