It is tempting to believe that where lives have gone wrong, it is possible to find an early, inciting incident, which, if only the holder of memory can get to, articulate, and integrate, meaning and therefore optimism can be restored, and the good world can regain its center. Jennifer Militello’s lyric memoir, Knock Wood, puts paid to that difficult but comforting story. Readers of Militello’s breathtaking poetry will delight in the lavish employment of lyric and unstinting self-disclosure in this beautifully written work. Those looking for more balanced presentation of the culpable and the innocent may be less satisfied with that aspect of the narrative. Still, we are at the mercy of fate when we choose badly, as she asserts, and choosing our own end is often the worst of choices. For my reading of Knock Wood, this is, like all real redemption, the most costly but the only authentic meaning and experience of the word. The rest is, as they say, pure poetry.
“Memory,” she says, “is that bush in the yard that we keep cutting down as it keeps growing back.” The narrative is so highly interior and driven by the first-person that gives the important sense of how we scrape together and cut down memory, and how certain traumatic memories are grow back within us to dominate and change all the others. In that way everything about us is dominated and changed, and we are fixed in a small handful of places in the past, the home of superstition and resignation. Militello’s insistence that all time is the same, past, present, and future, only serves to strengthen that experience: the past is awash in charged feeling, the present a vehicle emptied of vitality:
What is it what is it, why can’t you set it down, get it collated, get it ploughed, why can’t you get it under wraps. It has seen what you are, what they do, where I am, and it will not ask again. It is what rules you even when you think you can make your own choices. There is no clean.
Nowhere is this “no clean” more felt than in her description of her family, who arrive in the present and populate the past, and prove that all moments are one moment. Even the start of the narrative begins with an absurd indictment of self: “knocking wood” for good luck on something other than wood causes, she says, the death of her Uncle Al, the brother of the wrecked Aunt Kathy whose life is one large tragedy of repression and violence and submission. Her paternal grandmother, Al and Kathy’s mother, is “the kind of woman who pinches a child when no one’s around just to see what the child will do.” And as to fate, the insane love Militello has for her boyfriend at seventeen seems to, but doesn’t really, spark every feeling-deprived choice she makes ever after. She is clearly addicted to risk, certainly a kind of deprivation she attempts to untangle throughout. Once addicted to risk and the interior confusion it plants within her, as an adult she chooses all risk again. It seems clear that in adulthood her material circumstances have greatly improved, but within her she carries this town, this family, and this girl who stepped out off the ledge of something like personhood into chaos, the replicated chaos of childbirth, early motherhood, flattening marriage, leaving, attaching herself for reasons of violence to the wrong person.
The violence and its logic appear to come from the town itself, but rather than a memoir of working class stagnation, it is a disclosure of a kind of life that those outside it would find difficult if not impossible to know. Perhaps the reality of “The Town,” embedded under the skin and inescapable as it is, is the inciting incident after all:
This town is filled with boys who have already spent time in jail. With girls who fist fight in driveways over spilled beer. With groups of kids who play pool until the small hours and pass out on some beat-up couch at the crack of dawn....The knuckles of the boys who will soon be men tighten into weapons, and they strike one another with a desperate rage, an almost agreed-upon choreography of their culture.
It is her culture as well, as she makes plain, and yet, though Militello can clearly indict the place, she does not indict the people with the same savagery as she indicts herself, and this may be the one place where the book is out of balance. The two choices, that she should have known better and that there was nothing she could have done about it, are at war from first to last. Her boyfriend, Harry, who commits a crime she is arrested for, is depicted as doomed but loveable, even angelic. Her mother is flinty and stingy, but kept at an emotional distance rather than held to account. But when Militello examines herself, the focus is always about what she “made happen”—hence the title’s indication that even superstition requires exquisite conformity to avoid disaster when one is the guilty party. It is unclear if guilt can be expiated, but certain that the formulas for happy endings—making a “good” marriage, having children, all the expectations of the larger culture—will serve only to confound and undo. The only reliable engine is risk, until risk burns out. And thus there is little here of self-compassion; more, there is a merciless calling out of supposed compulsive self-indulgence. We readers can understand how the speaker winds up where and as she does, and pity her, but she has learned to have no room for pity within herself. Her indictment is as lavish as it is comprehensive:
…I had knocked not on the heart or pulp of some willow or birch, but on a bird of a thing, a hollow bone printed with words of a single day, with ink that smeared the fingers and then the face, a thin wisp of a page filled with horrors, cast aside half read, barely perused.
Here, as it does throughout, prose turns to prosody. The single-day newspaper becomes the metaphor for her life: all of time contained in one moment, and extending to every other, so that all moments are the same, singing out in meter and refrain.
Of course, we understand that sometimes, it’s not one incident, or one string of like incidents, that pulls you down to the people and events that break you. Sometimes, it’s the whole show. Nevertheless, as writers, we must ask ourselves who our audience is and to whom we are offering the gift of a particular work. The question becomes, whom we would like to show up for the show? Why, in a sea of stories, the reader should care about this particular one is the central question for the memoirist, and when meaning itself is not only questioned but lacerated, the story has to have identified the audience from the outset, and understanding of audience becomes critical.
In fiction, the reader is supposed to be addressed obliquely, which paradoxically allows the reader to enter into the narrative fully and at once. In memoir, stories are addressed directly to the reader, and indeed the memoirist’s first task is to decide how to present the story in such a way that both the elements of the story and the personhood of the reader are in a sense secondary. When Militello begins with the foul Uncle Al:
[who] had been abusive and insane, had gone after his wife with a kitchen knife, and had conned my father out of the money he was due upon the sale of his parents’ house, so we cared as much as we could, but it wasn’t that much...
we can respond, fair enough: we all have an Uncle Al somewhere under the stairs, and we have learned not to care about him. What we come to expect of such a beginning, though, is that the narrative will be redeemed somehow or brought back to earth or makes its peace with the reader’s known world. Even with more difficult material, the assumption is that the end game of the story is known, and that this end game is love. Here, though, the end game of the story is not love but resignation, not mutual agreement on outcomes but recognition that hope may be the cheapest gift the author has to offer the reader. Militello’s ability to refuse to deviate from this stance is admirable and tragic. At first it even appears not wholly credible, but for one of the first turns of the book, its theme as I read it: “There was something edgy and uncertain but also real and running as blood that I could take shelter in.”
How does the reader choose to stay with that kind of narrative? What reader can take similar shelter? The answer lies within the lyric moments as well as in the poetic structure of the book as a whole, the simple construction of lyrically-bound sections that stand alone and yet call for the narrative’s advance. In fact, Militello addresses the problem outright:
So how do you tell it. To someone who doesn’t know. To someone who’s never felt the rush. The chill. The risk. The promise. To someone who’s never left the path for the woods...Who’s never felt the blood rise and the eyes lead to a place that tastes like gold. How do you tell it.
The meaning being made, then, is the meaning of chaos. We can catalogue and report, as she does; we can relentlessly insist on sadness and violence and emptiness, as she does; we can, as someone once said, camp out in a graveyard of nothing-now-will-come-to-any-good, as she does. In that world, what is there left to offer? Simply put, in such a world the best offering is music, the lyric, the how of the words, even as the collection gathers, poem by poem, to create a songbook:
The tock tock was a cluck of disdain. It was the click to a horse. The hand coming down: tock tock. It was the swing of each of us on the rope over the river. Before the drop. Before the long drop when our limbs stung and our lungs could fill with water. The surface’s meniscus breaking. The clock was the desperation of being in the body.
Speaking the music that exists within barren and uncompromising landscapes takes not only courage, but art. These Jennifer Militello has in abundance. Perhaps the gift of the reader to the narrator is the gift of compassion. Perhaps it is an offering of room to say, there is also passage for all of us on “this sturdy ship,” where our gifts are recompense for whatever was not gotten right, for whatever took us in its hold and would not let go, for whatever memory still needs cutting away. Perhaps remembering is a two-way street.
Adrian Gibbons Koesters is a novelist, poet, and nonfiction writer. She holds an MFA in poetry from the Rainier Writing Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University and a Ph.D. in English from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Her poetry collections, Many Parishes and Three Days with the Long Moon, were published by Baltimore’s BrickHouse Books in 2013 and 2017, and her short creative work on trauma and prayer, Healing Mysteries was published by Paulist Press in 2005. Her most recent work is the novel, Union Square, published by Apprentice House Press in 2018. She lives in Omaha, Nebraska.