Thursday, June 22, 2023

All Things Are Born to Change Their Shapes

by Jennifer Martelli
(Harbor Editions, 2023) 

Reviewed by Carla Panciera

Jennifer Martelli’s chapbook, All Things Are Born to Change Their Shapes, requires you to leave your inhibitions at home. In the collection’s opening poem, the speaker declares that she can build a moat overnight “with the shoulder blades of a larger mammal to dig up sedges,” and once it is completed, she can fill it with alligator shoes and purses. Clearly, this is a poet ready to test your powers to imagine—a writer determined to create a world you might mistake for mythical and a perspective that might seem impenetrably singular.

There is a quirky and idiosyncratic curator involved here, one enthralled by oddities such as kewpie dolls, gargoyles, owl chopsticks, even a collection of sterling forks, each of which “was a woman once, punished or saved.” The speaker admits, “something in me takes things in its quiet talons, swoops, / leaves whole bones, and once, the long vertebrae of a snake.” I imagine this conservator resides in the kind of cottage that would have attracted dangerous attention from her neighbors circa 1692 if they spied her packing ice about her Queen of Night bulbs, say, or witnessed her penchant for owls, or saw the altars she built filled with “root-food, the gourd; / tools; a knife, a sickle; an orange yarn God’s eye.” At first, these objects seem to set the speaker apart, to declare her as other, until we look around at our own strange accumulations. Yes, we are marked as individuals by our specific choices, but we are also part of a tribe of gatherers. Jennifer Martelli’s poems remind us that we, too, are both otherworldly and of this world. 

This is one of the book’s and the poet’s strengths. Martelli’s poems don’t sound like anyone else’s. She is a lyricist, and her voice on the page is as distinctive as her Boston (specifically Revere) accent. When you read a Martelli poem, you can’t confuse it with anyone else’s, but that voice, as unique as it is, invites you into a sisterhood. Martelli is also the author of My Tarantella and The Queen of Queens (both from Bordighera). In earlier volumes, she pays tribute to Kitty Genovese, Geraldine Ferraro, Hillary Clinton, Shirley Chisholm, and Kamala Harris. This time, she invokes sister-poets. Several poems begin with epigraphs by Sylvia Plath. One derives its title from Anne Sexton. Martelli mentions Jane Kenyon, Jean Valentine, Lucie Brock-Broido. There is something dark and magical about a group of women, about the curatives and curses we inherit and bequeath, about how one generation depends on the voices of those who have come before her, both those women whose words we have and those whose words are lost to us. 

Women witness enormous change in their bodies: menstruation and menopause, giving birth, nursing and then drying up. We watch our own mothers age and forget us. But this intimacy with shapeshifting allows us to recognize that it is the nature of everything to change. Bulbs become flowers; fruit ripens and goes bad; rocks wear down to grit; tree limbs snap off in the cold. Even the Queen of Night tulip bulbs that arrive “airless and misshapen” are described as women who “grip their own toxin / and beauty in a tight fist.” The bulbs understand the nature of things, know “they need to lie dormant, / sleep dreamlessly, slow their memory of bloom.” If we are all part of cycles we cannot control, then at least we know we are not alone with them, we can hope something better awaits. 

That doesn’t mean that we aren’t afraid. In this collection, even fears grow to gigantic proportions. In a world where Walgreens is next to the gallows where the victims of the Salem witch trials hanged, where a woman is “made famous for fellating her boss,” or where, despite having raped a thirteen-year-old girl, Roman Polanski continues to film Tess in a place where “from the barrow mounds beyond the chalk circle, they dug up arrows, a bronze torque around / a child’s neck bones, dolerite axe handles, bone blades,” how can anyone derive any lasting comfort?

The speaker’s own fears are made clear in “Women Who Can’t Breathe (Featuring Women from The Mummy; The Handmaid’s Tale; Kill Bill, Vol. 2)”: 

I am obsessed with women suffocated.

First, there were the Vestal Virgins buried alive in that honeycomb

field outside of Rome. Next, the little walled wife

in that Balkan church with the hole in her tomb

to nurse her son through those first few days of her burial.

Then, the Scottish nun’s bones found in the wall of an abbey.

This poem, in six parts, examines all of the ways in which women have been silenced and the communal effort it takes to achieve that. Just as Martelli fills some poems with charms and objects, in this one, she gathers allusions from mythology, ancient history, Hollywood, and Netflix. We are all disparate, but we are also connected, and understanding that, we don’t have to look away or remain silent. 

More than anything, this collection, with its haunting cover art by Fay Ku, feels like a book of spells. Readers derive some comfort in the idea that we, too, are conjurers. Here are the secrets, these poems seem to say. Here are the reasons why we must persist in creating. We, who also levitated girls off basement floors, who felt the Ouija’s planchette slide, who built altars filled with talismans. We who felt our connection to the moon, who felt the things of this world watching us: owls and trees and strangers whose stories we think we know. Whose stories we can’t unknow. Whose stories deserve our acknowledgement. 

When readers look up from this chapbook, they might be surprised to see daylight, the mundane view of a neighbor’s slumbering beds of tulips that will bloom yellow and red, cars with drivers who would never think to pause before a crosswalk to study a woman’s face and witness her pain, bicyclists whose paths no doubt traverse old bones. “A poem is not a list of pretty things,” Martelli declares, nor is life, though the pages of this stunning collection remind us we are not alone with this truth.

Carla Panciera has published two poetry collections, One of the Cimalores (Cider Press) and No Day, No Dusk, No Love (Bordighera Press). Her short story collection, Bewildered, received AWP’s Grace Paley Prize and was published by the University of Massachusetts Press. Her latest book is Barnflower: A Rhode Island Farm Memoir (forthcoming from Loom Press). Panciera’s work has been featured in many journals including Poetry, New England Review, and Clackamas. She is the recipient of a Mass Cultural Council Grant in Creative Nonfiction and lives in Rowley, MA.

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