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Jennifer Militello

Jennifer Militello is the author of FLINCH OF SONG, winner of the Tupelo Press First Book Award, and BODY THESAURUS, named a finalist for the Alice Fay di Castagnola Award by Marilyn Hacker. Her work has appeared in American Poetry Review, The Kenyon Review, The New Republic, The North American Review, The Paris Review, Ploughshares, and Best New Poets 2008. She is also the author of the chapbook Anchor Chain, Open Sail.

Blurbs

"[T]he collection is largely an exquisite example of the modern gothic: shadowy, beset by menacing weather and violent feelings, and positively bewitching."

– Publishers Weekly

“In the face of supreme and therefore extreme quietude. . . . Militello’s poems hand us over to that other life we nightly receive in dream. . . . [T]hese poems don’t merely delve the psyche’s depths, they harrow, and they harrow fantastic.”

– Cate Marvin

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A Camouflage of Specimens and Garments

Beasts of the Earth: A Camouflage of Specimens and Garments by Jennifer Militello

12/14/18

In 1927, twelve-year-old Marion Parker was abducted from her school in California, held for ransom, and then killed and gruesomely mutilated by a man named William Hickman. He slit her throat, cut off her arms and legs, cut open her abdomen, removed her organs, stuffed her body cavity with rags, and used wire to sew her eyes open.

In short: horrifying.

And in the well-trod tradition of sensational journalism, it horrified the nation in a sweeping national obsession. Hickman was the human monster — the beast — whose combination of charm and violent, aberrant psychology fascinated and titillated. Parker was the picture of girlish innocence — here brutalized by masculinity, perversion, and modernity. Marion, and her murder became a metaphor and canvas onto which a myriad of anxieties could be, and were, projected. Volumes of newspaper articles, folk songs, and even a partial novel manuscript have been written about the incident.

Jennifer Militello, in A Camouflage of Specimens and Garments, unearths the events in poetry — or, actually, it is more accurate to say that she unearths Marion Parker, and tries to give the girl some measure of voice and subjectivity stripped from her first by her murder, and second by her canonization in the media. The result is raw and devastating.

It’s not until roughly the midway point of this powerful collection that Marion Parker speaks to us — on the topic of her murder and mythos, no less — directly. However, once she does, it’s clear we have been circling this story and the companion themes throughout. It’s also at that point clear that the speaker in the epistolary free verse pieces which encircle the three main cycles of poems in the collection is Marion — or a distillation of her or all of the many, many girls like her. And that’s how this collection operates: by dawning understanding. Each new poem reaches back and changes the way you had read the ones which came before, which changes the way you are reading the poem you are reading now, which hints at what may be coming . . . eventually you are left with a fizzing continuity of experience.

The first cycle of poems is all raw and ancient wildness. The most enervating poems use imperfect rhymes and irregular rhyming schemes to build a fast, syncopated beat that gets in the bones. The frequent use of repetition and parallelism at the start of thoughts or lines lends these pieces a flavor of an oral tradition — and thus antiquity. Beasts haunt the verses — haunt the book — including potent archetypes of wolves and werewolves, dogs and hounds, the hunt, the woods, the darkness, and the old gods. Here already, though, Militello is laying track for what is to come. The beasts are not simple monsters, and their female prey not simple victims — that worn old narrative has no place here. In “A Dictionary of Having Been Prey in the Voice of the Grandmother” in which Little Red’s dear nana is freed from the belly of the wolf with the thought, “I could finally be the beast,” and “I had been eaten, I was the beast. I had the taste of bewildered flesh.”

She’s constructing different narratives here: no damsels.

Harder to parse, but marrow-rich is the collapsing of the dichotomy of birth and death. Birth and death are simultaneous and synonymous, as in when in “A Dictionary at the Periphery” the speaker narrates: “On the day I was born, the moon’s phase / was waning crescent. No death / to sweeten like a side dish . . . ” and later, “I was the last animal at the lamp the night / man was born. Record me in the morgue’s lost books.” And in “A Gospel of the Human Condition” we find, “Ourselves / at periphery. Begotten, not made.”

The middle cycle of poems shifts from an animal restlessness to something more modern: chitinous, and uncanny. The poems are full of industrial, scientific, and brutalistic imagery; and the forms of the poems change with the same restlessness. “Corrosion Therapy” opens the cycle with an algebraic equation, in contrast to the mythic language of previous poems, and pulls the reader in to the darkness, inviting us to a crime and to a complicity in beastliness: “You can’t deny your decisions now that / you can smell what we’ve been, our / living, our pride, our cool little eyes / like rainfall that don’t care one bit. / It’s suicide only to one part of you. / The other part connives to come, to kick / the lame dog, to take advantage / of the dark, to test the door to alive. Is / it locked or ajar? How far will it open? / If I fit through, who will die? Say / goodbye.” Notably, in this section the beast is us, and it is modernity, and it is society. Thoughtfully, Militello follows this revelation of our own beastliness with the aptly named “Criminal How-To” — to help get us started on the crooked and wide.

This is where Militello introduces The Sociopath — an archetype as strong and pregnant to modern times, as any beast from the epic sagas of the ancient world — and their voice unsettles from the first moment it appears in “Dictionary of Wooing and Deception in the Voice of the Sociopath.” It’s not a stretch to imagine that The Sociopath is, at least in part, William Hickman; however, The Sociopath is carefully de-identified — we are discussing a type, a mythology, and a whole group of people (men). “Godless, I am most real / Healed, I am / most ill. Filth is my most honest hour,” and later, “I barter with the periphery,” proclaims Militello’s Sociopath, with the precise sort of Nietzschean Superman ideology which drives our fascination with “sociopaths.” But Militello’s Sociopath both is and is not a beast, because he is also a man: in “A Dictionary of What Can Be Learned in the Voice of the Sociopath’s Lover” we hear from a woman who loved him, a woman who is not a monster, or a nihilist, or a pitiable creature. She is complex, and damaged, and strong; there is a desperate, defiant energy to the Lover’ when she calls, “To wreck whatever touched my hand / to prove I still exist.” and, “Not to want.” and, “To fight and spit. To / let it go. To earn my keep.” She is human, and then so to is the Sociopath — a human beast, which is a much more disturbing proposition, from which a lot of narratives turn away.

And then we arrive at Marion Parker.

Her poems are devastating. Here Militello imagines a Marion, first in “A Dictionary of Mechanics, Memory, and Skin in the Voice of Marion Parker”, who laments her lost life: she will now only get to grow old “in the minutes it takes to be dismembered: / one suture for each of my antiseptic mouths. / Tattered is how I began.” She worries: “If I do not happen soon, / I will not happen at all.” Marion continues, in “A Letter to the Coroner in the Voice of Marion Parker”, to cry out: “I am trying not to break. Debris is all I am. / My face gaunt where once it was seamless, entrails / replaced by rags, eyelids wired open, a congregation / in my eyes with all the candles held by children.” These poems more directly deal in the violence visited upon Marion.

Then comes a different Marion, who — remember — is imagined in these poems as speaking from beyond the grave, in the poem “A Dictionary of Keeping Quiet between the Monstrous and Holy in the Voice of Marion Parker.” She moves from discussing her death, to the creation of the Type or Identity of Marion Parker (in the media and public discourse): “I cannot be made / natural since my flesh / burns with these machines. / I am crafted of dimensions, mathematical, a prize. / I am somewhat alive.” She says: “There is not rest for / the wicked. There is no / remembering the grand. / I take the hands that hurt me and mistake them / for my hands.” She grows angry at this second violence, the flattening and constructing of her identity: “The hour is anger, is artifact, is over.” declares the speaker of “Working with the Instruments”, repeatedly delivering the imperative “kill it.”

The third and final poem cycle brings us to the present day with “A Dictionary at the Turn of the Millennium”, which greets our era with a series of “hellos” to the various ills of our society, from overcrowding, to experimentation, from hopelessness to “adrenaline catastrophe.” The cycle pivots to “A Dictionary of Resignation,” elucidating the inevitable coming apocalypses: “Enough. The dogs of god are loose. / Finally the nights you do not sleep / like packs outrun the wolves,” and, “Touch is a rough crypt of covenants. / Random things awake. / Draft horses cart their owners to the grave. / The inept shall inherit the earth.” Decline and decay are a theme throughout the section, but the myth cycles also return: to start with: Icarus and Odysseus make appearances. And their stories are not relayed so much as reframed — Icarus is a figure of hope not hubris, Odysseus’s story is one of unarchaic homesickness.

The wheel turns. Endings are beginnings. Birth is death.

In “A Dictionary of the Dead in the Voice of the Living Collective” the dead (the past) literally live inside of all of us: “They think of flame but sing of ash, a drop / of this, a sip of that, their lairs inside us / skinned and mute. Eyes a snapshot of hunger.” Nothing is new, and the wheel turns. In this way, the final poems are an affirmation and release: everything is terrible, and an End is coming — whether simply death for the individual, or a societal collapse — but an end of one era or cycle is simply the beginning of another. Near the very end, Militello moves to using a chilling, powerful “I” as the narrator — a collective voice of humanity? Or the dead? — who tells us in “A Dictionary of the Afterlife” that a beast approaches to devour the earth and “digest the bones to break them.” But this “I” will bury the beast, drown it in a fountain. It’s a powerful final chord.

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