Jennifer Militello’s Body Thesaurus
When Jennifer Militello lets us out of her 2013 collection Body Thesaurus, she uses “Wholeness Is an Imagined State” as a way to remind us how much we’ve reshaped and realigned the histories she’s helped us create in the previous 75 pages. Militello begins, as she often does, digging one hand’s fingertips deep into the soil of a time unnamed but incredibly felt, while the other weaves itself into a kind of contemporary awareness:
Or myth: a giver of consolation prizes,
hands bitten black and blue, gods
we knew who had no wings: it’s not
the blood’s sigh. It is the cry of the unborn,
held back in half-formed throats, in
the vocal chords of those who know death
before they know a prose (75)
What is often so striking about Militello’s collection is how the poems find balance between seeming preoccupation with the individual self and a refusal of personhood: there is a ‘we’ in line three of this poem, but not another personal pronoun in the epilogue until line 20 of 24:
We hear the root’s sure grave tapping to drink
from the runoff, the suburbs, the factory,
the ceiling fan blades, their slow, weighted
circumference as it fills our china plates. (75)
With echos of Plath and Sexton, a conjuring of confessionalism in the housing of myth-making, Militello manages the cult of me beautifully and deftly, letting her readers offer themselves — or any other figures they want to place within these woods and waysides — as the personalities. She provides the circumstances, the parameters of the spaces. As a reader interested in voice and character within the poem, it took me the first fourth or so of Body Thesaurus to understand, and then trust, that Militello’s gorgeously constructed landscapes of
Snow falling not far from here, the verb of
what will listen. The cold stretch of terrace
in the moon. Away where evening sings
its wet leaves clustered like flint (7)
When the sea runs barren
as the possible bones, when the names are gone
from the gravestones and cliffs, when the long dry dune
can decay us at last, November (10)
So few dead at the bottom of the river,
so few rapids broken open with their backs.
I empty bottles at the lips of the burn.
Four dramatic winds press into my hip to uproot
an infidel’s heaven. (12)
these aren’t tactics of distancing, but invitations. I often found myself dreaming of these worlds weeks after I’d lived in them because of Militello’s management of careful details. Again and again, the poems provide case studies for building complete worlds with these descriptions, but without becoming prescriptive. That is what I’d been welcomed for, not just to see the winter-world, cemetery or riverbed, but to move about the branches fallen with my own snow-shoed feet.
By situating her readers in this way of recreation through reading, Militello further reinforces the project of connection I see her building. Under the guise of epigraphs by Joseph Heller and Dylan Thomas, we are rooted from the first in an effort to find ourselves in our surroundings, what it means to be human with memory, in a landscape of trees which decay and metals which can be remelted, and ever-changing spaciousness. From there, in Body Thesaurus, we are so often separated. On the whole, there is a persistent loneliness to these poems, focusing in on the isolation of trying so hard to define the self and the relationships we neglect as a result of our impulse to turn ever inward.
Structurally, Militello constructs the difficulty of this as a strict dichotomy through her forming seven sections — plus prelude and postscript poems — each with a heading of what the self is not: a shadow of the self, a symptom, a battery of tests, what is said about the self, a study of the world, and a cure. We often come to understand ourselves or our situations by the void, the ‘not’ statements, and these headings suggest science, a factualness that Militello then resists with the exactitude of her worlds, worlds verifiable only by our complicity. No research or study will make this cartography hold.
What does hold together is language, the poems speaking to their collection’s title. On the one hand,
the poems, in conjunction, hope to explore selfhood not by definition, but by carving out possibility through these groupings of similarities of meanings. On the other hand, Militello brings us back to the etymology of ‘thesaurus’ as a storehouse or treasure, especially with her ability to make musical rough sounds:
The machine in us becomes what mixes
to make a man, what picks him from a pile
of bones. Drink from this and it will itch
in you, bewitch you, cause you to begin. (3)
This passage in particular alternates between soft hums of ‘m,’ lulling ‘ou,’ and strikes of ‘x’s, ‘k’s, the mouthful immediately engaging our auditory attention for the contrasts and shifts that will sustain us throughout Body Thesaurus. We are being remade through redirection of our attention away from ourselves, beyond our current circumstances and the tired ways we talk about them. Militello isn’t necessarily telling us much we don’t already know within these piles of bones, but she does so accessibly, crafting images that ultimately feel so starkly intuitive, threading together phrases so surprisingly natural to how the mouth moves, we want them to be as integral to our physical bodies as the figures she allows us to inhabit.
I first came to Militello’s work during a reading as she promoted her 2009 collection Flinch of Song. So sharp and confident as she offered those poems, every word felt a devastating comfort. This is why I’ve kept her close, and why I’ve looked to her work for guidance in my own writing and escape from it, by turns. These years later, making imagination and reality irrelevant distinctions to the heart of a memory, the title poem “Body Thesaurus” points directly inwards, reminds me why it is so important to understand,
Your lids are the lime-lined,
impromptu graves of thieves. As a mind,
your body is a wall of leaves; let its edges whisper (59)
We might be unsure of ourselves, but we are trying, searching for a quiet song, a dark woods that holds not the word, but the many words that make real the feeling we had as we understood how incomplete we were yesterday.
Christine Holm began writing poetry while employed in social services and continues to find spaces where creative work overlaps with community service, from writing with palliative care patients through Poesia del Sol to teaching inmates with The Writers in Prison Project.