A book of poems is a curious thing. Quite different from a novel, it seems to be closer in narrative structure to a museum or a church. The tour guide shows us stunning stained glass windows and also tombs of unknown saints. In Jennifer Militello’s newest book of poems, The Pact, Militello is this tour guide. She leads us through the halls of love. And, be prepared, we will see the dead.
Militello begins with a proem (a prologue poem) about agape: a parental type of love for all humans. This is a book about matters of the heart. However, because of Militello’s deft mastery over language, it is not simple. She tangles and dangles the language so thoughtfully, so daring that love becomes “fat as a blackberry” (5) and “It sings like/ the polished floors of a bank. It reads/all the lines in your palm as the equivalent/of death” (5). She takes our breath away and gives it back to us loaded with a new dictionary of language.
Militello’s poems are muscles — machines made from the flesh of language. They grind and burrow down into the subject. At the end of the poem, “Agape Feast” (5), love isn’t just a good force, but also a destructive one. It is an invisible tablet dissolved in a glass and aligned with a mercy so innocuous that the drinker doesn’t quite know it’s there. Militello uses this poem to drop us in this strange, uncertain place, as if we are in a new country. Everything we think about love will be challenged, questioned. Complications will occur.
As usual, there is a lovely darkness to her work. In the poem, “Sibling Medusa” Militello dunks the poem’s head in water until it reveals the complications of sibling love, “You are my sister. My love for you is a ladder/I climb until I fall” (11). Then later in the book, we hear of a mother figure, “It is heart. It is her heart. It is/the coldest place on earth. It is/a sample of ice core one million years old” (57). These images are brutal, truthful and honest. If Romantic poetry is the mossy side of a large rock, Militello’s work is the underside, where all of the salamanders and beetles live: that dark ecosystem of language which she unearths and puts up to the reader’s nose — commanding us to inhale, smell the freshness of the soil.
For me, The Pact is similar to both Sylvia Plath and Hélène Cixous’ work. First, like Plath, Militello’s use of repetition and anaphora creates a strong and commanding presence. We find ourselves mesmerized by the beating of the drum inside each poem. Part of me wants to label this work ” confessional,” but another part resists this cultural urge since confessional writing can be a sexist term for poetry written by women. Lidia Yuknavitch comments in a 2017 interview on LitHub, “…maybe interrupt the idea that women’s writing is confessional. That’s a market-driven label that has been pressed upon women writers that have been writing our hearts forever, and the only way to make it go away or change it is to simply begin to reject it and admit that women are participating in intellectual tradition and not off to the side, crying and weak.” The Pact is not weak and it isn’t for the weak. It is a beautiful, dark, homage to language and to the complications of this curious force called love.
I happened to be reading Hélène Cixous’ book The Third Body as I was reading The Pact and I feel that Cixous writes of a similar painful romantic love to Militello, “my grief from the knowledge that he was leaving and my grief at seeing him leave crushed my bones and lacerated my skin, and yet I saw him gone, his back dripping with blood”(1) and later, “The body and the pain knew each other, and by being mixed together resembled one another, were named by the same words” (2). Romantic love can be painful. As Militello compares love to the cult (who
eventually committed mass suicide) at Jonestown . In “If Our Love Were Jonestown,” Militello writes, “We would/give up all we want and are. Emptied syringes/surrounding buckets of drink. The unwilling/in us would be injected with poison,/or shot. The promise of joy would lead us” (68). These images are astoundingly fresh and truthful. The sound quality is beautiful: clipped and muscular, like the trotting of horses.
In addition to the idea of love for other people, there is also the complicated love for home. In “Homesickness Is a Geographical Nostalgia,” Militello layers metaphor over metaphor, “This open door/like a sore healed over or a shape/one may shift. This part of me/adrift or lost at sea. This/part of me the blight one cannot cure” (20). Jane Hirshfield writes in her book, The Nine Gates of Poetry, that a poem is a type of concentration. She mentions Ezra Pound’s notion of a poem having three parts: melopoeia (music), logopoeia (intellect) and phanopoeia (image).
Militello brilliantly uses all three of these concepts. The musical quality of her poems is as gorgeous as the dark tones of an oboe. Hearing Militello read her work brings them to life in a way difficult to describe. Speak the following two lines, “This cape/I wear as if to cope” (20). This is a poet who truly listens to language. There is alliteration mixed with a beautiful near assonance of the vowels. In the poem, “Oxymoronic Love” there is unexpected use of images, “The collars of the coat, turned down,/point up. . .Our glass breaks slick, our teeth/rip soft” (25). What is poetry but breathing fresh oxygen onto language so that it will burst into flame? Militello does this so beautifully. The Pact will bind itself onto you. Hold it close. This is a stunning book that won’t let go.