Love. How does it manifest itself? How many kinds are there? What are its extremes? With The Pact, Jennifer Militello explores love through imagery, language, and leaps. She never blinks and investigates the subject from its outer edges to its core.
The book is framed by two poems: “Agape Feast” and “Ode to Love.” In between four sections focus on different aspects of love.
Agape, from the Greek, is defined as the fatherly love of God for humans, and the reciprocal love of humans for God. It is transcendent and the highest form of love as contrasted with erotic or brotherly love. Militello brings agape down to earth in “Agape Feast” from her opening line: “What is love but the bruise or the abrasion, / the fruitlessness, the deep incision.” She also begins her juxtaposition of opposites: “Fat as a blackberry, thin as a stick …” The images are often disturbing as she moves into the heart of her perspective on agape: “Pores seen. Lips curled,” “Carrier of diseases and lice, / wool blanket stink.” She includes the roots of agape, even as she spurns them: “Its Jesus / is the noose at your neck. Its Jesus is / the blue slits veins seen at your wrist.” Yet, in the end, she purports to offer agape’s mercy: “electric,” “storied,” “rank,” “a tablet dissolved in a glass, / more invisible the more you drink.” We are not reassured.
The first section focuses on the world as family and family as the world—and that world is violent. The first poem, “Species,” begins: “We come from three generations of gunsmiths / and armorers.” From there, Militello ranges wide: Swahili, sugar cane, stone men, staircases, Pyramids, frogs, lions, motorcycle wheels, longships, Asian carp, wildebeest—the list goes on. The elements are jumbled together, but not random. This poem is about what “we” do: we “come,” “we sew,” “we weep,” “we emulate,” “we poison,” “we rescue,” “we patrol,” “we survive,” “we crave.” These are interspersed with statements about “our,” what we reveal and what we possess. This is our “Species.”
In one of the four sibling poems, “Sibling Bipolar,” Militello continues her play with opposites, connecting them through ideas and techniques like alliteration and slant rhyme. The poem opens: “Quiet. Quiet. I diet on your wounds.” Consider these lines: “You are the cough that / clears my lung” and “You are my match, lit with rain. / My water stain, ceiling sag, my stalactite …” Lastly, “I mind a limit to you. / Here is a liquid. Here is a cliff.” The repetition of sounds and Militello’s choice of hard or soft consonants contribute to the elegance of her expression as she drives the beat of the poem with urgency.
The second section explores different and often opposite forms of love. “Oxymoronic Love” gives us an introduction to this approach. “Hatred is the new love. Rage is right. Touch / is touch,” she begins. What appears opposite is connected. “Madness / is our happiness. Sadness is our home,” she ends, clinging to the oxymoronic idea from start to finish. “Erotomania” and “Pledge” are on facing pages. These opposites also connect and intermingle. “Erotomania” begins: “Do not asphyxiate the bitch in me.” “Pledge” begins: “I promise I will know you like the back of a hand.” The tone, the approach, the negative versus the positive open these two poems. But they are part of a whole. Lines from “Erotomania”: “You come closer to hearing // what I sign, you come closer to being / what I fear.” Lines from “Pledge”: “I will let you electrify me / and jolt me dead. I will let my lucidity go adrift. // I will shed everything I love.” These lines deal with the closeness of relationship, how the “you” and “I” are bonded together, despite the distances, despite the dangers, despite the risks.
The third section focuses on “Mother.” The first poem, “What My Mother Wears,” may begin with what the mother wears, but it rapidly expands to encompass what the mother feels and does and is. Again, the images are unexpected and thought-provoking: “She has only one petal left; no one / can decide if she loves me or not” and “She is smothered in a liquid that / looks like blood, but when you / taste it, it is eau de toilette.” This contrasts with the second stanza’s images: “She disasters it out in the public restroom / and her memoir happens there / in the mirror / where she will not look.” Followed by: “She cooks vegetables to mush. / She lusts after transferrable guilt.” In the end, the mother can do anything: sing, dance, laugh, cough. Moreover: “When asked / what’s real, she bows out, by choice.” What are we to make of this woman who won’t look in a mirror and bows out of what’s real?
As the mother poems unfold, we are given an über mother, one that can be as small as “… the Wasp Egg Attached to the Belly of the Tarantula” or as far away as “Antarctica.” As the wasp egg, she is “soon to hatch,” “finds you by the smell,” “probes your belly, seals / the chamber, closes the grave.” Yet, the mother “leaves me unborn, voracious, / read to wake.” When the mother is in Antarctica, she “is ice crack and glacier / abyss” and the “I” of the poem “imagine[s] her ice queen at last.” Now, she “is a continent / at the bottom of the earth.”
Two poems are titled “Nkisi Nkondi.” The epigraphs under each title direct us to different interpretations of this African figure: “This striking figure, with its serenely rendered face and violently pierced body, was made to contain and direct a spirit in order to assist people in need” (Art Institute of Chicago). Alternatively: “Nkisi contain magical substances that, depending upon the context, are used for protection or devastation. Carved wood human figures like this one hunt wrongdoers in matters of civil law” (Dallas Museum of Art). These different emphases are reflected in the poems. In the first, “she exhales until the wind / blasts shingles off a house.” In the second, “She won’t be saved. You can chain her // and she will bow her head. You can break her bones / and they will arc with rain.” Opposites that, once again, complement each other.
The fourth section considers idolatry, starting with a poem that explicates what the “I” wants: “to bite so deeply he bears a scar” or to take “x-rays to find out how / we were posed.” In “Blooded Cold,” Militello uses the imagery of a snake to explore and recreate and transform the loved one: “My hands snake and slither and clamp, snap a turtle’s jaw / at your interior” and “I found you / there, your outside shapes. I found you there, your inside god.” The “I” wants to “transform you from a creature of four appendages to two. / Until you are you again. Until you are near. Until you are new.”
In “Electric Fence,” “My collar is my lover’s death,” which the speaker wears “heavy” and “hellish” and “hollow.” Militello considers his demise, but she “want[s] him to live,” and her “future rises up like gulls drift on the wind.” In the end, the speaker’s future is “by his side, / welded, tethered by all / he demands.” And that is the love she wants, despite its variations from devotion to abuse.
The final poem, “Ode to Love,” is rooted in place, “grows late over Nevada / as we watch.” Militello ends:
It must be wooed. Must be quieted. Hush. It must
Be soothed. Has a snag. Has a bleed. A drape.
Flaps awkwardly at its edges, a heron.
At its center, a wide bottom perfect with fish.
The struggles, the effort ooze from every line and every image the poet offers on the page. The apparent jumble of images—wild, expressive, extreme, and apparently contradictory—are part of a complex whole that the poet explores with open eyes. Whether Militello speaks of obsession or abuse, romance or Jonestown, pleasure or pain, she woos us with her language, her images, her insistence on facing the realities of love head on.
The Pact, by Jennifer Militello. North Adams, Massachusetts: Tupelo Press, May 2021. 80 pages. $9.48, paper.
Aline Soules’ work has appeared in Kenyon Review, Houston Literary Review, Poetry Midwest, The Galway Review, and other literary journals and anthologies: alinesoules.com.