Elizabeth Strauss Friedman on The Queen of Queens by Jennifer Martelli

The world is an endless string of pearls, and there is nothing new under the sun, except for the way that Jennifer Martelli masterfully knots the cord and presents the strand, beautifully reworking the circular material. Opaque and alluring, pearls make us question all they offer and all they obscure; this dichotomy is the focus of the author’s exploration. We are transported back to the 1980s: President Reagan and his cult-like following, the raging AIDS pandemic, and a Democratic woman nominated to serve as vice-president. Fast-forward almost forty years to President Trump and his cult-like following, the raging COVID pandemic, and a second Democratic woman nominated to serve as vice-president. This time, she wins. But for those of us who remember the “Year of Ferraro,” we must ask ourselves how much ground we’ve really gained and how much voice we really have. 

The queens referenced in the title of this book are criticized by both men and women, disparaged from all sides. In response, Martelli “create[s] my own night sky,/ a collage of stars, constellations: The Queen, The Coke-Whore,/ The Madonna, The Constellation of Return.” Embracing it all is off-putting to critics, but Martelli argues that both the stunning and messy parts of our pearls are paramount. Molly Ringwald, Nancy Pelosi, and Madonna, a few of the author’s queens, are accomplished rebels all. The gall to simply be themselves and not be dissuaded by society’s ugly labels sets them apart. Martelli compares these women to pearls, the only gem to come from living creatures, treasures that require no cutting or polishing. They emerge from their shells fully finished and ready to string up; perfectly imperfect but examined for their every flaw. Most oyster mouths open empty, so 99% of pearls on the market are cultured. With so few originals and so many facsimiles, how dare we tear the real thing apart?

The most polished and perfect of the pearls in this collection is Geraldine Ferraro, Walter Mondale’s pick for veep in 1984. The author loves Ferraro because she embodied so much of who the narrator is/aspires to be: a strong, sharp, confident Italian woman who can’t be dragged down by anyone, least of all by the men who come for her at every turn. Ferraro was mocked and underestimated by the patriarchal political system, and by women who were jealous of her or who believed she threatened their positions outside the public sphere. But for those who really paid attention, they found in her an immovable force. A woman who dared to want things the world told her she shouldn’t want, and who worked for things the world said she shouldn’t have. The poem “He is My Man. He is My Tomato” mirrors a silly phrase misattributed to Ferraro after a journalist mishears a side conversation. Instead of questioning the clear error, the reporter prints the saying as news. The pearl must be too flawed to display, for women say silly things, right? Yet Ferraro was anything but silly.

A teenager during the 1980s, the narrator wrestles with sexism, drug use, and her lack of agency in a world in which even Ferraro struggled. For how was a teenage girl to feel in the face of this? What would she be allowed to want? The poem “Questions to the Electorate” asks, “Can I rule as a monolith?/ Can I rule as a woman who’s had not one but two,/ two abortions? And still is not sad?/ Can I rule as a woman who is not sad at all?” Are we allowed to be satisfied in spite of what society tells us ought to make us miserable? “That year, 1984, my aunt said she wouldn’t vote/ for anything that menstruated, could get pregnant,/ could bear a child,” the author writes. How to navigate the complications and contradictions of competing internal/external messages of never-enough when these sentiments are echoed both in public and in private?

After all, “When Geraldine Ferraro was seated in the 96th Congress of the United/ States,// there were 16 women in the House of Representatives.// 16 women taking a man’s seat...Only when Walter Mondale ran 16 polling points behind/ Ronald Reagan in 1983,// did he choose a woman as his running mate.” Ferraro was a last-ditch effort to save a sinking campaign. She was a concession. She was a Hail Mary pass. If only the world had recognized her for the pearl she was.

I pleaded with so many boys not to leave me. One boy’s shoulders

swayed like a lever on a fulcrum as he walked away. His white shirt

glowed in the moonlight. In a nightmare, I couldn’t make my fingers

work the phone to call him. I couldn’t speak loud enough for him

to hear me.

A teenager who sees herself as a concession. With Ferraro being treated as such, how could she believe anything else? “I’ve been angry for so long,” the author tells us, understandably. Forty years on, the narrator “realize[s] the coronavirus was a woman/ who’s been ignored for too long.” An implicit prayer that forty years from now may we be in the company of genuine pearls celebrated for their gifts, the anger a distant memory. Amen.

Elizabeth Strauss Friedman is the author of the poetry collection The Eggshell Skull Rule (Kelsay Books, 2018) and the chapbook Gathered Bones are Known to Wander (Red Bird Chapbooks, 2016). Her poetry has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net, and her work has appeared in PleiadesRust + MothThe RumpusPANK, and elsewhere. Elizabeth’s work can be found at elizabethstraussfriedman.com.