The Past Is Living: Jennifer Militello’s Knock Wood

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Midway through Jennifer Militello’s essay collection Knock Wood, she asks, “So, how do you tell it? To someone who doesn’t know. To someone who’s never felt the rush. The chill. The risk. The promise.” She asks this rhetorically, understanding that you cannot, in fact, explain the recklessness with which one can love, the recklessness of feeling the weight of your own body on the edge of a subway platform. Militello’s part-memoir, part-poetic contemplation smooths out time and space so that we may see the All in front of us; it shows us that there is no such thing as an isolated incident, that everything we’ve lived continues to happen within us, that loss transcends love transcends time. “Time is elastic, is relative. And, for us, is largely dictated by memory,” Militello writes.

That time is malleable comes through most clearly when Militello tells of her extramarital affair. Of the romance she writes, “How many emails, how many photographs, how many hours on Skype. Until it all became too much. Until an infinity passed through and consumed it.” It is easy for me to feel that time streaming between my fingers, as I too once loved a man in this way. Knock Wood carries its significance quietly, by employing a non-linear structure and disregarding a traditional, strictly chronological narrative. Like remembering the first time you drowned in someone, the book jumps from moment to moment, backwards and forwards, until we are below its subjects’ surface, understanding their transcendence and, therefore, their significance.

Militello starts her book by indoctrinating us. We are taught that memories can influence each other, that the future can impact the past, and Militello conveys this lesson with a musicality that enhances the fluidity of time. Knock Wood embodies a poetic voice that almost demands the work be read aloud. It is not uncommon for sentences to house internal rhyme, for pauses to create rhythm. Militello chooses cadence over chronology to show how moments flow into each other and through us. “We were the ones who had torn open a hole in the order of the world,” she writes. “The end would sob instead of scream.” While reading the book, I felt suspended above time, which in Militello’s hands is nothing but putty, a shapeless mound of clay that she molds for her purpose. Militello builds a maze of time, making remembering itself a trigger for surfacing memories.

When I remember that man I loved, the way he took my hand as we walked a California sidewalk, I am overcome by the memory of how I got to California to begin with—an impulse trip I told no one about, a trip I took without a phone. A disappearing act that saw my parents fly to my New York home to file a missing person’s report. Remembering this is to bring it into my present, is to relive it, is to keep it dear. It is a thing I wish to be rid of but cannot bear to part with. Militello does something similar in her book: she lets go of her memories while also immortalizing them. She gives us her guts on a platter, effectively making them no longer hers. It is not that she is dwelling on the past; it is that she is making the past a present, bringing it forward to leave it at our feet. “If I’m lucky, the past is instead a bracelet with a broken clasp, resting slackly on the wrist,” Militello writes, “soon to fall loose and be lost.”

As we zigzag between Militello’s romances, she weaves in the story of her mentally ill aunt, who is trapped in an abusive marriage. These narratives become interwoven through imagery, the connections between them solidified by the loss that runs through them all. To weave between the threads of mental illness in the family, of addictive love and loving the addicted, is to navigate the many ways in which loss transcends. By drawing out each narrative, exploring each one piece by piece in multiple essays, Militello creates space for us to internalize the events of her life not just as happenings, but as causes, as effects, as qualities, as flaws. Militello leads us through the creases in her relationship with her high school ex-boyfriend who eventually dies of a heroin overdose, through the end of her marriage, and through the trajectory of her affair. By masterfully collaging events together, she makes us feel as if we’re experiencing everything simultaneously, as if it is all happening at once. This is one of the more beautiful aspects of this book: that we can feel memory, shared and individual, alive and burning within us.

Through detailed and delicate description, Militello is able to capture the spontaneity of feeling, the instant in which the heart flinches. “The moment is a drop about to fall from a leaf,” she writes, “a floor about to be swept, an empty parking lot at dawn, seashore-white. The moment is water from a faucet poured into a cup.” Militello employs an almost dreamlike telling of her aunt’s life. She imagines what her aunt must have felt as a mother, as a patient, as hopeless, giving depth to Militello’s own story. She delves into how this collective memory seeped into her family’s bones, affecting each member. By approaching mental illness as shared trauma, Militello exposes the reach of such conditions.

I was bipolar before I ever fell in love, and already had trouble discerning what was a dream and what was a memory. I was also in love when my brain first cracked, when the wonders in my head spilled out of that sliver of skull. I carry that first manic break with me. I let it veil my present and dictate my future—not in punishment, but out of love, in the same way that Militello has webbed her life together to create a tapestry of meaning. My own episode is engraved in my family’s history the way others engrave wedding rings. We are all tethered to it, connected to its destruction by having recovered together. When my mother remembers my return from California, she remembers my oily hair, the dirt on my clothes. I remember how my knees wanted to give under the weight of my racing thoughts, wild horses I’d lost the reins to.

There is an underlying restlessness in Militello’s book. I couldn’t pinpoint it at first, but in unearthing my own memories, I concluded that it was a silent scream from the past. It is a scream I have voiced, that women before us have voiced. Militello taps into a collective heartbreak, one we have, at different points, inflicted on ourselves by knowing better than to love the ones we choose to love. Through the story of her own unraveling, which culminates in a suicide attempt in the shadow of her aunt’s, Militello asks us to suspend our ideas of chronology and accept her reality. She bares to us how it feels to drown in others, to gasp for new life. The book, by virtue of the loss it holds, is one about living. We must absorb the entirety of our past in order to change our relationship to it.

With Knock Wood, Militello has addressed her own question: “So, how do you tell it?” You tell it wholly, you tell it unabashedly, you tell it honestly. There is a way to explain how heavy memory becomes, and that is by showing memories alongside each other, laying them out until all we see is ocean.

Puerto Rican writer Tania Pabón Acosta holds an MA from the University of Puerto Rico and an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Sarah Lawrence College. Her work has appeared in Cosmonauts Avenue, Porter Gulch Review, Pigeon Pages, and Entropy, among others; is forthcoming in The Los Angeles Review and Great River Review; and was chosen for AmpLit Fest 2018 Emerging Writer Showcase. More from this author →