When I was a graduate student at Western Washington University, my favorite courses were designated “studies in.” This designation implied a hybrid class that incorporated both the scholar’s approach to a text (e.g. literary criticism) and the creator’s approach to the same text (e.g. creative writing). In these classes, we wrote critical responses to the texts we read as well as creative emulations “in the spirit” of these texts. I always imagined my professors selected books for “studies in” courses with extra care, in order that we might have the richest possible wellspring for our literary explorations. If I were teaching such a class right now, I would place Jennifer Militello’s provocative new collection of poems, Body Thesaurus, atop of my challenging, multi-valent reading list.
Any student or teacher of poetry, by which I mean to include every writer of poems, will benefit from studying Militello’s sophisticated and nuanced technique—from “reading as a writer,” as we say. Perhaps you want to concentrate on assonance, for instance, in your own craft or in your creative writing class. Consider the sixth stanza of Militello’s poem, “Autobiography with God Complex and Epidemic,” and notice the deft repetition of the short “i” sound in this list: “a kiss of whim, a stitch of thistle, a lick/of phobias. A fidget of shivers winds its way/ in.” With the word “winds,” the pattern switches to repetition of the long “i” sound, forming a concentric ring of assonance around these three lines. The stanza concludes: “My mind is a lamplight for silence.”
These lines constitute only one tercet out of 43 poems and 76 pages. The aesthetic complexities of the collection alone are enough to occupy a semester’s worth of craft work and emulative exercises. But Militello’s project is larger than the elegant execution of her individual poems. I read the collection as a poetic inquest into the nature of embodiment, the nature of identity, even the nature of knowledge itself. How do we know what we know? How do we come to know ourselves as beings in the world? The structure of the book supports Militello’s epistemological obsessions just as it provokes our own. Her prologue poem, “The Skins We Slit Seeking the Vertebrae of Snakes,” introduces a speaker who commands her readers, “Witness me:/ I am outside,” and then asserts, “The machine in us becomes what mixes/ to make a man, what picks him from a pile/of bones.”
The poems that follow are arranged as small clusters interspersed between a series of six statements: The self is not a shadow of the self, The self is not a symptom, The self is not a battery of tests, The self is not what is said about the self, The self is not a study of the world, The self is not a cure. The final poem, which reads as a counterpoint to the first, and consequently as an epilogue to the entire collection, articulates what has become the book’s working hypothesis about the self—“Wholeness is an Imagined State.” This title also echoes and reaffirms the poet’s persistent referencing of “fragments,” “fractures,” and other nouns that serve as verbs to document the act and process of “breaking.” The poet-speaker postulates her way toward a notion of existence, which she names in the final poem: “What being means/ is a trick that brightens. One finds oneself [notice the compelling enjambment here]/ queen among the dead. One finds oneself draped/ in ashes and made.”
Militello’s six statements of self can be read as chapter headings, or they can be read as single-line, self-contained poems. Either way, they are intellectual interpuncts that establish the mode of investigation our speaker favors: the via negativa. Instead of asserting what the self is, Militello posits what the self is not. The poems that appear between these interpuncts employ different, established cultural forms for schematizing the known (or presumably knowable) world. From psychology, Militello adopts “personality states” and “syndromes.” From medical science, she adopts “X-rays” and “antidotes.” From Christian theology, she adopts “the Beatitudes,” and from literature, she adopts the “autobiography” as an enduring and recognizable form for the study of self.
My own three favorite poems likewise borrow from already extant forms for organizing knowledge. In fact, as I consider these poems more closely, I realize that I am especially drawn to poems that present a vehicle for meaning-making, not merely the categorization of meaning after it is made. The first such poem is “Interview under Hypnosis.” The speaker interviews herself using three linguistic probes: “Describe what you would have seen had the roosters/ woken you closer to dawn,” “Describe being endangered, “Describe being unreal.” In literary journalism, we conduct interviews with other people presumably because we want to learn more about, not strictly what they have experienced in their lives, but how they perceive those experiences—the reflections that accompany their narratives of self. By contrast, to interview the self, and in the state of heightened awareness and suggestibility implied by “hypnosis,” instantiates the Cartesian split in a fascinating way. For instance, the mind probes the body to describe the experience of being endangered, and the body responds, “I hear reasons not to cry but I am crying to feel/ the cold come in like an illness that will recover me.”
In another poem I especially admire, “Rorschach Test,” Militello appropriates the form of the inkblot test, which psychologists have used to gain qualitative insights into the thought processes of their patients. The test is projective, meaning that patients view images and describe freely their responses to what they see. There are no quantifiable questions with yes/no answers to guide the statements that follow. The method is often used to detect thought disorders where patients are unwilling or unable to speak candidly about the way their minds work. In poetry, we recognize this same approach as one of our most powerful, aesthetic tools. Projective, associative thinking leads to some of our most vivid images, which in turn contain some of our most provocative insights. Throughout Militello’s poem, I gain new ways of viewing familiar scenes and objects. I see at once, in a spectacular and oracular way, that “Winter is the heart eating out of the hand,” that “Opposites mate/ in the mouths of gods,” that “The pupil is a human face filled with misery.” For me as the reader, this poem presents a new inkblot for a tertiary round of perceptual riffs, and then my poem in response might provide such an inkblot for a subsequent reader. The possibilities for perceptual layering grow toward infinite palimpsest.
Finally, I want to speak a moment to the title poem, “Body Thesaurus,” which appears late in the book and positions the mind and body as synonyms. The thesaurus as an adopted form is premised on the celebration of multi-valence: that there is always more than one way to say something, and yet for every synonymous pairing of words, no two words are, or every will be, precisely the same. Their connotations will always vary slightly. In other words, precision itself will continue to elude us, even as we study the finer and finer distinctions of our language. Militello’s speaker in this poem sings, “As a mind,/ your body is a wall of leaves.” Here the body is able to operate as the mind—the same mind that is able to interview the body in an earlier poem—and both mind and body are likened to a “wall of leaves,” at once impenetrable (the wall) and impermanent (the leaves). Likewise, the mouth in this poem is both “night’s lilacs branching insolubly” and “the hospital,” an image of uncontained growth paired with a location we associate with illness, sterility, and death. In other words, entities contain their opposites.
Militello’s poems stun and stupefy, goad and galvanize, illuminate and mystify. They are wise enough to work at the space where synonyms and antonyms overlap and inform each other. Collectively, they instruct us in difficult truths like “I am an impossible equation proven to exist.” With aesthetic grace and existential mourning, they enunciate for us our human condition: “As it is, I am rich with different versions of myself, and I do not know an antidote for me.”