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The Pact by Jennifer Militello (Shearsman Books)

The Pact by Jennifer Militello (Shearsman Books)

A pact with a shattered self, disassembled by a violent reality and expressed in fragmented lines, is thoroughly investigated in Jennifer Militello’s fifth collection. It is a wasteland but the fragments do not shore up against the poet’s ruins, as in T.S. Eliot’s poems; instead, they expose the destruction which is irreversible and total. The individual is lost, a wreck; she is empty, a zombie ‘covered in soot’. There is no going back and ‘nothing can be done’ – the only possibility is describing this condition. Love and relationships are dissected in an accumulation of images that explore the topic from all sides, revealing a dark centre that is reduced to smithereens which are scattered around. ‘Love is all you need’, the dedication at the beginning of the book sings, echoing the Beatles’ song, but this remark is ironic and is denied in the narratives of the poems in the collection. Love as affection and a fulfilling relationship is unattainable, delusional and disappointing. It is often described as its opposite, that is, hate, and it causes anger and frustration as well as violent reactions. 

      Militello’s impeccable lines express this contradictory and multifaceted concept of love in fragmented verses in which frequent full stops break the pressing rhythm of the lines and repetitions that are produced using devices such as anaphora and epiphora that reiterate and develop her thoughts:

Hatred is the new love. Rage is right. Touch 

is touch. The collars of the coat, turned down,

point up. The corners of our hearts are smoothed

with rough. Our glass breaks slick, our teeth

rip soft. The mollusc of me, shell-less.

[…]

Let us empty. Let us alone. Madness

is our happiness. Sadness is our home.               (‘Oxymoronic Love’)

I brace: we hit the wall, we slam the brakes. You are 

the maw, the clamp, the rake. Bootlace, foothold,

briefcase, bass. I claw the window, claw the grate.

You snap the whip and clasp the gate. I want it now, 

the great escape.       (‘&’)

     The use of alliteration, enumeration and hyperbole is also frequent; these stylistic devices not only emphasise the skilfulness of the poet but also underline the profundity of her reasoning. She uses a plenitude of thought-provoking imageries that involve the reader in an oxymoronic and often contradictory reality in which opposites do not coexist in harmony but clash with one another. The use of the enjambments together with unusual line breaks reflect this sense of contradiction in the structure of her lyrics. It is a violent reality on the brink of a precipice, in constant evolution and always under investigation. 

     The adventure is daring and risky. The fragility of the self is shamelessly exposed with its losses and flaws in the apparently unconnected arguments and in the vulnerability of the edible body. Cannibalism seems to be part of our humanity; ‘we crave meat’, feast on others’ blood, ‘taste’ their bodies by biting and licking their flesh. The references to the Last Supper and to the Eucharist point to the sacrifice that is implied in love relations. 

     Love can therefore be described in different ways; it protects and heals but also has destructive qualities. The passage through sacrifice and death seems inevitable and is perhaps necessary, but there is no sense of transcendence, only temporary annihilation. This concept is symbolised in the figure of the Nkisi Nkondi, a traditional figure of the Congo. It is usually represented as a wooden sculpture into which people hammer nails or blades to release their anger and frustration, and it mediates against violent forces. It is similar to the figure depicting the martyrdom of St. Sebastian, who is pierced by the arrows of his Roman persecutors and is eventually celebrated as a healer. The saint accepts the wounds in an extreme act of love that is above all a sacrifice and violence perpetrated against an innocent. This violent death is also evoked in the stations of the cross in the poem ‘Idolatry’. In this poem, the confrontation between the two lovers hurts and they ‘bleed secretly, silently’. The relationship may bring a renewal, but it is hard to achieve. Eventually, love is considered a lie:

My collar is my lover’s death.

I wear it heavy. I wear it 

hellish as a home or shell,

hollow as a wreck.

[…]

[…] I want him to live, but we do not 

fit. I want him to live,

but I writhe and twist and

an animal in me lies down

on its side and withers to bone

through our time-lapsed lips.         (‘Electric Fence’)

      The nursery rhyme ‘Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary’ at the end of the poem ‘The Pact’ suggests tense and unsettling relationships with family members, such as siblings, and especially with her mother. These feelings are also expressed in the sibling series and in the poems ‘Dear Hiss’ and ‘My Mother is in Antarctica’. The lyrics are twisted; ‘pretty maids all in a row’ becomes ‘all the daughters caught in their rows’, pointing not only to contradictions but also to constrictions and maybe abuse. 

      The final poem, ‘Ode to Love’, seems to open up to a more hopeful vision. However, the scenario is still unsettling, with its ‘complexities or cries’. The final ‘Hush’ that ‘must be soothed. Has a snag. Has a bleed. A drape’ does not seem to bring reconciliation. The apparently reassuring image of the heron is turned upside down in the final line, ‘a wide bottom perfect with fish.’ Militello traces until the end of the collection her relentless exploration of love that is vital in human relations and part of our effort to survive. Irony and violence permeate the poems and are expressed in unexpected and compelling imageries that render her vision challenging and exceptional. 

Carla Scarano D’Antonio 27th April 2022

Little Elegies for Sister Satan by Michael Palmer (New Directions)

Little Elegies for Sister Satan by Michael Palmer (New Directions)

Michael Palmer has been widely lauded for his voluminous body of work.  He may be considered a poet’s poet whose output exhibits a dynamic range, even within a single volume such as his latest collection, Little Elegies for Sister Satan.  Palmer has defied categorization.  The litany of adjectives that come to mind in describing this shape-shifter’s work might variably include cerebral, philosophical, allusive, and surreal.  Some of his lines are sprinkled with religious references; politically charged observations about child soldiers are on hand, and even the odd scatological turn of phrase.  Unusual, to say the least, is a book a poetry mentioning the Higgs boson in the same line as the Knave of Hearts.  He also can be tongue-in-cheek, yet even several of his stray thoughts and lighter aphoristic poems showcase mastery.  Palmer’s lines are typically populated by eye-widening turns of phrase delivered with musical sensibility.  His use of rhythm and meter mimics that of a virtuosic percussionist, and he will often deftly dust a poem with rhyme and half-rhyme sweet to the ear.

Throughout this collection, and especially among the poems in the last section, Palmer is acutely aware of his poetic heritage.  He is, in fact, in dialog with his forbears.  In this volume these include Han Shan, as well as Fernando Pessoa (and his fictional poetic heteronym, Alberto Caeiro).  In one poem Han Shan converses with T.S. Eliot as if they were two poetic slivers or ‘selves’ of Palmer, one of whom prods the other (with a tip of the hat to Prufrock): ‘So let us go then, / you and I, to / that place where / there is no time.’  Palmer’s eclectic poetic and artistic influences are consistent with the refractoriness of his work to easy pigeon-holing of his work.  Epigraphs from Osip Mandelstam and Zbigniew Herbert are to be found, as well as the names of numerous artists, writers, and intellectuals – the reflection of an omnivorous mind.  In one poem, for example, we find a reference to Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian.  Several shadows have loomed over Palmer’s career, including Samuel Beckett, Paul Celan, Robert Creeley, and Robert Duncan, but the list is likely endless.  

Little Elegies for Sister Satan, although no stranger to the occasional surrealist poem, such as ‘The Cats of Cremona,’ is, perhaps, most notable for the ambitious and lengthy titular sequence, with which it opens.  This suite, ‘Little Elegies for Sister Satan,’ consists of eleven elegies and three ‘commentaries.’ It might be claimed that, in this cycle of poems, one poet holds the greatest sway, namely Wallace Stevens.  While Stevens was an inveterate atheist (until, possibly, shortly before his death), he wrote of ‘The Necessary Angel,’ the human constructs of reality that inform poetry.  Here, however, in Palmer’s opening sequence, we have, rather than an angel, ‘Sister Satan’ who serves as a symbol for the false promise of language.  

Both Stevens and Palmer are preoccupied with poetics and, particularly, the inadequacies of the written word.  Stevens, despite his capacious intellect and poetic gifts, ultimately had to content himself with notes toward a supreme fiction, cognizant as he was of the vast crevasse between reality and our human imaginings of it.  Stevens’ later ‘hibernal’ poems speak of a cold and sparse reality, ten times removed from our fabricated renderings of the world we inhabit.  In fact, in Stevens’ ‘Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction,’ we find these telling lines: ‘I should name you flatly . . .  / Check your evasions, hold you to yourself. / . . . You / Become the soft-footed phantom, the irrational / Distortion, however fragrant, however dear.’  In ‘Add this to Rhetoric,’ Stevens speaks of ‘evading metaphor.’  This poet understood the limits of poetry.  The irreparable schism between reality and the imagination, and our inability to completely understand or capture the true essence of things in language, led Stevens, I think, to a write a despondent couplet in his poem, ‘The Plain Sense of Things,’ as he contemplated mortality and the value of his oeuvre toward the end of his career:  ‘A fantastic effort has failed, a repetition / In a repetitiousness of men and flies.’ 

In the Eleventh Elegy in Palmer’s suite, ‘Little Elegies for Sister Satan,’ affinities between Stevens and Palmer become clear.  We are told, that ‘the sea is an abecedarium.’  Neither this sea nor the sisterhood of Sister Satan (Poetry) saves or comforts the poet-narrator.   ‘Words don’t mean anything’ and the poet must wait.  For what, precisely?  The supreme fiction?  The poet continues to wait endlessly, of course: ‘. . . And I waited in the alphabet’s shadow, waited . . . for the words to reveal their names.’  Still, toward the end of the poem, the poet must contend with a world inhabited by ‘two suns and two moons’: reality and the dull mirror of the world expressed in language.  Twins that can never be reconciled.  

Later in Palmer’s collection, a poet is likened to a ‘prophet with no tongue’.  At times, given the limitations of language, he favors silence over speech.  Palmer believes the words we use are flawed, but, in ‘Solunar Tables,’ they appear to be all we possess: ‘our alphabets without end / that spell themselves / and weave themselves / into a trembling web as the poem.’  The gossamer-like insubstantiality of the poem, foregrounded here, takes on a beauty of its own, rooted, in part, in its transience in the arc of the universe.  Many other outstanding poems fill these pages, such as ‘The Bell’ (an ode to a trumpeter, who, like the poet, knows that the tune “must come out wrong / such is song) and ‘Pillows of Stone.’  Some might argue that Palmer’s work is ‘difficult,’ but almost all the poems in his latest collection carry interpretable meaning, which may be nuanced.  Active reader participation is, however, advised if the marrow of these poems is to be savored. 

David Sahner 5th March 2022

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