Probably the most powerful memory I will carry from the “Italians in the Arts” event at Rutgers is the sound of poet Maria Mazziotti Gillan’s booming voice. She writes about the experience of growing up Italian-American and her words resonate with me.

I looked in The Dream Book, a collection of writings by Italian-American women that is one of the prizes on my bookshelves, and found her there. Here’s a sampling:

Public School No. 18: Paterson, New Jersey

Miss Wilson’s eyes, opaque
as blue glass, fix on me:
“We must speak English.
We’re in America now.”
I want to say, “I am American.”
but the evidence is stacked against me.

My mother scrubs my scalp raw, wraps
my shining hair in white rags
to make it curl. Miss Wilson
drags me to the window, checks my hair
for lice. My face wants to hide.

At home, my words smooth in my mouth,
I chatter and am proud. In school,
I am silent; I grope for the right English
words, fear the Italian word will sprout
from my mouth like a rose.

I fear the progression of teachers
in their sprigged dresses,
their Anglo-Saxon faces.

Without words, they tell me
to be ashamed
I am.
I deny that booted country
even from myself,
want to be still
and untouchable
as these women
who teach me to hate myself.

Years later, in a white
Kansas City house,
the psychology professor tells me
I remind him of the Mafia leader
on the cover of Time magazine.
My anger spits
venomous from my mouth.

I am proud of my mother,
dressed all in black,
proud of my father,
with his broken tongue,
proud of the laughter
and noise of our house.

Remember me, ladies,
the silent one?
I have found my voice
and my rage will blow
your house down.

One poem after the other is like this. She is stunning.

I have stumbled upon treasure.