In April, Maria Terrone traveled to Sicily for the first time to stand on the ground of her ancestors. Like a tourist, she took home souvenirs. Like a poet, they were steeped in layered meaning. Terrone collected the memory of lava rock — once devastating but long cooled. She gathered in the yards of her own personal family history. The remnants of the trip are germinating now, waiting for a chance to become her next collection of poetry.
For a taste of what could come to be, dip into “A Secret Room In Fall,” Terrone’s second book of verse, published in December 2006 and winner of the Ashland Poetry Prize.
It’s a slim, almost whimsical volume packed with the imagined lives of mummified Egyptian Queens and subway riders, a girl in a glass factory and the author’s own family. The book is littered with the cool observations of a born and bred New Yorker, and told through the voice of a woman with her eyes always open.
“You could say it’s the muse,” Terrone said of how inspiration might strike. But then adding, “I think it’s when you have your self in a state of readiness.”
Terrone keeps herself prepared in Queens, where she has lived her entire life. She is a dedicated subway rider, a visitor of museums and an avid researcher. She lives in Jackson Heights with her husband.
“It’s a rich environment for any writer,” she said, speaking from Queens College in Flushing, where she is the assistant vice president of communications. From the windows of her 13th floor office, she has a panoramic view north of the borough. On the streets far below are the inspiration for some of the pieces in her latest collection.
“The Fruited Plain,” for example, folds the boggling diversity of her Jackson Heights neighborhood fruit market into a simplified notion of the American dream, layering “amber waves of ginger” with “aloe huge as oars.” In the end. “This is America. No One Starves.”
“A Secret Room In Fall” is Terrone’s second collection. The first, “The Bodies We Were Loaned,” was published in 2002. Her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Award and has won an Elinor Benedict Prize as well. It has also been featured in many magazines and Web sites.
Terrone is currently doing a series of public readings promoting the latest collection and has found she enjoys sharing her work out loud. Recently she had the opportunity to share poetry with schoolchildren in Long Island City.
She tried to spread the lessons that seem to inform her own work, telling them, “How lucky we are to not live in a boring place.” She said she tried to “let them know that poetry is all around them.”
Her collection is marked with a New York sensibility — including a chilling and unexpected nod to the loss of Sept. 11, and references to New York City Transit. But it also takes in many mythologies— at once personal and universal — with allusions to Greek myths and the Bible, among others. Terrone also writes sketches of characters pulled from her imagination, or born of observation and historical fact and then fleshed out in her mind
The opening poem, a favorite of hers, is one such example. It’s a strong, wry piece with a feminist flair — The Egyptian Queen Gives Death the Slip. Inspired by a solitary trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the poem opens with the discovery of boxes of wigs and makeup in the tomb, an allusion to a queen’s need to to be made up in the afterlife. But in the end, the queen triumphs over her formidable foe. “Let Death play solitaire … That’s not for me. I’m everywhere and nowhere, which is why you found my casket bare.”
The Tour Guide Of Pompeii
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.
from “A Secret Room In Fall”