by Jennifer Militello
Tupelo Press, 2021
If you are someone like me who usually – but not always – closes her correspondence to friends and family with the word “love,” Jennifer Militello’s “The Pact” (Tupelo Press) might make you want to think about what it means when you use – or withhold – that word. For the Militello in this, her fifth poetry collection, the language of love feels oxymoronic, characterized by violence, fierce ironies and impossible obligations, conditions very far from any religious, philosophical or even secular ideals. Intimate relationships are the main subjects for the book and her relationship poems refuse to console or reward the reader with last minute aesthetic or emotional escapes from their pessimistic views of human nature; this refusal provides a welcome relief from poems that seek to provide conventional affirmations or resignations when addressing the incongruities of love. Militello’s signature wrenched and wrenching metaphors – stunningly original, somewhat reminiscent of Donne – shock us, unlikely comparison by unlikely comparison, into ways of re-seeing things we know but may prefer to suppress for the sake of getting through the day, or perhaps for the sake of preserving our sanity. Being superficially safe or nice, however, is not Militello’s modus operandi. Provocation is. Her book’s powerful opening poem “Agape Feast,” for instance, does provide the reader with a love feast, but not the one of Christian fellowship that the title portends. Instead the poem presents us with a smorgasbord of definitions that become stranger and more disturbing as the poem reaches for its desolate conclusion:
[Love] sings like
The polished floors of a bank. It reads
all the lines in your palm as the equivalent
of death. Carrier of diseases and lice,
wool blanket stink. Fire beneath the bridge.
Its past is a chasm. Its past is a lid. Let it
catch at the latch of your throat and body bag
your want and infinity your need. Its Jesus
is the noose at your neck. Its Jesus is
the blue slits veins seem at your wrist.
Its mercy is electric, it is storied, it is rank.
Its mercy is a tablet dissolved in a glass,
more invisible the more you drink.
Most of the book’s subsequent poems present us with similar upending variations on this dark feast, mostly through relentless cataloguing of bruising, off-kilter effects that have risen out of the poet’s turbulent relations with three major emblematic figures: the sibling, the mother, the significant other. Militello’s titles, wondrously strange and compelling, are like through-the-looking-glass guideposts, unnerving the reader from the start. The text in the body of some poems, however, may sometimes goes too far in valuing accumulation over clarity. The intriguingly titled “sibling” poems, for instance – “Sibling Medusa,” “Sibling Invention,” “Sibling Bipolar, “Sibling Frankenstein,” “Sibling Parasitic” – dwell on and amplify unsettling aspects of family relations, including mental illness. But except for the “Medusa” and “Bipolar” poems, both explicitly addressed to a sister, it’s not clear who or what the word “sibling” refers to. Is it a parent’s sibling, or perhaps a doppelgänger for the poet herself? It’s hard to know other than that the sibling is someone who has somehow threatened the emotional well-being of the poet. (Since Militello’s poems generally eschew narrative context, I would recommend reading her hauntingly beautiful, devastatingly sad memoir “Knock Wood” for some background on the personal traumas set forth in “The Pact.” )
The account of psychic damage in the poems that take up the figure of the mother is much easier to grasp. The mother-daughter relationship has been toxic, as we see in the poem that addresses the mother as “Dear Hiss.” In drawing the mother figure, the poet doesn’t back off from her own animosity or the opportunity for poetic retribution. The title of one poem reads “My Mother is the Wasp Egg Attached to the Belly of the Tarantula.” In another poem (“My mother is in Antarctica”), the mother is “a continent/at the bottom of the earth. No one/can live near her. Men freeze for less.” And in the book’s title poem we get lines like “Mother, mother, quite contrary, how does your deadliness/grow?” At such moments I admire Militello for not presenting herself as nicer than she is and therefore less complicated – for her, forgiveness is not an option. She’s been hurt and part of her point in this book is that this hurt affects who she is now.
More troubling are the poems that feature volatile relations with a significant other. In one poem “The Pledge,” Militello lists wildly disparate actions she will perform for the sake of love: “I promise/ I will lie for you. I promise I will let you lie back.” And later: “I promise you tax evasion. I promise you fraud./ I offer you suffocation. I offer you an overdose/ I promise to submit. I will rob a bank. I will recruit.// I will walk you to slaughter while saving your life.” Hyperbole and wordplay aside, the mix of actions with different levels of moral consequence is darkly emblematic of what romantic partners are willing to do to and for one another. Darker still are the poems with suggestions of rough sex (“Odaxelagnia,” “Erotomania,”) or the desire to injure the other as a means of rescuing the self (“Idolatry,” “How to Construct the Hero of a Western”). Further along on the same continuum, the book’s penultimate poem, “Electric Fence,” is unsparing in its description of how one partner can employ emotional manipulation as a means of controlling the other. Here the speaker wants out of the relationship, but the lover has threatened suicide if she leaves. She goes so far as to imagine what it would be like if he goes through with his threat before she decides to stay, providing us with a sort of perverse happy ending to the book: “One future remains and it/is by his side, in the chains/of his hand, it is by his side, welded, tethered by all/ he demands.”
For me, one way to come to terms with such brutal honesty is by recognizing what the poet is able to accomplish through her unsettling linguistic and imagistic choices, i.e., saying what often goes unsaid. I read the beautifully lyrical “Geographic Tongue” as a kind of ars poetica for those choices, somewhat contradicting my earlier claim that Militello’s relationship poems withhold aesthetic satisfaction, for, as all the poems in this book demonstrate, a key sustaining relationship for this accomplished poet is with language:
What you say takes on a life mapped
by variations and sprung traps, and what emerges
settles out like sand in the palm, some gone through
the fingers like bread on a trail, like children lost.
Syllables crimp and craw and the edges of utterances trim
and compress. Moving through the gut of it, digested
from one form to another, expelled. All you have been
is knitted there, in its many-sided, meticulous buds,
its lisps and ties, sweet back and sour tip.
Our mother tongue. You speak in it.